Saturday, September 19, 2020

Noting encouraging new federal compassionate release realities

I am pleased to see this CBS News new article headlined "Compassionate release, once seldom used, offers some federal inmates hope."  Here are excerpts:

[C]ompassionate release [was] a once seldom used remedy that allows inmates to receive a reduction in their sentence. The process, which is only used in extraordinary circumstances, has seen an uptick during the coronavirus pandemic....

Petitions for compassionate release were rarely approved prior to the passing of the First Step Act in December 2018, which created a procedural change, making it easier for offenders and their families to bring their request to the court.

There were 145 offenders released in 2019 — about five times more than the year before, when 24 people were granted release, according to a report by the U.S. Sentencing Commission.  On average, the sentences were reduced by 84 months last year, compared to 68 months the year before.  Two-thirds of those who successfully obtained release did so by filing requests through the court, rather than going through the Bureau of Prisons, the report found.

The bureau, in a statement, said it has no direct authority to reduce an inmate's sentence, but rather, a director determines if an inmate is eligible and submits a request to the prosecuting U.S. Attorney's Office to file a motion on behalf of the director.  "Inmates who are found to be ineligible under agency criteria, or who are determined to be inappropriate for agency approval of a reduction in (a) sentence may file a motion themselves directly to the sentencing court per the First Step Act," the statement said.

So far, nearly 1,600 cases have been approved, the bureau said, meaning that in the year of the pandemic, the numbers of those being released have increased tenfold since the year before.

The virus has killed 120 federal inmates, the bureau said.  Saferia Johnson, a 36-year-old with pre-existing health conditions, died from the virus in August after her petitions for release were reportedly denied by a prison warden in Sumterville, Florida.  Johnson was serving a 46-month sentence at the Coleman Federal Correctional Complex for conspiracy to steal public money and for aggravated identity theft.  The bureau declined to comment on her case.

Compassionate release differs from home confinement, a program that Attorney General William Barr directed the Bureau of Prisons to enforce in March, just as the pandemic began to root itself inside the federal prison system.  Home confinement allows current inmates to serve out the remainder of their sentence from the comfort of their home while still remaining under correctional supervision.  The Justice Department prioritized the elderly, those at high-risk, and non-violent offenders for home confinement.  As time went on, the qualifying factors set by the bureau included those who had already served at least half of their sentence.

Since Barr issued the directive, over 7,600 inmates have been placed into home confinement.  Notable recipients include President Trump's former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, and his former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen.  However, in light of the pandemic, judges have been approving more petitions for compassionate release, and organizations like FAMM are helping spearhead the effort.

FAMM, in conjunction with other civil rights groups, created the "Compassionate Release Clearinghouse" in 2019, and has advocated for inmates who qualify for the sentence reduction under the First Step Act.  "We didn't think it was smart to keep sick and elderly people in prison before COVID-19 hit — and it seemed downright immoral to trap them there once it did," said Kevin Ring, the organization's president.

"We don't usually do direct services, but this was a humanitarian emergency.  We are grateful to the hundreds of federal defenders and volunteer attorneys — both in and outside of the Clearinghouse — who helped families get their loved ones out of harm's way."

A few prior recent posts:

September 19, 2020 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

In (sentencing) memoriam: noting a few major sentencing majority opinions by Justice Ginsburg

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was nominated to be a Justice when I was still in law school, so it has been a very long time since I have thought about a Supreme Court without her voice and views being integral to the Court's work.  And, as I noted in this post last night, she was literally the critical swing vote in US v. Booker to give us the advisory guideline system that has defined the federal sentencing for over fifteen years.

Though Justice Ginsburg did not write an opinion in Booker, she wrote plenty of notable and consequential sentencing opinions for the full Court during her lengthy tenure.  Via this post, I figured I would take a few moments to note and link some sentencing highlights in the remarkable corpus of opinions authored by Justice Ginsburg during her many years on the Court:

Ring v. Arizona, 536 U.S. 584 (2002)

Cunningham v. California, 549 U.S. 270 (2007)

Kimbrough v. United States, 552 U.S. 85 (2007)

Oregon v. Ice, 555 U.S. 160 (2009)

Timbs v. Indiana, 586 U.S. ___ (2019)

By keeping this list focused opinions for the Court, I have left off many of Justice Ginsburg's notable separate opinions and on lots of other criminal law matters.  I suspect readers may recall fondly (or perhaps not so fondly) of other opinions of Justice Ginsburg not listed above, and I welcome thoughts in the comments about Justice Ginsburg's role in shaping modern criminal justice jurisprudence.

September 19, 2020 in Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, September 18, 2020

Saddened by the passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who gave us advisory federal sentencing guidelines

459px-Ruth_Bader_Ginsburg _SCOTUS_photo_portraitI was sad to see this news this evening:

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a diminutive yet towering women’s rights champion who became the court’s second female justice, died Friday at her home in Washington.  She was 87.  Ginsburg died of complications from metastatic pancreatic cancer, the court said....

Chief Justice John Roberts mourned Ginsburg’s passing.  “Our Nation has lost a jurist of historic stature. We at the Supreme Court have lost a cherished colleague.  Today we mourn, but with confidence that future generations will remember Ruth Bader Ginsburg as we knew her — a tireless and resolute champion of justice,” Roberts said in a statement....

Her appointment by President Bill Clinton in 1993 was the first by a Democrat in 26 years.  She initially found a comfortable ideological home somewhere left of center on a conservative court dominated by Republican appointees. Her liberal voice grew stronger the longer she served....

On the court, where she was known as a facile writer, her most significant majority opinions were the 1996 ruling that ordered the Virginia Military Institute to accept women or give up its state funding, and the 2015 decision that upheld independent commissions some states use to draw congressional districts.

Besides civil rights, Ginsburg took an interest in capital punishment, voting repeatedly to limit its use.  During her tenure, the court declared it unconstitutional for states to execute the intellectually disabled and killers younger than 18. In addition, she questioned the quality of lawyers for poor accused murderers....

Ginsburg authored powerful dissents of her own in cases involving abortion, voting rights and pay discrimination against women.  She said some were aimed at swaying the opinions of her fellow judges while others were “an appeal to the intelligence of another day” in the hopes that they would provide guidance to future courts.  “Hope springs eternal,” she said in 2007, “and when I am writing a dissent, I’m always hoping for that fifth or sixth vote — even though I’m disappointed more often than not.”

She wrote memorably in 2013 that the court’s decision to cut out a key part of the federal law that had ensured the voting rights of Black people, Hispanics and other minorities was “like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”

When I think about Justice Ginsburg's sentencing legacy, I do not think about any single opinion but rather about two notable votes. Specifically, Justice Ginsburg was the sole justice to vote with both remarkable majority opinions in US v. Booker: she was the key fifth vote for the merits opinion finding the mandatory federal guidelines unconstitutional and she was the key fifth vote for the remedial opinion making the guidelines advisory. Notably, Justice Ginsburg did not write any opinion in Booker to explain either vote, but her two votes gave us the advisory guideline system that has now defined the federal sentencing system for well over fifteen years.

September 18, 2020 in Advisory Sentencing Guidelines, Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

"In the Shadows: A Review of the Research on Plea Bargaining"

The title of this post is the title of this great new document from the Vera Institute of Justice.  Here is part of the report's introduction:

In whatever form it takes, plea bargaining remains a low-visibility, off-the-record, and informal process that usually occurs in conference rooms and courtroom hallways — or through private telephone calls or e-mails — far away from the prying eyes and ears of open court.  Bargains are usually struck with no witnesses present and made without investigation, testimony, impartial fact-finding, or adherence to the required burden of proof.  Moreover, little to no documentation exists of the bargaining process that takes place between initial charge and a person’s formal admission of guilt in open court, and final plea deals that close out cases are themselves rarely written down or otherwise recorded.  As such, plea deals, and the process that produces them, are largely unreviewable and subject to little public scrutiny.  Thus, despite the high frequency with which plea deals are used, most people — aside from the usual courtroom actors — understand neither the mechanics of plea bargaining nor the reasons so many people decide to plead guilty.

Plea bargaining has, however, become the central focus of a growing, but still small, body of empirical research.  In recent years, mounting concerns about plea bargaining’s role in encouraging the widespread forfeiture of constitutionally guaranteed trial rights and associated procedural protections — and its critical role in fueling mass incarceration — has stimulated further urgency in understanding how the process works.  Indeed, an array of questions regarding its fairness have emerged.  Over the last few decades, prosecutorial leverage in plea negotiations has increased exponentially as changes in substantive law have bolstered criminal penalties and given prosecutors a wider range of choices to use when filing charges (such as mandatory penalties, sentencing enhancements, and more serious yet duplicative crimes already well covered by existing law).  But increased exposure to harsher penalties has not been matched with increased procedural protections for defendants.  Prosecutors’ wide powers in plea bargaining still go largely unchecked, and there are no meaningful oversight mechanisms or procedural safeguards to protect against unfair or coercive practices, raising fears about arbitrariness and inequality.  Given this lack of regulation, concern has also grown over the extent to which innocent people are regularly being induced to plead guilty, as well as plea bargaining’s role in perpetuating racial and ethnic disparities in criminal case outcomes — for example, plea bargaining practices that send more Black people to prison or jail than similarly situated white people.

Plea bargaining’s full impact on the legal system and justice-involved people remains unknown, but empirical research on this little understood yet immensely influential practice has begun to emerge.  In order to provide an accessible summary of existing research to policymakers and the public, the Vera Institute of Justice (Vera) examined a body of empirical studies that has developed around plea bargaining. Although this review is not exhaustive, it provides a picture not only of the current state of scholarship on plea bargaining, but also of the gaps in knowledge that must be filled.

September 18, 2020 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Recommended reading, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, September 17, 2020

"Public opinion and the politics of collateral consequence policies"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article authored by Travis Johnston and Kevin Wozniak recently published in Punishment & Society.  Here is its abstract:

We analyze data from a national sample of the U.S. population to assess public support for policies that deny former offenders’ access to job training programs, food stamps, and public housing. We find that Americans generally oppose benefit restrictions, though support for these policies is higher among Republicans and people with higher levels of racial resentment.  We also find that a legislator’s criminal justice reform positions generally do not significantly affect voters’ evaluation of him or her, and even voters with more punitive attitudes toward collateral consequence policies support legislators who advance particular kinds of reform proposals.  These findings provide little evidence that any group of Americans would be mobilized to vote against a legislator who works to reform collateral consequence policies. We discuss the implications of these findings for American and comparative studies of the politics of punishment.

September 17, 2020 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

At re-re-re-sentencing, Amy Locane gets eight years in New Jersey state prison for drunk driving vehicular manslaughter

Because it is such an interesting case (and perhaps because I watched Melrose Place way back when), I have blogged repeatedly about the sentencings saga of Amy Locane after her conviction in a tragic and deadly drunk driving case.  Today, Locane was sentenced for the fourth time in this matter, and this Fox News piece provides the details:

Amy Locane has been resentenced to eight years in state prison for a fatal 2010 drunk driving crash that occurred in New Jersey. The former “Melrose Place” actress, 48, has already served a prison sentence but a judge agreed with prosecutors Thursday that her initial sentence was too lenient.

State Superior Court Judge Angela Borkowski said Locane still refuses to fully acknowledge her culpability in the crash that killed 60-year-old Helene Seeman and severely injured Seeman's husband.  State law requires her to serve more than six years before being eligible for parole.  Locane apologized to the Seeman family in a brief statement.  She was placed in handcuffs and taken into custody by court deputies after the proceeding in state court in Somerville.

It was a startling development in a case that has bounced around the New Jersey court system for nearly a decade and has now featured four sentencings in front of three judges, plus numerous appeals.

Locane — who acted in 13 episodes of the popular 1990s Fox series and has also appeared in several movies — was convicted on several counts including vehicular manslaughter, and faced a sentencing range of five to 10 years on the most serious count. The state initially sought a seven-year sentence, but a trial judge sentenced her to three years in 2013.  An appeals court ruled he misapplied the law, but at a resentencing, the same judge declined to give her additional time.

Last year, a different judge sentenced her to five years, but an appeals court ruled he didn't follow guidelines it had set and ordered yet another sentencing.  Locane's attorney, James Wronko, had argued unsuccessfully that sentencing her again would violate double jeopardy protections since she had already completed her initial sentence and parole term.

According to witnesses, Locane had consumed several drinks before she headed home on the night of the accident and slammed into the Seemans' car as it turned into their driveway in Montgomery Township, near Princeton.  The actress contended a third motorist, whose car Locane had bumped into at a traffic light minutes earlier, distracted her by honking at and chasing her.  Locane wasn't indicted for drunken driving, but a state expert testified her blood alcohol level was likely about three times the legal limit and that she was driving roughly 53 mph (85 kmh) in a 35-mph (56-kmh) zone at the time of the crash.

Fred Seeman, who nearly died from his injuries suffered in the crash, attended Thursday's proceeding and said Locane's shifting of blame "shows contempt for this court and the jury that rendered the verdict.”  The judge took a similar view, and said Locane's past alcohol abuse makes her a risk for reoffending.

“You made a conscious decision to drink that day and continued to drink, recognizing at the onset that you needed a ride but didn’t obtain one," Borkowski said.  "If you hadn’t gotten behind the wheel of your vehicle on this night, the incident never would have happened.” Wronko called the sentence “outrageous.  She has always taken full responsibility," and criticized the judge for not taking into account Locane's current sobriety and her work counseling others against alcohol abuse.

Locane has 45 days to appeal her sentence. Wronko said he is waiting to see if the state Supreme Court decides to hear his appeal on the double jeopardy question.

Prior related posts:

September 17, 2020 in Celebrity sentencings, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Finding a silver lining in new report on Prez Trump's disappointing nominees to US Sentencing Commission

The Marshall Project has this new mostly depressing article about the troubling slate of US Sentencing Commission nominees announced by Prez Trump last month (basics here).  Even the headline of the piece, "Before Election, Trump Tries To Stack Prison-Sentencing Agency With Right Wing Allies," is telling and depressing since the US Sentencing Commission should be a whole lot more than a "Prison-Sentencing Agency" even though this is a disconcertingly fitting descriptor. 

In any event, ever eager to find a silver lining, I found a few passages in the article somewhat indirectly encouraging.  I have bolded below what seems "not so bad" amdist an otherwise disconcerting piece: 

The commission is required by law to be bipartisan and to represent a diversity of backgrounds.  But Trump has broken from that precedent by proposing to fill the agency’s five empty seats with appointees who are nearly all white male former law enforcement officials.  And Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell may, in the final months before the end of the president’s term, try to confirm these nominees, according to five Senate Judiciary Committee staffers as well as several advocacy groups.

“We’re worried they’re trying to cram these appointments through in case Trump loses,” said Kevin Ring, president of the advocacy group Families Against Mandatory Minimums....  The president’s nominees include Judge Henry E. Hudson, a federal judge in Virginia known as “Hang ‘Em High Henry,” who once said, “I live to put people in jail.”  Hudson, a former prosecutor and former director of the U.S. Marshals Service, led a Reagan administration anti-pornography commission that claimed that viewing sexual images causes sex crimes....

Also among the president’s picks for the commission is Judge K. Michael Moore of Florida, another former prosecutor and another former director of the U.S. Marshals.  In 2015, Moore sent a nonviolent first-time drug offender to prison for 20 years, a sentence so extreme that Trump commuted it four years later.

