Sunday, July 12, 2020

Seventh Circuit panel vacates stay to put federal execution back on schedule for July 13

As reported in this USA Today piece, a Seventh Circuit panel this evening "ruled that the first federal execution in 17 years should go forward Monday, despite concerns raised by the victims' family members that the resurgent coronavirus risked the health of those who planned to witness Daniel Lewis Lee's death by lethal injection."  Here is more:

The court found that the family's argument "lacks any arguable legal basis and is therefore frivolous."

U.S. District Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson on Friday sided with family members who asserted that the pandemic posed an unreasonable health risk to them as witnesses to execution in Terre Haute, Indiana. “The federal government has put this family in the untenable position of choosing between their right to witness Danny Lee’s execution and their own health and safety," the attorney for the family said Sunday.

The family had planned to attend Lee's execution, even though they are opposed to Lee's death sentence for the murders of William Mueller, his wife, Nancy, and her daughter, 8-year-old Sarah Powell. Earlene Branch Peterson, 81, the young victim's grandmother, and other family members have argued that Lee's co-defendant was the unquestioned ringleader in the 1996 robbery-murder yet was sentenced to life in prison.

The Arkansas judge who presided at trial and the lead prosecutor in the case also have expressed their opposition to Lee's death sentence.

"Because the government has scheduled the execution in the midst of a raging pandemic, these (family members) would have to put their lives at risk to travel cross-country at this time," the family's attorney said. "They will now appeal the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision to the U.S. Supreme Court in an effort to seek reversal. My clients hope the Supreme Court and the federal government will respect their right to be present at the execution and delay it until travel is safe enough to make that possible.”

The full panel opinion in Peterson v. Barr, No. 20-2252 (7th Cir. July 12, 2020) (available here), runs ten pages and is unanimous.  When I saw that a stay had been entered late Friday by the district court, I was a bit surprised that it focused on the Federal Death Penalty Act and that no mention was made of the federal Crime Victims' Rights Act. The Seventh Circuit panel was plainly unimpressed with arguments based on the FDPA, and now it might be too late for any arguments based in the CVRA. 

I believe various other claims by defendant Lee have been rejected by lower courts, and I am sure they are all going to get to SCOTUS is short order.  But I will be surprised if a majority of the Justices are going to disrupts the feds execution plans.

Prior recent related post:

July 12, 2020 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tongues wagging about Prez Trump using his clemency pen to grant compassionate release to Roger Stone

Unsurprisingly, lots and lots of folks have lots and lots to say about Prez Trump's decision late Friday to commute the prison sentence of Roger Stone (basics covered here).  I will start this post with two quick points and then round up below some of the other copious commentary already making the rounds.

1. Now do more, Mr. Prez: I am pleased Prez Trump has finally delivered, at least for an old friend with dirt on him, on his promise back in March to look at freeing elderly "totally nonviolent" offenders from federal prisons amid the COVID pandemic.  I am being cheeky here, of course, but meaning to make a serious point: the Stone commutation bothers me far less than Prez Trump's failure to use his clemency powers far more — both before and especially since the coronavirus crisis — to release the many federal prisoners who, like Stone, are older, medically vulnerable and present no clear risk to public safety. 

Back in February 2020, Prez Trump coupled some high-profile clemency grants with commutations to three women of color with no political connections (details here).  I sure wish Prez Trump and key advisers — Kushner?  Kushner?  Kushner? — had tried to couple the Stone commutation with clemency relief for just a few other older federal prisoners whose incarceration may prove deadly and serves little public safety purpose.  But it is not too late to make up for lost time: now do more comparable commutations, Mr. Prez!

2. Now do even more, federal judges: As the title of this post is meant to suggest, the Stone clemency strikes me as another form of compassionate release.  The official statement announcing the commutation made much of an "improper investigation," of "overzealous prosecutors" and of "serious questions about the jury" while also stressing that "Mr. Stone would be put at serious medical risk in prison" and that "Roger Stone has already suffered greatly."  These comments suggest Prez Trump concluded, in the words of 18 USC § 3582(c)(1)(A), that there were "extraordinary and compelling reasons warrant[ing] a reduction" in Stone's prison sentence and that such a reduction was consistent with 3553(a)'s purposes of punishment. 

Thanks to the FIRST STEP Act, judges now have authority to grant comparable sentence reductions, and district judges have granted hundreds of compassionate release motions in response to the COVID crisis.  But thousands of compassionate release requests have been denied, many coming from prisoners who are likely even more vulnerable and even more sympathetic than Stone.  In more than a few cases, I have seen judges indicate considerable sympathy for the plight of a vulnerable older inmate, only to refuse release because the movant had not yet served enough time in prison.  But Roger Stone did not serve any prison time, and yet Prez Trump was still moved by his "medical risk" and by the fact he had "already suffered greatly" even before serving a single day in federal prison.  So this commutation should also be a message to federal judges: do more comparable compassionate releases, even if vulnerable offenders have served little or even no prison time.

I could go on, but rather than continue my tongue wagging about the Stone commutation, I will conclude here with a round-up of just a few other notable takes:

From Robert Mueller, "Roger Stone remains a convicted felon, and rightly so."

From Politico, "'Historic corruption': 2 Republican senators denounce Trump's commutation of Stone"

From Brett Tollman and Arthur Rizer, "Romney wrong to attack Trump commutation of Roger Stone prison sentence"

From Jack Goldsmith and Matt Gluck, "Trump’s Aberrant Pardons and Commutations"

From Jonathan Turley, "Why this Roger Stone commutation is not as controversial as some think"

From Jeffrey Tobin, "The Roger Stone Case Shows Why Trump Is Worse Than Nixon"

July 12, 2020 in Celebrity sentencings, Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Saturday, July 11, 2020

"State Violence, Legitimacy, and the Path to True Public Safety"

The title of this post is the title of this new commentary authored by David Kennedy that was one of my very favorite reads this week.  The piece is mostly about police reform and is quite lengthy, but its worth the time (and even a re-read).  Among the many virtues of the piece is the reminder that if — I fear I should say when — we see a considerable spike in crime in the coming months, increased criminality may well primarily reflect decreased trust in law enforcement by the community, not decreased activity by law enforcement in the community.  (I recall making in this post a less-eloquent version of this important point five years ago as there was on-going debate about crime spikes after Ferguson.)   Here is an excerpt:

The protest movement represents core American values and deserves broad bipartisan support.  It is no threat to our efforts to prevent crime and violence; indeed, it represents an opportunity to make those efforts much more successful.  That is because it can support the emergence of a fundamentally better way to produce public safety.  The evidence from the scholarly literature suggests that the more legitimate the law and the police are in the eyes of America’s communities, the less we will actually have to use them.  And while “law and order” has traditionally been a platform for the political right, this goal — using the state’s coercive power no more than absolutely necessary — is one that conservatives should find easy to embrace. In a very real way, more legitimacy in the realm of policing means less government.

Legitimacy is a core element in democracy: the belief of the people in the institutions of government and their power to set rules and gain compliance.  When people think of the law and of policing, they think of the power of the courts, jail and prison, of the gun and the badge.  In fact, that power is trivial compared to voluntary compliance with the law. Most of the time, people do not need to be threatened by the state in order not to kill, rape, and rob.  Most people know that when the law says not to do terrible things, the law is right; when they are tempted, they believe that the law has the standing to say, Don’t.  Scholars like Tom Tyler point out that even criminals obey the law most of the time: They buy groceries, stop at red lights, and seldom kill the people they’re mad at.  Policing research shows very clearly that as legitimacy goes up, violence goes down, voluntary compliance with the law goes up, people call 911 when they need help, and the like.  When legitimacy goes down — as after incidents of police violence — research shows that Black communities withdraw from the police and violence goes up.  

Contrary to what many think “high crime” Black communities are deeply law-abiding.  Research shows that residents in the most troubled areas of those communities have a very high regard for the law, want their neighbors to obey the law, want to be safe, and even want to have good relationships with the police.  But they don’t trust the police, don’t think the police respect them, don’t think the police share their values, think the police are biased, and don’t trust the police to govern themselves.  

Scholars have long characterized this as “legal cynicism“: belief in the law, but not in its institutions, especially the police.  More recently, scholars like Monica Bell have gone beyond this to a profoundly more dire — and in my experience, more accurate — notion of “legal estrangement.”  Bell reminds us that more than 50 years ago, the Kerner Commission found that “police have come to symbolize White power, White racism, and White repression.”  Those beliefs are driven by hundreds of years of history and collective memory and experience, present treatment and mistreatment by police, and the vicarious experience of the endless series of police killings.  “Much literature has shown that, regardless of how trust is measured or conceived, African Americans, particularly those who are poor or who live in high-poverty or predominantly African American communities, tend to have less trust not only in the police, but also in other governmental institutions, in their neighbors, and even in their intimate partner relationships in comparison to other racial and ethnic groups in the United States,” Bell writes.  “Most discussions of African American distrust of the police only skirt the edges of a deeper well of estrangement between poor communities of color and the law — and, in turn, society.” 

This is not about every officer or all officers.  Policing is full of — and in my personal experience dominated by—good and frequently amazing people who do often extraordinary work under unimaginable circumstances. I have had former public defenders come into my organization, hating the police.  Yet as they get to know the officers we work with, they’ve taken me aside to say, “This is really weirding me out; I like them.”  That’s not the point. The point is not the tired argument about good officers and bad officers, or “bad apples” or the lack thereof.  It is that the institution of policing has been ungovernable.  Officers do terrible things, and nothing happens.  Departments make terrible choices — Let’s “protect” communities by swamping them with officers and stopping everybody who moves — and there’s no way to stop them.  Disrespect is rampant — in many cities, the single most frequent complaint is officers cursing the public — and nothing happens or changes.  The Supreme Court of the United States creates case law that makes it nearly impossible to hold officers accountable for killings and shootings.  Cities, pressured by the political clout of police unions, give away the powers that would let chiefs fire officers they know are toxic and make departments reinstate the officers they have managed to get rid of.  Police union heads sully the names of Black men killed by their members and get reelected.  No institution is perfect; doctors kill patients all the time.  But when a doctor kills through gross malpractice, the head of his hospital doesn’t throw a press conference to talk about how the dead man had a criminal record and really deserved it. 

Prior related post:

July 11, 2020 in National and State Crime Data, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, July 10, 2020

As was widely expected, Prez Trump commutes Roger Stone's sentence just before he was due to report to federal prison

As detailed via this official statement from the White House, this evening "President Donald J. Trump signed an Executive Grant of Clemency commuting the unjust sentence of Roger Stone, Jr."  Here is more from the statement:

Roger Stone is a victim of the Russia Hoax that the Left and its allies in the media perpetuated for years in an attempt to undermine the Trump Presidency.... As it became clear that these witch hunts would never bear fruit, the Special Counsel’s Office resorted to process-based charges leveled at high-profile people in an attempt to manufacture the false impression of criminality lurking below the surface.  These charges were the product of recklessness borne of frustration and malice.  This is why the out-of-control Mueller prosecutors, desperate for splashy headlines to compensate for a failed investigation, set their sights on Mr. Stone.  Roger Stone is well known for his nearly 50 years of work as a consultant for high-profile Republican politicians, including President Ronald Reagan, Senator Bob Dole, and many others. He is also well known for his outspoken support for President Donald J. Trump and opposition to Hillary Clinton.

Mr. Stone was charged by the same prosecutors from the Mueller Investigation tasked with finding evidence of collusion with Russia.  Because no such evidence exists, however, they could not charge him for any collusion-related crime. Instead, they charged him for his conduct during their investigation. The simple fact is that if the Special Counsel had not been pursuing an absolutely baseless investigation, Mr. Stone would not be facing time in prison.

In addition to charging Mr. Stone with alleged crimes arising solely from their own improper investigation, the Mueller prosecutors also took pains to make a public and shameful spectacle of his arrest....

Not only was Mr. Stone charged by overzealous prosecutors pursing a case that never should have existed, and arrested in an operation that never should have been approved, but there were also serious questions about the jury in the case.  The forewoman of his jury, for example, concealed the fact that she is a member of the so-called liberal “resistance” to the Trump Presidency.  In now-deleted tweets, this activist-juror vividly and openly attacked President Trump and his supporters.

Mr. Stone would be put at serious medical risk in prison.  He has appealed his conviction and is seeking a new trial. He maintains his innocence and has stated that he expects to be fully exonerated by the justice system.  Mr. Stone, like every American, deserves a fair trial and every opportunity to vindicate himself before the courts.  The President does not wish to interfere with his efforts to do so.  At this time, however, and particularly in light of the egregious facts and circumstances surrounding his unfair prosecution, arrest, and trial, the President has determined to commute his sentence. Roger Stone has already suffered greatly.  He was treated very unfairly, as were many others in this case. Roger Stone is now a free man!

I am disinclined to comment at length on this use of the clemency power or this very Trumpian statement explaining it.  But I must note that, because Prez Trump only commuted the sentence and did not pardon the Stone's felony convictions, it is not really accurate to say "Roger Stone is now a free man!"  There are thousands of laws that restrict the rights and opportunities of persons with a felony conviction and so Stone is, for example, not free to possess a firearm.

Prior related posts:

July 10, 2020 in Celebrity sentencings, Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

With executions looming, lots of news and notes about the federal death penalty

Last month, as noted here, Attorney General William Barr directed the federal Bureau of Prisons to schedule the executions of four federal death-row inmates for this summer.  As of this writing, according to this DPIC page, the federal executions scheduled for Monday, July 13 (of Daniel Lewis Lee) and Friday, July 17 (of Dustin Lee Honken) are going forward.  Unsurprisingly, the prospect of the first federal executions in nearly two decades has led to lots of folks paying a lot more attention to the federal death penalty,  Here are just some of the press pieces catching my eye recently:

From Bloomberg Law, "Vast Majority on Federal Death Row Have Significant Impairments"

From The Crime Report, "Victim Relatives, Priest Seek to Delay Federal Executions"

From The Hill, "EU condemns U.S. for resuming federal executions"

From The Hill, "Executing four white men won't erase death penalty racism"

From the National Catholic Reporter, "Cardinal Tobin asks Trump to grant clemency to federal death-row inmate"

From Reuters, "Special Report: How the Trump administration secured a secret supply of execution drugs"

From USA Today, "Re-opening federal death chamber: Victim opposition, pandemic threaten first execution in 17 years"

July 10, 2020 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, July 09, 2020

Great sentencing pieces in 'New Developments in Public Defense Research" collection in Criminal Justice Policy Review

I just came across this great collection of articles under the title "New Developments in Public Defense Research," which appears in the July 2020, issue of the journal Criminal Justice Policy Review. The volume includes seven original papers and an introduction on a range of topics related to public defenders and public defense.  The whole issue is worth checking out, and sentencing fans might be especially interested in these articles:

Including Assets-Based Mitigation in Sentencing by Elizabeth S. Vartkessian

Abstract:  Mitigation evidence consists of information about an accused person that is typically used to advocate for a less severe sentence.  Such evidence most frequently consists of information related to the crime and personal factors that can be separated into two broad categories: deficits and assets-based mitigation.  This article focuses on the importance of assets-based mitigation in sentencing and evaluates if and how state sentencing procedures contemplate and allow for consideration of such evidence.  A content analysis of available state sentencing procedures reveals that states tend to circumscribe mitigation to factors related to the crime or deficits, but largely neglect to give a vehicle to consider assets-based mitigation, which should play a central role in achieving just outcomes.  This article therefore argues for reform to sentencing laws to better accommodate assets-based mitigation by including information related to the defendant’s capacity for growth, self-improvement, and redemption.

 

Decision-Making and Holistic Public Defense Post-Montgomery v. Louisiana by Jeanette Hussemann and Jonah Siegel

Abstract: In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama that mandatory sentences of life without the possibility of parole (LWOP) for youth are unconstitutional.  In 2016, the Court held in Montgomery v. Louisiana that the ruling in Miller should be applied retroactively. Drawing from qualitative interviews with justice actors, and individuals who were sentenced to LWOP as juveniles and paroled, this article examines the implementation of Miller-Montgomery in Michigan, the factors that influence decisions to release juvenile lifers, and their reentry process.  In doing so, we focus specific attention to the role of publicly appointed defense attorneys and the application of holistic defense practices to support Montgomery case mitigation and juvenile lifer reentry.  Findings indicate that institutional disciplinary and programming records, emotional wellness, statements by victims’ family members, political considerations, and reentry plans are key considerations when deciding whether a juvenile lifer should be eligible for parole.

