Saturday, January 19, 2019

Former Chicago cop Jason Van Dyke sentenced in state court to only 81 months for murder of Laquan McDonald

As reported in this lengthy local article, headlined "Jason Van Dyke given relatively lenient sentence of under 7 years in prison for Laquan McDonald shooting," a high-profile killer seems to get a relative low sentence in an Illinois courtroom yesterday. Here are some of the details:

Former Chicago police Officer Jason Van Dyke was sentenced Friday to nearly seven years in prison for the fatal on-duty shooting of Laquan McDonald, bringing to a close one of the most racially fraught and socially significant chapters in recent Chicago history.  Van Dyke remained stoic as Cook County Circuit Judge Vincent Gaughan announced the sentence about 5:30 p.m. after a long day of often emotional testimony. Moments later, Van Dyke’s teenage daughter seated in the gallery burst into tears.

But the relatively lenient six-year, nine-month sentence for second-degree murder counts as a victory for Van Dyke, who could be out of custody in as little as three years, his attorney told reporters.  “He truly felt great,” the attorney, Daniel Herbert, said of Van Dyke. “He was not just relieved, he was happy. It’s the first time I’ve seen the guy — honestly since this whole ordeal started — where he was happy. He’s certainly not happy about going to jail. He’s certainly not happy about missing his family. But he’s happy about the prospect of life ahead of him.”

In October, Van Dyke became the first Chicago police officer in half a century to be convicted of murder in an on-duty shooting.  A jury found him guilty on one count of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery — one for each bullet that hit McDonald’s body in October 2014 as the teen walked away from police on Pulaski Road while holding a knife. Graphic police dashboard camera footage of the shooting released more than a year later sparked weeks of chaos and political upheaval, exposing Chicago’s long-standing racial fault lines and exacerbating the already-fraught relationship between police and minority communities.

Though he had sought a sentence about three times lengthier, special prosecutor Joseph McMahon told reporters in the Leighton Criminal Court Building that justice had been served. “I understand the sentence is not exactly what the McDonald and Hunter families wanted,” said McMahon, who requested a prison term of 18 to 20 years.  “But the sentence, like the verdict, does hold the defendant accountable.”...

Gaughan imposed the sentence after a daylong hearing that drew tears from witnesses on the stand and from Van Dyke himself, who sat slouched at the defense table in a bright yellow jail uniform.

While predicting his sentence would disappoint “100 percent” of those in the courtroom, Gaughan made a number of key rulings in favor of the defense. In particular, he sentenced Van Dyke only for the second-degree murder conviction, meaning he will serve just half the sentence if he qualifies for day-for-day good-behavior credit. If instead the judge had sentenced him only on the aggravated battery convictions, Van Dyke could have been subject to a lengthier term behind bars. He also would have had to serve at least 85 percent of that sentence.

In fashioning his decision, Gaughan said the law required him to consider the most serious charge for which Van Dyke was convicted. Common sense, the judge found, dictated that be second-degree murder, not aggravated battery. However, Illinois law considers aggravated battery with a gun the more serious offense of the two, carrying stiffer penalties. “Is it more serious for Laquan McDonald to be shot by a firearm or is it more serious for Laquan McDonald to be murdered by a firearm?” Gaughan said in explaining his reasoning.

Witnesses called by Van Dyke’s legal team at the marathon hearing said the public attention to the case has emotionally shattered his family. “My life has been a nightmare,” Van Dyke’s wife, Tiffany, said in a choked voice, echoing similar testimony from the former officer’s father, sister and 17-year-old daughter. “Life is torture. My heart is broken.”...

Toward the end of the hearing, Van Dyke himself stood and said the day he shot McDonald was the worst of his life. It was the first time he had ever had to fire his weapon in the line of duty, he said, bending his head down to read closely from a handwritten statement. “And I’m very proud of that fact,” he said. “… The last thing I wanted to do was to shoot Laquan McDonald.” Van Dyke said he “tried to make the right decision in a rapidly escalating, dangerous situation.”...

McDonald’s great-uncle, the Rev. Marvin Hunter, read from the witness stand a letter he wrote from the perspective of his grand-nephew, saying McDonald’s death devastated the family. The letter said Hunter used McDonald’s last paycheck from his construction job to buy the suit the teen was buried in.

The killing came just weeks before McDonald was to begin living under the same roof again with his sister and mother, who had overcome drug addiction, he said. “I was so happy for the possibility of that day,” the letter said. “However, Jason Van Dyke … robbed us of this.”

The letter ended with a request to punish Van Dyke for McDonald’s killing, arguing that the former officer had shown no remorse for his actions that night. “What happened to me can never be changed, but other young black men and women will not have to face Jason Van Dyke and his evil and selfish ways,” the letter said. “I’m a real victim of murder and that can never be changed. Please think about me and my life when you sentence this person to prison.”

While the many civilian complaints against Van Dyke were not introduced at trial, prosecutors on Friday called four witnesses — all African-American men — who one after another painted Van Dyke as an abusive, out-of-control officer protected by inept police oversight agencies. One man said Van Dyke choked him to try to get him to spit out a cough drop during a DUI stop. Another said the officer berated him using a racial slur.  A third said Van Dyke deserved prison time simply for the “chaotic” way he handled a traffic stop.

There are so many substantive and procedural elements to this case, one could probably write an entire law review article about the importance and impact of prosecutorial and judicial discretion as it operates within a controversial high-profile case like this one.  For now, I am just inclined to spotlight notable sentencing differences between this case and the arguably comparable case involving former South Carolina police officer Michael Slager who killed Walter Scott on camera.  Van Dyke was convicted by a jury in state court of second-degree murder, and then he was sentenced by a local judge to a prison term of 81 months (with it seems the possibility of released in around 40 months).  Slager, whose sentence was just affirmed on appeal, pleaded guilty to federal civil rights charges after a state jury could not reach a verdict, and then he was sentenced by a federal judge to a prison term of 240 months (with perhaps the possibility of being released in around 200 months).

Notably, I am not the only one noticing how state and federal sentencing justice can play out quite differently.  This notable new local article, headlined "Patti Blagojevich ‘speechless’ Van Dyke sentence is less than half her husband’s," begins this way:

As expected, a slew of political candidates rushed to react to the sentencing of Jason Van Dyke. And then there was Patti Blagojevich, wife of a now-disgraced and imprisoned Illinois governor.

“I am speechless,” Patti Blagojevich tweeted Friday. “A 17 year old is dead and the sentence is less than half of my husbands sentence for discussions with his staff and attorney about political fundraising.”

It could be another attempt to grab the attention of the last person who apparently can get former Gov. Rod Blagojevich out of jail early: President Donald Trump. And it comes after Patti Blagojevich last year made some other moves seemingly tailor-made to catch Trump’s eye, with an appearance on Fox News in which she slammed Obama. She also has tried to connect her husband’s case to Special Counsel Robert Mueller and Former FBI Director James Comey — favorite Trump targets.

Van Dyke’s 81-month sentence means the former Chicago police officer will likely serve a little more than three years in prison after shooting the 17-year-old McDonald 16 times in 2014.

Trump himself may have gotten Patti Blagojevich’s hopes up in December, when he tweeted about another TV interview she had done with Fox News, calling her “the wonderful wife” of the imprisoned governor. Patti retweeted the president, and that was the last tweet she had sent until Friday, more than a month later.