Other nominees include Judge Claria Horn Boom of Kentucky, a former prosecutor championed by McConnell, and John G. Malcolm, a former prosecutor who is now the director of a judicial studies program at the conservative Heritage Foundation.  The lone non-prosecutor in the group is Judge Luis Felipe Restrepo of Pennsylvania, a former public defender nominated to the federal bench by former President Obama....

Trump has said little publicly about his nominees, perhaps to avoid drawing media attention that could complicate their confirmation by the Senate Judiciary Committee.  Senator Kamala Harris, the Democratic vice presidential nominee, is a member of that committee, as are some Republicans — including Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Mike Lee of Utah — who have supported some efforts to moderate harsh sentencing.

Judiciary Committee staffers said that one or two of Trump’s picks may get confirmed, but probably not all.  Reform advocates say there is not enough time to properly evaluate the candidates, and that any vote on them should wait until next year.  “During normal times, the wonkiness of nominees to the Sentencing Commission might have allowed the package to move forward,” said David Safavian, general counsel of the American Conservative Union and an advocate of sentencing reform.  “But it’s too easy for Democrats to demagogue Henry Hudson.” 

Spokespeople for McConnell and for Sen. Lindsey Graham, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, did not respond to requests for comment as to whether there will be a confirmation hearing in the coming months....

Legal experts see William Barr’s hand in this slate of nominees consisting of nearly all former Justice Department prosecutors. “Prosecutors always say, ‘We don’t make the law, we just enforce it,’” said Safavian of the American Conservative Union.  But choosing this group of appointees to set federal sentencing rules, he said, “is one of many examples of how that is not at all true.”

The fact that this piece indirectly quotes Senate staffers indicating that "one or two of Trump’s picks may get confirmed, but probably not all" seems to me a sign that this slate of nominees in this form is very unlikely to be "rubber stamped" by the current GOP-led Senate anytime soon.  In addition, the fact Prez Trump and Senators Graham and McConnell do not seem to be at all eager to talk up these nominees is another reason to think they are unlikely to sail through the confirmation process.  And if ultimately just a couple of nominees, especially John Malcolm and Judge Restrepo, were to get through the process, we might even hope to see this dormant judicial agency moving in the right direction sooner rather than later.

But this optimistic tea-leaf reading from someone way outside the Beltway may be just a kind of naive wishful thinking about what is really afoot with USSC nominations inside the Beltway.  Regardless of the election results, I could still imagine a world in which the current GOP-led Senate uses the lame duck months to confirm many if not all of this Trumpian slate.  And I presume if Trump is reelected and the Senate remains in GOP control, this folks in this slate of nominees are functional front-runners for the USSC's open slots even if those slots do not get filled into 2021 or beyond.

Prior related posts:

September 17, 2020 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

"Toward Shared Safety: The First-Ever National Survey of America’s Safety Gaps"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new report from the Alliance for Safety and Justice.  Here is how the report's Executive Summary gets started:

Toward Shared Safety: The First-Ever National Survey of America’s Safety Gaps is a first-of-its-kind national study of Americans’ unmet safety needs and public safety policy preferences.  In a moment of unprecedented change — and growing consensus on the need for new approaches to public safety — this report aims to fill critical gaps in information, to help point decision-makers toward a new set of safety solutions that can better serve vulnerable Americans, improve public safety and stop the cycle of crime.

Despite dramatic increases in safety and justice spending over the last several decades, few of those expenditures are informed by the needs of Americans lacking safety or consistently aligned with Americans’ policy preferences.  As concerns about spending and criminal justice grow, there’s never been a more important time to ask some fundamental questions about safety.  What are the gaps in safety that people impacted by crime, violence and criminal justice experience?  What are the priority safety investments that matter the most to Americans of all walks of life?

In June of 2020, over 4,000 Americans were surveyed about their experiences with safety and attitudes about safety policy.  In particular, the survey engaged with people vulnerable to the cycle of crime, including crime victims, people experiencing mental health or substance abuse challenges, and those living with past convictions, as well as voters of all backgrounds, regardless of experience.

As the report details, there is remarkable alignment between gaps in safety that vulnerable people face and the public safety policy preferences that most all Americans support  — policy preferences that would address those very gaps.  Broad consensus exists at the neighborhood level and across different demographics: public safety policies and investments should prioritize violence prevention, recovery, mental health, reentry and the most effective strategies to stop the cycle of crime, more than incarceration.  It’s time for federal, state and local expenditures to match these urgently needed and popularly supported priorities.  It’s time for Shared Safety.

September 16, 2020 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, September 14, 2020

Making the case for independent oversight of the federal Bureau of Prisons

Kevin Ring has this effective new Hill commentary headlined "Congress should support independent oversight of federal prisons." I recommend the full piece, and here are excerpts:

If the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) can ignore a United States senator with impunity, what chance does an average citizen with a loved one in prison have of getting their concerns addressed?  The answer is likely none.  It’s time for Congress to address the BOP’s lack of accountability and transparency by creating an independent body to oversee the agency.

Nine months ago, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) learned of allegations that women were being sexually assaulted by corrections staff at the Coleman federal prison complex in his state.  He also had heard reports that Legionnaire’s disease was spreading throughout the complex.  He wrote to Attorney General William Barr to ask what the BOP, which the Justice Department oversees, was doing to protect women and stop the disease’s spread.  Nine months later, Rubio still had not gotten a response.

What Rubio experienced is what nearly 160,000 families with people in the BOP’s custody experience every day: maddening silence or, if they’re lucky, getting the run-around in response to inquiries about a loved one’s health, safety, or sometimes even their location.  If a U.S. senator cannot get answers from the BOP, imagine what doing so is like for an average person with no political connections.

The media, lawmakers, taxpayers and families are left in the dark about how the BOP runs its 122 prison facilities.  Prisoners and their families regularly must resolve problems small, large and life-threatening with the agency, for the years or decades that a sentence lasts.  Congress’s judiciary committees hold BOP oversight hearings, but they are rarely in-depth or revealing.  At a recent Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, committee members were unable to get data from the BOP about basic issues such as coronavirus testing, demographics of people released, and the agency’s response to ongoing federal litigation.  An agency that is constitutionally required to maintain the health, safety, and rehabilitation of 160,000 people deserves continuous oversight, not a hearing once or twice a year....

Several states have established effective prison oversight offices to great success. These offices, sometimes called “ombudsmen,” typically are independent from state Departments of Corrections.  Their powers include the ability to enter and inspect prisons without notice, conduct confidential interviews with incarcerated people and prison staff, recommend improvements and monitor their implementation, access data and records, and even help resolve complaints from families and prisoners.

Oversight such as this helps identify and prevent problems (and costly lawsuits) and makes prisons safer places for those who reside and work there.  This year, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy signed a law greatly expanding the powers of the state’s oversight office.  Washington State, Pennsylvania and New York also have prison oversight bodies, and Texas has a statewide jail oversight body.

September 14, 2020 in Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, September 12, 2020

A timely reminder that the war on drugs, and even the war on marijuana, is not anywhere close to over

Just last night I flagged here a new article by Michael Vitiello about the "war on drugs" and extreme sentences for drug crimes.  And this morning I saw this news article from Kansas this past week that provides a reminder that the US drug war as operationalized through extreme sentences even for marijuana offenses remains a very current reality for far too many.  The piece is headlined "Man serving 7.5 years on marijuana case says Kansas’ sentencing laws aren’t just," and here are excerpts:

A man sentenced to more than seven years in prison on a marijuana case wants Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly to consider his request for clemency and to see the state change its drug penalty laws.  Donte Westmoreland, 25, had no prior convictions when he was found guilty of possession of marijuana with intent to distribute and conspiracy to distribute in May 2017 in Riley County. Judge John Bosch sentenced him to 92 months....

Kansas has a sentencing range guideline intended to promote uniformity in penalties. Bosch gave Westmoreland the lower end of the range.  But Christopher Joseph, Westmoreland’s attorney during sentencing and his appeal, said many judges across the state depart from the guidelines for marijuana cases, instead handing down probation....

According to a motion filed in the case, probation was given in 95% of the marijuana distribution cases in Kansas involving defendants with low criminal history scores.

On March 8, 2016, police observed two vehicles traveling in close proximity to each other. Officers testified that they believed a Hyundai was an escort vehicle for a Lexus. Westmoreland, of Stockton, California, was a passenger in the Hyundai, which was stopped for an obstructed license plate and searched in Geary County.  A small amount of marijuana was found in the trunk, according to court documents.  The Hyundai was released and it continued to an apartment complex in Riley County, where the Lexus met them about 20 minutes later. Officers followed them to the apartment of Jacob Gadwood, where they searched the Lexus and found packages of drugs.

Westmoreland and the driver of the Hyundai were arrested. Three other co-defendants who fled the scene were later taken into custody. Gadwood agreed to become an informant for prosecutors and testified that Westmoreland came to his apartment to sell marijuana. The five defendants in the case faced varying charges related to possessing and distributing marijuana, court records showed.  Sentences ranged from time served to Westmoreland’s 92 months, which was the longest.

In a statement to The Star, Riley County Attorney Barry Wilkerson said Westmoreland went to Manhattan to sell large amounts of marijuana with three others in two vehicles, one of which was a decoy.  “These were sophisticated dealers of narcotics,” Wilkerson said. “One of the vehicles was a Lexus.  92 months was a fair sentence under the circumstances.”

In Kansas, a defendant could serve a longer sentence for marijuana crimes than violent crimes such as voluntary manslaughter. “The current Kansas law and penalties for marijuana are unjust,” Joseph said. “The law is so out of sync with reality at this point.”

Lauren Bonds, legal director of the ACLU of Kansas, said Kansas is being closed in on.  Recreational marijuana became legal in Colorado in 2014.  Missouri and Oklahoma have passed medicinal marijuana laws and Nebraska has taken steps to decriminalize the drug....

Kansas Sen. Richard Wilborn, R-McPherson, chairs the Judiciary Committee and said sentencing guidelines is one of the topics “in the forefront.” He said he would take any recommendations from the Criminal Justice Reform Commission seriously, but that legislation has to be proportional with other illegal substances and not target a single issue.

Westmoreland said he supports reforms that address racial and sentencing disparities.  Twenty-eight percent of the Kansas Department of Corrections’ population is Black. According to the U.S. Census, Black people make up 6.1% of the state.

Earlier this year, Westmoreland submitted a clemency application to Gov. Laura Kelly’s office. The request included letters of support from Lansing Warden Shannon Meyer, Sen. Randall Hardy, R-Salina, and Rep. John Alcala, D-Topeka....  Kelly’s office is in the process of reviewing the clemency request, spokeswoman Lauren Fitzgerald said.

I fully understand why many advocates for criminal justice reform who are eager to end mass incarceration are now quick to stress that we need to address unduly long sentences for violent crimes.  But I see these kinds of extreme drug sentencing cases and continue to stress that we still need to make a whole lot more progress on reform for so many non-violent crimes, too, while also recognizing that it will be hard to get a place like Kansas to be less harsh in response to violent crimes if state law still provides that "a defendant could serve a longer sentence for marijuana crimes than violent crimes such as voluntary manslaughter."

Moreover, severe drug war attitudes are ultimately more enduring and perhaps even more problematic than even severe drug war laws.  That the prosecutor here is still eager to assert that such a long sentence for mere distribution of marijuana "was a fair sentence under the circumstances" showcases that many drug warriors are seemingly not inclined to rethink even the most severe weapons used to wage this unwinnable and damaging war. 

September 12, 2020 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Pot Prohibition Issues, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, September 11, 2020

"The War on Drugs: Moral Panic and Excessive Sentences"

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

The United States’ War on Drugs has not been pretty. Moral panic has repeatedly driven policy when states and the federal government have regulated drugs.  Responding to that panic, legislators have authorized severe sentences for drug offenses.  By design, Article III gives federal judges independence, in part, to protect fundamental rights against mob rule.  Unfortunately, the Supreme Court has often failed to protect fundamental rights in times of moral panic.  For example, it eroded Fourth Amendment protections during the War on Drugs.  Similarly, it failed to protect drug offenders from excessive prison sentences during the War on Drugs.

This article examines whether it is time for the Supreme Court to rethink its precedent upholding extremely long sentences for drug crimes.  In 1983, in Solem v. Helm, the Supreme Court held that the Eighth Amendment’s Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause applies to terms of imprisonment.  There, it found the imposition of a true-life sentence imposed on a repeat offender to be grossly disproportionate to the gravity of the defendant’s offense.   Whatever hope Solem created that courts might limit excessive sentences proved to be false.  Two Supreme Court cases dealing with drug sentences, bracketing Solem, demonstrate the Court’s unwillingness to override legislatures’ discretion in imposing sentences.  In 1982, the Court upheld a 40-year term of imprisonment imposed on an offender who possessed less than nine ounces of marijuana.  In 1991, the Court upheld a true-life sentence imposed on an offender who possessed 672 grams of cocaine.  The Court’s refusal to curtail such extreme sentences reflects its willingness to accede to the nation’s moral panic over drug usage.

Since the height of the War on Drugs, Americans have changed their views about drugs.  Significant majorities of Americans favor legalization of marijuana for medical and recreational use.  Many Americans favor a wholesale rethinking of drug policy.  Despite studies in the 1950s and 1960s, demonstrating beneficial use of drugs like LSD and psilocybin, Congress yielded to moral panic and included them in Schedule I when it enacted the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. Efforts are afoot at the state level to legalize the study of and to decriminalize the use of those and other drugs.

This article argues that the Court should rethink its Eighth Amendment caselaw upholding severe drug sentences.  The Court’s Eighth Amendment caselaw balances the severity of punishment against the gravity of an offense.  In turn, the gravity of an offense turns on its social harm and the culpability of the offender.  The Court upheld extreme drug sentences based on the view that drugs were a national scourge.  Moral panic led it to overstate the social harm and the culpability of drug offenders.  Scientifically based examination of drugs and drug policy should compel the Court to rethink its excessive punishment caselaw because the balance between severity of punishment and the gravity of drug offenses looks different when one has a better understanding of true costs and benefits of drug use. 

September 11, 2020 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Have Problem Solving Courts Changed the Practice of Law?"

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

Drug courts started thirty years ago in the United States.  The introduction of these courts brought high hopes that they would refocus our criminal legal system to therapeutic and rehabilitative methods while moving away from an otherwise largely punitive and punishment-oriented approach.  Has this happened?  Has the problem-solving court movement brought widespread change to how criminal cases are processed and how criminal lawyers, both prosecutors and defense lawyers, approach the practice of law?  Have these courts actually been a “monumental change?”  The simple answer is no.  These courts have changed how some defendants are treated some of the time.  But, the numbers impacted by these courts, even as the number of these courts has grown dramatically, remains small.  And, the rehabilitative approach within these courts has not led to changes in how other courts work within the larger criminal legal system. Problem-solving courts have remained, for the most part, in their own silo while other courts have continued business as usual focusing on punishment, not rehabilitation.

This article will start with a discussion of mass incarceration and offer some reasons why problem-solving courts did not prevent, or lessen, mass incarceration.  Next this article will discuss how problem-solving courts work, focusing on the roles of the professionals, the judges and lawyers, within these courts.  This article will then consider the impact, or lack of impact that these courts have had on how the larger criminal legal system works.  Finally, this article will suggest five key things that problem-solving courts do that would result in “monumental change” if more widely adopted by mainstream criminal courts.