July 9, 2020 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Recommended reading, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

SCOTUS holds in McGirt, via 5-4 vote with Justice Gorsuch authoring majority opinion, that big part of Oklahoma is a reservation precluding state prosecutions

Proving yet again that he is fully prepared to rule in favor of criminal defendants when he believes he is required to do so by the rule of law, Justice Gorsuch this morning voted with the Supreme Court's more liberal justices to hold in McGirt v. Oklahoma, No. 18–9526 (S. Ct. July 9, 2020) (available here) that a huge part of the state of Oklahoma "remains an Indian reservation for purposes of federal criminal law."  Here is how the opinion of the Court, authored by Justice Gorsuch, gets started:

On the far end of the Trail of Tears was a promise. Forced to leave their ancestral lands in Georgia and Alabama, the Creek Nation received assurances that their new lands in the West would be secure forever.  In exchange for ceding “all their land, East of the Mississippi river,” the U.S. government agreed by treaty that “[t]he Creek country west of the Mississippi shall be solemnly guarantied to the Creek Indians.” Treaty With the Creeks, Arts. I, XIV, Mar. 24, 1832, 7 Stat. 366, 368 (1832 Treaty).  Both parties settled on boundary lines for a new and “permanent home to the whole Creek nation,” located in what is now Oklahoma. Treaty With the Creeks, preamble, Feb. 14, 1833, 7 Stat. 418 (1833 Treaty). The government further promised that “[no] State or Territory [shall] ever have a right to pass laws for the government of such Indians, but they shall be allowed to govern themselves.” 1832 Treaty, Art. XIV, 7 Stat. 368.

Today we are asked whether the land these treaties promised remains an Indian reservation for purposes of federal criminal law.  Because Congress has not said otherwise, we hold the government to its word.

The import and impact of this ruling is most clear from the first paragraphs of Chief Justice Roberts' dissent:

In 1997, the State of Oklahoma convicted petitioner Jimcy McGirt of molesting, raping, and forcibly sodomizing a four-year-old girl, his wife’s granddaughter. McGirt was sentenced to 1,000 years plus life in prison.  Today, the Court holds that Oklahoma lacked jurisdiction to prosecute McGirt — on the improbable ground that, unbeknownst to anyone for the past century, a huge swathe of Oklahoma is actually a Creek Indian reservation, on which the State may not prosecute serious crimes committed by Indians like McGirt.  Not only does the Court discover a Creek reservation that spans three million acres and includes most of the city of Tulsa, but the Court’s reasoning portends that there are four more such reservations in Oklahoma.  The rediscovered reservations encompass the entire eastern half of the State — 19 million acres that are home to 1.8 million people, only 10%–15% of whom are Indians.

Across this vast area, the State’s ability to prosecute serious crimes will be hobbled and decades of past convictions could well be thrown out.  On top of that, the Court has profoundly destabilized the governance of eastern Oklahoma.  The decision today creates significant uncertainty for the State’s continuing authority over any area that touches Indian affairs, ranging from zoning and taxation to family and environmental law.

None of this is warranted. What has gone unquestioned for a century remains true today: A huge portion of Oklahoma is not a Creek Indian reservation. Congress disestablished any reservation in a series of statutes leading up to Oklahoma statehood at the turn of the 19th century. The Court reaches the opposite conclusion only by disregarding the “well settled” approach required by our precedents. Nebraska v. Parker, 577 U. S. 481, ___ (2016) (slip op., at 5).

July 9, 2020 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (6)

Wednesday, July 08, 2020

Notable criminal justice reform recommendations from Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force

As reported in this NPR piece, a "joint effort by former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders to unify Democrats around Biden's candidacy has produced a 110-page policy wish list to recommend to the party's presumptive presidential nominee."  Here is a bit more context:

The policy document [available here] — the work of six joint task forces appointed by Biden and Sanders in May — would give the former vice president a road map to that goal. "The goals of the task force were to move the Biden campaign into as progressive a direction as possible, and I think we did that," Sanders told NPR. "On issue after issue, whether it was education, the economy, health care, climate, immigration, criminal justice, I think there was significant movement on the part of the Biden campaign."...

Biden's campaign has yet to publicly commit to doing anything other than "reviewing" the recommendations. If he adopts them, the recommendations would shift Biden to the left, but they would not completely transform the platform he's been running on for more than a year.

The criminal justice discussion and recommendations, which are lengthy and appear at pp. 6-10 and 56-62 of this huge document, cannot be easily summarized. But these prosecutorial, sentencing and rentry reform recommendations are among the ones I find most notable and salutary:

Federal Prosecutorial Guidelines: Immediately withdraw the Trump Administration’s guidance advising prosecutors to pursue the harshest penalties possible, even for low-level offenses. Reinstate the Obama-Biden Administration's Smart on Crime Initiative, and issue new federal guidelines that advise prosecutors not to overcharge cases in order to coerce plea deals, or to pursue harsher sentences in order to penalize citizens for exercising their right to a jury trial....

Support Progressive Prosecutors: Support new state prosecutors through funding and technical support in their efforts to ensure public safety while reducing incarceration....

Marijuana: Decriminalize marijuana use and legalize marijuana for medical purposes at the federal level.  Allow states to make their own decisions about legalizing recreational use. Automatically expunge all past marijuana convictions for use and possession.  Lift budget rider blocking DC from taxing and regulating legal marijuana and remove marijuana use from the list of deportable offenses.  Encourage states to invest tax revenue from legal marijuana industries to repair damage to Black and brown communities hit hardest by incarceration.

Support Diversion Programs: Reduce criminal penalties for drug possession and support increased use of drug courts and treatment diversion programs instead of incarceration for those struggling with substance use disorders.

Death Penalty: Abolish the death penalty at the federal level, and incentivize states to follow the federal government’s example.

Mandatory Minimums: Empower judges to determine appropriate sentences, by fighting to repeal mandatory minimums at the federal level and give states incentives to repeal their mandatory minimums.

Retroactive Reforms: Make all sentencing reforms retroactive to allow for individualized resentencing.

Crack/Cocaine Sentencing Disparity: End the federal crack and powder cocaine disparity in sentences, and make the change retroactive.

Clemency Board: To avoid possible institutional bias and ensure people have a fair and independent evaluation, establish an independent clemency board, composed and staffed by people with diverse backgrounds.  Expand Obama-era criteria for proactive clemency initiative to address individuals serving excess sentences.

Compassionate Release: Reinvigorate compassionate release so that the sick and elderly are transitioned out of incarceration so long as they do not pose a public safety risk....

Sentence Length and Early Release: Task the U.S. Sentencing Commission with conducting a comprehensive review of existing sentencing guidelines and statutory sentencing ranges, with the goal of generating legislative recommendations, promulgating new guidelines, and issuing formal guidance to reduce unreasonably long sentences and promote rehabilitation.  The Commission should make recommendations regarding early release options, including expanding good time credits, reinstating federal parole, and creating a “second look” mechanism permitting federal judges to reevaluate sentences after a certain amount of time served.  Any such options should use a systematic, evidence-based approach that reduces risks to public safety, prevents racially disparate implementation, reduces the total number of people under federal custody and supervision, and limits the duration and conditions of supervision....

Removing barriers to reentry: Remove restrictions on access to public housing, employment, occupational licenses, driver’s licenses, and public benefits.  Create a U.S. Reentry Commission to conduct a comprehensive review of barriers to reentry, with the goal of taking executive action and proposing legislation to remove as many as possible.  Include recommendations for reforming parole and probation, including preventing reincarceration for technical violations, as well as expungement and sealing of convictions.

July 8, 2020 in Campaign 2020 and sentencing issues, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

"Retroactivity & Recidivism: The Drugs Minus Two Amendment"

Cover_Drugs-Minus-TwoThe title of this post is the title of this notable new US Sentencing Commission report.  A summary of the report is provided on this USSC webpage and provides these basics:

Summary

This publication analyzes recidivism rates among drug offenders who were released immediately before and after retroactive implementation of the 2014 "Drugs Minus Two" Amendment.

The report tracked the recidivism rate of two study groups:

  • Retroactivity Group: 7,121 offenders who received sentence reductions through retroactive application of the Drugs Minus Two Amendment and who were released early from October 30, 2015, to May 31, 2016.
  • Comparison Group: 7,132 offenders who would have been eligible for sentence reductions through retroactive application of the Drugs Minus Two Amendment but were released between May 1, 2014, and October 29, 2015, having served their full sentences before the Drugs Minus Two Amendment could be retroactively applied

Findings 

The Commission's report aims to answer the research question, "Did the reduced sentences for the Retroactivity Group result in increased recidivism?"  The Commission found the following:

  • There was no statistically significant difference in the recidivism rates of offenders released early pursuant to retroactive application of the Drugs Minus Two Amendment and a comparable group of offenders who served their full sentences.
  • This outcome may be attributed, at least in part, to the eligibility criteria required by the Commission, and the careful consideration of those criteria by judges — particularly public safety considerations — in exercising their discretion to grant or deny retroactivity motions.

Interestingly, though apparently not reaching a level of statistical significance, the Sentencing Commission's data actually show that the group who received reduced sentences had a lower rate of recidivism.  From the Key Findings at page 6 of the full report (with my emphasis added):

There was no statistically significant difference in the recidivism rates of the Retroactivity Group (offenders who were released on average 37 months early through retroactive application of the Drugs Minus Two Amendment) and the Comparison Group (offenders who would have been eligible for retroactivity but had served their sentences before retroactivity took effect). Over a three-year period following their release from prison, the Retroactivity Group had a recidivism rate of 27.9 percent compared to 30.5 percent for the Comparison Group. This outcome may be attributed, at least in part, to the eligibility criteria required by the Commission, and the careful consideration of those criteria by judges — particularly public safety considerations — in exercising their discretion to grant or deny retroactivity motions.

The similarity in the recidivism rates of the Retroactivity Group and the Comparison Group held true across all drug types. Among offenders convicted of offenses with the same primary drug type — Powder Cocaine, Crack Cocaine, Heroin, Marijuana, Methamphetamine, and Other Drugs — offenders in the Retroactivity Group had similar recidivism rates to offenders in the Comparison Group, although the recidivism levels varied by drug type. The highest rates were observed among Crack Cocaine offenders (35.1% in the Retroactivity Group and 37.5% in the Comparison Group) and the lowest rates among Powder Cocaine offenders (19.5% in the Retroactivity Group and 22.3% in the Comparison Group).

I am quite inclined to embrace the USSC's assertion that the exercise of wise judicial discretion in deciding who should get the benefit of retroactive implementation of the 2014 "Drugs Minus Two" Amendment explains why recidivism rates were relative low for those defendants who received reduced sentences. Among other benefits of this conclusion, it should make Congress and the USSC ever more confident that they can safely (and should as a matter of fairness and justice) make any any all reduced sentences fully retroactive (subject to discretionary judicial review upon implementation).

July 8, 2020 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Two thoughtful new commentaries on the role of prosecutors in criminal justice reform

Anyone who understands criminal justice systems knows the critical importance of the work of prosecutors, and these two new commentaries speak in thoughtful ways to their work: 

"The False Choice Between ‘Progressive’ and ‘Old-Fashioned’ Prosecutors" by Marc Levin

Excerpt: "Overcoming the failures of the past does not require being “progressive,” but rather an approach to prosecution that draws at least as much from traditionally conservative priorities such as limiting government and measuring results.  Fulfilling the unique obligation of prosecutors to do justice for victims, communities, and defendants should not imply a political agenda.  Instead, it should depend on gathering and analyzing data, being transparent with the public, and collaborating with partners to provide a full spectrum of responses to crime so that liberty is limited only to the degree needed to protect public safety.

 

"Want to Reform the Criminal Justice System? Focus on Prosecutors" by Joyce White Vance

Excerpt: "Prosecutors’ offices are not factories that produce widgets, and their success should not be assessed based on the number of cases they indict or convictions they obtain, nor the speed with which they obtain them.  Instead, prosecutorial decisions in both the federal and state systems should be the product of critical review that determines whether a case merits indictment and the investigation was sound.  Careful, objective review at each stage in prosecution, from charging to sentencing to post-conviction review, must be an intrinsic part of the culture.  A prosecutor’s job is about doing justice, not getting convictions. If prosecutors take the lead at getting it right, the rest of the system will follow."

July 8, 2020 in Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, July 07, 2020

Highlighting just one way that, even after the FIRST STEP Act, "Justice Still Eludes Crack Offenders"

Sarah E. Ryan has this notable new Crime Report commentary headlined simply "Why Justice Still Eludes Crack Offenders." I recommend the whole piece, and here are excerpts:

In early 2007, Carl Smith sold 1.69 grams of crack, less than half a teaspoon.  He also sold a teaspoon of powder cocaine.  A New Hampshire federal judge sentenced him to seventeen-and-a-half years imprisonment, the lowest end of the sentencing guidelines recommendation.

Last spring, Smith sought a sentence reduction under the First Step Act.  The district court denied the request because he was convicted under a statutory subsection unaffected by the new law. In essence, he had sold too little crack to go free.  According to an early 2020 analysis by the U.S. Sentencing Commission, the New Hampshire district courts granted just four sentence reductions under the First Step Act.  The district of Rhode Island granted four times more reductions; the district of Connecticut granted five times as many.

Nationally, the average sentence reduction was 71 months.  As a result, many defendants had served their time and could be released from incarceration.  But not Carl Smith. He remained locked up during a pandemic.  He appealed, arguing that the First Step Act covered his conviction.

After analyzing more than 500 First Step Act cases, including 90 relevant circuit court opinions, I know two things: this area of law remains in disarray and the circuit courts have largely dodged the tough issues.  They remain complicit in a decades-old mass incarceration scheme.

The now-familiar history of the crack laws omits one key fact: Congress knew early on that the drug laws were disproportionately affecting Black defendants.... In 1995, the Sentencing Commission told Congress that Black defendants accounted for nearly 90 percent of crack cocaine convictions and that most of their customers were white.  In 1996, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) reported the changing nature of the federal prison population using bold-faced sub-headers such as: “An increasing percentage of the Nation’s prisoners are black or Hispanic.”  In 1999, the BJS reported that the length of federal prison sentences had increased 40 percent. 

By the mid-1990s, lawmakers understood that dealers like Carl Smith were serving prison terms usually reserved for second-degree murder, or intentional murder demonstrating an extreme indifference to human life.  Yet Congress provided no relief, for decades.

In 2010, Congress raised the quantity necessary for future statutory minimum sentences in the Fair Sentencing Act; the law did not help defendants sentenced at the height of the drug war.  A few thousand people remained incarcerated under the old crack laws.  Their only hope was an historic reform amounting to an admission of Congressional guilt. The First Step Act was that law.  A bipartisan coalition heralded the First Step Act as the end of the draconian drug laws.  The Act gave sitting judges the authority to reopen the old crack cases and impose more appropriate sentences.... The intent of the law was clear, but some judges wavered.

There are two plausible ways to read the resentencing section — section 404 — of the First Step Act: as a small fix to the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 or a broad mandate to rectify thousands of unjust sentences.  The broad reading is historically, legally and morally correct.  But hundreds of hearings in, the nation’s district courts remain divided on the law’s most basic tenets, like which defendants can be resentenced or what Section 404 empowers judges to do.

Some judges apply Section 404 narrowly.  A subset dismiss cases involving too little or too much crack without a review of the other facts.  Still others review all cases implicating a Fair Sentencing Act statute, but only to perform a new mathematical calculation.  They do not consider a defendant’s post-sentencing conduct or intervening changes in the law, even favorable state and federal supreme court rulings.  Their narrow interpretations of the law unnecessarily depress the length of sentence reductions.

Other judges construe Section 404 broadly.  They view the First Step Act as a gateway to relief.  Some find that they can revisit the sentences of small-time dealers or inmates serving hybrid sentences for interconnected drug and weapons crimes.  Some believe that they may consider a defendant’s good conduct, prison coursework and recent high court rulings.  Broad-view judges find that Congress empowered them to mitigate the damage of the old crack laws.  Their proof? The text of the law, including the word “impose” as a mandate to issue an independent sentence — and the testimony of a dozen or more senators, of both parties, characterizing the First Step Act as redress for the old drug laws.

Recently, the First Circuit adopted a broad view in Carl Smith’s case [opinion here]. That appellate opinion is reason for hope that the circuit courts will raze the remains of the old crack laws.  This summer, the appellate courts should adopt a broad reading of the First Step Act.  That reading should require sitting judges to issue meaningful sentence reductions, including ‘timed served’ in many cases.

And, it should hold sitting judges accountable for the continued incarceration of non-violent drug dealers who have served a decade or more.  Amidst global protests for freedom, liberation and justice for Black citizens, and a raging pandemic, the courts must fully enact the First Step Act as Congress intended.

I am pleased to see this new commentary calling out lower courts for not giving full effect to remedial aspects of the FIRST STEP Act.  But this analysis should not leave out the problematic role of the Justice Department.  I surmise that DOJ has consistently argued for narrow and limiting approaches to the application of Section 404.  Decades ago, DOJ could reasonably contended that its arguments for severe application of federal sentencing laws were consistent with congressional intent.  Now, DOJ arguments for severe application of federal sentencing laws often clearly fly in the face of congressional intent.