Rod Blagojevich, serving a 14-year sentence on corruption charges, is not due out of prison until May 2024. Though an appellate court tossed five of his convictions in 2015, federal prosecutors say he remains convicted “of the same three charged shakedowns” for which he was first sentenced in 2011.

January 19, 2019 in Celebrity sentencings, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Friday, January 18, 2019

US Sentencing Commission releases two new documents on FIRST STEP Act

Via email, I was alerted by the US Sentencing Commission to its release of two notable new documents concerning the FIRST STEP Act.  Here is the notice I received and links:

The FIRST STEP Act of 2018 was signed into law on Dec. 21, 2018.  Today the United States Sentencing Commission published two important documents describing the implementation and impact of the new law:·       

Both documents are interesting, and here is how the FAQ gets started:

Question 1

Is the Commission making any changes to the Guidelines in response to the Act?

The Act does not contain any directives to the Commission requiring action.  As it does with all new crime legislation, the Commission will review the Act to determine whether Guideline changes might be necessary or appropriate.  Because the Act did not include “emergency amendment authority,” any changes to the Guidelines in response to the Act may only be made during the Commission’s annual amendment cycle.  (See 28 U.S.C. § 994). 

During the annual amendment cycle, the Commission must publish proposed guideline amendments and solicit public comment.  See 28 U.S.C. § 994(x). In order for an amendment to move forward after that, at least four Commissioners must vote in favor of promulgating the amendment. See 28 U.S.C. § 994(a).  Once at least four Commissioners have voted in favor, the Commission must deliver the promulgated amendment to Congress no later than May 1 for the 180-day congressional review period. See 28 U.S.C. § 994(p).  If Congress takes no action, the amendment can take effect on November 1 of that year.

The Commission has not yet published any proposed amendments responding to the Act.  The Commission currently has two voting members and thus lacks a statutory quorum to promulgate amendments.

January 18, 2019 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Impact of Risk Assessment on Judges’ Fairness in Sentencing Relatively Poor Defendants"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper now available via SSRN authored by Jennifer Skeem, Nicholas Scurich and John Monahan.  Here is its abstract:

The increasing use of risk assessment algorithms in the criminal justice system has generated enormous controversy. Advocates emphasize that algorithms are more transparent, consistent, and accurate in predicting re-offending than judges’ unaided intuition, while skeptics worry that algorithms will increase racial and socioeconomic disparities in incarceration.  Ultimately, however, judges make decisions — not algorithms.

In the present study, real judges (n=340) with criminal sentencing experience participated in a controlled experiment to test whether the provision of risk assessment information interacts with a defendant’s socioeconomic class to influence sentencing decisions.  Results revealed that risk assessment information reduced the likelihood of incarceration for relatively affluent defendants, but the same risk assessment information increased the likelihood of incarceration for relatively poor defendants.  This finding held after controlling for the sex, race, political orientation, and jurisdiction of the judge. It appears that under some circumstances, risk assessment information can increase sentencing disparities.

January 18, 2019 in Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Big symposium on Lockett v. Ohio now published via University of Akron School of Law Constitutional Law Center

In this post last year I noted a call for papers by the Center for Constitutional Law at the University of Akron School of Law to commemorate the Supreme Court decision in Lockett v. Ohio, 438 U.S. 586 (1978).  I am pleased to see that the papers have now been published and are available at this link.  Here they are:

Introduction to the "Lockett v. Ohio at 40 Symposium": Rethinking the Death Penalty 40 Years After the U.S. Supreme Court Decision by Margery B. Koosed

The Other Lockett by Dennis Balske

Reflections on the Sandra Lockett Case by Peggy Cooper Davis

Justice White's Lockett Concurrence and the Evolving Standards for a Capital Defendant's Mens Rea by Jordan Berman

Lockett v. Ohio and The Rise of Mitigation Specialists by Russell Stetler

Is the Supreme Court's Command on Mitigating Circumstances a Spoonful of Sugar with a Poison Pill for the Death Penalty? by Jeffrey L. Kirchmeier

Lockett As It Was, Is Now, and Ever Shall Should Be by Karen A. Steele

Recollections on the Lockett Case in the U.S. Supreme Court by Joel Berger

Lockett v. Ohio and Its Subsequent Jurisprudence: Between Law and Politics by Cynthia Boyer

January 17, 2019 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

NY Times op-ed explores "How to Make New York as Progressive on Criminal Justice as Texas"

The New York Times this week has this notable editorial about criminal discovery that bore the provocative (and fitting) headline that I have quoted in the title of this post.  As practitioners know, these discovery issues can have a profound impact on plea practices and sentencing outcomes.  Here are excerpts:

In New York, prosecutors operate within a draconian system that gives them free rein to leave defendants in the dark about aspects of their cases for months or even years.  In cases big and small, state law authorizes prosecutors to withhold key evidence from defense lawyers and their clients until the eve or sometimes the day of trial.  Prosecutors in New York do not have a legal obligation to turn over in a timely fashion all police reports, witness names, DNA evidence, surveillance footage or anything else from their investigative files.

Though a 1963 Supreme Court decision found that prosecutors have a constitutional duty to turn over anything significant that may exonerate a defendant, that ruling has not been consistently enforced because prosecutors who flout the rule are rarely punished.  Advocates for defendants say this entrenched legal structure in New York puts a “blindfold” over the eyes of defense lawyers and their clients. And it runs up against Americans’ basic understanding of how fairness is meant to work in the legal system.

By preventing access to even the simplest information about a pending case, prosecutors thumb their noses at the presumption of innocence that is owed to every person accused of a crime.  They also run the risk of forcing the accused to make an impossible choice: Plead guilty with little to no information about their case or go to trial and risk an even harsher punishment.

New York’s law means that cases take longer to resolve, leading to backlogs; that defense lawyers are unable to advise their clients about the charges against them, let alone guide them through an often life-altering process; and that wrongful convictions can occur, in both extreme and not-so-extreme cases.

Most states, including the law-and-order bastion Texas as well as North Carolina and New Jersey, have changed their laws and procedures to allow open and early disclosure of evidence in criminal prosecutions, which has led to fairer outcomes and deterred prosecutorial abuse.  Now New York has a chance to join the mainstream on this issue....

Prosecutors defend New York’s current system not on its merits but with fearmongering, arguing that reforms will leave witnesses and victims at risk.  Disclosing the identity of a person with direct knowledge of an incident under investigation, the thinking goes, would hamper the state’s ability to protect him or her and to fight crime.

But there are sensible ways of dealing with witness safety concerns. The Brooklyn district attorney’s office, which has for decades made its evidence files readily available, shows that reform is possible.  Likewise, the states that have left the old model behind have seen no need to go back to it.  It’s time for New York lawmakers to bring the rest of the state in line with this essential notion of justice.

January 17, 2019 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Reviewing criminal justice highlights (or low-lights) from AG nominee Barr's confirmation hearing

Other commitments are keeping me from being able to keep a close watch on the Senate confirmation hearing for President Trump's nominee to lead the Department of Justice, William Barr.  Fortunately, lots of other folks are doing so, and here is a round-up of a few pieces I have seen highlighting some of the criminal justice issues that have been discussed:

As the title of this post suggests, I surmise from this coverage that criminal justice reformers are not likely to be especially excited about the prospects for Attorney General Barr being an advocate for reforming the status quo. But I remain hopeful he will not be quite as resistant to reforms as was former AG Sessions. But time (and the political winds) will tell.