September 11, 2020 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, September 09, 2020

Lots and lots of government lawyers on Prez Trump's latest SCOTUS (not-so-)short list

As reported via this release from the White House, this afternoon Prez Trump announced the 20 additions to "his Supreme Court List."  There are a number of perhaps predictable names (e.g., Gregory Katsas) and perhaps surprising names (e.g., Daniel Cameron) on the list, but what I noticed was how many were current or former government lawyers.  Though not too many on the list were actually former criminal prosecutors, all but a few worked for departments of justice and/or in attorney general offices.  I do not believe any of the persons on the list ever served in a public criminal defense role (although some may have provided private or pro bono defense while with a law firm).

This lengthy Politico article discusses the and some of the politics surrounding it.  Here are a few excerpts:

President Donald Trump on Wednesday added 20 names to his existing list of 25 potential picks to fill a future Supreme Court vacancy, including Republican Sens. Ted Cruz, Tom Cotton and Josh Hawley. By doing so, Trump reprised a strategy that many credit with bringing skeptical social conservatives into the fold in 2016 and paving the way for his upset victory over Hillary Clinton.

Calling the appointment of Supreme Court justices “the most important decision a president can make,” the president cast the decision to release his potential picks up front as an obligation White House hopefuls have to their voters, though he was the first candidate to do so, in 2016....

Trump’s decision to nearly double his existing pool of choices could upset those who favored slashing the original list by as much as half, arguing for a more stringent vetting process, as well as the removal of those with limited records from which to judge the consistency of their judicial philosophy. Those in favor of expanding the list argued that Gorsuch departed from such consistency in his ruling this summer. “The whole purpose of the list is to give hard-line conservatives a guarantee that we will not be betrayed again,” one Republican close to the White House told POLITICO in July....

The president’s campaign blasted out appreciative messages from members of Trump’s gun owners and Catholics advisory boards, as well as the campaign’s legal advisers. Democrats and progressive groups, meanwhile, held up Trump’s new list as their own measure of the stakes in the coming election....

Yet, many Republicans noted — and some left-leaning activists lamented — that the issue of the high court and judicial nominees generally was essentially ignored at the Democratic National Convention last month.

Thus far, Biden has declined to follow in Trump’s footsteps and release his own list of potential Supreme Court nominees. He has promised to appoint a Black woman to the court and has said his campaign is compiling a shortlist of such picks “who are qualified and have the experience to be on the court,” but would not release their names “until we go further down the line in vetting them.”

Trump slammed that decision on Wednesday, calling on Biden to release a list of potential Supreme Court picks and musing that Biden’s refusal to do so was “perhaps because he knows the names are so extremely far left that they could never withstand public scrutiny or receive acceptance.” Biden, Trump said, “must release a list of justices for people to properly make a decision as to how they will vote.”

As detailed in post linked below, I have been suggesting for quite some time that Joe Biden should be able to produce a SCOTUS list which could excite progressives and highlight that there diversity of impressive legal talent in our nation which includes persons who have worked on behalf of criminal defendants. 

Prior related post:

September 9, 2020 in Campaign 2020 and sentencing issues, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Ugly details from federal defenders' latest fact sheet on COVID-19 and federal detention

Sentencing Resource Counsel for the Federal Public Community Defenders has just released this new two-page fact sheet dense with information and links on "The COVID-19 Crisis in Federal Detention."  I recommend the full document, and here are some of the details (absent the links):

COVID-19 is ripping through the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), infecting incarcerated individuals at a rate 4 times the general population, and causing deaths at nearly twice the national rate. BOP is “making it worse,” said Joe Rojas, the regional vice president of the American Federation of Government Employees Council of Prison Locals. “They’re making the virus explode.”

There have now been 126 reported deaths of incarcerated individuals, an incalculable loss.  They were parents, siblings, and children.  They were us.  Some of their deaths were surely preventable.  BOP’s press releases reveal that the majority — 93 — were at higher risk of complications from COVID-19 and BOP knew it.  At least a quarter of those who have died in BOP’s care were seventy or older.  Last month, BOP told the Washington Post that at least 18 individuals died while their requests for compassionate release were pending.  To date, we have identified 19 individuals who died in BOP custody after filing — and in some cases, even after being granted — requests for release....

BOP and DOJ have ignored the tools Congress gave them to lower prison populations safely.  The bipartisan CARES Act authorized AG Barr to dramatically expand the use of home confinement to protect the most vulnerable from COVID-19.  But in response, AG Barr and BOP have issued restrictive guidance and memos, each “more confusing than the next,” that together establish a “complex set of procedural and logistical hurdles to home confinement.”  To date, BOP has approved for transfer to home confinement only 4.4% of the 174,923 who were in custody on February 20.  The DOJ OIG examined BOP’s response to COVID-19 at one of BOP’s hardest-hit facilities, Lompoc Federal Correctional Complex, and found that BOP’s use of home confinement at FCC Lompoc was “extremely limited.”  The Department of Justice (DOJ) has not released demographic data on the individuals BOP has approved for home confinement, despite congressional demands.  At a time when transparency is more important than ever, the federal incarceration system is a black box. “The problem is that prisons in the U.S. are not accustomed to oversight and transparency.”

Thanks to the First Step Act of 2018, individuals no longer must depend on BOP to initiate a motion for compassionate release. Post-FSA, defendants may file a motion directly with the court 30 days after the warden’s receipt of a request.  But during the COVID-19 crisis, this 30-day delay, coupled with DOJ’s routine opposition, prevents vulnerable defendants from obtaining critical relief.  At FMC Carswell, a medical facility that houses the most medically vulnerable women in BOP, “fewer than 20 women” have reportedly received compassionate release.  Based on a survey of defense attorneys representing clients across the country, we are not aware of a single BOP-initiated motion for compassionate release based on heightened risk of severe illness from COVID-19 infection.

September 9, 2020 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

New report details racial disparities in every stage of the Massachusetts criminal justice system

Via email I received word of this notable new report released today by the Harvard Law School Criminal Justice Policy Program (CJPP) titled simply "Racial Disparities in the Massachusetts Criminal System."  Here is a brief account of the 100+-page report and its findings from the text of the email that I received:

People of color are drastically overrepresented in Massachusetts state prisons.  According to the Massachusetts Sentencing Commission’s analysis of 2014 data, the Commonwealth significantly outpaced national race and ethnicity disparity rates in incarceration, imprisoning Black people at a rate 7.9 times that of White people and Latinx people at 4.9 times that of White people.

In an attempt to better understand the sources of these disparities, Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts asked Harvard Law School to research racial disparities in the Massachusetts criminal system.

CJPP collected administrative data from several criminal justice agencies, analyzing over 500,000 cases. In our report, we detail the results of our analysis of every stage of the criminal process. Our findings include:

  • Black and Latinx people are overrepresented in the criminal system.  Although Black people make up only 6.5% of the state’s population, African Americans are the subjects of 17.1% of criminal court cases. Similarly, Latinx people constitute only 8.7% of the Massachusetts population but 18.3% of the cases.  By contrast, White people, who make up roughly 74% of the Massachusetts population, account for only 58.7% of cases in the criminal system.
  • Black and Latinx people sentenced to incarceration in Massachusetts receive longer sentences than their White counterparts, with Black people receiving sentences that are an average of 168 days longer and Latinx people receiving sentences that are an average of 148 days longer.
  • Racial and ethnic differences in the type and severity of initial charge account for over 70 percent of the disparities in sentence length, overshadowing all other factors, including defendants’ criminal history and demographics, court jurisdiction, and neighborhood characteristics.
  • Among the subset of cases where the person was sentenced to incarceration in a state prison (i.e. cases involving charges that carry the longest potential sentences and where the racial disparity is largest), Black and Latinx people are convicted of charges roughly equal in seriousness to their White counterparts despite facing more serious initial charges and longer sentences.
  • Black and Latinx people charged with drug offenses and weapons offenses are more likely to be incarcerated and receive longer incarceration sentences than White people charged with similar offenses. This difference persists after controlling for charge severity and other factors.

September 9, 2020 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, September 08, 2020

"The Many Roads to Reintegration: A 50-State Report on Laws Restoring Rights and Opportunities After Arrest or Conviction"

Many-Roads-Cover-1-768x994The title of this post is the title of this big new report by Margaret Love and David Schlussel of the Collateral Consequences Resource Center. The report, among other valuable elements, provides a "National Ranking of Restoration Laws" for all states and DC. Here is part of the 100+ page report's executive summary:

This report sets out to describe the present landscape of laws in the United States aimed at restoring rights and opportunities after an arrest or conviction. This is an update and refresh of our previous national survey, Forgiving and Forgetting in American Justice, last revised in 2018.  Much of the material in this report is drawn from our flagship resource, the Restoration of Rights Project.  We are heartened by the progress that has been made toward neutralizing the effect of a criminal record since the present reform era got underway in a serious fashion less than a decade ago, especially in the last two years.

This report considers remedies for three of the four main types of collateral consequences: loss of civil rights, dissemination of damaging record information, and loss of opportunities and benefits, notably in the workplace.

Its first chapter finds that the trend toward restoring the vote to those living in the community — a long-time goal of national reform organizations and advocates — has accelerated in recent years.  Further reforms may be inspired by the high-profile litigation over Florida’s “pay-to-vote” system, which shines a national spotlight on financial barriers to the franchise.  This chapter also finds that systems for restoring firearms rights are considerably more varied, with many states providing relief through the courts but others requiring a full pardon.

The second chapter deals with laws intended to revise or supplement criminal records, an issue that has attracted the most attention in legislatures but that has benefited the least from national guidance. It is divided into several parts, based on the type of record affected (conviction or nonconviction) and the type of relief offered (e.g. pardon, expungement, set-aside, certificates, diversion, etc.).  The wide variety in eligibility, process, and effect of these record relief laws speaks volumes about how far the Nation is from common ground.

The third chapter concerns the area in which perhaps the most dramatic progress has been made just since 2018: the regulation of how criminal record is considered by public employers and occupational licensing agencies.  Legislatures have been guided and encouraged by helpful model laws and policies proposed by two national organizations with differing regulatory philosophies: The Institute of Justice, a libertarian public interest law firm, and the National Employment Law Project, a workers’ rights research and advocacy group.  Regulation of private employment has also been influenced by national models, although to a lesser extent and more needs to be done in this area.

This report makes clear that substantial progress that has been made in the past several years toward devising and implementing an effective and functional system for restoring rights and status after arrest or conviction.  The greatest headway has been made in restoring rights of citizenship and broadening workplace opportunities controlled by the state. The area where there is least consensus, and that remains most challenging to reformers, is managing dissemination of damaging criminal record information.  Time will tell how the goal of a workable and effective relief system is achieved in our laboratories of democracy.

September 8, 2020 in Collateral consequences, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, September 03, 2020

"Judicial Disparity, Deviation, and Departures from Sentencing Guidelines: The Case of Hong Kong"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article appearing in the latest issue of the Journal of Empirical Legal Studies authored by Kevin Kwok-yin Cheng, Sayaka Ri, and Natasha Pushkarna.  Here is its abstract:

Analyzing sentencing disparity calls for more calibrated measures to capture the nuances of judicial discretion within jurisdictions that adopt strict sentencing guidelines.  This article uses an unconventional outcome variable, percent deviation, to investigate guideline digressions in a nested, multilevel model.  Percent deviation is calculated based on the difference between the guidelines’ “arithmetic starting point” and the actual starting point that a judge adopts.  Two equations were used to measure percent deviation from the arithmetic starting point before and after adjustment for guilty plea sentence reductions.

Extracting data on drug trafficking cases from an open‐source database from the Hong Kong Judiciary (n = 356), we illustrate how percent deviation can be employed as a measure of inter‐judge disparity using hierarchical linear models (HLMs).  Our findings suggest that approximately 8 to 10 percent of the deviation in sentence length can be attributed to judges’ differential sentencing behaviors.  The deviation is affected by case characteristics as well as judicial characteristics.  Due to the wide guideline ranges, departures from said guidelines’ ranges are not common.  This indicates that the guideline ranges mask the deviation and inter‐judge disparity that exist and recur.

September 3, 2020 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentencing around the world, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Spotlighting remarkable (but still cursory) data on "compassionate release" after FIRST STEP Act

Regular readers are surely familiar with the big deal I have long made about the statutory changes to the so-called compassionate release provisions in federal law via the FIRST STEP Act.  In posts here and here way back in February 2019, I was talking up these changes as the "sleeper provisions" in the Act because it now let persons in prisons move directly in court for a sentence reduction.  By May 2019, I was wondering aloud here about whether anyone was collecting and analyzing sentence reduction orders under § 3582(c)(1) since passage of the FIRST STEP Act.  From the get-go, I have tried to flag notable rulings granting sentence reductions under 3582(c)(1) since the passage of the Act, but the coronavirus pandemic created so much jurisprudence in this space that I was ultimately only able to do lengthy postings like this one of grants on Westlaw.

Against this backdrop, I was so very pleased to see that the US Sentencing Commission's big new report on "The First Step Act of 2018: One Year of Implementation" (discussed here, available here) includes a final section discussing "Compassionate Release" (at pp. 46-49).  Somewhat disappointingly, this section is quite brief and the data provided is not especially rich or detailed.  But some data is better than nothing and certainly worth reviewing:

During Year One, 145 motions seeking compassionate release were granted, a five-fold increase from fiscal year 2018 (n=24)... [and] of those motions granted during Year One, 96 (67.1%) were filed by the offender and 47 (32.9%) were filed by the BOP.... 

Offenders who benefited from compassionate release in Year One received larger reductions and served more time when compared to those granted release in fiscal year 2018. The average length of the reduction in sentence was 68 months in fiscal year 2018; sentences were reduced, on average, by 84 months in Year One.  The average months of time served at the time of release also increased, from 70 months to 108 months.  The average age at the time of release increased by ten years, from 51 years old at the time of release to 61 years old....

In Year One, most (81.4%) compassionate release grants were also based on medical reasons.  Of the 145 compassionate release motions granted, 118 were based on the medical condition of the defendant, 15 were based on age, two were based on family circumstances, and 15 were based on other extraordinary and compelling reasons.  Of the 118 granted for medical reasons, 75 were based on terminal illness, 31 based on a condition or impairment that substantially diminishes the ability of the defendant to provide self-care within the correctional facility environment, and in 12 the type of medical reason was not further specified.

An additional appendix (Appendix 4 on p. 71) provides a break-down of the guidelines under which these persons receiving sentence reductions were initially sentenced.  These data look somewhat comparable to the general federal prison population, as about half of the recipients were sentenced under the drug guideline.  But it seems white-collar guidelines and the robbery guideline may be somewhat over-represented, though that may reflect that these offenders are more likely to be older and/or subject to more extreme sentencing terms for various reasons.  Other than knowing that a lot more sentence reduction motions were granted in the first year after the FIRST STEP Act and that most were for medical reasons, these "raw" data do not tell us that much more about this interesting little part of the sentencing world.  (Notably, the USSC does not report at all, and may not be collecting, data on how many sentence reduction motions have been brought to, and have been denied by, district courts.  Grants only tells us only so much, though even grant data could and should be subject to some more detail analysis to help Congress and other assess whether this mechanism was working as intended in 2019.)