July 7, 2020 in Drug Offense Sentencing, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

New BREATHE Act proposes, among lots and lots of reforms, eliminating federal mandatory minimums and life sentences

As reported in this new AP piece, headlined "Movement for Black Lives seeks sweeping legislative changes," a big new federal criminal justice reform bill includes some big new ideas for sentencing reform. Here are some of the details:

Proposed federal legislation that would radically transform the nation’s criminal justice system through such changes as eliminating agencies like the Drug Enforcement Administration and the use of surveillance technology is set to be unveiled Tuesday by the Movement for Black Lives.

Dubbed the BREATHE Act, the legislation is the culmination of a project led by the policy table of the Movement for Black Lives, a coalition of more than 150 organizations.  It comes at an unprecedented moment of national reckoning around police brutality and systemic racism that has spurred global protests and cries for change after several high-profile killings of Black Americans, including George Floyd....

The legislation was first shared with The Associated Press, and is scheduled to be revealed in a Tuesday press conference that is slated to include an appearance by singer John Legend.  The proposed changes are sweeping and likely to receive robust pushback from lawmakers who perceive the legislation as too radical.

University of Michigan professor and criminal justice expert Heather Ann Thompson acknowledged the uphill battle, but noted that that the legislation is being introduced at a highly opportune time.  “I think those programs that they’re suggesting eliminating only look radical if we really ignore the fact that there has been tremendous pressure to meaningfully reform this criminal justice system,” said Thompson, author of “Blood in the Water.”...

No members of Congress have yet said they plan to introduce the bill, but it has won early support among some of the more progressive lawmakers, including Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib, who also are due to participate in the news conference.

The bill is broken into four sections, the first of which specifically would divest federal resources from incarceration and policing.  It is largely aimed at federal reforms because Congress can more easily regulate federal institutions and policy, as opposed to state institutions or private prison facilities.  The other sections lay out a detailed plan to achieve an equitable future, calling for sweeping changes that would eliminate federal programs and agencies “used to finance and expand” the U.S. criminal-legal system.

The elimination would target agencies such as the Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which has come under fire in recent years for its aggressive deportation efforts, and lesser-known programs such as Department of Defense 1033, which allows local law enforcement agencies to obtain excess military equipment.  The act, which also seeks to reduce the Department of Defense budget, would institute changes to the policing, pretrial detention, sentencing and prosecution practices...

It would establish the Neighborhood Demilitarization Program, which would collect and destroy all equipment like military-grade armored vehicles and weapons in the hands of local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies by 2022.  Federal law enforcement also would be unable to use facial-recognition technology, which many communities across the nation already have banned, along with drones and forms of electronic surveillance such as ankle-monitoring.

The bill would end life sentences, abolish all mandatory minimum sentencing laws and create a “time bound plan” to close all federal prisons and immigration detention centers....

The bill would direct Congress to establish a Community Public Safety Office that would conduct research on non-punitive, public safety-focused interventions that would be funded through new grants, and programs like a “Free Them All” Matching Grant Program offering a 50% federal match for projected savings when states and communities close detention facilities, local jails, and state or youth prisons.

According to the document, it also would bring about numerous changes for parents and children, such as removing police, school resource officers and other armed security and metal detectors from schools.

I suspect that there is little chance that this entire piece of legislation advances in Congress anytime soon, but there may well be a chance that some pieces of this big bill could get incorporated into other proposals. Even if just a statement of aspirations, this new bill is noteworthy and could prove to be quite significant.

July 7, 2020 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, July 05, 2020

Celebrating freedom with another long list of federal sentence reductions using § 3582(c)(1)(A)

After a holiday weekend all about celebrating freedom in this great country, I am excited to provide another listings of new grants of federal sentence reductions using § 3582(c)(1)(A).  These lists represent a special kind of freedom for federal prisoners and those that care about them, and I am pleased to have nearly three dozen recent grants to report here:

United States v. Johnson, No. CR H-96-176, 2020 WL 3618682 (SD Tex. July 2, 2020)

United States v. Young, No. 14-CR-30024-2, 2020 WL 3605025 (CD Ill. July 2, 2020)

United States v. Browne, No. CR 14-10369-LTS, 2020 WL 3618689 (D Mass. July 2, 2020)

United States v. Tubbs-Smith, No. CR 18-20310, 2020 WL 3618511 (ED Mich. July 2, 2020)

United States v. McCalla, No. CR 11-452 (FLW), 2020 WL 3604120  (D N.J. July 2, 2020) 

 

United States v. Hanson, No. 6:13-CR-00378-AA-1, 2020 WL 3605845 (D Ore. July 2, 2020)

United States v. Fitch, No. 2:04-CR-262 JCM (PAL), 2020 WL 3620067 (D Nev. July 2, 2020)

United States v. Chargualaf, No. CR 95-00054, 2020 WL 3619007 (D Guam July 2, 2020)

United States v. Plank, No. 17-20026-JWL, 2020 WL 3618858 (D Kan. July 2, 2020)

United States v. Seals, No. CR 13-00653 SOM (11), 2020 WL 3578289 (D Haw. July 1, 2020)

 

United States v. Nealy, No. 3:12-CR-154(RNC)2, 2020 WL 3577299 (D Conn. July 1, 2020)

United States v. Heyward, No. 17-CR-527-PWG, 2020 WL 3547018 (D Md. June 30, 2020)

United States v. Burnett, No. 06-CR-00034-PB-2, 2020 WL 3545159 (D N.H. June 30, 2020)

United States v.Tillman, No. 12-CR-2024-CJW-MAR, 2020 WL 3578374 (ND Iowa June 30, 2020)

United States v. Garcia, No. CR 13-00884 HG-01, 2020 WL 3547933 (D Haw. June 30, 2020)

 

United States v. Gakhal, No. 15 CR 470-1, 2020 WL 3529904 (ND Ill. June 30, 2020)

United States v. Rachal, No. CR 16-10043-NMG, 2020 WL 3545473 (D Mass. June 30, 2020)

United States v. Pina, No. 18-CR-179 (JSR), 2020 WL 3545514 (SDNY June 29, 2020)

United States v. Harris, No. 06-CR-30058, 2020 WL 3483559 (CD Ill. June 26, 2020)

Woodard v. United States, No. 2:12-CR-105, 2020 WL 3528413 (ED Va. June 26, 2020)

 

United States v. Yellin, No. 3:15-CR-3181-BTM-1, 2020 WL 3488738 (SD Cal. June 26, 2020)

Cotton v. United States, No. CR 16-20222-8, 2020 WL 3488752 (ED Mich. June 26, 2020)

United States v. Shannon, No. 13 CR 535, 2020 WL 3489491 (ND Ill. June 26, 2020)

United States v. Arango, No. 15-CR-104 (JMF), 2020 WL 3488909 (SDNY June 26, 2020)

United States v. Champagne, No. 4:97-CR-089, 2020 WL 3472911 (D N.D. June 25, 2020)

 

United States v. Thompson, No. 92-30065-001, 2020 WL 3470300 (CD Ill. June 25, 2020)

United States v. Danson, No. CR 10-0051 (PLF), 2020 WL 3467887 (D D.C. June 25, 2020)

United States v. Gaitan, No. 18-CR-4662-BAS-1, 2020 WL 3469395 (SD Cal. June 25, 2020)

United States v. Fabris, No. 17-CR-00386-VC-2, 2020 WL 3481708 (ND Cal. June 25, 2020)

United States v. Ollie, No. CR 1:12-09, 2020 WL 3469754 (WD Pa. June 24, 2020)

 

United States v. Schaffer, No. 13-cr-00220-MMC-1, 2020 WL 3481562 (ND Cal. June 24, 2020)

United States v. Arroyo, No. EP-6-CR-479-PRM-1, 2020 WL 3512964 (WD Tex. June 24, 2020)

As I have mentioned repeatedly, some rulings do not appear on Westlaw right away and others do not show up at all.  Indeed, this BOP page on the FIRST STEP Act has updated its reporting of total grants of "Compassionate Releases / Reduction in Sentences," and it now reports 774 grants when last week the page reported 706 grants.  These data continue to confirm my sense that less than half of all the granted motions end up on Westlaw.

One final note: though there surely are lots of fascinating stories within all these grants, I was especially intrigued to see the name  David Kent Fitch as a grant recipient.  That name is familiar to me because I previously blogged about Mr. Fitch's case when he was sentenced to an extra 15+ years of federal imprisonment after a district judge decided at sentencing that he committed a murder for which was never charged. (The details are discussed in these prior posts: Punished (twice?!?) for an uncharged murder in federal court and Split Ninth Circuit affirms huge upward departure based on uncharged murder.)  

Some of many prior recent related posts on CR grants:

July 5, 2020 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Dare criminal justice reformers imagine SCOTUS without both Justice Alito and Justice Thomas?

Because there are no more juicy criminal law or sentencing cases left on the SCOTUS docket as an unusual Term winds down, I cannot help but spend time speculating about the future of the Court.  In an election year, of course, that includes imagining who might be appointed (and might be doing the appointing) for the next four years.  But this recent Fox News piece, headlined "Supreme Court rumor: Hugh Hewitt claims Alito retirement being floated," has me eager to imagine some SCOTUS transitions in the coming weeks.  Here are the (silly?) details:

Supreme Court speculation season is kicking into high gear. Conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt told listeners Wednesday morning that according to his sources, Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito is considering retirement.

This came on the heels of a Washington Post report that said Justice Clarence Thomas "is privately seen by Trump’s aides as the most likely to retire this year," though he's given no indication of doing so.

Hewitt mentioned the Alito rumor on his show while talking to the author of that article, Robert Costa, who also had written about conservatives’ disappointment with decisions where Chief Justice John Roberts sided with the court’s liberal justices.  Costa noted that President Trump and Vice President Pence have cited the recent cases as proof that more conservative justices are needed, as he discussed rumors of possible contenders should Thomas step down.

"The stronger rumor is that Justice Alito is going to quit. Justice Thomas will never quit," Hewitt countered. Alito is 70, so if he retires he could be replaced with a much younger justice who would theoretically have decades on the court ahead.

But it is not clear whether the rumor is just that. Others doubt that either Thomas or Alito will retire. "I would not bet a lot of money on either of those possibilities," a person familiar with the court told Fox News.

Any imminent retirement would be risky for conservatives in the election year. If the current GOP-controlled Senate could not push through a replacement for any vacancy in time, it runs the risk for Republicans that the next nominee would be selected by a Democrat, if Joe Biden were to win the presidency. Further, Senate Republicans are far from guaranteed to hold the majority in the chamber next year.

Costa’s report did note how the White House and Republicans in the Senate are supposedly gearing up for a possible Supreme Court vacancy, but that was in reference to speculation that Thomas may step down.

One outside political adviser to Trump reportedly told Costa that if an opening were to emerge, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., would be ready to act swiftly to get the nominee confirmed. A favorite of his supposedly is 6th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Amul Thapar, who previously served as a federal district judge and U.S. attorney in McConnell’s home state.

Hewitt also named several possible replacements for Alito, including 6th Circuit Judge Raymond Kethledge, who had been considered a strong candidate in the past.

Though neither Judges Kethledge or Thapar would likely be consistent votes for criminal defendants if they were to become Justices, I suspect both would be more likely to follow the varied voting pattern of Justice Gorsuch in criminal cases (noted here and here) than to follow in the legacy of Justices Alito and Thomas.  On the current Court, Justices Alito and Thomas are always most likely to favor state criminal powers over defendants in just about every setting.  It think it hard to imagine that they could or would ever be replaced with anybody more likely to vote so consistently against criminal defendants.

But I am not really daring to imagine a SCOTUS without Justices Alito and Thomas.  I sense they both like their work, and they probably both have good reason to believe they could keep at it for many years, perhaps many decades, to come.  So I fear criminal justice reformers who want a path through the Supreme Court should plan for at least two oppositional Justtices for many more years.

July 5, 2020 in Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, July 03, 2020

Effective review of the 1994 Crime Bill's complicated legacy

USA Today has this effective new piece about the impact and import of the 1994 Crime Bill under the headline "Fact check: 1994 crime bill did not bring mass incarceration of Black Americans."  I recommend the whole thing, and here are excerpts:

The 1994 crime bill, signed by President Bill Clinton, was a grab-bag of crime-fighting measures, ranging from three-strike provisions mandating a life sentence for repeat offenders and funding for states to hire 100,000 additional police officers, to a Violence Against Women Act.

As chairman of the Judiciary Committee, then-Sen. Joe Biden drafted the bill, known formally as the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which was billed by Democrats as a major crackdown on crime....

Lauren-Brooke Eisen, director of the Justice Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan law and policy think tank, says one of the most significant and long-lasting impacts of the legislation was the enticement to states to build or expand correctional facilities through the Violent Offender Incarceration and Truth-in-Sentencing Incentive Grants Program....

Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, a campaign to end life imprisonment, told USA TODAY that the 1994 crime bill certainly encouraged the use of expanded incarceration by providing funding to the states for prison construction.  But he added that "mass incarceration was already well under way prior to the adoption of that legislation."...

Regarding mass incarceration of Black Americans, the issue plays out against the reality of longstanding racial disparities in imprisonment rates....  A report on "Racial Disparity in U.S. Imprisonment across States and Over Time," published in the Journal of Quantitative Criminology in 2019, found that a large increase in Black imprisonment is traceable in many states to the crack epidemic in the mid-1980s.

This disparity, the report says, began to ease starting in the 1990s.  "Whatever its other effects, this suggests that the 1994 crime bill did not aggravate the preexisting racial disparity in imprisonment," the report said....

Our research finds that while the crime bill did increase the prison population in states, it did not bring about a mass incarceration relative to earlier years.  Rather, it coincided with a slowdown in the annual grown of the state and federal prison population. Nor did it bring about mass incarceration of Black people, compared to before the bill was passed.

This USA Today piece references and links to some effective research on this topic, although it does not mention the papers recently published by the Council of Criminal Justice on this topic (one of which I authored).  These CCJ papers provide a similar accounting of the impact of the 1994 Crime Bill:

July 3, 2020 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thursday, July 02, 2020

"How Mandatory Minimums Are Weaponized"

The title of this post is the headline of this effective new opinion piece in the New York Times authored by Sandeep Dhaliwal. I recommend the piece in full and here are excerpts:

In the early morning hours of May 30, Colinford Mattis and Urooj Rahman were arrested in Brooklyn after a night of citywide protests in response to the killing of George Floyd.  They are charged with throwing a Molotov cocktail through the broken window of an unoccupied police car.  No one was hurt.  Both have plead not guilty, but if they are convicted of the array of federal charges leveled against them, there will be no judging involved when they are sentenced: They will face mandatory sentences of 45 years in prison.

Their story is just one example of how many senseless mandatory minimum penalties — blind to the facts of a case and the stories of the individual defendants — remain enshrined in law and must be changed....

At a time when progress is being made to address policing, the prosecution of Mr. Mattis and Ms. Rahman is a sobering reminder of other, deeply ingrained injustices in our systems of punishment. Even after modest improvements made by the 2018 First Step Act, the penalties for criminal activity are too often draconian, and prosecutors are too often keen to invoke them not because the defendants deserve the severity but to coerce them to plead guilty.  Reforms to eliminate mandatory minimums and rein in prosecutorial overreaching are vital to comprehensively reforming our overly punitive criminal justice systems, whose excessive harshness disproportionately affects communities of color....

Mandatory minimums grew popular in the 1970s and 1980s, as Congress and many states began adopting them for a slew of crimes — the biggest category being drug crimes.  Proponents said they were designed to deter the most serious types of criminal conduct.  But the penalties were inflexibly harsh, and it quickly became clear that many low-level offenders were being swept up and facing grossly excessive sentences.

The laws also suffered from another flaw: They were racist. The most infamous example is that it once took 100 times the amount of powder cocaine as crack cocaine to trigger the same mandatory minimum prison terms.  Other lesser-known examples abound.  People of color are disproportionately affected by mandatory minimums for the simple reason that they are disproportionately arrested and charged with crimes generally....

[T]he 45-year mandatory minimum penalty that Mr. Mattis and Ms. Rahman face is part of an all too familiar pattern of prosecution.  The goal is to coerce people to plead guilty to charges carrying harsh sentences in exchange for the dismissal of charges that mandate unconscionable ones.

The message that prosecutors send to them and to so many other defendants is clear: If you consider exercising your fundamental right to trial, we will seek penalties that are so excessive that you will think twice, because we have the power to take sentencing authority away from the judiciary.

When this regime of mandatory minimums began more than 30 years ago, 20 percent of federal criminal cases were resolved by trial.  Today, fewer than 3 percent are, and more than 97 percent of cases are resolved by pleas.

No rational observer would conclude that Mr. Mattis and Ms. Rahman should spend a majority of their lives behind bars for an alleged act that caused harm to no one.  To put the threat of a 45-year mandatory sentence into some perspective, according to data compiled by the U.S. Sentencing Commission, the median sentence for murder in the Second Circuit from 2015 through 2019 was 16 years.  The extreme 45-year sentences they face are a reminder that real people and families and communities are at the receiving end of these devastating penalties.