Prior related posts:

January 16, 2019 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Top Trends in State Criminal Justice Reform, 2018"

The title of this post is the title of this two-page briefing paper authored by Nicole Porter for The Sentencing Project which highlights significant criminal justice policy changes at the state level in 2018. Here is how the document gets started:

The United States is a world leader in incarceration rates and keeps nearly 7 million persons under criminal justice supervision. More than 2.2 million are in prison or jail, while 4.6 million are monitored in the community on probation or parole. Changes in sentencing law and policy, not changes in crime rates, have produced the nation’s high rate of incarceration. Scaling back incarceration will require changing policy and practice to reduce prison populations, intentionally address racial disparity, and eliminate barriers to reentry. In recent years a number of states have enacted reforms designed to reduce the scale of incarceration and impact of the collateral consequences of a felony conviction. This briefing paper describes key reforms undertaken in 2018.

Notably, this short document makes no mention of state level marijuana reforms, even though many are motivated, at least in part, by interest in addressing racial disparities and eliminating barriers to reentry. This reinforces my long-standing view that there is a tangible disconnect between criminal justice reform movements and marijuana reform movements.

January 16, 2019 in Race, Class, and Gender, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

"The Clemency Process Is Broken. Trump Can Fix It."

The title of this post is the title of this notable new Atlantic commentary authored by Rachel Barkow, Mark Holden and Mark Osler.  Here are excerpts:

It took six years of intense wrangling to get the First Step Act passed. Clemency reform, however, requires the action of only one man. The president can act alone to fix what Congress did not.

​Even the First Step Act’s primary nemesis, Republican Senator Tom Cotton, has acknowledged a role for clemency, saying as part of his attack on the legislation, “I grant that, in a particular case, the interaction of specific facts and the law can create an unjust sentence. If that happens, the best course of action is the scalpel of the governor or the president’s pardon and clemency power, not the ax of criminal leniency legislation.”

​Unjust sentences resulting from mandatory minimums are not rarities. That is why the First Step Act no longer permits mandatory minimum life sentences for third-strike drug offenses and lowered a two-strike, 20-year mandatory minimum for drug offenses to 15 years. The Act also requires that an individual first be convicted of an offense involving a firearm before receiving an additional 25-year mandatory minimum if he commits a second offense with a gun. (Previously, first-time offenders such as Weldon Angelos could receive multiple 25-year mandatory enhancements if the police documented multiple drug buys before making an arrest.)

One problem, as noted above, is that these and other welcome changes do not operate retroactively. People serving sentences now deemed excessive by Congress and the president have no recourse other than clemency to have those sentences rightsized. ​ There are more than 3,000 people left in prison serving mandatory sentences under the old firearm-enhancement law and the three-strikes provision that imposed a life sentence. Add to that the many individuals who are serving excessive sentences because of prosecutorial overcharging, and it is easy to see the urgent need to correct these injustices.

​For clemency to reach those thousands, the country needs a process that fairly, thoroughly, and efficiently evaluates candidates for a commutation (or shortening) of their sentence under the Constitution’s pardon power. At the moment, there are two possible processes, but neither works very well.

The first is informal: The president evaluates individual cases based on personal recommendations. This system does not scale.

​The second, more formal method isn’t any better. It courses through seven levels of review, much of it through a hostile Department of Justice bureaucracy that tends to defer to local prosecutors who are, in turn, loath to undo the harsh sentences they sought in the first place....

​Some states have better systems in place. In Arkansas, Connecticut, Georgia, and South Carolina, among others, an expert board plays a leading role in identifying and evaluating good cases. The best-functioning boards consist of people with expertise in criminal justice, social work, and psychology, and represent key stakeholders such as former judges, defense lawyers, prosecutors, and community activists who share a common belief that the purpose of the pardon power is to temper justice with mercy.

This model could work at the federal level as well. The president could create a similar board of clemency advisers who represent a diverse range of experiences, including those who work in criminal defense or corrections and people who were formerly incarcerated. Ideally, this body would be bipartisan and work collaboratively with a professional staff to identify cases for the president. This body could also track the progress of individuals granted clemency to document how they use their second chances. Many no doubt will serve their communities ably, and publicizing their experiences could help counteract the risk of a single Willie Horton–type incident overshadowing the positive stories of people who have been granted clemency....

​The members of the bipartisan coalition that pushed through sentencing reform were united by a belief in liberty, a desire to cut costs, a respect for public safety, and a belief in second chances. But as the name of their legislation indicates, sentencing reform was just a first step. Clemency should come next.

A few of many recent related posts: 

January 15, 2019 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Via distinctive 5-4 vote, SCOTUS concludes Florida robbery satisfies "physical force" requirement as Armed Career Criminal Act predicate

In this post last year, I asked "At just what level of Dante's Inferno does modern ACCA jurisprudence reside?".  This cheeky question flows from the challenges and frustrations that surround trying to figure out which prior convictions do and do not serve as predicates for application of the federal Armed Career Criminal Act's 15-year mandatory minimum term.  And today the Supreme Court added still more color to its modern ACCA jurisprudence by handing down its decision in Stokeling v. US, No. 17-5554 (S. Ct. Jan. 15, 2018) (available here).  Here is how the majority opinion in Stokeling, authored by Justice Thomas, gets started:

This case requires us to decide whether a robbery offense that has as an element the use of force sufficient to overcome a victim’s resistance necessitates the use of “physical force” within the meaning of the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA), 18 U. S. C. §924(e)(2)(B)(i).  We conclude that it does.

Here is how the sole dissenting opinion in Stokeling, authored by Justice Sotomayor, gets started:

In Johnson v. United States, 559 U.S. 133 (2010), this Court ruled that the words “physical force” in the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA), 18 U. S. C. §924(e)(2), denote a heightened degree of force, rather than the minimal contact that would have qualified as “force” for purposes of the common-law crime of battery.  Id., at 139–140.  This case asks whether Florida robbery requires such “physical force,” and thus qualifies as a “violent felony” under the ACCA, even though it can be committed through use of only slight force. See §924(e)(2)(B).  Under Johnson, the answer to that question is no.  Because the Court’s contrary ruling distorts Johnson, I respectfully dissent.

Among the reasons ACCA jurisprudence looks like a hellscape to me is that the 2010 Johnson case being debated in this ACCA case is different from the 2015 Johnson case that declared part of ACCA unconstitutionally vague.  (In The Good Place there are lots of Janets; in the ACCA bad place, it seems, there are lots of Johnsons.)

I may have more to say about the substance of the opinions in Stokeling in a future post, but for now I will conclude my highlight the unique line-up of Justices in the 5-4 split of votes:

THOMAS, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BREYER, ALITO, GORSUCH, and KAVANAUGH, JJ., joined. SOTOMAYOR, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which ROBERTS, C. J., and GINSBURG and KAGAN, JJ., joined

Because Justice Kavanaugh is new to the mix, it is not saying much to say this is the first time this group of Justices have come together this way.  But I cannot recall many cases in which the Chief Justice was a fourth vote for a criminal defendant but Justice Breyer served as the key fifth vote for the government.  Interesting times.

January 15, 2019 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (9)

First scheduled execution of 2019 stayed by Texas Court of Criminal Appeals

As reported in this local article, the "Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has stopped the state’s first execution of the year, calling for a lower court to take another look at the case following changes in bite-mark science and laws regarding intellectual disability and the death penalty."  Here is more:

Blaine Milam received a stay from the court on Monday, a day before his death was scheduled. Milam, 29, was convicted in the brutal death of his girlfriend’s 13-month-old baby girl in 2008 in East Texas.