Critically, as the USSC report makes clear, its data here are from just the first full calendar year the First Step Act was in effect (“First Step Year One”) running from December 21, 2018 through December 20, 2019.  In other words, this report concerns entirely pre-COVID data, and that is HUGELY important because there has been, roughly speaking, about a nearly 20-fold(!) increase in sentence reductions grants over the last six months of our COVID era.  Specifically, the BOP is now reported at this FSA page that there have been "1,498 Approved" total post-FIRST STEP Act "Compassionate Releases / Reduction in Sentences."  Doing the math, this seems to mean that while there were 145 motions granted in First Step Year One, there have been 1,353 more motions granted since that time (nearly all of which, I think, have been over the last six months).  Framed another way, we can say that, on average, in the year after passage of the FIRST STEP Act, roughly a dozen sentence reductions motions were granted each month, and now in the COVID-era, more than 220 are being granted each month!  

I sincerely hope the USSC is planning to do a more detailed and informative accounting of its First Step Year One data, as I think a lot could and should be learned from how judges responded to these motions before COVID.  But I am now even more interested to see data from the COVID era, as the number of cases (and probably the number of reasons for grants) has increased so dramatically.  At the same time, the relative rarity of these sentence reductions should not be forgotten.  With a federal prison population of around 175,000 through 2019, the USSC data show that less than 0.1% of all federal prisoners benefited from a sentence reduction that year.  With all new COVID grants, we still have well under 1% of the federal prison population receiving so-called compassionate release.  That still does not seem anywhere close to a lot or enough compassion to me.

September 3, 2020 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, September 02, 2020

In praise of a bipartisan effort to assess and address COVID and criminal justice

I noted a some weeks ago that the Council on Criminal Justice (CCJ) — a favorite new organization of mine in part because they asked me to take a close look at the 1994 Crime Bill's sentencing provisions and because they recently produced a great report urging federal criminal justice reforms — has launched an important and impressive new commission to assess the impacts of COVID-19 on the criminal justice system (basic details here).   I am pleased to see that the heads of the commission, former AGs Loretta Lynch and Alberto Gonzales, have this new Hill piece about its work.  Here are excerpts:

Across our country, the coronavirus is placing unprecedented pressure on those who live and work within our justice system.  From our local jails to courts, police precincts, and community organizations, the impacts of the pandemic are forcing us to improvise as we struggle to dispense justice and promote safety.

But which of our new policies and practices work best, are backed by evidence, and merit our trust?  How can we ensure that our justice system operates more fairly and effectively, notably for communities of color and lower income Americans?  Could that realignment create a path to restoring public confidence and trust in the justice system as it seeks to provide not just accountability but also fairness and transparency?

The urgent need to answer those questions is among the reasons we are serving as chairs of a national commission on the coronavirus and criminal justice.  As two former United States attorneys general, one who served in a Democratic administration and one who served in a Republican administration, we do not see eye to eye on every issue.  But we do agree that the threat of the pandemic to our justice system demands an independent response guided by research and experience.

That is precisely what this commission contributes during this historic moment in time.  Launched by the Council on Criminal Justice, it will assess the impact of the coronavirus on the justice system, develop priority strategies to contain outbreaks, and recommend policy changes to better balance public health and public safety.

We are fortunate to join numerous members who bring a wide range of experience to our work on the commission.  They include justice system leaders on the front lines, a big city mayor, community activists, a public health specialist, a respected incarceration researcher, and a formerly incarcerated individual.  Testimony from other experts and advocates will ensure our work is informed by a broad set of views.

Given the urgency of the crisis, and the thirst for reliable and realistic solutions, we are moving quickly.  In the coming weeks, we will complete our evaluation of the impact of the coronavirus on courts, corrections, law enforcement, and community organizations.  We will identify cost effective ways to minimize the spread of the pandemic and the impact of future outbreaks.

Our second phase will focus on reforms of the justice system.  The coronavirus may be novel, but it brought to the fore problems that have plagued the justice system.  By the end of the year, we will recommend the policies and practices that must change based on what the pandemic and response have highlighted for us about the fairness and effectiveness of the justice system, notably for people of color and the poor....

In our deliberations, we are driven by the knowledge that the pandemic has exacted a heavy toll on those who work and live within our justice system.  The largest clusters of the coronavirus across the country are in prisons and jails, where more than 145,000 incarcerated people and staff have tested positive.  Nearly 900 incarcerated people and almost 90 correctional employees have died....

The coronavirus will shape our society for generations, so helping our courts, police districts, correctional facilities, and community organizations emerge from the pandemic more prepared and better equipped to deliver truly impartial and racially blind justice is a daunting challenge.  But we must, and we will, meet this moment head on.

September 2, 2020 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Fees, Fines, and the Funding of Public Services: A Curriculum for Reform"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting new reader produced by a group of law school centers. Here is the full introduction to the collection of articles:

Since 2018, the Liman Center at Yale Law School and Harvard Law School’s Criminal Justice Policy Program (CJPP), in partnership with the Fines & Fees Justice Center and the Berkeley Law Policy Advocacy Clinic, have collaborated to mitigate the problems faced by people of limited means and resources who interact with criminal punishment systems around the United States.  Through a series of workshops and materials, we have examined how law has enabled and, on occasion, limited these harms, experienced disproportionately by communities of color.

Budget pressures are part of what drives state and local governments to rely on monetary sanctions.  Reform efforts have, at times, been stymied by arguments that governments “need” the money generated by regressive fines and fees. In 2008, during and after the Great Recession, state and local governments responded to sudden budget pressures by searching for new streams of revenues— including from a host of legal assessments.  Given that experience, we know that the economic disruptions created by the current COVID-19 crisis will likely result in governments’ considering additional use of monetary sanctions and “user” fee financing to generate revenue.  The current economic constraints place strains on subnational budgets even more acute than those experienced a dozen years ago.  Thus, we fear that governments may scale up the imposition and the enforcement of monetary sanctions.  More tools are needed to resist these efforts, as the economic effects of the pandemic will frame the years to come.

Knowledge of subnational systems of taxing and budgeting and of fiscal policymaking processes can be put to use to reduce and to end governments’ reliance on user fees for courts and for other aspects of criminal systems.  This reader aims to help experts in public finance to understand the misuse of court-based assessments which are regressive revenue streams.  Subsequent volumes will provide a primer on public finance for people knowledgeable about the law and practices of unfair monetary sanctions through an overview of how money is collected and allocated at the state and local level.  These materials interact with ongoing seminars, sometimes virtual, to link people expert in public finance with their counterparts seeking to reform unfair monetary sanctions.

Through monographs such as this, we hope to support work underway to shape just and equitable revenue-generation mechanisms that avoid imposing harmful costs on vulnerable individuals, families, and communities.  This is the third volume in this series.  See ARTHUR LIMAN CENTER FOR PUBLIC INTEREST LAW, WHO PAYS? FINES, FEES, BAIL, AND THE COST OF COURTS (2018), ARTHUR LIMAN CENTER FOR PUBLIC INTEREST LAW, ABILITY TO PAY. See also Inability to Pay: Court Debt Circa 2020, N.C. L. REV.

We should note that, to be concise, we have provided just a snapshot of a rich literature.  In the few essays excerpted here, we have cut sections and references, and we provide the original publication information to enable easy access to the originals.  This project is made possible by support from Yale Law School, the Liman Center, and Arnold Ventures. Our hope is that through these many efforts, fairer and more just practices will result.

September 2, 2020 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, September 01, 2020

Effective and timely review of the state of disenfranchisement for those with criminal convictions

This lengthy new Stateline piece, headlined "More People With Felony Convictions Can Vote, but Roadblocks Remain," provides an effective review of the realities of felon disenfranchisement circa 2020. I recommend the full piece and here are excerpts:

In every state except Maine and Vermont, people convicted of felonies are stripped of their voting rights while in prison. In most states, that ban extends to those on probation or parole, while some states have additional time and fee requirements, disenfranchising millions of people.

[Iowa Gov Kim] Reynolds restored automatic voting rights to most people with felony records after they complete their sentence, including parole or probation; the exceptions are people with homicide convictions, who must file an application.  Under the order, an estimated 60,000 additional people now are eligible to vote in the Hawkeye State.

They join the ranks of hundreds of thousands of others with felony convictions who are newly eligible to vote in the general election this year.  Since the 2016 election, Colorado, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, Nevada, New Jersey, New York and Virginia also have implemented or expanded voting rights for some people convicted of felonies.

The political stakes are up for debate.  Roughly 630,000 people with felony convictions can vote this year in Florida, nearly six times the 113,000 vote-margin by which Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton in the state.  But research has shown that like other voters, people convicted of felonies who are registered don’t necessarily vote.

Still, groups ranging from liberal political organizations to the nonpartisan League of Women Voters are working furiously to find these newly eligible voters as registration deadlines approach.  But the pandemic is complicating in-person registration drives, as are the uncertainties around mail-in voting.  And eight states explicitly require people with felony records to pay some form of court costs and fees before registering.

In 2016, an estimated 6.1 million people or 1 in 40 adults were unable to vote because of a felony conviction, according to the Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C.-based research and advocacy organization. The project found that Black people were the most likely to be disenfranchised: More than 7 percent of the adult African American population, or 1 in 13 people, could not vote because of a felony conviction....

In Kentucky, an estimated 170,000 people with felony records were given voting rights in December under an order from Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear. As in Iowa, the order doesn’t automatically apply to people convicted of certain violent offenses. Grassroots advocacy organization Kentuckians for the Commonwealth has been working for years on expanding voting rights. Since Beshear’s order, and with the help of other organizations, it has put together a list of more than 60,000 names and contact information for people who now can register to vote....

In 2018, 65 percent of Florida voters supported a constitutional amendment to give voting rights to people with felony records who had completed parole or probation, with the exception of those convicted of murder or sexual offenses. But the GOP-controlled legislature last year passed a measure to require that restitution, fines and fees be paid before voting rights are restored. Over half of the estimated 1.4 million people convicted of felonies in the state have outstanding court costs or restitution, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University Law School.

Lawsuits have ensued over the constitutionality of the law, which opponents liken to a poll tax.  A federal judge in May found the requirement to be unconstitutional. But Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis appealed to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled in his favor.  Voting rights groups asked the U.S. Supreme Court to weigh in; the court in July left in place the appeals court’s order.  The issue remains before the appeals court, which heard arguments in the case Aug. 18.

Florida is known for close elections, and some political observers think a majority of the new voters would vote Democratic.  But Sean Morales-Doyle, deputy director of voting rights and elections in the Brennan Center’s Democracy Project, dismisses the notion that politics drive enfranchisement efforts.  “The decisions about who has the right to vote should never be based on an assessment of how we think someone is going to vote,” he said.  “We should be for or against voting rights restoration because of the merits of the policy, not the politics.”...

Beyond the push toward the November elections, voting rights activists eventually want to extend voting to people on probation or parole and people in prison.  “Residents who are required to pay taxes, be good citizens, they should also have a role in determining who governs them,” said Nicole Porter, advocacy director of state and local policy for the Sentencing Project.

A referendum on the ballot in California in November would give parolees voting rights.  Efforts are ongoing in other states, including Connecticut, where legislation proposed by Secretary of the State Denise Merrill, a Democrat, to extend voting rights to people on parole died this year.

September 1, 2020 in Collateral consequences, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Fighting for a Second Look: Efforts in Ohio and Across the Nation"

6a00d8341c8ccf53ef026bde8d638d200c-320wiThe title of this post is the title of this webinar that I am honored to be a part of tomorrow, Wednesday, September 2, 2020, from 2-3pm ET.  You can register here, where you will see this description:

Draconian sentencing laws and practices stretch back decades and have yielded countless excessive prison terms nationwide.  As public awareness of this problem mounts, legal advocates and scholars have urged new legal mechanisms to allow courts to revisit unnecessarily long sentences.  In that spirit, the Ohio Justice & Policy Center and DEPC teamed up to create a writing competition for law students and recent graduates to propose such a "second-look statute" for Ohio.

Join us for a webinar that brings together leading advocates to discuss efforts across the country to create second-look provisions.  We will also announce the winner of our recent writing competition.

SPEAKERS

  • Shakyra Diaz, managing director of partnerships/Ohio state director, Alliance for Safety and Justice
  • William Johnston, senior program officer, Open Society Foundations
  • Michael Serota, associate deputy director, Academy for Justice, Arizona State University Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law
  • David Singleton, executive director, Ohio Justice & Policy Center

MODERATOR

  • Douglas A. Berman, executive director, Drug Enforcement and Policy Center

Regular readers may recall my repeated effort on this blog all summer long to flag this initial posting about the exciting new drafting contest emerging from a partnership of the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law and the Ohio Justice & Policy Center.  This webinar serves to cap off this exciting contest, which is discussed more fully on this DEPC webpage.

September 1, 2020 in Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, August 30, 2020

Can we somehow arrange for one of the upcoming Prez debates to be entirely about criminal justice issues?

Long-time readers know that, every four years, I cannot stop complaining that the Prez-election-season discourse and debates do not give nearly enough attention to a range of important criminal justices issues.  (Here are just a few example of this complaining in posts from 2008 and from 2012 and from 2016.)  For many reasons, it seems likely that the 2020 election season will have considerably more discussion of criminal justice issues from the candidates and in the media.  For example, this morning I saw this new NPR piece headlined "Fact Check: Trump's And Biden's Records On Criminal Justice," and here are excerpts:

For four nights, speakers at the Republican National Convention pilloried Democrat Joe Biden over his alleged weakness on crime and painted a dystopian future if he were to be elected in November. Biden and Democrats were "completely silent about the rioters and criminals spreading mayhem in Democrat-run cities," during their convention, President Trump charged on Thursday.  The previous evening, Vice President Pence warned, "The hard truth is you will not be safe in Joe Biden's America."... Pence claimed that Biden would "double down in the very policies that are leading to violence in American cites," to which Biden responded with a reminder that "right now ... we're in Donald Trump's America."...

Trump — who promised in his 2016 acceptance speech that "the crime and violence that today afflicts our nation will soon, and I mean very soon, come to an end" — has a spotty record when it comes to criminal justice reform.

His signature achievement on the issue, the widely touted First Step Act signed in 2018 and passed with bipartisan support in Congress, instituted sentencing reforms, including reducing harsh penalties for crack cocaine possession.  And on Friday, Trump pardoned Alice Johnson, a criminal justice reform advocate who delivered a powerful address at the Republican National Convention this week, and whose cause had been espoused by Kim Kardashian West. But some parts of the law have fallen short, activists say.

In June, following the unrest after George Floyd's killing, Trump signed an executive order that would provide federal grants to improve police training, and create a national database of police misconduct complaints. But it fell well short of what activists say is needed. Congress was unable to reconcile police reform proposals earlier this summer....

As Republicans were fond of noting during their convention, Joe Biden has a 47-year record as a U.S. senator and then vice president. During much of his Senate career, he was a member of and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and in 1994 sponsored the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act.  It came in a different era, as Democrats set out to prove that they, too, were "tough on crime."  The bill included a 10-year ban on assault-style weapons as well as the Violence Against Women Act, which Biden points to today as a signal of his commitment to ending domestic violence.  But the act also included harsh penalties for drug-related crimes and money to construct new prisons, which critics said led to the mass incarceration of Black men. It also included funding to hire 100,000 additional police officers.