As lawmakers in Congress propose sweeping changes to policing spurred by society’s broad awakening to systemic racism, they must also make changes to eliminate federal mandatory minimums, rein in overcharging and help restore the right to trial.

July 2, 2020 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, July 01, 2020

Was Prez Trump's real political mistake not going bigger on criminal justice reform?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this Axios piece headlined "Scoop: Trump regrets Kushner advice."  Here are some excerpts:

President Trump has told people in recent days that he regrets following some of son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner's political advice — including supporting criminal justice reform — and will stick closer to his own instincts, three people with direct knowledge of the president's thinking tell Axios.

Behind the scenes: One person who spoke with the president interpreted his thinking this way: "No more of Jared's woke s***." Another said Trump has indicated that following Kushner's advice has harmed him politically.

Why it matters: This could be the final straw for federal police reform legislation this year, and it could usher in even more incendiary campaign tactics between now and November.

Details: The sources said the president has resolved to stick to his instincts and jettison any policies that go against them, including ambitious police reform.

  • Trump dipped his toe into police reform under pressure after a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd — with an executive order that activists considered toothless  but he will likely go no further to restrain law enforcement officers, according to senior administration officials.
  • Trump has made clear he wants to support law enforcement unequivocally, and he won't do anything that could be seen as undercutting police....
  • In response to this reporting, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said in a statement, "President Trump is very proud of the historic work that he's done to benefit all communities.  The First Step Act made historic strides toward rectifying racial disparities in sentencing while his executive order to secure America's streets works with our nation's heroic police officers to ensure we have safe policing and safe communities."...

Between the lines: Trump never really wanted criminal justice reform, according to people who have discussed the subject with him privately.  He's told them he only supported it because Kushner asked him to.  Though he has repeatedly trumpeted it as a politically useful policy at times.

  • Trump now says privately it was misguided to pursue this policy, undercutting his instincts, and that he probably won't win any more African American support because of it.
  • "He truly believes there is a silent majority out there that's going to come out in droves in November," said a source who's talked to the president in recent days.

Anyone who has followed Prez Trump through the years should not be surprised by reporting that he has never been a real fan of criminal justice reform or that he is eager to praise and promote the police.  But Prez Trump did play a key role in getting the FIRST STEP Act enacted back in 2018 and it has seemed his campaign had wanted to make this fact a significant talking point in the 2020 political season.  But, in light of Prez Trump's poor recent poll numbers and his disaffinity for bold racial justice efforts, this story suggests he may be giving up on the prospect of securing any political advantage from criminal justice reform efforts.

But, as the question in the title of this post is meant to suggest, I think Prez Trump may be getting little political credit for criminal justice reform because he failed to really go big and because his frequent "tough" talk eclipses his reform efforts.  Had Prez Trump pushed dramatic and historic reforms — by, say, advocating for federal marijuana reforms and pushing for a federal expungement statute and creating a clemency council in the White House — he might well have burnished a real reputation as a real reformer.  And if Prez Trump stressed how these kinds of reforms advanced racial justice and racial equity in our criminal justice system, I really think he could have secured significant political benefits from being much more progressive on these issues than Joe Biden has historically been.

July 1, 2020 in Campaign 2020 and sentencing issues, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Spotlighting our unique times as feds seek to resume execution this month

The New York Times has this article detailing that the first planned executions in nearly two decades are coming at quite a time. The piece is fully headlined "Federal Executions to Resume Amid a Pandemic and Protests: The administration is pressing ahead with the first federal execution in 17 years as demonstrators seek changes to the criminal justice system and lawyers have trouble visiting death-row clients."  Here are excerpts (with one line emphasized for commentary):

Daniel Lewis Lee is scheduled to be executed in less than two weeks, but he has been unable to see his lawyers for three months because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Mr. Lee, sentenced to death for his involvement in the 1996 murder of a married couple and their 8-year-old daughter, has been limited to phone calls, which one of his lawyers, Ruth Friedman, said she feared would jeopardize her client’s confidentiality.  And amid a global pandemic that has put travel on hold, her team has been unable to discuss pressing issues with Mr. Lee, conduct investigations, or interview witnesses in person.  “I can’t do my job right. Nobody can,” Ms. Friedman said from her apartment 600 miles away, in Washington, D.C., where she is working to commute Mr. Lee’s sentence to life in prison.

If she is unsuccessful, Mr. Lee, 47, will be the first federal death row inmate to be executed in 17 years.  Last year, Attorney General William P. Barr announced that the Justice Department would resume executions of federal inmates sentenced to death.  Two weeks ago, Mr. Barr scheduled the first four executions for this summer, all of men convicted of murdering children, and to be carried out at the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind.  On Monday, the Supreme Court cleared the way for the federal executions to proceed, rejecting arguments against the use of a single drug to carry out the sentence by lethal injection.

As the pandemic worsened, many states, including Texas and Tennessee, postponed scheduled executions of prisoners sentenced under state law. Since the pandemic began, there has been only one execution at a state prison, in Bonne Terre, Mo. The state capital trial in Florida for Nikolas Cruz, the gunman who killed 17 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018, was delayed indefinitely. Courthouses closed or moved to remote operations to accommodate social distancing....

In announcing the schedule for this summer’s federal executions, Mr. Barr said the death penalty was the will of the American people as expressed through Congress and presidents of both parties, and that the four men scheduled to die “have received full and fair proceedings under our Constitution and laws.”

The summer’s scheduled executions mesh with President Trump’s increasing election year efforts to cast himself as a “law and order” leader even as his administration faces mounting criticism for its response to protests over systemic racism in the policing system and a deadly pandemic.

Mr. Lee, who is scheduled to be put to death on July 13, was a white supremacist who has since disavowed his ties to that movement. The Trump campaign has seized on the political ramifications of Mr. Lee’s planned execution, criticizing the president’s presumptive Democratic opponent, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., for reversing his earlier support for the death penalty “even for white supremacist murderers!”

Though Mr. Biden now opposes capital punishment, he played a central role as a senator in the passage of the 1994 crime bill that expanded the use of the federal death penalty.  Mr. Trump has repeatedly attacked Mr. Biden for his record on criminal justice issues.

Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump are far from the first presidential candidates to spar over the death penalty as a political tactic. In 1992, then-Gov. Bill Clinton denounced President George Bush for his inaction on crime.  To affirm his support for the death penalty, he flew home to Arkansas in the midst of campaigning to personally see to the execution of a man who had been convicted of murdering a police officer.

But today’s candidates are vying for the White House amid nationwide protests over racism in the criminal justice system. Black people make up 42 percent of those on death row, both among federal inmates and over all, compared to 13 percent of the general population.

Though the four inmates scheduled to be executed this summer are white, critics of the death penalty warned that resumption of federal executions would only exacerbate the policy’s discrimination against people of color. “It would be nice if they used those resources to address the widespread problem of police violence against Black people,” said Samuel Spital, director of litigation at the N.A.A.C.P. Legal Defense & Educational Fund. Mr. Spital also questioned why the Justice Department did not use those resources allocated to resume federal executions to protect prisons from the coronavirus.

Imposing the death penalty amid the pandemic holds risks for those carrying out the execution: Doing so may require dozens of individuals, including corrections officers, victims and journalists, to come in close contact. The Bureau of Prisons directed that face masks would be required for all individuals throughout the entire procedure, with violators asked to leave the premises. Social distancing will be practiced “to the extent practical,” but the bureau conceded that limited capacity of the media witness room might preclude their ability to maintain a six-foot distance between observers....

Several family members of Mr. Lee’s victims, his trial's lead prosecutor, and the trial judge have all publicly opposed Mr. Lee’s execution. His co-defendant, described as “the ringleader” by the judge, was given a life sentence without parole.

In a statement, Mr. Barr maintained that the decision to reinstate federal capital punishment was owed “to the victims of these horrific crimes, and to the families left behind.” But Monica Veillette, who lost her aunt and cousin to Mr. Lee’s crimes, does not believe that this execution is for her family. She has asthma, and both her grandmother and parents are older. If they travel to Indiana for the execution from Washington State and Arkansas, each of them could be put at risk of contracting the virus. “If they owe us anything, it’s to keep us safe now by not pushing this execution through while people are still scrambling to access disinfectant spray and proper masks,” she said. “Haven’t enough people died?”

I have emphasized the fact that all of the defendants selected for execution dates by AG Barr are white because I suspect they were chosen to be the first ones to be executed, at least in part, because of their race. If I am right in this suspicion, I think AG Barr acted unconstitutionally. I am not sure if these defendants are pursuing an equal protection claim on this ground, but I sure think they should.

July 1, 2020 in Death Penalty Reforms, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

"Rural Spaces, Communities of Color, and the 'Progressive' Prosecutor"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper authored by Maybell Romero available via SSRN.  Here is its abstract:

The concept of the “progressive prosecutor” has captured the attention of many newspapers, media outlets, district attorney candidates, legal scholars, and the public at large.  The success of candidates declaring themselves progressive prosecutors has been tracked with much excitement by those who have sincere interests in criminal justice reform and has been lauded in many reform-minded camps.

These progressive prosecutors, while located throughout the country, seem to have one geographic commonality — they generally hail from large cities or even urban metroplexes: These include Wesley Bell in St. Louis, Rachael Rollins in Boston, Larry Krasner in Philadelphia, and Kim Foxx in Chicago.  In the meantime, disproportionate contact between police and minorities has increased in the rural reaches of the country, with prosecutors seemingly growing less reform minded with rates of incarceration in rural jurisdiction increasing.

This paper joins others in casting suspicion upon the notion of progressive prosecution, questioning whether such an appellation should exist given the current nature of the job in the United States.  It also serves as a warning; that while such prosecutors have seemed to become more common in large cities, that practitioners and scholars should not forget that reforms that occur in large jurisdictions sometimes do not extend to those suffering injustices in small communities.

June 30, 2020 in Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Judicial Authority under the First Step Act What Congress Conferred through Section 404"

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

The First Step Act of 2018 promised relief to inmates serving disproportionately long sentences for cocaine base distribution. Section 404, the focus of this article, seemed straight-forward.  But in the spring and summer of 2019, district judges began reviewing § 404 cases and reaching dissonant results.  Appeals followed, focused on four questions of judicial authority: (1) Who may judges resentence?; (2) May judges engage in plenary resentencing or merely sentence reduction?; (3) May judges resentence all concurrent criminal convictions or only crack cocaine convictions?; and (4) Must judges adopt the operative drug quantity from the original sentencing?

Today, the law of § 404 remains incomplete in every circuit.  This article reviews the legislative history, text, and legal context of § 404.  It finds that Congress intended broad judicial authority in § 404 resentencings.

June 30, 2020 in Drug Offense Sentencing, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, June 29, 2020

SCOTUS denies, by 7-2 vote, cert petition from federal death row defendants challenging federal execution protocol

As reported in this AP article, the "Supreme Court on Monday refused to block the execution of four federal prison inmates who are scheduled to be put to death in July and August."  Here is more:

The justices rejected an appeal from four inmates who were convicted of killing children.  Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor noted that they would have blocked the executions from going forward.

The court's action leaves no obstacles standing in the way of the executions, the first of which is scheduled for July 13. The inmates are separately asking a federal judge in Washington to impose a new delay on their executions over other legal issues that have yet to be resolved.

The activity at the high court came after Attorney General William Barr directed the federal Bureau of Prisons to schedule the executions. Three of the men had been scheduled to be put to death when Barr first announced the federal government would resume executions last year, ending an informal moratorium on federal capital punishment as the issue receded from the public domain....

The federal government’s initial effort was put on hold by a trial judge after the inmates challenged the new execution procedures, and the federal appeals court in Washington and the Supreme Court both declined to step in late last year. But in April, the appeals court threw out the judge’s order. The federal prison in Indiana where the executions would take place, USP Terre Haute, has struggled to combat the coronavirus pandemic behind bars. One inmate there has died from COVID-19.

The inmates scheduled for execution are: Danny Lee, who was convicted in Arkansas of killing a family of three, including an 8-year-old; Wesley Ira Purkey, of Kansas, who raped and murdered a 16-year-old girl and killed an 80-year-old woman; Dustin Lee Honken, who killed five people in Iowa, including two children; and Keith Dwayne Nelson, who kidnapped a 10-year-old girl who was rollerblading in front of her Kansas home and raped her in a forest behind a church before strangling the young girl with a wire.

Three of the executions — for Lee, Purkley and Honken — are scheduled days apart beginning July 13. Nelson’s execution is scheduled for Aug. 28. The Justice Department said additional executions will be set at a later date. Executions on the federal level have been rare and the government has put to death only three defendants since restoring the federal death penalty in 1988 — most recently in 2003, when Louis Jones was executed for the 1995 kidnapping, rape and murder of a young female soldier.

The Supreme Court's decision here does not guarantee that federal executions will go forward in two weeks, but it does guarantee there will be lots and lots of litigation in those two weeks as defense attorneys press other legal claims and federal prosecutors respond. The fact that the cert vote here was 7-2 could be viewed in various ways as a forecast of how the Justices might approach other issues surely to be brought before them by these defendants with pending execution dates. But I have come to assume that there are now five pretty solid SCOTUS votes to allow capital punishment administration to move forward, so there would seem to be a pretty solid chance the federal government will be getting back to executions shortly.

Prior related posts:

June 29, 2020 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sixth Circuit panel rejects Romell Broom's constitutional arguments that Ohio cannot try again to execute him after botched first attempt

I somehow missed that last week a Sixth Circuit panel handed down a notable unanimous ruling on a novel (and disconcerting) issues of capital punishment administration . Even long-time readers may have forgotten about the case of Romell Broon, but the start of the Sixth Circuit ruling in Broom v. Shoop, No. 19-3356 (6th Cir. June 23, 2020) (available here), provides the still-remarkable essentials:

In an infamous September 2009 incident, the state of Ohio tried to execute death-row inmate Rommel Broom, and failed.  More specifically, the state tried to execute Broom by way of lethal injection, but was forced to abandon the effort when the execution team concluded — two hours into the process — that it could not maintain a viable IV connection to Broom’s veins.  The state then returned Broom to his cell, to await a second execution attempt on another day.  That second execution attempt has not yet happened, however, because the parties have spent the last eleven years litigating whether the U.S. Constitution bars Ohio from ever trying to execute Broom again — Broom relies on both the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on “cruel and unusual” punishment and the Fifth Amendment’s prohibition on “double jeopardy.”  The state courts, including the Ohio Supreme Court, have rejected Broom’s contentions on the merits, as did the district court below on habeas review.  Broom’s case now comes before us.

We in no way condone Ohio’s treatment of Broom; that it took two hours of stabbing and prodding for the state to realize that it could not maintain a viable IV connection to Broom’s veins is disturbing, to say the least.  But because the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (“AEDPA”) permits us to reverse state court merits decisions in only a narrow set of circumstances, and because the Ohio Supreme Court’s decision rejecting Broom’s constitutional claims on the merits does not fall within that set of circumstances here, we AFFIRM the district court’s judgment denying Broom habeas relief.

Ohio has not executed anyone in two years due in part to litigation and uncertainty over execution protocols, and Broom recently had his 2020 execution date pushed back to March 2022.  I could discuss at great length not only why this case is so jurisprudentially interesting, but I continue to fear that SCOTUS will not be inclined to take up this case.  And for those interested in more coverage of all the facts and law, here are posts on the case going back more than a decade now:

June 29, 2020 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Is Prez Trump trying to convince himself to have the guts to pardon Roger Stone?

The question in the title of this post was my first thought upon seeing this news piece headlined "Trump tweet fuels speculation of Stone pardon: The tweet came after a judge ruled Stone would report to prison in July."  Here are the details:

President Donald Trump further fueled speculation Saturday morning that he plans to pardon longtime friend and adviser Roger Stone.

After a judge on Friday gave Stone a surrender date of July 14 -- he had sought to report to the Georgia prison on Sept. 3 -- Trump tweeted a story about a petition for the president to pardon Stone as he faces a sentence of 40 months for lying to Congress and misleading investigators on several key elements of their probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

On Saturday, Trump retweeted a message saying "IT’S TIME TO #PardonRogerStone"

This is not the first time a Trump tweet has raised the prospect of a Stone pardon.  Earlier this month, on June 4, the president tweeted that "Roger was a victim of a corrupt and illegal Witch Hunt, one which will go down as the greatest political crime in history.  He can sleep well at night!"

With Stone now seemingly having a hard prison report date in three weeks, Prez Trump is going to have to make a clemency decision sooner rather than later. If Prez Trump is really eager to keep Stone out of prison, I hope he might at least looks to include Stone with some additional meritorious clemency grants as he did back in February when commuted the sentences of sentences of three women along with Rod Blagojevich.