In a late appeal, Milam's lawyers argued against the state’s reliance on bite-mark testimony, which was a key part of his trial. His lawyers also claimed he was intellectually disabled and therefore ineligible for execution.

In December 2008, Milam called 911 and police in Rusk County arrived to find the body of Amora Carson, according to court opinions. The medical examiner counted 24 human bite marks on the baby’s body and found evidence of blunt force trauma and sexual assault. At trial, the prosecution linked Milam to several of the bite marks. But his attorneys now say that science has largely been discredited, pointing to the Court of Criminal Appeals’ recent decision to overturn the murder conviction of Steven Chaney....

Rusk County prosecutors, meanwhile, argued to the court that the questions over bite-mark science were settled at Milam’s trial in 2010. And they said the state had enough other evidence that it wouldn’t have affected the jury's decision at the time. They pointed to testimony that Milam told his sister from jail to find a hidden pipe wrench believed to be used in Carson’s assault — and his apparent confession to a jail nurse.

The trial court must also take another look at Milam’s claims of intellectual disability, according to the court order. The issue was raised at Milam’s trial, which prosecutors said put the issue to bed, but there has been considerable change in how the state determines such disability since 2010.

In 2017, the U.S Supreme Court tossed out the method the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals had previously used to determine who is intellectually disabled and, therefore, constitutionally ineligible to be executed. The Court of Criminal Appeals later said it would change its test, which used outdated medical standards and nonclinical factors created by its judges, including how well the person could lie. “Because of recent changes in the science pertaining to bite mark comparisons and recent changes in the law pertaining to the issue of intellectual disability ... we therefore stay his execution and remand these claims to the trial court for a review of the merits of these claims,” the court said in its order Monday....

The stay was not only the court's first of 2019 but also its first without death penalty critic Elsa Alcala, who left the bench at the end of 2018 and was replaced by Judge Michelle Slaughter. Slaughter, along with Presiding Judge Sharon Keller and Judge Kevin Yeary, dissented against the stay.

Despite the court's decision, Texas is still set to host the nation's first execution of the year. Robert Jennings is scheduled to die on Jan. 30, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Five other executions are scheduled in the state through May.

January 15, 2019 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, January 14, 2019

Seeking reader suggestions for really tough (sentencing) questions for AG nominee William Barr

The Senate confirmation hearing for President Trump's nominee to lead the Department of Justice, William Barr, is scheduled to begin tomorrow morning.  The headline of this Los Angeles Times article, "William Barr to face tough Senate hearing on attorney general nomination," predict a "tough" experience for Barr.  But, from my perspective, what could really make the hearing effective is for there to be a lot of sentencing reform and criminal-justice related questions.

As the title of this post suggests, I am eager to hear from readers in the comments about that might view as really "tough" questions for AG nominee Barr.  Here are a few that I have been thinking about based only on relatively current events:

I could go on and on, of course, with questions exploring President Bush's role in ramping up the drug war, President Trump's stated interest in the death penalty for drug dealers, and myriad issues related to federal marijuana prohibition.  But at this point I will just link below to prior posts about Bill Barr and again encourage interested readers to make suggestions in the comments.

Prior related posts:

January 14, 2019 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (6)

Justice Kavanaugh joins Chief and more liberal Justices in GVR of Kentucky capital case

This morning's Supreme Court order list is fairly short and is mostly denials of certiorari. But the last page of the order list should intrigue capital sentencing fans, and it contains an order in White v. Kentucky, No. 17-9467, in which the Court vacated the decision below "and the case is remanded to the Supreme Court of Kentucky for further consideration in light of Moore v. Texas, 581 U. S. ___ (2017)."

This GVR is made extra interesting because Justice Alito issued this short dissent, which was joined by Justices Thomas and Gorsuch:

The Court grants, vacates, and remands this case in light of Moore v. Texas, 581 U. S. ___ (2017). But Moore was handed down on March 28, 2017—almost five months before the Supreme Court of Kentucky reached a decision in this case. I would accordingly deny the petition for the reasons previously stated in my dissent in Kaushal v. Indiana, 585 U. S. ___, ___ (2018), and in Justice Scalia’s dissenting opinion in Webster v. Cooper, 558 U. S. 1039, 1040 (2009).

As the title of this post suggests, I find the fact that Justice Kavanaugh did not join this dissent particularly noteworthy, though the fact that the Chief Justice usually provides the key fifth vote in these types of cases prevents me from too boldly predicting at this early stage that Justice Kavanaugh could prove to be a swing vote in capital cases akin to the role his predecessor Justice Kennedy played.

January 14, 2019 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, January 13, 2019

California Supreme Court exercises its curious, rarely-used power to reject 10 of out-going Gov's clemencies

I have often said California is a crazy and crazy-interesting state for sentencing developments, and this story about recent clemency developments showcases this reality.  The story is headlined "‘It was like a ton of bricks crushed me’: California grapples with historic clemency rejections," and here are some of the particulars:

Joe Hernandez found out that the California Supreme Court had rejected his commutation request late last month during a phone call with his wife, when she checked the online docket for his case....

His family was already planning for the possibility when, on Dec. 21, a majority of the Supreme Court, without specifying a reason, declined to recommend the commutation. “It was like a ton of bricks crushed me,” Hernandez said in a phone interview. “I didn’t know what to say. This was our first real hope after 25 years.”

Hernandez’s was one of ten clemency actions blocked by the court in the final weeks of the Brown administration, the first time since 1930 that it has rejected pardon or commutation requests under consideration by a governor.

The move stunned observers of the California Supreme Court, which under the state constitution must review clemency requests for anyone convicted of felony more than once, and has left them grasping for answers about how to proceed. The court approved 86 other applications over the past eight years.

Even Brown seemed to be unsure what to make of the rejections. He granted a historic 1,332 pardons and 283 commutations during his final two terms, part of a broader push to scale back the state’s tough-on-crime approach that began under his first governorship.

“Read the ones who were approved and read the ones who were disapproved and you tell me what the rule is,” Brown told reporters in early January, shortly before he left office.

That leaves new Gov. Gavin Newsom, a fellow Democrat, to puzzle through the court’s position as he considers whether to continue Brown’s powerful embrace of executive clemency. “The weight of that is pretty heavy,” Newsom said at a benefit concert on Sunday before his inauguration. “The governor looks at dozens of those every single week. There’s a binder. Quite literally, every time I see him, he shows me the binder and he says, ‘This is one of the most important jobs that you will have.’”

The court wrote an administrative order in March about its role in evaluating pardon and commutation applications that stated it was not acting on the merits of the cases but rather to determine whether granting clemency would be an “abuse of power” by the governor.

Nevertheless, it’s no more clear now to experts what that boundary might be. David Ettinger, an appellate lawyer who writes a blog about the California Supreme Court called At the Lectern, said that from the information publicly available about the rejected cases, he couldn’t distinguish them from “a significant number of other life without parole commutations that the Supreme Court signed off on. I just don’t know.”

“There’s really no guidance for future courts, for future clemency requests, for future governors making requests, as to why certain ones might get blocked and certain ones won’t,” he said. “It is a problem for future courts and future governors, how to apply this general ‘abuse of power’ standard to specific cases.”