Now, Biden has backed away from some of the provisions in that bill, while at the same time rejecting calls by some in his party to defund police departments. He's proposed a ban on police chokeholds, a new federal police oversight commission, new national standards for when and how police use force, more mandatory data collection from local law enforcement and other steps.

There are three Presidential debates scheduled to begin in late September, and I am sure this season will bring at least a few questions on crime, police reform and racial justice issues.  But there are so many issues in the criminal justice arena that merit attention and that are likely to be of considerable interest to voters.  Clemency policies and practices, for example, could and should merit focused debate discussion.  So, too, should the operation of the death penalty, especially now that the Trump Administration has carried out five federal executions while the Biden policy task force calls for abolishing the death penalty "at the federal level, and incentiviz[ing] states to follow the federal government’s example."

And let's not forget marijuana and other drug policy issues.  At least six states in 2020 will be voting on state-level marijuana reforms, and other forms of reform concerning other drugs are also on various other ballot.  The Trump Administration has given some attention to the opioid crisis, and we ought to have both candidates discuss drug overdoses which still result in many, many more deaths of young people than has the coronovirus (NIDA reports over 4600 overdose deaths for persons aged 15-24 in 2018; the CDC reports under 400 COVID deaths for that same age group in 2020).

And the list of important topics for debate and discussion could go on and on: the operation and oversight of the federal Bureau of Prisons; reform of mandatory minimum sentencing provisions; voting rights for those with past convictions; the policies and practices of so-called progressive prosecutors; appointments to the US Sentencing Commission; barriers to effective reentry due to collateral consequences; the timeline and possible substance for a Second Step Act (and a Third Step Act).  The great new Council on Criminal Justice (CCJ) released a few months ago this big new report titled "Next Steps: An Agenda for Federal Action on Safety and Justice."   This report had 15 thoughtful recommendations for federal reform, each of which could justify extended debate discussion.

I will not belabor this point here, but in the coming months I likely will keep returning to the idea that an entire Prez debate should be devoted exclusively to discussing criminal justice issues.  The candidates' histories and well as their campaigns, not to mention the moment we are living through, justify more than just one or two questions on these topics.  As in years past, I expect to be disappointed on this front.  But, as in years past, I will keep using this platform to push what I think is a sound debate agenda for voters and the nation.

August 30, 2020 in Campaign 2020 and sentencing issues, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, August 28, 2020

Has anyone sentenced to life without parole ever before been granted a full Prez pardon?

Earlier today, I asked in this post "Has anyone sentenced to life without parole ever before spoken on final night of major political convention?".  I was referencing, of course, Alice Marie Johnson having the chance to tell her story during the final night of the Republican National Convention. 

But now, as this post title highlights, I have a new, update question about Ms. Johnson based on this news as reported by Politico:  "President Donald Trump on Friday granted a full pardon to Alice Marie Johnson — the 65-year-old Memphis woman whose life sentence he commuted two years ago — just hours after Johnson spoke on behalf of Trump’s reelection campaign during the Republican National Convention."  Here is more:

Johnson was serving life in prison for a nonviolent drug offense when Trump commuted her sentence in June 2018 at the urging of reality TV star Kim Kardashian West, who visited the White House to advocate for Johnson’s release.

On Thursday, during the final night of Republicans’ nominating convention, Johnson delivered a primetime speech testifying to Trump’s “compassion” and commending the administration’s work to advance criminal justice reform legislation. “My transformation was described as extraordinary,” she said. “Truth is, there are thousands of people just like me who deserve the opportunity to come home.”

In an interview later Friday on CNN, Johnson said she “had no idea” Trump would grant her a pardon during their White House meeting.

August 28, 2020 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Has anyone sentenced to life without parole ever before spoken on final night of major political convention?

The question in the title of this post is prompted, of course, by Alice Marie Johnson having the chance to tell her story during the final night of the Republican National Convention.  I was on the road, so I missed the speech live, but PBS has it available via YouTube at this link.  And here is a round-up of just some media coverage of what seems like a historic speech:

Via BuzzFeed News, "Alice Johnson, Whose Sentence Was Commuted By Trump, Gave An Uplifting Speech About Criminal Justice Reform At The RNC"

Via CNN, "Alice Johnson shares powerful redemption story at RNC"

From The Hill, "Alice Johnson praises Trump for First Step Act, urges compassion for 'forgotten faces'"

Via Yahoo Entertainment, "Former Inmate Alice Johnson, Championed by Kim Kardashian & Freed by Trump, Urges More Change at RNC"

I am often quite discouraged these days about both the state of our nation and the state of our politics.  But here is hoping that we can all find some joy and inspiration in this one story to keep moving (and move faster) on badly needed reform to all our criminal justice systems in incarceration nation.

August 28, 2020 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Trump’s failed promise of criminal justice reform gives Biden an opening"

The title of this post is the headline of this new Washington Post commentary authored by Mark Osler.  Here is an excerpt:

As a lifelong Democrat, I found myself in a very unexpected place on Sept. 5, 2018: sitting next to Jared Kushner in the Roosevelt Room of the White House. Ivanka Trump was at the other end of the table, and Kim Kardashian West sat across from me. This was not my normal crowd.
Kushner had called the meeting to discuss reform of the broken federal clemency system, which allows the president to shorten a sentence or mitigate a conviction. New York University professor Rachel Barkow and I had been asked to explain what was wrong and how to fix it.  It’s a short, sad story: The system for evaluating clemency petitions is mired in the bureaucracy and internal conflicts of the Justice Department. As a result, the mercy intended by the Constitution has been in short supply for three decades.
Barkow and I opened the meeting by laying out the problems and offering a solution: the creation of an independent board to evaluate clemency petitions and make recommendations to the president. There was a quick consensus around the table that change was needed. I felt hopeful, largely because we seemed to have Kushner on our side. He was engaged and motivated; the experience of having a parent incarcerated had given him insight into the broader problems we described. Furthermore, the usual institutional opponent to criminal justice reform in any administration — the Justice Department — was out of the way due to the president’s ongoing dispute with then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions....

The Trump administration never did reform the clemency process.  Instead of issuing an executive order to create a formal, bipartisan board, Trump chose to assemble a small team of insiders to funnel cases to him.  The primary recipients of his pardon power have been his personal friends and some right-wing celebrities.  Today more than 13,000 federal clemency petitions sit awaiting action — and Trump pays so little attention to them that he hasn’t even bothered to deny any cases in more than two years.

The First Step Act was not followed by a second or third step, and reform’s fate was sealed when Barr became attorney general. Unlike Sessions, Barr won Trump’s trust, and with that came the return of the Justice Department’s veto power over policy issues. Barr and Trump march to the same “law and order” rhythm — a path inconsistent with any real progressive changes. Of course, Trump has continued to take credit as a criminal justice reformer, long after he stopped reforming anything and headed off in the opposite direction.

Democratic nominee Joe Biden has a political opening here, if he chooses to use it. Back in the 1980s and ’90s he, too, thumped the table for law and order; but he can legitimately claim to have changed his mind and moved away from the dark shadow of senseless retribution and over-incarceration.

More importantly, Biden has a humanity about him that Trump cannot conjure, and that is a plus when the discussion comes to human frailty and punishment in the shadow of George Floyd’s death. Unlike Trump, Biden has the ability to credibly admit his mistakes, commit to implementing specific reforms, and then make those changes once in office. Such honesty, humility and resolve would be a welcome change from the slow, sad slide we have seen since that hopeful day in the Roosevelt Room.

August 28, 2020 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, August 27, 2020

An effective (and only partial) look at complicated criminal justice records of Trump and Biden

Newsweek has this effective new piece headlined "Trump and Biden Both Have Complicated Records on Criminal Justice Reform," and here are excerpts:

Despite billing themselves as the best bet voters have for criminal justice reform, neither former Vice President Joe Biden nor President Donald Trump has a strong record to fall back on.

The Republican National Convention kicked off on Monday with Senator Tim Scott and Georgia state Representative Vernon Jones, a Democrat, lauding Trump for the First Step Act, a criminal justice reform bill the president signed in 2018. Trump — who pardoned on Tuesday night Jon Ponder, a former bank robber who started a nonprofit in 2010 to help formerly incarcerated individuals — and other speakers contrasted that accomplishment with Biden's involvement in tough-on-crime legislation....

A bipartisan bill, the First Step Act resulted in the release of 3,100 people from prison in July 2019 as part of the act's "good time credit fix," and an additional 3,000 people were resentenced to shorter prison terms, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.  It's an aspect of the Trump administration's legacy that some experts say should be praised, but it's all Trump has to point to in terms of criminal justice reform legislation.

"Yes, he signed and supported an important piece of legislation, but that seems to be where the story ends," Kara Gotsch, director of strategic initiatives at the Sentencing Project, told Newsweek. "I think a lot of people in my community, after the commutation of Alice Johnson, hoped that it would lead to significant numbers of commutations."

Trump granted Johnson clemency in June 2018 after she served 21 years in prison for a first-time nonviolent drug offense. Two years later, he commuted the sentences of Crystal Munoz, Tynice Hall and Judith Negron, three women who served prison time with Johnson, and on Thursday, she's expected to speak at the GOP convention.

For all the lambasting of Biden's criminal justice record and praise of the First Step Act, Trump's also taken a hard stance in favor of law enforcement, labeled protesters "anarchists" and characterized himself as a "law and order" president. Trump also pushed for the death penalty for the Central Park Five, a group of young men wrongly convicted of a 1989 murder. He supported the same punishment for drug dealers just three months after signing the First Step Act, making it unclear where he truly stands on criminal justice reform....

Trump's sending "mixed signals" to different audiences with regard to criminal justice reform, according to Rachel Barkow, author of Prisoners of Politics: Breaking the Cycle of Mass Incarceration.  While Biden isn't her "dream candidate," he's the "more promising" option, in her opinion, because both his and vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris' recent actions indicate they'll be supportive of such reform. Harris' "trajectory is going in the right direction, and Biden at least is claiming that he is going to support more criminal justice reform efforts," Barkow said.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Biden sponsored and supported laws that created mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug-related crimes and increased funding for states to build prisons.  Two laws, the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act and the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, have gotten the bulk of the attention for the disproportionate impacts on the African American community....

Biden has called his role in passing tough-on-crime legislation a "big mistake," and in June he said concerns about the 1994 crime bill were "legitimate" during a virtual NAACP forum.  But he said people should base their opinion on his current actions and comments. Biden's plan if elected includes increased rehabilitation for formerly incarcerated people, creating a $20 billion grant program for states that eliminate mandatory minimums for nonviolent crimes, decriminalizing the use of marijuana and eliminating sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine....

Barkow said she hopes if Biden wins, he appoints a new crop of U.S. attorneys and that people who are appointed to sentencing commissions and federal judgeships are from the public defense and civil liberties sector, because bringing that side of the system into the fold is likely to result in better criminal justice reform.... Although she is confident Biden would be more in favor of criminal justice reform than Trump, Barkow said if Biden doesn't take responsibility for the mistakes he's made in the past and commit to using his clemency powers, it will show there were "no lessons learned."

There is so much more to the criminal justice records of both these men, this story only really scratches the surface (though does so well). I am hopeful that these topics get significant attention in the upcoming debates, in part to get both candidates on the record promising to do more in this arena.

August 27, 2020 in Campaign 2020 and sentencing issues, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Native American death sentence carried out as feds complete record-setting fourth execution of 2020

As reported in this AP piece, the "only Native American on federal death row was put to death Wednesday, despite objections from many Navajo leaders who had urged President Donald Trump to halt the execution on the grounds it would violate tribal culture and sovereignty." Here is more:

With the execution of Lezmond Mitchell for the grisly slayings of a 9-year-old and her grandmother, the federal government under the pro-death penalty president has now carried out more executions in 2020 than it had in the previous 56 years combined....

Mitchell, 38, and an accomplice were convicted of killing Tiffany Lee and 63-year-old Alyce Slim after the grandmother offered them a lift as they hitchhiked on the Navajo Nation in 2001.  They stabbed Slim 33 times, slit Tiffany’s throat and stoned her to death. They later mutilated both bodies.

A bid by tribal leaders to persuade Trump to commute Mitchell’s sentence to life in prison failed, as did last-minute appeals by his lawyers for a stay.  The first three federal executions in 17 years went ahead in July after similar legal maneuvers failed. Keith Nelson, who was also convicted of killing a child, is slated to die Friday.

“Nearly 19 years after Lezmond Mitchell brutally ended the lives of two people, destroying the lives of many others, justice finally has been served,” Justice Department spokesperson Kerri Kupec said in a statement....

Death-penalty advocates say the Trump administration’s restart of executions is bringing justice — too long delayed — to victims and families.  There are currently 58 men and one woman on federal death row, many of whose executions have been pending for over 20 years....

Prior to this year, the federal government had carried out just three executions since 1963, all of them between 2001 and 2003, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center. Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh was among them.

The first of the resumed executions was of former white supremacist Daniel Lewis Lee on July 14.  Two others, Wesley Purkey and Dustin Honken, were executed later the same week. The victims of all three also included children.  The executions of Christopher Andre Vialva and William Emmett LeCroy are scheduled for late September.

August 26, 2020 in Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Highlighting disorder under an administration trying to lay claim to "law and order"

Miriam Aroni Krinsky and Roy L. Austin, Jr. have this notable new Hill commentary headlined "Bad law and failed order." I recommend the piece in full, and here are excerpts:

As the Republican National Convention plays out this week, a public service warning to all Americans: Don’t buy the hype you are hearing when it comes to crime in America....

First, we must level-set.  More than 178, 000 people in the United States have died from COVID-19 in the last nine months, and that number is likely an undercount.  On the other hand, in 2018, the last full year of available data, there were 16,214 homicides in the U.S. — less than 10 percent of the deaths from a virus this president has largely ignored.  In fact, homicide is not even in the top 10 causes of death in America....

The average number of annual homicides under President Obama (15,177) was more than 1,000 fewer than under President Trump (16,754).  At the same time, Trump has overseen a dramatic increase in hate crime.  In Trump’s two years for which data is available, there were 7,175 and 7,120 hate crimes — significantly more than in any year that President Obama was in office.  And police officers have statistically been no safer from felonious death under Trump (50 per year) than under Obama (51).

This administration’s hypocrisy over local rule must also be examined.  President Trump, Attorney General William Barr and their allies regularly attack reform-minded prosecutors and encourage federal intervention.  But these local prosecutors were elected by their communities explicitly because of their commitment to reform the system.  Yet, when it comes to COVID-19, where federal leadership is critical, this administration hypocritically insists on deferring to local rule....

What these reform-minded prosecutors understand is that past “tough on crime” practices didn’t work.  For more than two decades, regardless of what party has held the presidency, homicide numbers have remained at historic lows. Despite annual state and local law enforcement and corrections spending of close to $200 billion, the homicide rate has barely moved and the clearance rate for homicides and other crimes remains pathetically low. The number of people law enforcement officers annually kill — more than 1,000 — also remains stubbornly consistent.

Despite the Trump administration’s attempt to spread fear among suburban voters, we know that we can significantly reduce the footprint of law enforcement while also enhancing community safety and constitutional policing.  In New York City, there were 685,724 police stops in 2011.  From 2014 through 2017, that number was below 50,000, and the number of homicides and violent crimes trended down significantly throughout that period.