Prior related posts:

June 27, 2020 in Celebrity sentencings, Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Time for another long list of (mostly COVID-influenced) federal sentence reductions using § 3582(c)(1)(A)

I must admit that I might be starting to get just a bit fatigued by my repeated listings of new grants of federal sentence reductions using § 3582(c)(1)(A).  But these lists represent such a special kind of good news for federal prisoners and those that care about them, and I am not at all tired of seeing this heartening news each week as I assemble dozens of recent grants.  So:

United States v. Morrison, No. 19-cr-284-PWG, 2020 WL 3447757 (D Md. June 24, 2020)

United States v. Martin, No. DKC 04-0235-5, 2020 WL 3447760 (D Md. June 24, 2020)

United States v. Davis, 2:15-cr-00062-TLN, 2020 WL 3443400 (ED Cal. June 23, 2020)

United States v. Oaks, No. RDB-17-0288, 2020 WL 3433326 (D Md. June 23, 2020)

United States v. Smith, No. 4:18CR805 HEA, 2020 WL 3429150 (ED Mo. June 23, 2020)

 

United States v. Platte, No. 05-cr-208-JD-KJM-2, 2020 WL 3441979 (ED Cal. June 22, 2020)

United States v. Salvagno, No. 5:02-CR-51 (LEK), 2020 WL 3410601 (NDNY June 22, 2020)

United States v. Common, No. 17-cr-30067, 2020 WL 3412233 (CD Ill. June 22, 2020)

United States v. Faafiu, No. CR 17-0231 WHA, 2020 WL 3425120 (ND Cal. June 22, 2020)

United States v. Ladson, No. 04-697-1, 2020 WL 3412574 (ED Pa. June 22, 2020)

 

United States v. Austin, No. 06-cr-991 (JSR), 2020 WL 3447521 (SDNY June 22, 2020)

United States v. Lee, No. 1:95-cr-58 (LMB), 2020 WL 3422772 (ED Va. June 22, 2020)

United States v. Bayuo, No. 15-cr-576 (JGK), 2020 WL 3415226 (SDNY June 20, 2020)

United States v. Richardson, No. 2:17-cr-00048-JAM, 2020 WL 3402410 (D Conn. June 19, 2020)

United States v. Garcia-Zuniga, No. 19cr4139 JM, 2020 WL 3403070 (SD Cal. June 19, 2020)

 

United States v. Jackson, No. 2:18-cr-86-PPS, 2020 WL 3396901 (ND Ind. June 19, 2020)

United States v. Calabrese, No. 16-30033-TSH, 2020 WL 3316139 (D Mass. June 18, 2020)

United States v. Clark, No. 4:08-CR-00096, 2020 WL 3395540 (SD Iowa June 17, 2020)

United States v. Joseph, No. 18-CR-156, 2020 WL 3270885 (ED Wisc June 17, 2020)

United States v. Johnson, No. JKB-14-356, 2020 WL 3316221 (D Md. June 17, 2020)

 

United States v. Kess, No. ELH-14-480, 2020 WL 3268093 (D Md. June 17, 2020)

United States v. Quinn, No. 91-cr-00608-DLJ-1 (RS), 2020 WL 3275736 (ND Cal. June 17, 2020)

United States v. Cruz, No. 3:17-cr-00075-JO-4, 2020 WL 3265390 (D Ore. June 17, 2020)

As I have mentioned repeatedly, some rulings do not appear on Westlaw right away and others do not show up at all.  Indeed, this BOP page on the FIRST STEP Act has updated its reporting of total grants of "Compassionate Releases / Reduction in Sentences," and it now reports 706 grants when last week the page reported 650 grants.  These data confirm my sense from various sources that around 50 sentence reductions are now being granted each week of the COVID era.

Prior recent related posts since lockdowns:

June 25, 2020 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

FINAL REMINDER of exciting DEPC and OJPC sentencing project: "Drafting Contest: An Ohio 'Second Look' Statute"

I warned in this initial posting that I would be repeatedly promoting an exciting new project from a partnership of the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center (DEPC) at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law and the Ohio Justice & Policy Center (OJPC).  Because the deadline for submissions is next week (June 30), this is going to be my reminder.  But it is certainly not too late to get involved; the basic details are explained on this webpage, more background appears in this document, and here are the essentials:

About

A robust national discussion about how best to remedy extreme and unwarranted prison sentences has prompted various new proposed remedies. In hopes of encouraging discussion and debate around the creation of a comprehensive “second-look sentencing provision” in Ohio law, the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center (DEPC) at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law and the Ohio Justice & Policy Center (OJPC), a statewide criminal-justice nonprofit, are sponsoring a legislative-drafting contest for law students and recent law school graduates.

Contest Objective and Deliverable

DEPC and OJPC encourage law students and recent graduates (from class years 2015-2020) to submit (1) proposed language for a new Ohio statutory provision and (2) accompanying commentary to allow courts to take a second look at Ohio prison sentences.  The proposal should address both substance (e.g., when and to whom does it apply) and procedure (e.g., how should such a second look be initiated and decided).  Entrants may, but are not required to, address the public-health issues that have come to the fore with COVID-19 (e.g., the proposal might have a special provision allowing more prisoners to seek resentencing when a public-health emergency has been declared).  Group submissions are acceptable and encouraged.

Contest Timeline and Awards

Submissions are due June 30, 2020.  The winning submission will receive a prize of $2,000, and up to two runner-up prizes of $1,000 will also be awarded.  If a group submission is awarded prize money, it will be divided equally among the groups members.  All winning submissions will be published via DEPC and OJPC’s websites.  The full version of the winning proposal will also be presented to the Ohio Criminal Sentencing Commission at a forthcoming meeting and may be used in DEPC and OJPC’s ongoing efforts to advocate for improvements in Ohio law.

June 24, 2020 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Crisis and Coercive Pleas"

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

Even in the best of times, trials are rare.  In the midst of the current pandemic, trials have vanished altogether in certain parts of the country; in other areas they occur sporadically as courts grapple with how to hold trials safely.  This makes sense from a public health perspective, but the lack of trials, along with other challenges posed by the coronavirus crisis, poses a heightened risk that defendants will be coerced into false and unfair pleas.

Coercive pleas are part and parcel of the criminal system, but the current crisis provides several avenues for even greater abuse of defendants through the plea process.  In Part I of this essay I explore the particular concerns related to plea bargaining during the COVID-19 crisis and address three broad areas: 1) the particularized fear of a prison or jail sentence during a pandemic, 2) the difficulty with holding — or complete lack of — jury trials, and 3) issues with access to counsel and other procedural challenges that defendants will face during and after the crisis.

Part II offers some solutions to mitigate the risk of coercive pleas.  The essay encourages criminal courts to think about holding jury trials via video, despite the many obvious challenges.  The essay also defines several ways in which judges can take a more active role in protecting against coercive pleas during the pandemic.  And, as the essay explores, this crisis may also provide opportunities for creative problem solving that can outlast the virus.

June 24, 2020 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Roger Stone's past sentencing and coming prison time making headlines

I am not sure which of these stories surprises me less:

From ABC News, "Citing coronavirus fears, Roger Stone files motion to delay reporting to Georgia prison"

A week before President Donald Trump's longtime friend and adviser Roger Stone was scheduled to turn himself in to federal prison in Georgia to begin his more than three-year sentence, his lawyers filed a motion seeking to delay his surrender, citing the deadly risk posed by the coronavirus outbreak.

“This motion is based on the exceptional circumstances arising from the serious and possibly deadly risk [Stone] would face in the close confines of a Bureau of Prisons facility, based on his age and medical conditions,” the motion says. “Those medical conditions make the consequences of his exposure to the COVID-19 virus in a prison facility life-threatening.”

The 67-year-old was sentenced to 40 months in prison on Feb. 20 by Judge Amy Berman Jackson in Washington, D.C. Stone's attorneys also asked to file a letter under seal from a physician concerning their client's medical conditions.

From Politico, "Prosecutor says he was pressured to cut Roger Stone 'a break' because of his ties to Trump"

A prosecutor who withdrew from the Roger Stone case after Justice Department leaders intervened to recommend a lighter sentence intends to testify before Congress that he and his colleagues were repeatedly pressured to cut Stone "a break," and were told that it was because of his relationship with President Donald Trump.

"What I heard – repeatedly – was that Roger Stone was being treated differently from any other defendant because of his relationship to the President," Aaron Zelinsky, one of four prosecutors who quit the case, plans to tell the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday, according to his prepared testimony. "I was also told that the acting U.S. Attorney was giving Stone such unprecedentedly favorable treatment because he was 'afraid of the President.'"

June 23, 2020 in Celebrity sentencings, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Senators Durbin and Grassley introduce new bill to make modest, but still important, reforms to federal elderly home release and compassionate release

As reported in this new press release, "U.S. Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Chuck Grassley (R-IA), authors of the bipartisan First Step Act, landmark criminal justice reform legislation, introduced new, bipartisan legislation to reform the Elderly Home Detention Pilot Program and compassionate release from federal prisons. "  The release provides some notable contextual data and well some details of the bill's particulars:

Sadly, more than 80 federal prisoners with pre-existing medical conditions that made them more vulnerable to COVID-19 have died as a result of the virus, more than half of whom were over 60 years old.  Elderly offenders, the fastest-growing portion of the prison population, have much lower rates of recidivism and are much more expensive to incarcerate due to their health care needs. 

Since enactment of the First Step Act, the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) has opposed the vast majority of compassionate release petitions.  In 2019, 1,735 requests for release were initiated by or on behalf of prisoners, of which 1,501 were denied by wardens and 226 of which were forwarded to the BOP Director.  Of these 226, BOP approved only 55 and denied 171.  Since March of this year, only about 500 inmates have been granted compassionate release in the midst of the pandemic, nearly all of them by court order over the objections of the Department of Justice and BOP.  BOP has reportedly refused to approve any compassionate releases based on vulnerability to COVID-19.

“At the end of 2018, Congress came together to pass one of the most important criminal justice reform laws in a generation.  Now we have an obligation to ensure that this law is properly implemented,” Durbin said.  “My legislation with Senator Grassley would help ensure that the most vulnerable prisoners are quickly released or transferred to home confinement for the remainder of their sentence – just as the First Step Act intended.  This is especially critical during the COVID-19 pandemic to protect against the spread of this deadly virus.  I’m hopeful that this commonsense, bipartisan legislation will pass swiftly through the House and Senate and will be signed into law.”

“In the middle of a pandemic the federal government ought to be doing everything it can to protect the inmates in its care.  We already established important home confinement and early release programs in 2018, which are especially important right now as older inmates face very serious risks because of the virus.  Our bill will clarify and expand those programs we wrote into the First Step Act, so we can better protect these vulnerable populations,” Grassley said.

Specifically, the COVID-19 Safer Detention Act would reform the Elderly Home Detention Pilot Program and compassionate release by:

  • Clarifying that the percentage of time served required for the Elderly Home Detention Pilot Program should be calculated based on an inmate’s sentence, including reductions for good time credits (H.R. 4018, which passed the House by voice vote);
  • Expanding the eligibility criteria for the Elderly Home Detention Pilot Program to include nonviolent offenders who have served at least 50 percent of their term of imprisonment;
  • Clarifying that elderly nonviolent D.C. Code offenders in BOP custody are eligible for the Elderly Home Detention Pilot Program and that federal prisoners sentenced before November 1, 1987 are eligible for compassionate release;
  • Subjecting elderly home detention eligibility decisions to judicial review (based on the First Step Act’s compassionate release provision); and
  • Providing that, during the period of the pandemic, COVID-19 vulnerability is a basis for compassionate release and shortening the period prisoners must wait for judicial review for elderly home detention and compassionate release from 30 to 10 days.

The following organizations support the COVID-19 Safer Detention Act:  Aleph Institute, Americans for Tax Reform and Digital Liberty, Drug Policy Alliance, Due Process Institute, FAMM, Federal Public and Community Defenders, FreedomWorks, Justice Action Network, National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL), Right on Crime, Sentencing Project, Taking Action For Good, Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF), and Tzedek Association.

A section-by-section of the legislation is available here.

Bill text is available here.

I have placed in bold the provisions of this new bill that strike me as particularly noteworthy and that could prove most consequential. In short form, this bill would seem to authorize (though not require) judges to move most persons over the age of 60 from federal prison into home confinement as soon as they approach serving about half of their initially imposed prison sentence.  Sound like a great idea to me, and it also sounds like another version of another kind of "parole light" proposal of the sort I discussed a few years ago in this article

June 23, 2020 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

An NYC window into COVID's disruption of the administration of criminal justice

The New York Times has this lengthy new front-page article under the headline "Pandemic Pushes New Yorkers Into Legal Limbo."  The piece merits a full read as just one version of so many stories about how COVID is echoing through criminal justice systems.  Here are some excerpts:

The coronavirus outbreak is putting extraordinary stress on New York City’s judicial system, forcing lengthy delays in criminal proceedings and raising growing concerns about the rights of defendants.

Since February, the backlog of pending cases in the city’s criminal courts has risen by nearly a third — to 39,200.  Hundreds of jury trials in the city have been put on hold indefinitely.  Arraignments, pleas and evidentiary hearings are being held by video, with little public scrutiny.  Prosecutions have dropped off, too, as the authorities have tried to reduce the jail population.

Three months into the crisis, the city’s once bustling courthouses are barely recognizable.  Their spacious lobbies and halls, formerly filled with people, are nearly empty, and in the courtrooms clerks in surgical masks tend to virtual hearings on giant video screens.  Two centuries of face-to-face judicial traditions have either been cast aside or moved online....

Two weeks ago, the state courts in New York City took a first small step toward physically reopening: Judges started returning to their chambers, though they are still holding court virtually.  No one has quite figured out yet how to bring the public back safely to New York City courthouses, nor how to resume trials and state grand jury hearings. Officials said the challenge of balancing public health and the requirements of the law is likely to persist for some time.  “It’s a situation we’ve just never seen before,” said Melinda Katz, the Queens district attorney....

The halt on jury trials, while highly unusual and difficult for defendants, has not yet reached a crisis point.  Even under the best conditions, it can take years for cases to move from arrest to trial, and only about 5 percent ever get that far; most end with a plea bargain.  Still, jury trials are the heart of the justice system, and state court officials face significant hurdles as they resume.  “I can’t tell you we have a precise plan,” said Judge Lawrence Marks, the state’s chief administrative judge. “It will be one of the last phases.”

Unlike other court proceedings, jury trials require people to hear evidence together and then deliberate in close quarters.  “The whole idea of ‘12 Angry Men’ screaming at each other over a telephone, over a Zoom network, would be ridiculous,” said one defense lawyer, Joel Cohen.

In Federal District Court in Manhattan, architects and carpenters have been redesigning courtrooms, building jury boxes with additional space and inserting plexiglass dividers to keep jurors safer. Shields are being put in front of witness stands and at lecterns where lawyers argue.  Certain precautions that are being considered may raise legal issues.  “You can’t put a mask on the witnesses in a criminal trial because the defendant has the right to see them,” Chief Judge Colleen McMahon said.  “Jury trials are way, way down the road,” she added.

Some jurists warn that a prolonged delay in resuming trials could violate the Constitution.  “If well past July and for months to come, it is still dangerous for 12 people to gather together in tight quarters to hear and determine civil and criminal cases, it is not easy to see how the constitutional right to a jury trial will be genuinely met,” Judge Jed S. Rakoff wrote in The New York Review of Books....

People who are arrested no longer set foot inside a physical courtroom to hear the charges against them in an arraignment. They now sit in a windowless booth in a courthouse cell, looking into a camera and speaking into a microphone on the wall.  Felony arraignments have fallen by 50 percent this spring compared to last, largely because far fewer people were arrested in the first weeks of the pandemic.  That has made the transition to video somewhat easier, though not any faster.  In the months after the courts moved to a virtual system, the average arrest-to-arraignment time has increased by as much as three hours.

Before the pandemic, lawyers generally did most of the talking in court. In the video hearings, defendants, no longer in the same room as their lawyers, have been more prone to sudden and sometimes incriminating outbursts....  Tina Luongo, chief criminal defender for the Legal Aid Society, mentioned another challenge: The inability to see a witness's body language and quietly confer with the defendant seriously hampers defense lawyers. “We’ve got to figure that out,” she said. “When we’re all on one Skype link, how do I talk to my client in a confidential way?”  Before hearings begin, lawyers can meet virtually with clients in private Skype conference rooms, but the system is not foolproof....

Perhaps the biggest headache for the state courts has been the inability to convene grand juries, which given their size — they are usually composed of 16 to 23 people — have been unable to gather safely. Grand juries have traditionally acted as a citizen’s check on overzealous prosecutions by scrutinizing evidence and approving formal charges. They are also used by state and federal prosecutors to conduct long-term investigations.  Without them, the rights of both defendants and crime victims are less assured....

Unable to convene grand juries, the city’s five district attorneys are turning instead to preliminary hearings, which have not been conducted in New York in decades.  At the hearings, judges hear witnesses, consider evidence and decide if prosecutors’ charges are warranted. Like everything else these days, these hearings are being held by video....

The city’s two federal courts, in Manhattan and Brooklyn, have adapted more smoothly to the crisis.  Under their auspices, grand jurors began meeting again recently outside the city, in White Plains and Central Islip.  And in both courts, regular audio and video hearings have been held, with dial-in numbers for the public clearly posted on electronic dockets.  But obstacles remain, like how to bring in large numbers of prospective jurors for screening.