Kate Chatfield, policy director for Re:store Justice, a criminal justice nonprofit, has assisted two clients with commutation applications. She said the court’s action was unlikely to change the work of lawyers in her field or the desire of inmates to seek clemency. But she was concerned about the Supreme Court’s standard, and how to address it, if it is not a review of the merits of a case....

Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen would also like more guidance from the court, which he said could help prosecutors focus their arguments in cases they oppose. His office weighs in on every clemency request that the governor is considering for a case they prosecuted, some of which have also been reviewed by the Supreme Court. He said his team determines a position by looking at criteria like the underlying crime, how the perpetrator has behaved in prison and the wishes of the victim’s family, a particularly important factor in murder cases.

“The thing about governors and clemency is it’s a very powerful tool that does not have a lot of checks on it,” Rosen said. “I believe that the governor would want all of the relevant information to make the decision.”

January 13, 2019 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, January 11, 2019

Supreme Court adds three (little?) criminal cases to its docket

The US Supreme Court this afternoon released this order list in which the Court granted certiorari in eight new cases.  Three of these cases are criminal justice matters, and here are the basics with a big assist from SCOTUSblog:

Quarles v. United States, No. 17-778

Issue: Whether Taylor v. United States’ definition of generic burglary requires proof that intent to commit a crime was present at the time of unlawful entry or first unlawful remaining, as two circuits hold; or whether it is enough that the defendant formed the intent to commit a crime at any time while “remaining in” the building or structure, as the court below and three other circuits hold.

Rehaif v. United States, No. 17-9560

Issue: Whether the “knowingly” provision of 18 U.S.C. § 924(a)(2) applies to both the possession and status elements of a § 922(g) crime, or whether it applies only to the possession element.

Mitchell v. Wisconsin, No. 18-6210

Issue: Whether a statute authorizing a blood draw from an unconscious motorist provides an exception to the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement.

Quarles is the only true sentencing case of this bunch, but the other two strike me as much more interesting.  But none of this group seems likely to be a blockbuster ruling.

January 11, 2019 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Are there constitutional (and ethical) issues raised by allowing the family of murder victims to hire lawyers to assist prosecutors as "associate attorneys" in capital prosecution?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this very interesting local article from Kansas headlined "Despite doubts, judge allows private prosecutors in case of two slain deputies."  Here is the story, with one particular line emphasized:

Over the objections of defense lawyers, and despite his own misgivings, a Wyandotte County judge said Wednesday he must allow private attorneys to assist in the prosecution of a man charged with killing two sheriff’s deputies.

Antoine Fielder, 30, is charged with capital murder in the fatal shooting last June of Wyandotte County deputies Theresa King and Patrick Rohrer as they were escorting him back to jail after a court hearing in a robbery case.

Under Kansas law, crime victims can pay for lawyers to assist prosecutors as “associate attorneys,” and the families of Rohrer and King have hired married law partners Tom Bath and Tricia Bath.

Because Fielder faces a possible death sentence, he is being represented by attorneys from the Kansas Death Penalty Defense Unit, who objected to what they termed “interference” in the case.

They argued that the Kansas law that allows the hiring of private attorneys to assist in criminal prosecutions has never been used in a death penalty case. They said it raises “novel constitutional, statutory and ethical issues.”

“Counsel for Mr. Fielder is not aware of any direct authority addressing the constitutionality of private prosecutions in obtaining sentences of death,” the defense said in court documents.

In their written response to the defense objections, the Baths noted that the Kansas Supreme Court has upheld the idea of crime victims hiring private attorneys in numerous cases. And while it has never been used in a capital case, there is nothing in the law that excludes it.

At a court hearing Wednesday, defense attorney Jeff Dazey noted that the law has been on the books in Kansas since the early 20th century, “long before the modern era of the death penalty.”

A spokesman for Wyandotte County District Attorney Mark Dupree said he had met with the Baths before they entered the case and had no objection to their participation.

At Wednesday’s hearing, Tricia Bath said they would be operating under the direction of Dupree’s office. She noted that both she and Tom Bath have represented defendants in death penalty cases and are familiar with the rules and ethical requirements for attorneys in death penalty cases.  “The law is clear,” she argued. “We get to be here and the victims get to have an official representative here.”

District Judge Bill Klapper said that, while he finds the inclusion of private associate prosecutors in the case “inherently problematic,” he is bound by Kansas law that mandates they “shall” be allowed. The judge did order that the Baths will not have any role in the case until after the Feb. 1 preliminary hearing.

The constitutionality of victims have a say and a role in various criminal justice proceedings is well established, and I am generally supportive of victim's being allowed to retain a lawyer to help them preserve and exercise their rights in various ways. But one reason I support victim involvement in criminal prosecution is because, if they have independent rights in the process, they can and should often serve as another kind of check on the power of the state (by, for example, advocating for a sentence lower or just different than what prosecutors seek). But here it seems that the victims' lawyers are not going to be an independent voice and advocate for the victims, but rather will be "operating under the direction" of the District Attorney. That does not seem quite right, and arguably raises some unique constitutional and ethical concerns.

January 11, 2019 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (8)

Thursday, January 10, 2019

"Reducing Barriers to Reintegration: Fair chance and expungement reforms in 2018"

Cover-Fair-Chance-Reform-2018The title of this post is the title of this notable new report from the Collateral Consequences Resource Center to document the laws passed in 2018 aimed at reducing barriers to successful reintegration for individuals with a criminal record. Here is the report's executive summary:

* In 2018, 30 states and the District of Columbia produced 56 separate laws aimed at reducing barriers faced by people with criminal records in the workplace, at the ballot box, and elsewhere.  Many of these new laws enacted more than one type of reform.  This prolific legislative “fair chance” track record, the high point of a six-year trend, reflects the lively on-going national conversation about how best to promote rehabilitation and reintegration of people with a criminal record.

* As in past years, approaches to restoring rights varied widely from state to state, both with respect to the type of relief, as well as the specifics of who is eligible, how relief is delivered, and the effect of relief.  Despite a growing consensus about the need for policy change to alleviate collateral consequences, little empirical research has been done to establish best practices, or what works best to promote reintegration.

* The most promising legislative development recognizes the key role occupational licensing plays in the process of reintegration, and it was this area that showed the greatest uniformity of approach.  Of the 14 states that enacted laws regulating licensing in 2018, nine (added to 4 in 2017) adopted a similar comprehensive framework to improve access to occupational licenses for people with a criminal record, limiting the kinds of records that may be considered, establishing clear criteria for administrative decisions, and making agency procedures more transparent and accountable.

* The most consequential single new law was a Florida ballot initiative to restore the franchise to 1.5 million people with a felony conviction, which captured headlines across the country when it passed with nearly 65% of voters in favor.  Voting rights were also restored for parolees, by statute in Louisiana and by executive order in New York.

* The largest number of new laws — 27 statutes in 19 states — expanded access to sealing or expungement, by extending eligibility to additional categories of offenses and persons, by reducing waiting periods, or by simplifying procedures.  A significant number of states addressed record clearing for non-conviction records (including diversions), for marijuana or other decriminalized offenses, for juveniles, and for human trafficking victims.

* For the first time, the disadvantages of a separate petition-based relief system were incorporated into legislative discussions.  Four states established automated or systemic record-sealing mechanisms aimed at eliminating a “second chance gap” which occurs when a separate civil action must be filed.  Pennsylvania’s “clean slate” law is the most ambitious experiment in automation to date.  Other states sought to incorporate relief directly into the criminal case, avoiding the Pennsylvania law’s technological challenges.