While under a federal consent decree, New Orleans had its lowest homicide numbers in decades. While it is too early to determine whether we are seeing any significant uptick in violent crime, the economic consequences of Trump’s failed COVID-19 response, his refusal to address the proliferation of firearms and his encouragement of police violence would be the most likely causes.

Those fighting for dramatic changes to our criminal system recognize that, to truly enhance public safety, we must address underlying societal problems and fortify community trust.  We must treat substance use disorder as the public health issue that it is.  We must ensure people have jobs paying decent wages.  We must reduce homelessness and provide quality, affordable housing.  We must be smarter about education spending and eliminate school police who propel Black and Brown kids into the justice system.  We must stop the disparate searches, arrests, detention, use of force and incarceration of people of color.  And we must not ignore racism in all systems, because only when there is equality and justice will there be safety.

August 26, 2020 in Campaign 2020 and sentencing issues, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Reflections on the Warren Court's Criminal Justice Legacy, Fifty Years Later: What the Wings of a Butterfly and a Yiddish Proverb Teach Me"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper authored by my colleague Joshua Dressler which is available via SSRN.  Here is its abstract:

I reflect on the criminal justice legacy of the Warren Court, which ended approximately a half-century ago. I ask: How much of the law and values that Earl Warren and his colleagues transmitted to us remain a part of our constitutional fabric today?  Put more bluntly, was the Warren Court successful or a failure in meeting its criminal justice goals?

As I see it, the goal of Earl Warren and his most progressive colleagues during his 15+ years on the high court was to reshape the criminal justice system by placing restrictions on those with the greatest power, primarily the police and prosecutors, and by providing greater rights to the rest of us (particularly the most vulnerable amongst us) when we are confronted by the awesome power of government in our homes, streets, police stations, and courts.

If those were, indeed, the amorphously described criminal justice goals of the Warren Court, and if we are evaluating it by looking at where we are today in regard to those goals, I am forced to conclude that the Warren Court was to a significant extent a failure.  And yet, as the title of this article hopefully suggests, there may be another way to look at the Warren Court’s efforts.  Indeed, I will ultimately conclude that, at least for civil libertarians, we owe a debt to Earl Warren and his Court.

August 26, 2020 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Without any dissents, SCOTUS rejects legal claims of Native American scheduled for federal execution today

As reported here by Amy Howe at SCOTUSblog, the "Supreme Court on Tuesday night declined to block the execution, scheduled for Wednesday, of Lezmond Mitchell, the only Native American on federal death row."   Here is more, with links to orders:

The justices, without any noted dissents, denied two emergency requests from Mitchell seeking to postpone the execution.  Mitchell had argued that he should be given the opportunity to interview his jurors about potential bias during deliberations and that the government’s planned lethal-injection protocol violates federal law.

If the execution goes forward, Mitchell will be the fourth federal inmate executed this year after nearly two decades in which the federal government did not carry out the death penalty.  Three additional federal executions are scheduled before the end of September.

Mitchell, a Navajo man, was convicted and sentenced to death in 2003 for the carjacking and stabbing deaths of Alyce Slim and her nine-year-old granddaughter, who were also members of the Navajo Nation.  At Mitchell’s trial, prosecutors told jurors – all but one of whom were white – that, in the Old West, Mitchell “would have been taken out back” and “strung up.”...

Mitchell came to the Supreme Court last week, asking the justices to block his execution and take up the question of whether, in death penalty cases, district courts can bar inmates from interviewing jurors about racial bias during deliberations....

Mitchell filed a separate request on Sunday to block his execution to give the justices time to weigh in on a dispute over the interpretation of the Federal Death Penalty Act, which requires the federal government to carry out executions “in the manner prescribed by the law of the state in which the sentence is imposed.”...

In two orders on Tuesday night, the Supreme Court rejected both of Mitchell’s requests.  No justices publicly dissented, but Justice Sonia Sotomayor attached a short statement arguing that the court should soon resolve the dispute in the lower courts over how to interpret the Federal Death Penalty Act.  Mitchell’s case was not the right vehicle for the court to resolve that dispute, Sotomayor wrote, because the 9th Circuit assumed an interpretation that was favorable to Mitchell but still denied him relief. “But with additional federal executions scheduled in the coming months, the importance of clarifying the FDPA’s meaning remains,” Sotomayor continued. “I believe that this Court should address this issue in an appropriate case.”

A few of many recent prior related posts:

August 26, 2020 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Two great new pieces providing perspectives on prosecutorial perspectives

Two great new press pieces from major outlets provide a great window into the work and thinking of modern prosecutors.  Here are links with headlines and subheadlines:

From the New York Times, "Can Prosecutors Be Taught to Avoid Jail Sentences?: At least 60 district attorneys have come to see incarceration as destructive, racist, expensive and ineffective. But can they persuade their own staffs?"

From Politico, "‘Prosecutors Are Not Exempt from Criticism’: Five Black, female prosecutors offer 11 ideas for how to make their profession part of the solution."

August 25, 2020 in Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Prez Trump grants pardon to Jon Ponder just before his RNC convention speech

As reported in this Fox News piece, "President Trump on Tuesday announced a pardon of Jon Ponder ahead of the convicted bank robber's appearance at the Republican National Convention on Tuesday night."  Here is more:

Ponder, who founded the nonprofit Hope For Prisoners, will be speaking at the convention, along with Richard Beasley, the FBI agent who arrested him, Fox News is told.

Ahead of the appearance, the president announced the pardon in a video.

Here is a link to the video announcing the pardon and providing more background on Jon Ponder, and this JustLeadershipUSA biography details some of what Ponder has been doing in service to criminal justice reform:

Jon D. Ponder is the founder and CEO of HOPE for Prisoners, Inc. In 2017, Jon was appointed by Governor Brian Sandoval to the Nevada Sentencing Commission and to the Nevada Commission on Postsecondary Education. He was appointed to the Governor’s Reentry Taskforce and the US Commission on Civil Rights Nevada State Advisory Committee in 2016. Jon holds a seat on the Executive Committee of RECAP (Rebuilding Every Community Around Peace) with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department.  His responsibilities include oversight of all aspects of the programs and services provided by HOPE for Prisoners, including a comprehensive array of program components designed to assist individuals to successfully reintegrate into society.  He develops and implements strategic planning for the organization and is extremely passionate about the value of mentoring for persons coming out of correctional settings.

Jon was himself formerly incarcerated and has more than twelve years’ experience in providing training for offender populations in correctional settings.  His personal life experiences equip him to provide the guidance, direction and motivation for individuals attempting to navigate the challenges they face during the reintegration process.

August 25, 2020 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

"The RNC Can't Figure Out Where It Stands on Criminal Justice Reform"

The title of this post captures my own thinking about the somewhat confusing messages being delivered so far from the Republic convention (after the Democratic convention, sadly, barely discussed the issue).  The title of this post is also the headline of this effective new Reason piece by C.J. Ciaramella, which includes these passages:

Speakers at the first night of the 2020 Republican National Convention tried to navigate two competing messages on the criminal justice system.  One was that Joe Biden was an architect of mass incarceration and lock-em-up policies, which Donald Trump rightfully rolled back.  The other message was that only Republicans will stand up for police and the law.

Sen. Tim Scott (R–S.C.), the only black Republican in the Senate, assailed Joe Biden for his role in the 1994 crime bill and creating sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine. "Trump fixed many of the disparities that Biden created and made our system more fair and just for all Americans," Scott said, referring to the passage of the 2018 FIRST STEP Act.  Georgia Democrat Vernon Jones, venturing into hyperbole, claimed that Trump "ended once and for all the policy of incarceration of black people." (Although the legislation did result in the release of several thousand federal inmates, it did not abolish the federal prison system, Reason regrets to report.)

But at the same time that speakers were lauding Trump for criminal justice reforms that rolled back some of the laws that Biden helped pass, they were making constant references to riots, violent criminals being let loose on the street, and the threat of antifa mobs coming to your suburban neighborhood once the Marxist Democrats defund the police....

Backing the blue has been one of the centerpieces of Trump's "LAW AND ORDER!" reelection campaign.  Trump's campaign released a 2nd term agenda Sunday night, seeking to put to rest questions of what exactly, if anything, the president and Republicans stand for.  The list of about 50 bullet points includes five under the heading "Defend Our Police."

  • Fully Fund and Hire More Police and Law Enforcement Officers
  • Increase Criminal Penalties for Assaults on Law Enforcement Officers
  • Prosecute Drive-By Shootings as Acts of Domestic Terrorism
  • Bring Violent Extremist Groups Like ANTIFA to Justice
  • End Cashless Bail and Keep Dangerous Criminals Locked Up until Trial

The Republican Party decided to forgo releasing a party platform this year, instead simply saying it supports Trump's agenda.  So this thin gruel, along with speeches at this week's RNC, are what constitute the Republican positions on criminal justice....

Although it will probably come to nothing but more culture war fodder, the inclusion of a pro-cash bail item in Trump's 2nd term agenda is a clearer sign of the Trump administration's priorities on criminal justice than a bill signed two years ago.

August 25, 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)

Monday, August 24, 2020

Amidst seemingly little attention, federal government seemingly poised to carry out two more executions this week

As partially covered here and here, there was considerable media attention as well as considerable last-minute litigation as the US Justice Department moved forward with plans for, and ultimately completed, three federal executions in a single week in July.  Now another federal capital week looms, as federal officials are scheduled to execute by lethal injection Lezmond Mitchell on Wednesday, August 26 and Keith Dwayne Nelson on Friday, August 28 (and the feds have yet another double-death week planned for September with William LeCroy scheduled for execution on September 22 and Christopher Vialva scheduled for execution on September 24).  But, as the title of this post suggests, I sense this second round of federal executions is getting a lot less attention than even the usual state execution typically does.

Notably, Lezmond Mitchell has some pending claims before the Supreme Court (SCOTUSblog coverage here), and the fact that he is the only Native American on federal death row has generated some media coverage as highlighted by these stories:

But even with these pieces and some additional critical commentary, it still seems like the planned federal execution of Lezmond Mitchell is getting less attention than I might have expected.  Even more remarkable, I cannot seem to find a single detailed press piece written recently about Keith Dwayne Nelson and his pending federal execution.  I surmise that Nelson does not have any legal appeals pending, but that fact alone would be remarkable (and press-worthy) if anyone were closely paying attention.

It is not hard to understand why these matters are not getting much attention.  An enduring pandemic, an election season, back-to-school challenges, wildfires and hurricanes, protests and so much else all make for much better "copy" for the media.  Moreover, as suggested in this post, there may be less legal drama around these cases after SCOTUS made clear last month that it would be eager to lift lower court stays to enable executions to move forward on the schedule set by Attorney General Barr.  Still, I had to remark on how remarkable it seems to me that this week's executions now seem so likely to go forward with relatively so little attention.

A few of many recent prior related posts:

UPDATE: I failed to see this Friday afternoon press report on noting that Nelson's lawyers have joined in filings about the federal government's executions methods, which is headlined "Lawyers: Autopsy suggests inmate suffered during execution." Here are the basics:

An inmate suffered “extreme pain" as he received a dose of pentobarbital during just the second federal execution following a 17-year lag, according to court filings by lawyers representing one of the inmates scheduled to be executed next.  The claim Wesley Purkey may have felt a sensation akin to drowning while immobilized but conscious is disputed by Department of Justice attorneys. They insist the first three lethal injections since 2003 were carried out without a hitch last month at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana.

This month's filings were part of motions to halt the execution of Keith Nelson, convicted in the 1999 rape and strangulation of 10-year-old Pamela Butler. Prosecutors said he pulled her into his truck as she skated on rollerblades back to her Kansas home after buying herself cookies.  Nelson’s execution is set for Aug. 28.  The execution of Lezmond Mitchell, the only Native American on federal death row, is scheduled for Aug. 26. His lawyers have made similar arguments.

August 24, 2020 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, August 22, 2020

"Civil-Asset Forfeiture Should Be an Easy Place to Start on Criminal-Justice Reform"

The title of this post is the title of this new National Review commentary authored by Isaac Schorr.  Here are excerpts:

Civil-forfeiture reform is the principal focus of the FAIR Act, and for good reason: The process is broken.  Under this form of forfeiture, the government brings charges against the property itself without leveling any against the property owner.  On a federal level, criminal behavior need not be proven for law enforcement to initiate civil-asset-forfeiture proceedings; mere suspicion is considered reason enough.  It’s worth noting that as California’s attorney general, Democratic vice-presidential nominee Kamala Harris strongly supported handing this same power to local law enforcement — for the people, of course.

Once proceedings have been initiated, the government needs to prove, by a preponderance of the evidence (51 percent sure), only that the property is subject to forfeiture.  The burden of proof then belongs — in most states — to the owners of the property, who must show that they were neither involved in any criminal activity nor aware that their property was being used for criminal purposes, or that, if it were, then they took steps to end that criminal activity.  Worst of all, property owners are not even necessarily entitled to legal representation. Whether they are granted this basic right is left to the discretion of the presiding judge.

Why has civil-asset forfeiture, which flies in the face of American expectations of due process and the presumption of innocence, been allowed to persist in its current form? It’s all about the Benjamins.  The federal government takes in net revenues exceeding $1 billion annually from asset forfeiture, and states share in the cash cow through “equitable sharing.”  This practice, which sounds innocent enough, provides local authorities with perverse incentives.  Per the Institute for Justice, equitable sharing allows law enforcement to “bypass state laws that limit civil forfeiture.  By collaborating with a federal agency, they can move to forfeit property under federal law and take up to 80 percent of what the property is worth,” which gives them “a direct financial stake in forfeiture encourag[ing] profiteering and not the pursuit of justice.”  What police department would not take advantage of such a profitable opportunity, particularly when those profits are not subject to the same oversight as taxpayer dollars?

The problems with civil-asset forfeiture are many; the FAIR Act addresses nearly all of them.  It would raise the evidentiary standards that the government needs to meet to the “clear and convincing” level.  It would place the burden of proof on the government to show a property owner’s knowledge of criminal activity rather than asking property owners to make the case for their innocence.  It would guarantee property owners the right to legal representation.  Perhaps most important, it would end equitable sharing, incentivizing police departments to stop spending their time pursuing frivolous forfeiture claims.  The act’s changes to the reporting structure are also important.  The Justice Department does not currently provide a public breakdown of how much of their annual seizures are criminal, administrative, and civil forfeiture, respectively.  The FAIR Act would mandate such a breakdown....

The FAIR Act has been endorsed by the Heritage Foundation and American Civil Liberties Union and is cosponsored by legislators as liberal as 2016 Bernie Sanders backer Tulsi Gabbard and as conservative as Freedom Caucus member Paul Gosar.  A functioning Congress acting in the best interest of the American people would take notice of this broad consensus and act swiftly to pass this piece of commonsense legislation.

August 22, 2020 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, August 20, 2020

AG Barr says, unsurprisingly, that feds will appeal reversal of Boston Marathon bomber's death sentence

As reported in this new AP piece, headlined "Barr: Feds to appeal ruling, seek death for Boston bomber," the US Attorney General has told the press that the Justice Department will seek to get the Boston Marathon bomber, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, back on federal death row. Here are the details:

The Justice Department will seek to reinstate a death penalty for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the man who was convicted of carrying out the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, Attorney General William Barr said Thursday.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Barr said the Justice Department would appeal the court’s ruling last month that tossed Tsarnaev’s death sentence and ordered a trial to determine whether he should be executed for the attack that killed three people and wounded more than 260 others.  Barr said the Justice Department would take the matter to the U.S. Supreme Court. “We will do whatever’s necessary,” Barr said.  “We will take it up to the Supreme Court and we will continue to pursue the death penalty.”...