Disappointingly, this piece does not address sentencing issues and challenges in state or federal courts.  As always, I welcome comment from readers about their recent COVID-shaped experiences in that arena.

June 23, 2020 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Intriguing (and discouraging?) criminal justice elements in new polling mostly about policing reform

06_23_2020_Chart3This new release, headlined "Widespread Desire for Policing and Criminal Justice Reform," reports on a new Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll that is mostly about policing reforms but includes a few notable criminal justice questions.  Here are excerpts about the poll, with my emphasis on its criminal justice elements:

Large majorities of the public support the implementation of policies aimed at reducing police violence, but few back a reduction in the funding for law enforcement.  Most Americans say the country’s criminal justice is in need of serious transformation, and police officers who kill or injure civilians are treated too leniently by the courts.

In the national AP-NORC survey, which was conducted as protests spread across the country in response to the killing of George Floyd, a handcuffed Black man who died after a white police officer pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for several minutes, nearly half regard police violence to be very serious problem.

The public agrees that several reforms could help prevent police violence against civilians.  Americans, regardless of race, strongly support policies that include body cameras, holding police accountable for excessive force and racially biased policing, and creating criteria for the use of force.  There is little support for reducing funding for law enforcement.

There is majority support in both parties for a number of reforms.  However, Democrats are more likely than independents and Republicans to support all the guidelines to prevent police violence included in the survey.  The biggest partisan gaps arise when it comes to limiting the use of military equipment, reducing funding for agencies, and limiting the criminal justice system’s focus on policing and prosecuting low level offenses.

More than two-thirds of the public say that criminal justice system needs either major changes or a complete overhaul.  Black Americans are more likely than white Americans to say the system needs a complete transformation.  Views differ based on partisanship with 44% of Democrats saying the system needs a complete change while just 27% of independents, and 12% of Republicans say the same.

Most Americans — including a majority of white and Black adults — believe that police officers who cause injury or death in the course of their job are treated too leniently by the justice system.  In 2015, just 41% of all adults and 32% of white Americans said the same.

Democrats are almost twice as likely as Republicans to say police are treated too leniently by the justice system (85% vs. 43%).

The nationwide poll was conducted June 11-15, 2020 using the AmeriSpeak® Panel, the probability-based panel of NORC at the University of Chicago. Online and telephone interviews using landlines and cell phones were conducted with 1,310 adults. The margin of sampling error is +/-3.7 percentage points.  In addition, Black adults were sampled at a higher rate than their proportion of the population for reasons of analysis. The overall margin of sampling error for the 377 completed interviews with Black respondents is +/- 5.3 percentage points.

I suppose I should take a "glass-half-full" view on this poll and be encouraged that so many Americans seem to be in favor of policing and criminal justice reforms.  But I cannot help but see a lot of "glass-half-empty" elements such as the fact that roughly two-thirds of Republicans and Independents oppose "reducing the criminal justice system’s focus on policing and prosecuting low level offenses."  In the wake of all the protests about lock-down orders and their enforcement, not to mention significant support for marijuana reforms, I would have expected and hoped support for this kind of reform to be stronger.  Similarly, with all of Prez Trump's attacks on the FBI and high-profile prosecutions of his various associates, I would have hoped for a larger number of Republicans to say our criminal justice system needs a complete overhaul.

Long story short, I think anyone and everyone advocating for any kinds of criminal justice reforms must not lose sight of the power of status quo biases, especially for those who are powerful and who do not bear the brunt of criminal justice biases.  This poll suggests we may have a unique opportunity for unique reforms in the coming weeks and months and years, but it also should be a reminder that reforms are always an uphill battle.

June 23, 2020 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, June 22, 2020

"The Substance of Montgomery Retroactivity: The Definition of States’ Supremacy Clause Obligation to Enforce Newly-Recognized Federal Rights in Their Post-conviction Proceedings and Why It Matters"

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

In Montgomery v. Louisiana, 136 S.Ct. 718 (2016), the Supreme Court made a decision of far-reaching importance to the criminal justice system: the Supremacy Clause requires states adjudicating post-conviction attacks to give full retroactive effect to “substantive” new rules of federal constitutional law.

The significance of this holding has so far been under-appreciated because of the assumption that “substantive” has the same narrow meaning in the context of the state’s obligations under the Supremacy Clause as it does under Teague v. Lane, 489 U.S. 288 (1989), which sets forth prudential limitations on the claims that the federal courts will entertain when adjudicating federal habeas corpus attacks on state criminal convictions.

But, this article argues, the two contexts are not the same and the assumption is unwarranted.  To be sure, rules that are “substantive” under Teague are also substantive under Montgomery.  But because Montgomery is based on the Supremacy Clause, the class of “substantive” federal rules for Montgomery purposes should be far broader than it is for Teague purposes.

“Substantive” rules under Montgomery, I propose, include all those whose policy underpinnings extend beyond enhancing the factual accuracy of particular decisions.  Examples of such rules are ones whose aims include discountenancing government misconduct (e.g., barring evidence derived from coerced confessions or unreasonable searches) and achieving full community participation in the judicial process (e.g., adding new groups to the ones that may not constitutionally be excluded from jury service, and expanding the categories of juror bias that a defendant must be permitted to litigate).

Adopting the proposed definition will have structural benefits to the system of criminal justice adjudication.  The Montgomery decision will necessarily have the effect of increasing the number of state post-conviction decisions.  The broader the definition of “substantive” the more pronounced the effect.  The more pronounced the effect the better off the criminal justice system will be, for two reasons.  First, state post-conviction decisions will be some extent be able to fill the gap in the normal creation of new rules by lower federal courts that has resulted from the restrictive ruling in Teague.  Second, the greater the salience of post-conviction decisions, the greater the pressure on the states to improve the quality of their post-conviction systems.

Thus, in the interests of making modest but real improvements in the quality of our criminal law, lawyers, legislators, academics, judges, and all individuals concerned about justice should seek adoption of the proposal of this article.

June 22, 2020 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

No new cert grants from SCOTUS as Justice Thomas laments failure to take up whether First Amendment limits criminalizing "reckless threats"

This morning's Supreme Court order list yet again lacks any new grants of certiorari (which, as explained in this recent post, I have come to expect from this court).  But, showcasing as he did last week that he will call out his colleagues for failing to take up issues he considers important, Justice Thomas has a dissent from the denial of cert in Kansas v. Boettger, No. 19–1051.  Here is how this six-page dissent gets started:

Kansas asks us to decide whether the First Amendment prohibits States from criminalizing threats to “[c]ommit violence . . . in reckless disregard of the risk of causing . . . fear.” Kan. Stat. Ann. §21–5415(a)(1) (2018).  Respondent Timothy Boettger was convicted for telling the son of a police detective that he “‘was going to end up finding [his] dad in a ditch.’” ___ Kan. ___, ___, 450 P. 3d 805, 807 (2019).  Respondent Ryan Johnson was separately convicted for telling his mother that he “‘wish[ed] [she] would die,’” that he would “‘help [her] get there,’” and that he was “‘going to f***ing kill [her] a***.’” ___ Kan. ___, ___, 450 P. 3d 790, 792 (2019).  The Kansas Supreme Court overturned both convictions and held that reckless threats are protected by the First Amendment, relying on Virginia v. Black, 538 U.S. 343 (2003).

In my view, the Constitution likely permits States to criminalize threats even in the absence of any intent to intimidate. See Elonis v. United States, 575 U.S. 723, 760– 767 (2015) (dissenting opinion).  It appears to follow that threats of violence made in reckless disregard of causing fear may be prohibited.  The Kansas Supreme Court reached the opposite conclusion by overreading our decision in Black, which did not answer the question presented here.  Other courts looking to Black, however, have upheld similar statutes.  State v. Taupier, 330 Conn. 149, 193 A.3d 1 (2018); Major v. State, 301 Ga. 147, 800 S.E.2d 348 (2017).  I would grant the petition for certiorari to resolve the split on this important question.

June 22, 2020 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, June 21, 2020

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

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

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

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

Saturday, June 20, 2020

"The Categorical Imperative as a Decarceral Agenda"

The title of this post is the title of this new essay authored by Jessica Eaglin recently posted to SSRN. Here is its abstract:

Despite recent modest reductions in state prison populations, Franklin Zimring argues in his forthcoming book that mass incarceration remains persistent and intractable.  As a path forward, Zimring urges states to adopt pragmatic, structural reforms that incentivize the reduction of prison populations through a “categorical imperative,” meaning, by identifying subcategories of offenders best suited for diversion from prison sentences at the state level.  This decarceral method is at odds with popular sentencing reforms in the states.

By exploring the tensions between reform trends in practice and Zimring’s proscription, this Essay illuminates a deeper concern with sentencing reforms in the era of mass incarceration.  Reforms focused on categorizing offenders can obscure and sustain policymakers’ persistent tendency to frame social problems as matters of crime and punishment. Recognizing this shortcoming upfront has important implications for scholars and policymakers alike when contemplating the methodologies that should inform sentencing reforms going forward.

June 20, 2020 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, June 19, 2020

Notable new talk of (badly needed) new nominees for the US Sentencing Commission

The US Sentencing Commission has lacked a full slate of Commissioners for the entirety of Trump Administration. With only two (of seven) Commissioners in place since the start of 2019, the USSC has lacked a quorum and thus cannot complete any formal work (including a lot of work that should and needs to be done in response the the FIRST STEP Act).  Part of the problem, as I have covered in this space, was that at least one of the four nominees that Prez Trump put forward back in March 2018 was of great concerns to a great many.

Against this backdrop, I am fascinated to see this new NPR piece headlined "Concerns Mount Over Possible Trump Picks For Influential Crime Panel."  Here are the particulars:

The White House is preparing to fill several vacancies on the influential commission that makes policy used to punish tens of thousands of criminals every year, according to three sources familiar with the process.  But critics worry that the likely Trump nominees could adopt more punitive approaches at a time when a diverse group of protesters is marching for a different approach to policing and justice.

The sources said the White House is consulting aides on Capitol Hill and in the criminal justice community about four Republican candidates for the U.S. Sentencing Commission: three sitting federal judges and a fellow at the conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation.

An earlier Trump nominee, William Otis, is no longer under consideration, two sources said.  Otis' writings about race and crime had drawn criticism from civil rights groups and prisoner advocates when his name first emerged for the position two years ago.

Civil rights advocates who work on justice issues said the Trump candidates still under discussion are worrisome.  "The administration has put forth a slate that is all white, mostly male, and lacking in diverse experiences or backgrounds," said Sakira Cook, director of the justice reform program at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights....

Here is a rundown of likely nominees in the coming months:

Senior U.S. District Judge Henry Hudson

Hudson is a former director of the U.S. Marshals Service nicknamed "Hang Em High Henry" for his work as a local prosecutor.  "I live to put people in jail," he once told The Washington Post during his stint in Arlington County, Va. Defense lawyers said Hudson has developed a well-deserved reputation in recent years for handing out long prison sentences from the federal bench.

Chief Judge K. Michael Moore of the Southern District of Florida

From his perch in Miami, Moore has presided over several high-profile drug cases.  Earlier in his career, Moore, too, led the U.S. Marshals under then-President George H.W. Bush.

Kentucky federal judge Claria Horn Boom

Boom was nominated to the judgeship by President Trump three years ago.  She won Senate confirmation for that post with only one negative vote.  Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is one of her supporters.

John Malcolm, director of the Meese Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at the Heritage Foundation in Washington

The Meese Center is named after Reagan-era Attorney General Edwin Meese.  Malcolm helped put together an early list for candidate Trump in the event of a Supreme Court vacancy.  He's also defended the current attorney general, William Barr, for his handling of the special counsel report on Russian election interference and possible obstruction of justice by the president.  Malcolm, a former federal prosecutor, has reached out to allies across the political aisle to try to overhaul how many people serve prison time.  "In my opinion, under our current system, too many relatively low-level drug offenders are locked up for five, 10, and 20 years when lesser sentences would, in all likelihood, more than satisfy the legitimate ... goals of general deterrence, specific deterrence, and retribution," he told Congress five years ago.

Federal Appeals Court Judge L. Felipe Restrepo

Restrepo, who worked as a public defender before being selected for the federal judiciary by then-President Barack Obama, is under discussions for an open Democratic slot on the commission.  Restrepo, of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, had been advanced for the same Sentencing Commission slot in 2018, but the Senate didn't hold a hearing on him or the other nominees at the time.

I find this story curious and fascinating for a whole lot of reasons.  In addition to seeming to confirm, as I speculated here a few weeks ago, that Bill Otis is no longer on a USSC short-list, this story leads me to wonder whether anyone really thinks any new slate of USSC appointments could get confirmed in the run up to the November election (or in the lame-duck period thereafter).  The addition of a favorite of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell may be explained by this factor.  (Also, my understanding has been that there were three R spots and two D spots open on the Commission right now, so I am not sure this could be the full final slate.)  Very interesting.

Prior related posts:

June 19, 2020 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

PENULTIMATE REMINDER of exciting DEPC and OJPC sentencing project: "Drafting Contest: An Ohio 'Second Look' Statute"

I warned in this initial posting that I would be repeatedly promoting an exciting project from a partnership of the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center (DEPC) at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law and the Ohio Justice & Policy Center (OJPC).  Because the deadline for submissions is approaching (June 30), I figure this may be my second to last reminder.  But it is certainly not too late to get involved; the basic details are explained on this webpage, more background appears in this document, and here are the essentials:

About

A robust national discussion about how best to remedy extreme and unwarranted prison sentences has prompted various new proposed remedies. In hopes of encouraging discussion and debate around the creation of a comprehensive “second-look sentencing provision” in Ohio law, the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center (DEPC) at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law and the Ohio Justice & Policy Center (OJPC), a statewide criminal-justice nonprofit, are sponsoring a legislative-drafting contest for law students and recent law school graduates.

Contest Objective and Deliverable

DEPC and OJPC encourage law students and recent graduates (from class years 2015-2020) to submit (1) proposed language for a new Ohio statutory provision and (2) accompanying commentary to allow courts to take a second look at Ohio prison sentences.  The proposal should address both substance (e.g., when and to whom does it apply) and procedure (e.g., how should such a second look be initiated and decided).  Entrants may, but are not required to, address the public-health issues that have come to the fore with COVID-19 (e.g., the proposal might have a special provision allowing more prisoners to seek resentencing when a public-health emergency has been declared).  Group submissions are acceptable and encouraged.

Contest Timeline and Awards

Submissions are due June 30, 2020.  The winning submission will receive a prize of $2,000, and up to two runner-up prizes of $1,000 will also be awarded.  If a group submission is awarded prize money, it will be divided equally among the groups members.  All winning submissions will be published via DEPC and OJPC’s websites.  The full version of the winning proposal will also be presented to the Ohio Criminal Sentencing Commission at a forthcoming meeting and may be used in DEPC and OJPC’s ongoing efforts to advocate for improvements in Ohio law.

June 19, 2020 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Terrific coverage of clemency in new issue of University of St. Thomas Law Journal

The latest issue of the University of St. Thomas Law Journal has a great collection of articles under the heading "Clemency: A Constitutional Power Moves into the Future."  Here are the titles, authors and links for all the pieces:

Memo to the President: Two Steps to Fix the Clemency Crisis by Mark Osler

Who Is My Brother’s Keeper? by Rudy Martinez

Clemency Must Play a Pivotal Role in Reversing the Damage Caused by the "Tough on Crime Era" by Mark V. Holden

Clemency, Pardons, and Reform: When People Released Return to Prison by Jessica Jackson

The Future of Presidential Clemency Decision-Making by Paul J. Larkin, Jr.

June 19, 2020 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, June 18, 2020

"Is Solitary Confinement a Punishment?"

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

Nulla poena sine lege — no punishment without law — is one of the oldest and most universally accepted principles of English and American law.  Today, thousands of American prisoners are placed in long-term solitary confinement despite the fact that such placement is authorized neither by penal statute nor by judicial sentence.  Is solitary confinement “punishment without law,” or is it a mere exercise of administrative discretion?

In 1890, in a case called In re Medley, the Supreme Court held that solitary confinement is a separate punishment subject to constitutional restraints, but it has ignored this holding in recent decades.  Part I of the Essay that follows describes the Supreme Court’s existing case law governing prison officials’ discretion to impose harsher conditions on inmates. Part II analyzes English and American constitutional history relating to the need to limit discretion over punishment, the danger of executive discretion in the infliction of punishment, and the distillation of a standard relevant to determining whether a given government action is a punishment.  Finally, Part III checks the accuracy of the Supreme Court’s conclusion in Medley that the harshness of solitary confinement makes it a new punishment by examining historical and modern empirical data relating to the effects of solitary confinement, and concludes that the Medley court was correct.