* Three additional states acted to prohibit public employers from inquiring about criminal history during the initial stages of the hiring process, Washington by statute, and Michigan and Kansas by executive order.  Washington extended the prohibition to private employers as well.  A total of 33 states and the District of Columbia now have so-called “ban-the-box” laws, and 11 states extend the ban to private employers.

* Four states expanded eligibility for judicial certificates of relief. Colorado’s “order of collateral relief” is now the most extensive certificate law in the nation, available for almost all crimes as early as sentencing, and effective to bar consideration of conviction in public employment and licensing. Arizona, California, and North Carolina made more modest changes to facilitate access to this judicial “forgiving” relief.

* The District of Columbia established a clemency board to recommend to the President applications for pardon and commutation by D.C. Code offenders. Governors in California and New York used their pardon power to spare dozens of non-citizens from deportation, and California also streamlined its pardon process and made it more transparent.  Moving in the other direction, Nebraska authorized sealing of pardoned convictions, and Maine made both pardon applications and pardon grants confidential.

* The legal landscape at the end of 2018 suggests that states are experimenting with a more nuanced blending of philosophical approaches to dealing with the collateral consequences of arrest and conviction.  These approaches include forgiving people’s past crimes (through pardon or judicial dispensation), forgetting them (through record-sealing or expungement), or forgoing creating a record in the first place (through diversionary dispositions).  While sealing and expungement remain the most popular forms of remedy, there seems to be both popular and institutional resistance to limiting what the public may see respecting the record of serious offenses, and a growing preference for more transparent restoration mechanisms that limit what the public may do with such a record, along with standards to guide administrative decision-making.

January 10, 2019 in Collateral consequences, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Attorney General Nominee Bill Barr reportedly to support FIRST STEP Act at coming hearing (and should be pressed on particulars)

This effective new Reuters article, headlined "Tough-on-crime record trails U.S. attorney general nominee into Senate hearings," reports on how the new AG-nominee's record on criminal justice issues and recent developments could intersect at next week's confirmation hearings. Here are the details:

President Donald Trump’s nominee for U.S. attorney general is expected to tell a Senate panel next week that he supports a new law easing prison sentences for some criminals, even though he advocated for decades for just the opposite.

William Barr for much of his career championed a get-tough approach to crime that has recently lost favor, culminating last month in Trump signing into law the biggest overhaul of the criminal justice system in a generation.

The First Step Act, enacted with strong bipartisan support in Congress, reduces mandatory minimum sentences for some nonviolent, low-level offenders and makes it easier for prisoners to qualify for early release to halfway houses or home confinement. Trump signed it into law just weeks after he nominated Barr, who issued a report during an earlier stint as attorney general in the 1990s called “The Case for More Incarceration.”

Barr is expected to say that he will support the new law when he appears before the Senate Judiciary Committee for confirmation hearings next week, according to two sources familiar with his preparations. “We believe that Barr’s position will be somewhat moderated when he testifies if for no other reason than that his boss (Trump) fully subscribes to the First Step approach,” said Fraternal Order of Police executive director Jim Pasco, who said he had been in touch with people helping Barr prepare for the Senate hearings.

The Senate, controlled by Trump’s fellow Republicans, is expected to confirm Barr’s nomination to again head the Justice Department.

Concerns about Barr’s record on criminal justice have so far taken a back seat to questions about how he would handle Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into possible collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign in the 2016 election. Trump has denied any collusion with Moscow and Russia has said it did not meddle in the election.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, the incoming chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said he did not discuss the First Step Act when Barr visited him at his office on Wednesday. “That would have been a good question to ask him,” Graham said after the meeting.

But criminal justice advocates said they were working with lawmakers on the committee to make sure Barr will be questioned in detail about specific elements of the new law to ensure that he will support it. “It certainly appears he holds an old-school view of our criminal justice system, but there is an overwhelming majority of members of the House and Senate on both sides of the aisle who do not feel that way,” said Holly Harris, executive director of Justice Action Network, a coalition of criminal-justice groups across the political spectrum....

Democratic Senator Cory Booker, a member of the Judiciary Committee, is among those concerned by Barr’s record. “Barr took an extremely troubling approach to mass incarceration in the nineties at the DOJ and it doesn’t look like his views have changed much,” said a Booker aide, speaking on condition of anonymity.

As attorney general, Barr would be in a position to influence how prisoners would be released into halfway houses or home confinement. “It’s frustrating to think we might have found one of the few people who are still stuck in the 1980s and 1990s on these issues,” said Kevin Ring, head of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, which has worked to reduce minimum prison terms.

Barr was attorney general in 1991-1993, a time when U.S. crime rates reached an all-time high of 758 incidents per 100,00 people. They have since fallen by nearly half, to a rate of 394 incidents per 100,000 people in 2017, according to the FBI. At that time, Barr advocated long prison sentences to keep violent criminals off the streets. “First, prisons work. Second, we need more of them,” Barr’s Justice Department wrote in a 1992 report.

Barr maintained his get-tough stance after leaving office. Along with other former law enforcement officials, he lobbied against earlier versions of the First Step Act in 2014 and 2015. When Trump fired Attorney General Jeff Sessions in November, Barr and two other former attorneys general penned a Washington Post opinion piece that praised Sessions for directing prosecutors to pursue the severest penalties possible.

Barr’s advocacy came as others were concluding that mandatory minimum sentences and other tough policies had taken too harsh a toll, especially on African-Americans and Latinos, and were costing taxpayers too much money.

I am not at all optimistic that an Attorney General Barr will be much better (or at all better) than former Attorney General Sessions was on these important issues.  But I am hopeful that, with effective questioning by folks on both sides of the aisle during his confirmation hearings, nominee Barr might be inclined to make statements supportive of various key provisions of the FIRST STEP Act that will make it harder for him to undermine these provisions once in office.  I sincerely hope that strong advocates of the FIRST STEP Act and criminal justice reform will be sure to ask a lot of strategic questions of Barr in this arena rather than just give him a chance to repeat whatever Mueller investigation talking points that he is developing.

Prior related posts:

January 10, 2019 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, January 09, 2019

"The Accuracy, Equity, and Jurisprudence of Criminal Risk Assessment"

The title of this post is the title of this notable and timely new paper on SSRN authored by Sharad Goel, Ravi Shroff, Jennifer Skeem and Christopher Slobogin.  Here is its abstract:

Jurisdictions across the country, including the federal government through its recently enacted First Step Act, have begun using statistical algorithms (also called “instruments”) to help determine an arrestee’s or an offender’s risk of reoffending.  These risk assessment instruments (RAIs) might be used at a number of points in the criminal process, including at the front-end by judges to impose a sentence after conviction, at the back-end by parole boards to make decisions about prison release, or in between these two points by correctional authorities determining the optimal security and service arrangements for an offender.  At the pretrial stage, RAIs might come into play at the time of the bail or pretrial detention determination by a judge, which usually takes place shortly after arrest.  The increased use of RAIs in the criminal justice system has given rise to several criticisms.  RAIs are said to be no more accurate than clinical assessments, racially biased, lacking in transparency and, because of their quantitative nature, dehumanizing.  This chapter critically examines a number of these concerns. It also highlights how the law has, and should, respond to these issues.