A three-judge panel of the 1st U.S. Circuit court found in July that the judge who oversaw the 2015 trial did not adequately question potential jurors about what they had read or heard about the highly publicized case....

Tsarnaev, now 27, was convicted of all 30 charges against him, including conspiracy and use of a weapon of mass destruction and the killing of an MIT police officer during the Tsarnaev brothers’ getaway attempt.  The appeals court upheld all but a few of his convictions.

An attorney for Tsarnaev, David Patton, declined to comment Thursday.  Patton said after the 1st Circuit’s decision that “it is now up to the government to determine whether to put the victims and Boston through a second trial, or to allow closure to this terrible tragedy by permitting a sentence of life without the possibility of release.”...

Describing media attention in the case as “unrivaled in American legal history,” the appeals court said U.S. District Judge George O’Toole fell short in running a jury selection process “sufficient to identify prejudice.”  The 1st Circuit also found that O’Toole erred in refusing to let the defense tell jurors about evidence tying Tamerlan Tsarnaev to the killings of three people in the Boston suburb of Waltham in 2011....

President Donald Trump tweeted after the decision that the federal government “must again seek the Death Penalty in a do-over of that chapter of the original trial.”  The ruling came as the U.S. government recently resumed federal executions following a 17-year pause.

Prior recent related posts:

August 20, 2020 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Leadership Conference urges Senate Judiciary Committee "not to advance" Prez Trump's slate of nominee to the US Sentencing Commission

I reported in this post last week about Prez Trump's (long overdue) nominations to the US Sentencing Commission, a critical criminal justice agency that has been crippled by having only two (of seven) Commissioners in place since the start of 2019.  In my prior post, I speculated that these nominations have been put forward too late in the year before a presidential election to likely move forward.  And now the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights has written this letter to Senate Judiciary Chair Lindsey Graham and ranking member Dianne Feinstein to urge them to not advance these nominees.   Here is some of the text of the letter: 

On behalf of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights (The Leadership Conference), a coalition charged by its diverse membership of more than 220 national organizations to promote and protect civil and human rights in the United States, we write to urge the Judiciary Committee not to advance the slate of nominees to the United States Sentencing Commission that President Trump announced on August 12, 2020.  We are concerned that the four Republican nominees lack the diversity of race, viewpoint, and professional experience needed to reform a federal sentencing regime that has devastated communities of color for decades.  Our nation incarcerates people at a higher rate than any other country in the world.  The First Step Act of 2018 is proof of the bipartisan consensus in favor of changing this course.  But Senate confirmation of this homogeneous slate will delay meaningful sentencing reform and moves in the wrong direction at a moment when our nation demands a reckoning with structural and racial inequality....

[I]t is imperative that the Commission entrusted with such responsibility includes a diversity of experience and perspectives reflective of all individuals who move through federal courts. It is also no secret that policies are viewed as more legitimate if they are supported by diverse perspectives.  Considering the lack of diversity on the federal bench, a balance of viewpoints on the Commission is vital. While diversity on the Commission alone is not a cure-all for this nation’s mass incarceration crisis, it is key in fostering a more equitable system of justice....

Not a single Republican nominee is a person of color, and only one is a woman. As practitioners, each nominee’s experience with federal sentencing has been primarily through the lens of a prosecutor, U.S. Marshal, or both.  While these experiences are relevant to the Commission’s work, the disproportionate emphasis on them is not reflective of the diversity of background that Congress intended.  Moreover, the weight of these perspectives will worsen an already troubling bent towards law enforcement on the Commission, as the Department of Justice and the United States Parole Commission each have a designated ex officio member — an honor conspicuously not bestowed on any group that directly represents individuals in the federal legal system.  Two prospective nominees have particularly concerning records that suggest their inclusion on the Commission would hinder rather than redress this nation’s mass incarceration crisis. 

At a time when millions of people across this country are demanding that our institutions work to change course from the decades of systemic racism that have beget law enforcement brutality, it is more important than ever that the body charged with developing federal sentencing policy be representative of all people — particularly those upon whom it has had a disproportionate impact.  Past Commissions have taken important steps to address mass incarceration, from lowering the offense levels under the guidelines for drug trafficking offenses in 2014 to advocating as early as 1995 for parity between crack and powder cocaine.  The nominees recently proposed by President Trump, however, if confirmed by the Senate, are likely to undermine this progress by perpetuating outdated beliefs and confounding bipartisan efforts to reform our nation’s harsh sentencing practices.  We must not risk veering off the path towards meaningful sentencing reform. For these reasons, we urge the Judiciary Committee to reject the proposed slate of nominees for the U.S. Sentencing Commission, and to work to ensure that the Commission’s composition embodies the congressional intent of a diverse Commission membership. 

Prior related posts:

August 20, 2020 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Lots and lots of federal drug charges resulting from Operation Legend, which is purportedly to "fight violent crime"

Six week ago, Attorney General William Barr announced the launch of operation legend via this press release that stressed the fighting of violent crime.  Here are excerpts from the July 8 DOJ press release (with my emphasis added): 

Attorney General William P. Barr announced the launch of Operation Legend, a sustained, systematic and coordinated law enforcement initiative across all federal law enforcement agencies working in conjunction with state and local law enforcement officials to fight the sudden surge of violent crime, beginning in Kansas City, MO. Operation Legend was created as a result of President Trump’s promise to assist America’s cities that are plagued by recent violence....

“President Trump has made clear: the federal government stands ready and willing to assist any of our state and local law enforcement partners across the nation responding to violent crime. Operation Legend will combine federal and local resources to combat the disturbing uptick in violence by surging federal agents and other federal assets into cities like Kansas City, a city currently experiencing its worst homicide rate in its history,” said Attorney General Barr. “The Department’s Operation Legend is named in honor of one of Kansas City’s youngest victims, four-year old LeGend Taliferro who was shot in the face while sleeping in his bed.  LeGend’s death is a horrifying reminder that violent crime left unchecked is a threat to us all and cannot be allowed to continue.”

Today via this press release, AG Barr "announced updates on Operation Legend," and here are excerpts:

Since the operation’s launch, there have been more than 1,000 arrests, including defendants who have been charged in state and local courts.  Of those arrests, approximately 217 defendants have been charged with federal crimes.  These numbers exclude Indianapolis, whose operation was just announced last Friday. In addition, nearly 400 firearms have been seized by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

The Attorney General launched the operation on July 8, 2020, as a sustained, systematic and coordinated law enforcement initiative in which federal law enforcement agencies work in conjunction with state and local law enforcement officials to fight violent crime.... Launched first in Kansas City, MO., on July 8, 2020, the operation was expanded to Chicago and Albuquerque on July 22, 2020, to Cleveland, Detroit, and Milwaukee on July 29, 2020, to St. Louis and Memphis on Aug. 6, 2020, and to Indianapolis on Aug. 14, 2020. A breakdown of the federal charges in each district, with the exception of Indianapolis, is below.

I am please to see this kind of accounting from DOJ about this operation, but when looking through the breakdown of the federal charges, it is remarkable how for DOJ the effort to "fight violent crime" seems to involve making a whole lot of drug charges:

Kansas City: "Forty-three defendants have been charged with federal crimes ... 17 defendants have been charged with drug trafficking"

Chicago: "Sixty-one defendants have been charged with federal crimes ... 26 defendants have been charged with narcotics-related offenses"

Albuquerque: "Sixteen defendants have been charged with federal crimes ... Six defendants have been charged with conspiracy to distribute controlled substances; Four defendants have been charged with distribution of controlled substances; Six defendants have been charged with possession with intent to distribute a controlled substance;"

Cleveland: "Thirty-two defendants have been charged with federal crimes ... 22 defendants have been charged with federal drug trafficking charges"

Detroit: "Twenty-two defendants have been charged with federal offenses ... Two defendants have been charged with possession with the intent to distribute controlled substances"

Milwaukee: "Eleven defendants have been charged with federal crimes ... Five defendants have been charged with possession with intent to distribute narcotics"

St. Louis: "Twenty-five defendants have been charged with federal crimes ... 21 defendants have been charged with drug trafficking offenses"

Though it is hard to do an exact accounting based on the DOJ reporting, it seems like roughly half of the federal charges here involve drug trafficking, not actual violent crimes.  (In addition, the vast majority of all the  other federal charges involve illegal gun possession, not actual violent crimes.)  I presume DOJ would defend its work here by asserting that drug trafficking is inherently violent or by contending that disrupting the drug trade via these arrests serves to get people prone to violence off the streets.  But I still find it quite jarring and quite telling that a federal initiative developed and promoted as a means to fight violent crime ends up bringing primarily drug trafficking charges in city after city.

August 19, 2020 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Reviewing reservations about Prez Trump's latest slate of US Sentencing Commission nominees

Law360 has this effective new piece highlighting concerns about the make-up of the slate of US Sentencing Commission nominees announce by Prez Trump last week (basics here). The piece is headlined "Why Trump's Sentencing Panel Picks Worry Reform Boosters," and I recommend in in full.  Here is how it begins:

President Donald Trump has tapped five people for the influential commission that sets guidelines for federal prison sentences, but advocates for change on both the left and the right are calling the slate "antithetical to reform" and urging senators not to confirm the picks.

Prior related posts:

August 19, 2020 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

"Policing Procedural Error in the Lower Criminal Courts"

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

The criminal justice system depends on reviewing courts to formulate norms of procedural law and to make sure those norms are actually followed in the lower courts.  Yet reviewing courts are not performing either of these functions very well.  No single factor can fully explain why this is the case, for there is plenty of blame to go around.  But the harmless error rule is a major culprit. 

The conventional approach to harmless error review prohibits reversal of a defendant’s conviction or sentence, even when the law was violated during proceedings in the lower court, unless that violation influenced the outcome below.  This limitation impedes effective oversight of the lower courts in two significant ways.  First, it enables trial judges, prosecutors, and other relevant entities (such as a district attorney’s office, to name one example) to persistently evade accountability for procedural errors, diminishing their incentives to comply with legal norms.  And second, it provides reviewing courts with a handy tool to avoid resolving legal claims on their merits.  Instead of holding that an error did or did not occur, thereby helping trial judges, prosecutors, and others learn what the law requires going forward, reviewing courts can — and often do — affirm on factbound harmless error grounds without ever adjudicating the legality of the challenged conduct.

These failings call for a major shift in how courts review procedural error.  I propose that, in addition to examining whether an error affected the outcome, as current law directs, a reviewing court should also consider whether (1) reversal would substantially help to prevent future errors, (2) the error caused substantial harm to a legally protected interest unrelated to the outcome, and (3) the benefits of reversal, as tabulated in the previous steps, outweigh its costs.  After making the case for this framework and discussing how to operationalize each of its components, I then explore, a bit more tentatively, whether the same set of ideas could help stimulate much-needed rethinking of other controversial rules that further obstruct the policing of procedural error in the lower criminal courts.

August 18, 2020 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Should we all try to guess who will be the "very, very important" person that Prez Trump is planning to pardon?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this Reuters piece headlined "Trump says he will pardon a 'very important' person on Tuesday." Here are the details:

President Donald Trump said on Monday he would pardon a “very, very important” person on Tuesday, but added it would not be leaker Edward Snowden or former national security adviser Michael Flynn. “Doing a pardon tomorrow on someone who is very, very important,” Trump told reporters on Air Force One.

He declined to offer further details except to say it was not Flynn nor Snowden, a former U.S. National Security Agency contractor now living in Russia who has been charged with leaking secret information.

On Saturday, Trump said he was considering a pardon for Snowden, who gave a trove of secret files in 2013 to news organizations that disclosed vast domestic and international surveillance operations carried out by the NSA. Flynn twice pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his conversations with Russia’s then-ambassador, Sergey Kislyak. The U.S. Justice Department has sought to dismiss the case against Flynn following pressure from Trump and his allies.

Last month, Trump used his presidential power to commute the sentence of longtime friend and adviser Roger Stone, who was convicted of lying under oath to lawmakers investigating Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election.

I am wondering if Prez Trump is maybe just going to pardon someone whom he previously only gave a sentence commutation, such as Stone or Rod Blagojevich or maybe Marie Johnson.  But doing so would not really be that exciting after this Trumpian tease, so I really wonder who is the next person to be getting Trump's golden clemency ticket.

Any guesses (serious of joking), dear readers?

August 18, 2020 in Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (6)

Monday, August 17, 2020

Should we expect to hear much on criminal justice reform during the Democratic National Convention?

This evening marks the start of the Democratic National Convention, and I am unsure if its virtual nature makes me more or less likely to watch a lot of it. But I am sure that I will be eager to hear whether and how criminal justice issues are discussed. The salience of criminal justice reform issues seems to be growing every quadrennial, and heightened concerns about both racial justice and gun violence would seem to ensure that both parties will be discussing crime and punishment during their nominating events.

Here is a partial round-up of recent pieces I have seen about the Democratic ticket and criminal justice issues as we enter the final phase of the 2020 campaign:

Some on many prior related post:

August 17, 2020 in Campaign 2020 and sentencing issues, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Can and should judges demand prosecutors provide written explanations for dismissals and plea deals?

The question in this post and broader concerns about judicial review of prosecutorial discretion seems to be arising more and more in a variety of contexts. The election of many so-called progressive prosecutors seems in particular to be lead some not-so-progressive judges to be more eager to review and regulate prosecutorial action, and this AP article notes how this debate might come before the Virginia Supreme Court:

A northern Virginia prosecutor who says her county’s judges are infringing on her discretion to dismiss charges and enter plea bargains is asking the state Supreme Court to intervene on her behalf.  Arlington County Commonwealth’s Attorney Parisa Dehghani-Tafti filed a petition [available here] Friday asking the court for a relief from a policy imposed by the county’s four Circuit Court judges.

In March, two months after Dehghani-Tafti took office, the judges required prosecutors to file a written brief explaining themselves any time they decide to drop charges or enter a plea bargain. Dehghani-Tafti was one among a cadre of prosecutors in northern Virginia and across the nation to win office on a reform agenda, promising not to prosecute lower-level drug offenses.

She said that the order is not only time-consuming, but potentially damaging in cases where the reasons for dropping a case should remain private, like protecting a broader investigation or in cases of domestic violence where a victim declines to cooperate. “It is not wise for us to be putting in all those details, and the court should know that,” she said....

The issue is playing out nationally in different ways.  In Maryland, Republican Gov. Larry Hogan has crossed swords with Baltimore prosecutor Marilyn Mosby after Hogan tried to divert more resources to the state attorney general’s office to prosecute cases in the city. And in Missouri, the legislature is considering a bill filed during an ongoing special session sought by the state’s Republican governor that would give the state’s attorney general overlapping jurisdiction to prosecute cases amid complaints that St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kimberly M. Gardner is too lenient in bringing charges.