June 18, 2020 in Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

"Restorative Justice From Prosecutors' Perspective"

The title of this post is the title of this new article now available via SSRN and authored by Lara Bazelon and Bruce Green. Here is its abstract:

Restorative justice processes have been promoted as an alternative to criminal adjudication for many years outside the United States and, in recent years, in the United States as well.  In the United States, restorative justice processes are used in some jurisdictions in cases involving juvenile offenders or low-level, nonviolent offenses by adults, but they have rarely been used in cases of adult felony offenders charged with serious violent crimes.  Whether restorative justice processes will be used more broadly depends largely on whether prosecutors become receptive to their use.

A handful of newly elected “progressive prosecutors” have expressed interest in applying restorative justice processes in these and other kinds of felony cases involving adult defendants.  But conventional prosecutors generally remain uninterested in or hostile to restorative justice, even though most accept problem-solving courts and other alternatives to prosecution and incarceration.  This Article explores why mainstream U.S. prosecutors are disposed against restorative justice and suggest how their concerns might best be addressed by restorative justice proponents.

June 17, 2020 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Though only mid-week, another long list of new COVID-influenced federal sentence reductions using § 3582(c)(1)(A)

I hope readers are not yet getting bored of my listing of COVID-influenced grants of federal sentence reductions using § 3582(c)(1)(A).  I have recently made a habit of assembling these lists on the weekends (see recent examples here and here).  But last week I put together this post with more than two dozen grants on a Friday because there were so many new sentence reductions being reported on Westlaw.  And, as this trend continues, I now felt a need to do a mid-week review of recent grants recently appearing on Westlaw.  So:

United States v. Lynn, No. 89-0072-WS, 2020 WL 3229302 (SD Ala. June 15, 2020)

United States v. Liew, No. 11-cr-00573-JSW-1, 2020 WL 3246331 (ND Cal. June 15, 2020)

United States v. Miller, No. 3:15-cr-132-2 (VLB), 2020 WL 3187348 (D Conn. June 15, 2020)

United States v. Head, No. 2:08-cr-00093-KJM-2, 2020 WL 3180149 (ED Cal. June 15, 2020)

United States v. Rivera, No. 3:13-cr-71-1 (VLB), 2020 WL 3186539 (D Conn. June 15, 2020)

 

United States v. Acevedo, No. 18 CR. 365 (LGS), 2020 WL 3182770 (SDNY June 15, 2020)

United States v. Lavy, No. 17-20033-JAR, 2020 WL 3218110 (D Kan. June 15, 2020)

United States v. Patel, No. 3:17cr164 (JBA), 2020 WL 3187980 (D Conn. June 15, 2020)

Segars v. United States, No. 16-20222-3, 2020 WL 3172734 (ED Mich. June 15, 2020)

United States v. Madrigal, No. 5:18-cr-00356-EJD-3, 2020 WL 3188268 (ND Cal. June 15, 2020)

 

United States v. Knox, No. 2:16-cr-00116-MHH-JHE-3, 2020 WL 3207799 (ND Ala. June 15, 2020)

United States v. Reed, No. 12-CR-161 YGR, 2020 WL 3128904 (ND Cal. June 13, 2020)

United States v. Bikundi, No. 14-30-2 (BAH), 2020 WL 3129018 (D D.C. June 12, 2020)

United States v. White, No. 2:17-cr-00198-4, 2020 WL 3244122 (SD W. Va. June 12, 2020)

United States v. Heitman, No. 3:95-CR-0160(4)-G, 2020 WL 3163188 (ND Tex. June 12, 2020)

 

United States v. Fields, No. 2:05-CR-20014-02, 2020 WL 3129056 (WD La. June 11, 2020)

United States v. Halliburton, No. 17-cr-20028, 2020 WL 3100089 (CD Ill.  June 11, 2020)

United States v. DeBartolo, No. 14-016 WES, 2020 WL 3105032 (D R.I. June 11, 2020)

As I have mentioned repeatedly, some rulings do not appear on Westlaw right away and others do not show up at all.  As of this writing (mid-afternoon of June 17), this BOP page on the FIRST STEP Act is reporting 650 total grants of "Compassionate Releases / Reduction in Sentences."  The same BOP page reported less than 150 such grants before the COVID era began, so I think we can now confident state that there have been over 500 federal sentence reductions grants in the just the last three months.  Some of those grants are detailed in some of the posts below, and I am hopeful the US Sentencing Commission or someone else "official" might have a truly comprehensive report on these matters before too long.

Prior recent related posts since lockdowns:

June 17, 2020 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Progressive groups demand that Joe Biden "put forward a transformative and comprehensive policing and criminal justice platform"

As reported in this Hill piece, dozens of "liberal groups have signed on to a letter warning presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden that he could lose the November election to President Trump if he doesn’t adopt more progressive policing policies." Here is more:

The letter, which is signed by leading national progressive groups, including the Working Families Party, Our Revolution and Black Voters Matter, urges Biden to adopt a 21-page policy proposal released by The Movement for Black Lives to promote reducing incarceration and scaling back police forces across the country.

The groups are also asking Biden to drop his recent proposal to add $300 million in funding for the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program, which would hire and train additional police officers to patrol within the communities where they live.

“We make these demands first and foremost because we seek justice for George Floyd and Breonna Taylor — as well as all the other Black lives lost — and policies like these are what justice looks like in practice,” the letter says. “But we also make them with an eye toward the November election. … You cannot win the election without the enthusiastic support of Black voters, and how you act in this moment of crisis will play a big role in determining how Black voters — and all voters concerned with racial justice — respond to your candidacy. A ‘return to normalcy’ will not suffice,” they wrote.

The progressive groups were scathing in their assessment of Biden’s record on criminal justice issues. “In the course of your political career, you have designed and endorsed policies that have significantly exacerbated these problems,” the letter states. “As a Senator, you not only supported, but in many cases authored and championed laws that expanded mass incarceration, increased police powers, and exacerbated racial disparities in surveillance and sentencing. These laws … are a part of the history that has led us to this moment, and their ongoing fallout has contributed to the outpourings of grief and anger we are seeing today,” they wrote.

The full letter, which is datad June 11, is available at this link

A few related posts:

June 17, 2020 in Campaign 2020 and sentencing issues, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

SCOTUS stays Texas execution based seemingly on clergy claim

As reported in this AP article, the "Supreme Court granted a reprieve Tuesday to a Texas inmate scheduled to die for fatally stabbing an 85-year-old woman more than two decades ago, continuing a more than four-month delay of executions in the nation’s busiest death penalty state during the coronavirus pandemic." Here are the details:

The justices blocked Ruben Gutierrez’s execution about an hour before he could have been executed. Gutierrez’s attorneys had argued his religious rights are being violated because the prison system won’t allow a chaplain to accompany him in the death chamber.

The Texas prison system last year banned clergy from the death chamber following a Supreme Court ruling that halted the execution of another inmate, Patrick Murphy, who had requested a Buddhist adviser be allowed in the chamber. In response to the ruling in Murphy’s case, the Texas prison system changed its policy, only allowing prison security staff into the execution chamber.

“As a devout Catholic, Mr. Gutierrez’s faith requires the assistance of clergy to help him pass from life into afterlife. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice changed its policy for its own convenience, but spiritual comfort at the time of death is not a convenience; it’s a protected legal right,” Shawn Nolan, one of Mr. Gutierrez’s attorneys, said after the stay was granted.

The Supreme Court said it granted the stay pending a ruling by the high court on Gutierrez’s petition on the issue of whether to allow a spiritual adviser to accompany him in the death chamber. A decision on the petition was expected at a later date....

If Gutierrez’s execution had been carried out, he would have been the first inmate in Texas to receive a lethal injection since Feb. 6 and the second U.S. inmate to be put to death since states began to reopen after the pandemic shut down much of the U.S. After the country began to reopen, Missouri resumed executions on May 19.

Six executions scheduled in Texas for earlier this year were postponed by an appeals court or judges because of the outbreak. A seventh was delayed over claims of intellectual disability. Gutierrez’s attorneys had also sought a coronavirus-related delay but were turned down Friday by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals....

The Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops filed a brief with the high court in support of Gutierrez. “To deny a prisoner facing imminent execution access to spiritual and religious guidance and accompaniment is cruel and inhuman,” said Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownsville....

Gutierrez would have been the third inmate put to death this year in Texas and the seventh in the U.S.

The Supreme Court's stay order is available at this link, and here is its text in full:

The application for stay of execution of sentence of death presented to Justice Alito and by him referred to the Court is granted pending the disposition of the petition for a writ of certiorari. Should the petition for a writ of certiorari be denied, this stay shall terminate automatically.  In the event the petition for a writ of certiorari is granted, the stay shall terminate upon the sending down of the judgment of this Court.  The District Court should promptly determine, based on whatever evidence the parties provide, whether serious security problems would result if a prisoner facing execution is permitted to choose the spiritual adviser the prisoner wishes to have in his immediate presence during the execution.

June 16, 2020 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Religion, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, June 15, 2020

By a vote of 6-3, SCOTUS finds deficient performance in Texas capital case and remands on prejudice issue

A dozen years ago, I wrote a full law review article to express my grumpiness about the felt reality that the Supreme Court often seems to care a whole lot more about cases involving persons sentenced to death than about just about any other criminal defendants.  That article is on my mind this morning upon seeing the 19-page per curiam decision that Supreme Court released in Andrus v. Texas, No. 18–9674 (S. Ct. June 15, 2020) (available here). 

The defendant in this case, Terence Andrus, killed two people in an attempted carjacking and was sentenced to death after his defense counsel plainly did a very lousy job developing mitigation on his behalf.  Here is the heart of the per curiam opinion's accounting of its ruling and rationale:

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals rejected the trial court’s recommendation to grant habeas relief. In an unpublished per curiam order, the Court of Criminal Appeals concluded without elaboration that Andrus had “fail[ed] to meet his burden under Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984), to show by a preponderance of the evidence that his counsel’s representation fell below an objective standard of reasonableness and that there was a reasonable probability that the result of the proceedings would have been different but for counsel’s deficient performance.” App. to Pet. for Cert. 7–8.  A concurring opinion reasoned that, even if counsel had provided deficient performance under Strickland, Andrus could not show that counsel’s deficient performance prejudiced him. Andrus petitioned for a writ of certiorari.  We grant the  petition, vacate the judgment of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, and remand for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion. The evidence makes clear that Andrus’ counsel provided constitutionally deficient performance under Strickland. But we remand so that the Court of Criminal Appeals may address the prejudice prong of Strickland in the first instance....

Here, the habeas record reveals that Andrus’ counsel fell short of his obligation in multiple ways: First, counsel performed almost no mitigation investigation, overlooking vast
tranches of mitigating evidence. Second, due to counsel’s failure to investigate compelling mitigating evidence, what little evidence counsel did present backfired by bolstering
the State’s aggravation case. Third, counsel failed adequately to investigate the State’s aggravating evidence, thereby forgoing critical opportunities to rebut the case in
aggravation. Taken together, those deficiencies effected an unconstitutional abnegation of prevailing professional norms.

I am always pleased to see the Supreme Court call out, and find constitutionally inadequate, any sort of lousy defense work (though I sure would like to see this done a lot more in NON-capital cases).  And I suppose I should also be pleased that Andrus will be a "good" SCOTUS precedent for inadequate defense Strickland claims in the future.  But Justice Alito's seven-page dissent (which was jointed by Justices Thomas and Gorsuch) has me convinced that this was ultimately a "bad" case because the defendant seems sure to lose on the prejudice issue upon remand to the Texas state courts. Here is how Justice Alito's dissent concludes:

In sum, the CCA assessed the issue of prejudice in light of more than the potentially mitigating evidence that the Court marshals for Andrus.  The CCA had before it strong aggravating evidence that Andrus wantonly killed two innocent victims and shot a third; that he committed other violent crimes; that he has a violent, dangerous, and unstable character; and that he is a threat to those he encounters.

The CCA has already held once that Andrus failed to establish prejudice.  I see no good reason why it should be required to revisit the issue.

June 15, 2020 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Over dissents by Justice Thomas, SCOTUS denies cert on qualified immunity and Second Amendment cases

I flagged in this post last week that the Supreme Court had been sitting on a number of qualified immunity and Second Amendment cases, which had prompted considerable speculation that the Justices might soon take up one or both of these high-profiles issues in one way or another.  But this morning's SCOTUS order list would appear to have denials of cert on all the cases in these arenas, and we get two dissents from Justice Thomas that suggest that the cases were being held primarily to give him time to pen his complaints about the denial of certiorari.

Justice Thomas' dissent in the qualified immunity arena comes in Baxter v. Bracey, and his six-page opinion gets started this way:

Petitioner Alexander Baxter was caught in the act of burgling a house.  It is undisputed that police officers released a dog to apprehend him and that the dog bit him.  Petitioner alleged that he had already surrendered when the dog was released.  He sought damages from two officers under Rev. Stat. §1979, 42 U.S.C. §1983, alleging excessive force and failure to intervene, in violation of the Fourth Amendment.  Applying our qualified immunity precedents, the Sixth Circuit held that even if the officers’ conduct violated the Constitution, they were not liable because their conduct did not violate a clearly established right.  Petitioner asked this Court to reconsider the precedents that the Sixth Circuit applied.

I have previously expressed my doubts about our qualified immunity jurisprudence. See Ziglar v. Abbasi, 582 U.S. ___, ___–___ (2017) (THOMAS, J., concurring in part and concurring in judgment) (slip op., at 2–6). Because our §1983 qualified immunity doctrine appears to stray from the statutory text, I would grant this petition.

Justice Thomas' dissent in the Second Amendment arena comes in Rogers v. Grewal, and here he gets Justice Kavanaugh joining on to part of this 19-page opinion. That opinion gets started this way:

The text of the Second Amendment protects “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms.”  We have stated that this “fundamental righ[t]” is “necessary to our system of ordered liberty.”  McDonald v. Chicago, 561 U. S. 742, 778 (2010).  Yet, in several jurisdictions throughout the country, law-abiding citizens have been barred from exercising the fundamental right to bear arms because they cannot show that they have a “justifiable need” or “good reason” for doing so.  One would think that such an onerous burden on a fundamental right would warrant this Court’s review.  This Court would almost certainly review the constitutionality of a law requiring citizens to establish a justifiable need before exercising their free speech rights.  And it seems highly unlikely that the Court would allow a State to enforce a law requiring a woman to provide a justifiable need before seeking an abortion.  But today, faced with a petition challenging just such a restriction on citizens’ Second Amendment rights, the Court simply looks the other way.

Petitioner Rogers is a law-abiding citizen who runs a business that requires him to service automated teller machines in high-crime areas.  He applied for a permit to carry his handgun for self-defense.  But, to obtain a carry permit in New Jersey, an applicant must, among other things, demonstrate “that he has a justifiable need to carry a handgun.” N.J. Stat. Ann. §2C:58–4(c) (West 2019 Cum. Supp.).  For a “private citizen” to satisfy this “justifiable need” requirement, he must “specify in detail the urgent necessity for self-protection, as evidenced by specific threats or previous attacks which demonstrate a special danger to the applicant’s life that cannot be avoided by means other than by issuance of a permit to carry a handgun.” Ibid.; see also N. J. Admin. Code §13:54–2.4 (2020).  “Generalized fears for personal safety are inadequate.” In re Preis, 118 N.J. 564, 571, 573 A.2d 148, 152 (1990).  Petitioner could not satisfy this standard and, as a result, his permit application was denied.  With no ability to obtain a permit, petitioner is forced to operate his business in high-risk neighborhoods with no firearm for self-defense.

Petitioner asks this Court to grant certiorari to determine whether New Jersey’s near-total prohibition on carrying a firearm in public violates his Second Amendment right to bear arms, made applicable to the States through the Fourteenth Amendment.  See McDonald, 561 U. S., at 750; see id., at 806 (THOMAS, J., concurring in part and concurring in judgment).  This case gives us the opportunity to provide guidance on the proper approach for evaluating Second Amendment claims; acknowledge that the Second Amendment protects the right to carry in public; and resolve a square Circuit split on the constitutionality of justifiable-need restrictions on that right.  I would grant the petition for a writ of certiorari.

June 15, 2020 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Second Amendment issues, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Do others sense that SCOTUS has become particularly (and problematically?) quiet on sentencing matters?

As the Supreme Court finishes up a unique Term in the coming weeks, there is no shortage of "big" cases still to be resolved on topics ranging from abortion to DACA to LGBT discrimination to Prez Trump's tax returns.  But, disappointingly, we are not awaiting any big cases (or even little cases) dealing with any interesting sentencing issues or even significant criminal justice issues. This reality is partially because two cases that might have been consequential, Mathena v. Malvo on Miller's application and Walker v. US on ACCA application, both ended up getting dismissed (and replacement cases will not be heard until next Term).  But, as the title of this post suggests, I also think this reality is partially because the current Supreme Court has largely decided become particularly quiet on sentencing matters.