January 9, 2019 in Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Spotlighting problems with immediate application of expanded good time credit in the FIRST STEP Act

This new Reuters article, headlined "Error in U.S. prisons law means well-behaved inmates wait longer for release," reports on what appears to be a significant drafting hiccup in the expansion of good time credits through the FIRST STEP Act. Here are the details:

U.S. prisoners who were expecting earlier release for good behavior, thanks to a new criminal justice law enacted last month, must keep waiting due to an error in the bill, said activists working with the White House to fix the mistake.

Potentially thousands of inmates could be affected by the error in the First Step Act, signed into law on Dec. 21 by Republican President Donald Trump in a rare example of bipartisanship in Washington, with both Democrats and Republicans backing it.

The law required the Justice Department’s Bureau of Prisons (BOP), among other measures, to retroactively recalculate good behavior credits, a step that had been expected to reduce some inmates’ sentences by as many as 54 days per year. Previously, inmates could only earn up to 47 days per year toward early release for good behavior.

Advocates of the law expected the bill’s enactment into law meant that several thousand inmates would get their freedom right away, in time for the 2018 holiday season. But a drafting error in the language of the law has prevented the Justice Department from immediately applying the new method of calculating good-behavior credits, they said.

“You have thousands of families who thought the day this bill passed, their loved ones’ sentence was going to be recalculated and they were going to walk out of their halfway house, their home confinement ... or leave prison,” said Kevin Ring, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM). “It’s a frustrating mistake,” Ring said.

Wyn Hornbuckle, a Justice Department spokesman, said the department is analyzing changes for the law and plans to “carry out all necessary steps.”

Reuters has seen a letter sent to inmates at the Federal Correctional Institution Coleman, a federal prison in Florida, in which officials acknowledged the new good-behavior credits would not take effect yet. “The law will allow BOP in the future to apply 54 days of credit for every year a sentence was imposed, which is a change to the prior law,” the letter says. “While this change may result in additional credit for inmates in the future, it is not effective immediately nor is it applicable to all inmates,” it says....

Activists said the law, as drafted, confused good-behavior credits, which reduce a sentence, with earned-time credits, which do not. Earned-time credits allow certain inmates to qualify for early transfer to halfway houses. The law also mistakenly said that new rules on good-behavior credits could not kick in until BOP finishes a risk-assessment process for deciding which inmates can get earned-time credits.

Whether the error can be promptly fixed was unclear. A federal judge in Chicago on Jan. 3 denied a prisoner’s request to be released earlier for good behavior, citing the letter of the law. “This court is not unsympathetic to the apparent inequity of petitioner’s situation,” wrote U.S. District Judge Sharon Johnson Coleman. “This court, however, is obligated to apply the law as it is written.”

Several activists for prisoners told Reuters their groups are working with the White House on whether the Justice Department can find a work-around or if a legislative fix needs to be tucked into a broader spending bill for action by Congress. Ring said his group is also in talks with lawmakers.

The error comes at a difficult time, with the federal government in a partial shutdown. The Justice Department is one of several agencies partially closed because its funding ran out on Dec. 22 and has not been renewed by Congress.

As I understand this problem, it flows from the fact that the enacted version of the FIRST STEP Act has the expanded good time credits provision tucked within sections of the Act which is said to be effective only when the Attorney General has created "a risk and needs assessment system" that the AG has 210 days to develop.  This placement leads to the view that the expanded good time credits cannot be applied until the risk and needs assessment system gets developed later in 2019.  I am not sure that is the only plausible reading of these provisions of the FIRST STEP Act, but it sounds as though this is the reading now being adopted by the Bureau of Prisons (and maybe some courts).  Such a reading would seem to mean prisoners will not get the benefit of expanded good time credits until at least July 2019.

The expanded good time credits provided by the FIRST STEP Act only amount to an additional week off a sentence for every year served.  So even for those prisoners clearly impacted by this problem, this temporary snafu may only mean a few more week or months in custody before release.  But for prisoners and their families hoping to see freedom a few weeks or months earlier in 2019, this really stinks.

January 9, 2019 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Fourth Circuit affirms officer Michael Slager "conviction" (by a judge at sentencing) of murdering Walter Scott

I noted in posts here and here back in December 2017 that, after the high-profile shooting and then state and federal prosecutions of former South Carolina police officer Michael Slager for killing Walter Scott, the real action in his case became a federal sentencing "trial" after Slager pleaded guilty to a federal civil rights offense.  This "trial" was really a judicial inquisition in which a federal sentencing judge took testimony at a sentencing hearing in order to decide whether Slager's crime was "really" second-degree murder or voluntary manslaughter for purposes of calculating the appropriate guideline range.  

Notably, the presentence report in Slager's case suggested a prison term of between 10 and 13 years based on the conclusion that his crime should be viewed as voluntary manslaughter (and his defense attorneys requested an even lower sentence).  But federal prosecutors successfully argued that the district court should, after applying the guidelines for second-degree murder and obstruction of justice, impose a prison sentence for Slager within an enhanced guideline range of roughly 17 to 22 years of imprisonment.  The judge, after a multi-day hearing, "convicted" Slager of second-degree murder and ultimately imposed a 20-year prison term.  Yesterday the Fourth Circuit affirmed the sentence in US v. Slager, No. 18-4036 (4th Cir. Jan 8, 2019) (available here). Here is how that opinion gets started and a passage from the heart of the opinion:

Defendant Michael Slager (“Defendant”), a former officer with the North Charleston Police Department, admitted that he “willfully” shot and killed Walter Scott (“Scott”), when Scott was unarmed and fleeing arrest.  Defendant further admitted that his decision to shoot Scott was “objectively unreasonable.”  Based on those admissions, Defendant pleaded guilty to depriving Scott of his civil rights under color of law.  The district court sentenced Defendant to a 240-month term of imprisonment.  Before this Court, Defendant argues that the district court reversibly erred in setting his sentence by: (1) using second-degree murder as the sentencing cross-reference for his offense rather than voluntary manslaughter, and (2) applying a two-level enhancement for obstruction of justice.  Finding no reversible error, we affirm Defendant’s sentence....

“When sentencing courts engage in fact finding, preponderance of the evidence is the appropriate standard of proof.” United States v. Span, 789 F.3d 320, 334 (4th Cir. 2015) (citations and alterations omitted). We “will not reverse a lower court’s findings of fact simply because we would have decided the case differently.” Id. (quoting Easley v. Cromartie, 532 U.S. 234, 242 (2001)).  Instead, clear error exists only when “the reviewing court on the entire evidence is left with the definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been committed.” Id. (quoting Easley, 532 U.S. at 242)....

Because Santana’s video does not capture the entirety of the disputed period, the court based many of its factual findings on its assessment of the credibility of the two testifying eyewitnesses to the encounter: Defendant and Santana.  Examining at length each of Defendant’s four accounts of the encounter, the court discredited Defendant’s testimony as “contradictory,” “self-serving, evolving, and internally inconsistent.” Slager, 2018 WL 445497, at *4–6.  The record amply supports that credibility determination....

In conclusion, the district court did not reversibly err by inferring Defendant’s malice from the facts it found credible. Moreover, the court did not reversibly err by determining that Defendant’s malice was not negated by “sudden quarrel or heat of passion.” Accordingly, the court properly cross-referenced second-degree murder.

I take no issue with the substantive conclusions of the courts here, but I still always find it jarring when district judges at sentencing are resolving factual disputes and reaching judgments about criminal behavior that have long traditionally been classic jury issues. But, thanks to the remedial opinion in Booker, these matters can still be resolved by judges at sentencing because their findings result in only advisory recommendations rather than sentencing mandates.