Both Mosby and Gardner are among 60 current and former prosecutors who have signed on to a friend-of-the-court brief supporting Dehghani-Tafti’s petition in Virginia.  Miriam Krinsky, executive director of Fair and Just Prosecution, the organization that submitted the friend-of-the-court brief [available here], said that while judges have their own discretion to question on a case-by-case basis a prosecutor’s motion to dismiss a particular case, she said that issuing a blanket policy requiring written justification for every decision is excessive.

“In the ’80s and ’90s prosecutors used their discretion to ramp up mass incarceration, and judges never second-guessed or interfered with that,” she said. “Now we have this sweeping order in all cases in Arlington County where an elected commonwealth’s attorney is wanting to do exactly what voters elected her to do.” In Arlington, Dehghani-Tafti said that in previous years, 75 percent of dismissed cases were handled on oral motions only, often taking only a minute or two.

She acknowledged that prosecutorial discretion cuts both ways, saying a rural prosecutor in a jurisdiction that has declared itself a Second Amendment sanctuary also enjoys the discretion to decline prosecution on firearms charges.  She said, though, that her efforts to pass on low-level drug cases are distinguishable on policy grounds, because she is moving in the same direction as the legislature, and that her approach to drug prosecutions is evidence-based. 

Because I have long been troubled that prosecutorial actions and discretion operates mostly in the dark without being subject to any clear legal standards or transparency or review, I generally like the notion of forcing prosecutors to explain and justify their actions and subjecting these actions to some form of judicial review.  But especially given our society's core commitment to freedoms and limited government, I strongly believe any obligation of explanation should apply primarily when prosecutors are seeking to use coercive government powers to deny freedoms, not when they are seeking to forgo the use of government powers and will enhance freedoms.

August 17, 2020 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Unsurprisingly, victims of Boston Marathon bomber differ on seeking a new death sentence for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev after reversal on appeal

Later this month, I will have the pleased of starting a new semester teaching my sentencing law and policy class.  I often ask my students about on-going real cases, and this year I will press student to consider whether they would want the US Attorney for Massachusetts to pursue capital resentencing in the Boston Marathon bombing case, United States v. Tsarnaev, following the First Circuit’s recent death sentence reversal. Helpfully, the Boston Globe has these two new pieces focused on this topic:

Here are excerpts from the first piece linked above:

The overturning of Tsarnaev’s death sentence has sent tremors of anxiety across the community of survivors and relatives of those killed in the attack, many of whom are still recovering from their physical and emotional wounds.... In a statement, Andrew Lelling, US attorney for Massachusetts, promised to consider the views of survivors and victims’ families before deciding whether to seek a new trial....

“Let him serve his life in prison, and let us live our lives in peace,” said Lynn Julian Crisci, who suffered a brain injury, hearing loss, and neurological disorders as a result of the first bomb. Crisci, 43, used to support the death penalty, until having to live through what feels like an endless appeals process.  Now she hopes prosecutors will not seek another penalty trial....

Of 18 victims who responded to the Globe about what prosecutors should do, a majority said they would prefer to avoid another trial and to let Tsarnaev spend the rest of his days at the US Penitentiary Administrative Maximum Facility in Colorado, the nation’s highest-security prison.

“I would prefer to let it go and let him rot in jail,” said Beth Bourgault, 65, who lives in Lynn. Bourgault and her husband were standing a few feet from Krystle Campbell when the first of two bombs exploded on Boylston Street.  Shrapnel severed muscles and nerves in one of her legs. She also suffered a ruptured eardrum.  Her husband, Michael, suffered burns and ear injuries as well.  She was troubled when Tsarnaev was originally sentenced to death and hopes prosecutors do not pursue a second trial.  “My feeling is he was hoping for death and that he got what he wanted,” she said. “I’d prefer he spend his days thinking about what he did.”

Other victims, though, were enraged by the court’s ruling and were willing to endure another trial to see Tsarnaev sentenced to death.  “If they don’t go through with the death penalty in this case, what kind of precedent is there?  What’s the point of the death penalty?” said Liz Norden, whose two adult sons lost their right legs in the bombing.  “This is personal to me.” Norden, 57, who lives in Melrose, vowed to attend a new trial.  “I want to see it through the end,” she said. “I want justice.”...

On Thursday, the US attorney’s office in Massachusetts, which prosecuted Tsarnaev in 2015, held a conference call with victims to discuss the appeals court decision and how they wished to proceed.  Discerning a consensus might be difficult.

Helen Zhao, who lost her niece Lingzi Lu, a 23-year-old Boston University graduate student from China, to the second bomb, supports the death penalty for Tsarnaev.  “He has harmed a lot of people and changed a lot of people’s lives,” she said.  “He’s a terrorist.” Lu’s parents, who live in China, were “shocked” and “speechless” by the ruling, she said.  “They were disappointed in the American legal system,” said Zhao, 49, who lives in Rhode Island.

Marc Fucarile, who lost his right leg in the bombing, worried that a life sentence could mean that Tsarnaev might one day be able to regain his freedom.  “As long as he’s breathing, that’s a possibility,” he said.  “They’re giving [Tsarnaev] a victory.” Fucarile, 41, who lives in Reading, testified during the penalty phase at Tsarnaev’s trial and said he would attend a new trial.  “I want to see it happen,” he said.

But Jenny Chung Greenfield, who was hit by shrapnel in her chest from one of the bombs, prefers that prosecutors put an end to what could be decades worth of appeals, keeping Tsarnaev’s name in the public eye.  She didn’t attend the first trial and doubts she’d go to a new one.  “I just think about what does closure mean, and closure is such a personal thing to people, and the way that folks find closure is different,” said Chung Greenfield, 42, who lives in Cambridge.

August 16, 2020 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Is Prez Trump serious about considering a pardon for Edward Snowden?

The question in the title of this post follows from Prez Trump's discussion of this possibility this weekend, as detailed in this Fox News piece.  Here are the basics:

President Trump said he will “look at” the case of Edward Snowden for a potential pardon. “I’m not that aware of the Snowden situation,” Trump told reporters in a briefing Saturday. “Many people think he should be somehow treated differently and other people think he did very bad things.”

“I’m going to take a look at that very strongly,” he added. Trump polled his aides Thursday to see whether he should free the anti-surveillance whistleblower and allow him to return to the U.S. from Russia without fear of arrest. “There are a lot of people that think that he is not being treated fairly. I mean, I hear that,” Trump told the New York Post in an interview....

His comments Saturday reveal remarkable reversal of course about the man he once deemed a “traitor." “Snowden is a spy who should be executed - but if it and he could reveal Obama’s records, I might become a major fan,” Trump wrote on Twitter in 2013.

A number of Republicans have voiced a renewed call for the president to free Snowden. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said he was one of those Trump referred to as believing Snowden was treated unfairly.... Another Kentucky Republican, Rep. Thomas Massie, voiced similar concerns. “Employees of the US government violated the Constitution and lied to Congress and the American people about it.  @Snowden exposed them.  This is bigger than him.  If he’s punished for his service to the Constitution, there will be more violations of the Constitution, and more lies,” Massie wrote on Twitter.

Snowden, hiding in Russia, said last year he would return to the U.S. if he would be guaranteed a fair jury trial.  “That is the ultimate goal, but if I’m going to spend the rest of my life in prison then my one, bottom-line demand that we all have to agree to is that at least I get a fair trial,” Snowden said on “CBS This Morning."  He said that the U.S. government has “refused” to guarantee one.  “They won’t provide access to what’s called a public interest defense,” Snowden said.

The ex-National Security Agency (NSA) contractor blew the lid off U.S. government surveillance methods in 2013.  Moscow has resisted U.S. pressure to extradite Snowden, who faces charges that could land him in prison for up to 30 years.  The Guardian in Britain published the first story based on Snowden's disclosures.  It revealed that a secret court order was allowing the U.S. government to Verizon phone records for millions of Americans.  Later stories, including those in The Washington Post, disclosed other snooping, and how U.S. and British spy agencies had tapped into information from cables carrying the world's phone and Internet traffic.

This Salon article, headlined "Trump's new comments about Edward Snowden put pressure on Democrats to support a pardon," highlights that support for Snowden has often come from progressive quarters:

The ACLU ... restated its support for the whistleblower in the wake of latest comments from Trump, noting in a late Saturday tweet that "Snowden blew the whistle on illegal government activity kept secret for years, sparking a global debate about the proper limits of government surveillance."

"We've said it before and we'll say it again," the group added. "Snowden is a patriot and should be pardoned."

In a Saturday tweet, digital rights activist Evan Greer singled out progressive lawmakers including "Squad" members Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), and Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) and said they should help "lead their party right now by publicly calling to #PardonSnowden" and protect whistleblowers.

And some members of the GOP are not at all keen on the idea, as highlighted by this Hill article headlined "Cheney calls pardoning Snowden 'unconscionable' after Trump says he's considering it":

Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) said on Sunday that pardoning former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor and whistleblower Edward Snowden “would be unconscionable” after President Trump said he was considering the idea at a recent press conference. <P.“Edward Snowden is a traitor. He is responsible for the largest and most damaging release of classified info in US history. He handed over US secrets to Russian and Chinese intelligence putting our troops and our nation at risk,” Cheney, the No. 3 Republican in the House, tweeted on Sunday afternoon, adding; “Pardoning him would be unconscionable.”

August 16, 2020 in Clemency and Pardons, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Saturday, August 15, 2020

"Denialism and the Death Penalty"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper now on SSRN authored by Jenny-Brooke Condon.  Here is its abstract:

The persistence of capital punishment as a constitutional form of punishment in the United States reflects deep denialism about the practice and the role of the courts in regulating it.  Denialism allows judges to embrace empirically contested narratives about the death penalty within judicial decisions, to sanction execution methods that shield and distort the pain associated with state killing, and to ignore the documented influence of race on the death penalty’s administration.  This Article draws upon the concept of denialism from the transitional justice context, a theory that explicates denial in responses to mass human rights violations and collective violence.  It describes mechanisms of denial in judicial regulation of capital punishment and argues that conditions will not be ripe for judicial abolition of the death penalty until this denialism is better understood and confronted.  I identify potential entry points for exposing and overcoming denialism in Eighth Amendment analysis.

August 15, 2020 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, August 14, 2020

FAMM urges Senators to "refrain from filling the vacancies" on the US Sentencing Commission until next year

I reported in this post earlier this week on Prez Trump's (long overdue) nominations to the US Sentencing Commission, a critical criminal justice agency that has been crippled by having only two (of seven) Commissioners in place since the start of 2019.  In my prior post, I speculated that these nomination have been put forward too late in the year before a presidential election to likely move forward.  And now I just saw this letter from the folks at FAMM to Senate Judiciary Chair Lindsey Graham and ranking member Dianne Feinstein urging them to refrain from filling the USSC vacancies until next year when the nominees can be properly vetted.  Here is some of the text of the FAMM letter:

The Senate’s role in shaping the composition of the U.S. Sentencing Commission has never been more important.  The commission will play a vital role in the continued implementation of the First Step Act.  The Senate must carefully consider whether nominees will faithfully implement the new reforms passed by Congress or whether they will seek to curtail them.  In addition, the commission must address a federal prison system that has been overwhelmed by the spread of COVID-19.  The deaths to date of 112 federal prisoners and at least one staff member compel serious reflection about various aspects of the federal prison system, including sentence lengths and early release mechanisms, over which the commission has some authority.

Finally, the committee must ensure that nominees to the Sentencing Commission are dedicated to addressing racial discrimination in our justice system.  The commission promulgates guidelines that are used to set prison terms for approximately 70,000 individuals of all races and backgrounds every year.  The legitimacy of those guidelines rests, in part, on the reasonable belief that the commissioners’ decisions are driven by data and evidence, not bias and ideology.  We believe that one important step the Senate can take to promote confidence in the commission’s work is to make sure that its members have diverse backgrounds, as well as varied life and work experiences.

Only seven individuals serve on the commission.  Each one is important.  Given the stakes, especially at this moment, the Senate must thoroughly examine each nominee before that person is awarded a six-year term.  Because there is not enough time left in this session to undertake this careful consideration, we strongly urge you to delay filling the commission’s vacant seats until January.

I do not think I am squinting too hard to read between the lines of this letter by suggesting that it seems one reason FAMM might like to waiting until 2021 to move forward is because FAMM hopes the person in charge of nominations in 2021 might not be the same person who put forward these nominations.

Prior related posts:

August 14, 2020 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Pipelines to Power: Encouraging Professional Diversity on the Federal Appellate Bench"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new report from the Center for American Progress and authored by Maggie Jo Buchanan. A few excerpts will highlight why I think this is an important topic for a sentencing blog:

The U.S. federal judiciary holds incredible sway over life in America. From the U.S. District Courts and the U.S. Courts of Appeals all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, the individuals holding lifetime appointments to the bench determine the contours of America’s laws and whose rights are protected under those laws.  But professional diversity on the federal appellate courts is severely lacking, with significant implications for the type of legal expertise underlying the opinions these judges issue.  Only about 1 percent of sitting circuit court judges have spent the majority of their careers as public defenders or within a legal aid setting.  In contrast, the federal appellate bench is swamped with those who spent the majority of their careers in private practice or as federal prosecutors — making up more than 70 percent of all sitting appellate judges.  No sitting judge spent the majority of their career with a nonprofit civil rights organization....

This lack of diversity not only reflects the closed and elitist nature of the federal appellate bench but also represents a barrier to the courts’ ability to develop intellectually rich jurisprudence grounded in an awareness of a broad set of individuals’ experiences across the country.  To improve this state of affairs, significant disruptions are needed — from law school through every stage of an attorney’s prejudicial career—to broaden pathways to the federal bench and challenge long-held assumptions on the “right” type of attorney to take up a gavel....

As noted previously, the appellate bench is stacked with individuals from private practice backgrounds — particularly men from all race and ethnicities, who are significantly more likely than women to be from this professional setting.  Nearly two-thirds of circuit court judges spent the majority of their careers in private practice. The proportion of white male judges and male judges from communities of color from this field is close to 70 percent for both groups.  That proportion drops to less than 60 percent of the white women on the bench and less than half of women of color — speaking to the continuing discrimination women face when rising through the ranks of many law firms....

The second-most represented sector is the federal government.  The majority—more than 60 percent—of those judges spent the bulk of their careers within the federal government as prosecutors. Only one spent the majority of her career as a federal public defender.  Several of these judges held other positions throughout the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), and still others in this category spent the majority of their careers in the military or at other federal agencies, such as the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

White male judges in this category are less likely than judges from other demographics to have spent the majority of their careers in federal government.  In fact, male judges from communities of color are the demographic group most likely to have worked within federal government for the bulk of their careers, with the most common career path being a prosecutor.  The role of federal prosecutor was also the most common career path among all female judges who spent the majority of their careers in federal service.

The third-most represented sector is made up of individuals who spent the majority of their careers in state and/or local government.  Unlike their federal counterparts, however, the majority of these judges spent their government service careers in roles other than a state or local prosecutor.  Most common was a variety of different roles within a state attorney general’s office, with careers within a governor’s office or as a city or state solicitor also being common.

Finally, the number of judges who spent the majority of their careers as public defenders at the state level, including Washington, D.C., doubles the federal number — albeit from one judge to two.  Women in general are more likely than men to have worked at the state or local level, with a full one-third of judges who are women of color having spent the majority of their careers in such roles and white women ranking second-most likely to have done so.

August 14, 2020 in Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)