My fixation and frustration with this Term not having good "cases to watch" is compounded by my realization that, in recent decades, we have often gotten a number of really big and/or consequential sentencing rulings every five years or so.  Consider, for example: Apprendi v. New Jersey (2000)US v. Booker (2005); Roper v. Simmons (2005)Graham v. Florida (2010); Padilla v. Kentucky (2010)Glossip v. Gross (2015); Johnson v. US (2015).  Of course, there have been any number of big and/or consequential rulings in other years, too, with decisions like Ring v. Arizona (2002), Blakely v. Washington (2004), Gall v. US (2007), Baze v. Rees (2008), Kennedy v. Louisiana (2008), and Miller v. Alabama (2012) among those I think about a lot.  But other than maybe Hurst v. Florida (2016), Montgomery v. Louisiana (2016) and Timbs v. Indiana (2019), I have a hard time even recalling any big or consequential sentencing rulings from SCOTUS in the last few years.  US v. Haymond (2019) had the potential to be a big case, but the confusing 4-1-4 decision largely muted its impact and import.

My fixation and frustration with the absence of good sentencing "cases to watch" grows when I recall the significant number of significant sentencing issues that the Court has refused to take up in the last few years.  Cert petitions concerning haphazard application of the death penalty and extreme term-of-years sentences for juveniles and the functioning of Booker reasonableness review and the reach and application of sex offender restrictions and extreme mandatory sentences given to first offenders and the use of acquitted conduct at sentencing have all been rejected, typically without so much as a peep from any of the Justices to suggest any real interest in taking up these issues in the near future.

One might attribute recent sentencing quietness to recent SCOTUS transitions since Justice Scalia's death, combined possibly with certain Justices being eager to vote to deny cert on some issues in order to try to prevent certain issues from being decided "the wrong way" on full Court review.  But gosh knows the recent SCOTUS transitions have not prevented the Court from taking up all sorts of other important matters, and I think there is often great value in the Supreme Court bringing its spotlight to certain sentencing issues no matter how it might rule on the merits.  (The Malvo case, for example, seemed to help Virginia move forward with juvenile sentencing legislation before the Court even had a chance to rule.)

Of course, as a law professor and blogger, I have a strong professional interest in lots of SCOTUS rulings in my field, and so I may find SCOTUS quietness more problematic that others.  So I would be eager to hear if readers share my sense of SCOTUS quiesce and whether it bothers them as much as it bothers me.

June 14, 2020 in Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

"Should death-penalty juries learn about death penalty costs?"

The title of this post is the headline of this new AP article.  Here are excerpts: 

Debate over Utah’s death penalty is intensifying in 2nd District Court as attorneys prepare for the trial of an Ogden couple accused of starving and fatally abusing their 3-year-old daughter.  Prosecutors said earlier they will seek the death penalty against Miller Costello, 28, and Brenda Emile, 25, if they are convicted of aggravated murder in the July 6, 2017, death of Angelina Costello.

Over the past year, defense attorneys have filed several motions challenging the death penalty, including those asking that jurors be questioned about blood atonement and the comparative costs of execution versus life in prison.  They also have asked Judge Michael DiReda to strike the death penalty as “cruel and unusual punishment by practice and the consensus of the Utah citizenry” and because they contend the sentencing portion of the law unfairly shifts the burden of proof to defendants....

In a May 14 filing, county attorneys ... urged DiReda to reject the defense’s request to allow defense lawyers to quiz prospective jurors about death penalty costs.  “Questions of deterrence or cost in carrying out a capital sentence are for the Legislature, not for the jury considering a particular case,” the prosecution said.

Admitting evidence on death penalty costs “is akin to admitting evidence of the process of the death penalty, which has already been rejected by the Utah Supreme Court,” prosecutors said.  They added, “inviting the jury to determine whether the cost of the death penalty is worth it for a person that may be convicted of starving and physically abusing a three-year-old girl to death is very dangerous ground for the defendant.”

The defense had argued in its Jan. 21 filing that there’s ample evidence that imposing the death penalty far exceeds the cost of imposing a life sentence.  The Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice published a study in 2018 determining that the average cost of an execution was at least $237,900 more than a decision of life in prison.  A more limited 2012 Utah study said the difference was as much as $1.6 million per case.

The defense noted that in the 2009-15 case of Weber County double-murder convict Jeremy Valdes, two dozen or more potential jurors said in their questionnaire that they would choose the death penalty over life in prison because they thought it would cost less to execute the defendant.

“Of course, that is not true,” the defense motion said.  “It is incumbent upon the court to ensure that the citizens who comprise the jury pool are well-informed. And those who would otherwise make good jurors should be educated as to the cost imposing the death penalty so they can be properly rehabilitated.”

I tend to be very supportive of sentencing decision-makers, whether judge or jurors, having as much relevant and accurate information as possible when making sentencing decisions. Especially if there is reason to fear that misinformation about costs may shape the work of capital sentencing jurors, I would strongly urge allowing then to have accurate information on this topic.

June 14, 2020 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Saturday, June 13, 2020

"Pandemics, Risks and Remedies"

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

There are lessons in every catastrophe, and the impact of Coronavirus-19 (“COVID”) on America’s prisoner population has been especially catastrophic.  Jails and prisons are sites of unique peril because each facility bears the systemic risk of a single infection.  That COVID tore through these facilities was predictable — the health infrastructure is deplorable, social distancing is impossible, and the community has heightened medical vulnerabilities.  These places are pandemic tinder boxes, and COVID was more than enough to kindle the blaze.

There is a temptation to view America’s inability to protect her prisoners as a simple failure of political and bureaucratic will, but the shortage of such resolve was just one part of a more complex institutional disaster.  In this Paper, I argue that COVID exposed a remedial deficit between pandemic risks that were systemic and remedies that were not.  In so doing, I explore the surprisingly poor performance of the mechanisms that one might have expected to facilitate sufficient prisoner discharge: federal civil rights litigation, administrative release, and clemency power.

The systemic health risk at jails and prisons requires remedies that are fast and scalable, but existing discharge mechanisms are too slow, require too much multilateral consensus, and concentrate discharge powers in the wrong institutions.  To address future waves of pandemic infection, American jurisdictions should concentrate discharge powers in decision-makers who are closer to the most acutely affected localities.  A concentration-and-localization principle is also a model for a broader back-end decarceration strategy.

June 13, 2020 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, June 12, 2020

You be the political consultant: Should Joe Biden release a SCOTUS short-list?

I continue to think that then-candidate Donald Trump's decision in May 2016 to release a list of people he would consider as potential Supreme Court appointments was a quite clever and consequential campaign strategy.  Among other political benefits, the list honored and vindicated the decision by Senate Republicans to refuse of consider then-Prez Obama's nomination to the Court and reminded voters that the first critical act of whomever was to be elected in 2016 was to reshape the composition of SCOTUS. 

As Joe Biden looks to take over the role of nominating Supreme Court Justices, I know I would like to see him produce some kind of SCOTUS short-list.  As I have said before, as a court-watcher and a voter, it can be quite informative and important to get a view of what kinds of individuals a potential President would expect to appoint to our highest court.  But this new Hill article, headlined "Democrats warn Biden against releasing SCOTUS list," details that Biden's political allies are not keen on him taking a page from the candidate Trump playbook:

Senate Democrats are warning former Vice President Joe Biden against releasing a list of potential Supreme Court picks. Then-candidate Trump, in 2016, released a list of names he said he would pick from to fill a Supreme Court vacancy, and Biden is facing calls from activists on both the right and left to do the same.  But several Democratic senators are warning Biden, who previously chaired the Judiciary Committee, against doing so.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat and a member of the panel, told The Hill that Biden should not emulate Trump, who broke political norms with his list. “I sincerely hope he does not do that,” Durbin said.  “We ought to go back to the regular order of things.  If and when vacancies occur he can look for the very best person at that moment.”...

Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) told reporters during a conference call that he also did not think Biden should release a list. “I have a lot of faith in Joe Biden. ...I’ve talked to him a little bit about this and I think he understands the gravity of the issue,” Schumer said.

The push for Biden to provide more details, and specific examples, of who he might pick for the Supreme Court comes as the federal judiciary is viewed as a key issue for the Democratic base in the wake of Republicans changing the rules for confirming Supreme Court nominees in 2017 and a controversial, vitriolic confirmation battle over Justice Brett Kavanaugh in 2018....

Biden has signaled he’s concerned about the courts’ direction, and that the GOP could seek to keep filling seats until the end of the year even if Trump loses reelection. During a NAACP event, Biden said he was “very concerned” that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was going to pressure older judges to retire....

His campaign didn’t respond to a request for comment on Thursday about calls for him to release a list of who he would pick from if he wins the White House and there is a Supreme Court vacancy.  Two Supreme Court Justices, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer, are in their 80s.  Two others, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, are in their 70s.

Biden has committed to naming a black woman to the Supreme Court, which would mark a historic first. “I commit it that if I’m elected president and have an opportunity to appoint someone to the courts, I’ll appoint the first black woman to the courts. It’s required that they have representation, now it’s long overdue,” Biden said earlier this year during a debate against Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).  Biden said during an interview with ABC’s “The View” that there were at least four women who he viewed as qualified to serve on the Supreme Court, but did not name names.

But some progressives say specifying a list of who he would pick from could be an olive branch to voters who might be wary of him as the party’s standard bearer.  “We think he should take the next step and say who those people are, so we have a more concrete sense of who he would nominate, sort of what the values are that he hopes those people might bring to the Supreme Court,” Christopher Kang, the chief counsel for Demand Justice, told The Hill in a recent interview.

Kang added it would be “reassuring” to get more details on who Biden is considering. “I think it could be an opportunity for him to really help consolidate the Democratic base by showing that the people he’s thinking about are people who have not only led exemplary legal careers but are inspiring for the work that they’ve done,” he said.

It’s not just progressives who want to see who Biden could be looking at for the Supreme Court.  Carrie Severino, the president of the conservative Judicial Crisis Network, wrote in an op-ed that Biden would rather “prefer to play hide the ball” than say who he will nominate.  “Independents and the right would be just as interested to know who Biden has in mind. If he becomes President Biden, they fear the Supreme Court may be radicalized, perhaps to deliver an America of the kind that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the far left dream of,” she added, referring to the progressive New York House member.

Notably, neither Neil Gorsuch nor Brett Kavanaugh appeared on Donald Trump's initial SCOTUS short-list; these names were added later and that history highlights that Biden would not really be locking himself in to particular potential nominees with an initial list.  Most fundamentally, a short list would serve as a kind of statement of vision and values for the Supreme Court's future, and I think all voters benefit from getting a view of the types of people Biden would be inclined to seriously consider for the Court.  (And, of course, I am interested in seeing a list full of persons with backgrounds and legal careers suggesting they would be likely to help produce more and better criminal justice rulings from the Supreme Court.)

Because I am always interested in more transparency (and more blog material), I know I still would urge Biden to release a SCOTUS short-list ASAP.  But I would be eager to hear from any would-be (or actual) political consultants: do you think it would be politically wise for Joe Biden to release a SCOTUS short-list during his campaign?

Prior related post:

June 12, 2020 in Campaign 2020 and sentencing issues, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

So many more federal sentence reductions using § 3582(c)(1)(A) to report before week concludes

Readers may recall this post from mid May listing more than two dozen grants of sentence reductions under § 3582(c)(1)(A) in one week showing up on Westlaw, and this latest posting reporting on grants from the first week on June showing comparable activity with sentence reduction grants.  As the long listing below highlights, the sentence reduction hits just keep on coming; I felt compelled to compile these grants before the week is out because there are already so many (and included below are few stragglers from last week that only recently appeared on Westlaw):

United States v. Padilla, No. 19-cr-03331-GPC, 2020 WL 3100046 (SD Cal. June 11, 2020)

United States v. Gamboa, No. 09-1741 JAP, 2020 WL 3091427 (D N.M.  June 11, 2020)

United States v. Williams, No. 06-cr-0143 (WMW/FLN), 2020 WL 3097615 (D Minn. June 11, 2020)

United States v. Nazzal, No. 10-20392, 2020 WL 3077948 (ED Mich. June 10, 2020)

United States v. Williams, No.19-cr-134-PWG, 2020 WL 3073320 (D Md. June 10, 2020)

 

United States v. Blye, No.  CR15-348RSL, 2020 WL 3064225 (WD Wash. June 9, 2020) 

United States v. Goins, No. 11-cr-20376, 2020 WL 3064452 (ED Mich. June 9, 2020)

United States v. Mason, No. 3:17-CR-104-CWR-LRA-3, 2020 WL 3065303 (SD Miss. June 9, 2020)

United States v. Malone, No. 12-146-03, 2020 WL 3065905 (WD La. June 9, 2020)

United States v. Dana, No. 3:17-cr-148-SI, 2020 WL 3056791(D Ore. June 9, 2020)

 

United States v. Lott, No. 95cr72, 2020 WL 3058093 (SD Cal. June 8, 2020) (stacked 924(c) case)

United States v. Parramore, No. CR18-156-RSM, 2020 WL 3051300 (WD Wash. June 8, 2020) 

United States v. Krashna, No. 17-cr-00022-JSW-1, 2020 WL 3053194 (ND Cal. June 8, 2020)

United States v. Rodriguez, No. 17-CR-157 (VEC), 2020 WL 3051443 (SDNY June 8, 2020) 

United States v. Conner, No. CR07-4095-LTS, 2020 WL 3053368 (SD Iowa June 8, 2020) 

 

United States v. Flores, No. 19-CR-6163L, 2020 WL 3041640 (WDNY June 8, 2020) 

United States v. Folwer, No. 17-cr-00412-VC-1, 2020 WL 3034714 (ND Cal. June 6, 2020)

United States v. Holmes, No. 14-00167 (DWF/LIB), 2020 WL 3036598 (D Minn. June 5, 2020)

United States v. Smith, No. 15-cr-30039, 2020 WL 3027197 (CD Ill. June 5, 2020)

United States v. Fettis, No. 17-cr-30003, 2020 WL 3027198 (CD Ill. June 5, 2020)

 

United States v. McCall, No. 2:18cr95-MHT, 2020 WL 2992197 (MD Ala. June 4, 2020)

United States v. Riley, No. ELH-16-0402, 2020 WL 3034843 (D Md. June 4, 2020)

United States v. Burke, No. 4:17-CR-3089, 2020 WL 3000330 (D Neb.. June 4, 2020)

United States v. Green, No. TDC-10-0761, 2020 WL 2992855 (D Md. June 4, 2020)

Abdallah v. United States, No. 4:15-cr-18(3), 2020 WL 3039122 (ED Va. June 4, 2020)

As I have mentioned before, late week rulings often do not appear on Westlaw right away, so there are likely to be additional grants from this week that will appear on Westlaw later.  And, of course, these Westlaw listings do not represent all sentence reductions being granted by federal courts these days; I have noted data in a Marshall Project article leading me to think Westlaw picks up at most half of all federal sentence reduction grants.  Indeed, I recently heard from a good authority that there were an average of more than 50 of these grants per week for the month of May.  So, even with this long list of 25 new sentence reduction grants from Westlaw, this list still likely represents only about 50% of the true total.

Prior recent related posts since lockdowns:

June 12, 2020 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, June 11, 2020

"A legislative guide for winnable, high-impact criminal justice reforms"

The title of this post is the title of this new detailed briefing from the Prison Policy Initiative. Here is the start and table of contents (with links):

Given the public’s increasing demands for real change to the criminal justice system, we’ve updated and expanded our annual guide for state legislators to reforms that we think are ripe for victory.  We’ve curated this list to offer policymakers and advocates straightforward solutions that would have the greatest impacts without further investments in the carceral system.  We have focused especially on those reforms that would reduce the number of people needlessly confined in prisons and jails — a systemic problem made even more urgent by the COVID-19 pandemic.

This briefing is not intended to be a comprehensive platform, but rather to address a surprising problem faced by legislators: Each state’s criminal justice system varies so much that it can be difficult to apply lessons from other states to the same problem in one’s own.  The laws and procedures are all different, each state collects different data, and often the same words are used to mean very different things in different states, so it’s important to figure out which problems are a priority in your state and which lessons from elsewhere are most useful.  For that reason, each item here includes links to more state-level information, the text of model legislation, and/or detailed guidance on crafting a remedy.

Readers should also note that we made a conscious choice to not include critical reforms that are unique to just a few states, nor important reforms for which we don’t yet have enough useful resources that would make sense in most states.  But this guide grows and evolves each year, so we welcome ideas and resources from other state legislators and advocates.

Table of Contents

End unnecessary jail detention for people awaiting trial and for low-level offenses (2 recommendations)

Shorten excessive prison sentences and improve release processes (2 recommendations)

Sentence fewer people to incarceration and make sentences shorter (3 recommendations)

Change the financial incentives that fuel punitive justice system responses (2 recommendations)

Stop probation and parole systems from fueling incarceration (4 recommendations)

Keep criminal justice, juvenile justice, and immigration processes separate (2 recommendations)

Give all communities equal voice in how our justice system works (2 recommendations)

June 11, 2020 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Recommended reading, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)