Prior related posts:

January 9, 2019 in Advisory Sentencing Guidelines, Blakely Commentary and News, Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in district courts, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein reportedly to leave Justice Department after new AG is confirmed

As reported here via Reuters, "Deputy U.S. Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who has overseen the Russian election meddling probe, is preparing to leave the U.S. Department of Justice in coming weeks as President Donald Trump’s nominee to lead the department is set to take over, a department official said on Wednesday." Here is more:

William Barr, Trump’s pick to replace Sessions who was fired soon after the November midterm congressional elections, is set to appear for a confirmation hearing next week before the Senate Judiciary Committee, which must weigh his nomination before the full Senate considers his approval.

The official, who asked not to be named since no announcement has been made, said there is no specific plan for Rosenstein’s departure and that he plans to leave sometime after Barr’s confirmation.

If confirmed, Barr, who was U.S. Attorney General under the late President George H.W. Bush from 1991 to 1993, would oversee the investigation led by U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller, a fellow Republican chosen by Rosenstein. Barr’s nomination is likely to meet heavy scrutiny regarding the ongoing investigation, particularly from Democrats, following reports he had written a memo in June questioning the probe. Rosenstein has said the memo had no impact on the department’s work.

Rosenstein will stay on to ensure smooth transition with Barr, the official said, adding that he has seen his job as deputy as a two-year stint and is not being forced out.

Asked about Rosenstein’s departure, first reported by ABC News, White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said she had not spoken to Rosenstein and would leave any announced departures to him or the president. “Certainly, I don’t think there’s any willingness by the president or the White House to push him out,” Sanders told Fox News in an interview.

Rosenstein has stayed on under Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker, whose controversial appointment has sparked numerous legal challenges and raised questions about what role he would play regarding the investigation.

Rosenstein has been frequently criticized by Trump, who calls the Russia investigation a “witch hunt” and denies any collusion with Moscow. Russia has also denied any election interference.

As this reporting highlights, most media and pundits are likely to discuss the Russia investigation as they assess DAG Rosenstein's coming departure and the likely confirmation of AG-nominee Barr.  But serious criminal justice fans know that a new Attorney General and now a new Deputy Attorney General are critically important players in shaping the Justice Department's work on dynamic federal criminal justice issues ranging from marijuana reform to implementation of the FIRST STEP Act to future work by the US Sentencing Commission and so much more.

January 9, 2019 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, January 08, 2019

US Sentencing Commission releases big new report on "Intra-City Differences in Federal Sentencing Practices"

Cover_intra-city-differencesThe US Sentencing Commission has just released its second big research report of the new year with this 138-page report titled "Intra-City Differences in Federal Sentencing Practices." (The main text of the report is less than 30 pages, with the other 100+ full of detailed appendices.)  This USSC webpage provides links, an overview and conclusions from the report:

Overview

This report examines variations in sentencing practices — and corresponding variations in sentencing outcomes — in the federal courts since the Supreme Court’s 2005 decision in United States v. Booker.  The United States Sentencing Commission analyzed the sentencing practices of federal district judges in 30 major cities located throughout the country to determine the extent of the judges’ variations in imposing sentences in relation to the city average.

This report is the second in a series of reports updating the analyses and findings of the Commission’s 2012 Report on the Continuing Impact of United States v. Booker on Federal Sentencing.

Conclusions

Although the trend of increasing differences among judges slowed after 2011, the increasing differences in sentencing practices first reported at the district level in the Commission’s 2012 Booker Report generally persist to this day, even within the same courthouse. In particular, the Commission finds that:

  • From the Booker to Gall Periods, 23 of the 30 cities had increases in their total spreads, and 22 of 27 cities (those with at least five judges in all three periods) had increases in their standard deviations.  From the Gall to the Post-Report Periods, 20 of the 30 cities had increases in their total spreads, and 16 of the 27 cities (those with at least five judges in all periods) had increases in their standard deviations, although the magnitude of the increases was less than the magnitude of the increases from the Booker Period to the Gall Period.

  • In terms of the overall changes during the 13 years, from the Booker Period to the Post-Report Period, 25 of the 30 cities saw a net increase in their total spreads and 23 cities of the 27 with reported standard deviations saw a net increase in their standard deviations.

  • Considering all 30 cities together as a representative sample of the country as a whole, the average total spreads for all 30 cities in the three periods increased from 18.2 in the Booker Period to 23.7 in the Gall Period to 27.6 in the Post-Report Period.  The average standard deviations for the 27 cities (those with at least five judges) grew from 5.8 to 7.7 to 8.3 during the same three periods.

  • In most cities, the length of a defendant’s sentence increasingly depends on which judge in the courthouse is assigned to his or her case.

Once I have a chance to review this data a bit more, I may have more to say about its findings and other takeaways.  But it seems already worth noting that any justified concerns about data showing that "the length of a defendant’s sentence increasingly depends on which judge in the courthouse is assigned to his or her case" are at least a bit mitigated by the passage of the FIRST STEP Act.  Those defendants unfairly receiving longer sentences because their cases were assigned to distinctly harsh sentencing judges are now generally going to be able to earn a greater portion of time off their long sentences (and have more opportunities to seek earlier release through other means) thanks to various new provisions of the the FIRST STEP Act.

January 8, 2019 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, January 07, 2019

Calling her life sentence "too harsh," Tennessee Gov grants commutation to Cyntoia Brown to be paroled after serving 15 years for juve killing

As reported in this local article, "Gov. Bill Haslam ordered an early release for Cyntoia Brown, a Tennessee woman and alleged sex trafficking victim serving a life sentence in prison for killing a man when she was 16."  Here is more about a high-profile clemency grant in a high-profile case:

Haslam granted Brown a full commutation to parole on Monday. Brown will be eligible for release Aug. 7, 15 years after she fatally shot a man in the back of the head while he was lying in bed beside her. She will stay on parole for 10 years.

“Cyntoia Brown committed, by her own admission, a horrific crime at the age of 16," Haslam said in a statement. "Yet, imposing a life sentence on a juvenile that would require her to serve at least 51 years before even being eligible for parole consideration is too harsh, especially in light of the extraordinary steps Ms. Brown has taken to rebuild her life. "Transformation should be accompanied by hope. So, I am commuting Ms. Brown’s sentence, subject to certain conditions.”

Brown will be required to participate in regular counseling sessions and to perform at least 50 hours of community service, including working with at-risk youth. She also will be required to get a job.

In a statement released by her lawyers, Brown thanked Haslam "for your act of mercy in giving me a second chance. I will do everything I can to justify your faith in me." "With God's help, I am committed to live the rest of my life helping others, especially young people. My hope is to help other young girls avoid ending up where I have been."

The governor's long-awaited decision, handed down during his last days in office, brought a dramatic conclusion to Brown's plea for mercy, which burst onto the national stage as celebrities and criminal justice reform advocates discovered her case. In his commutation, the governor called Brown's case one that "appears to me to be a proper one for the exercise of executive clemency." "Over her more than fourteen years of incarceration, Ms. Brown has demonstrated extraordinary growth and rehabilitation," the commutation said.

It was a remarkable victory for Brown after years of legal setbacks. Brown said she was forced into prostitution and was scared for her life when she shot 43-year-old Johnny Allen in the back of the head while they were in bed together. Allen, a local real estate agent, had picked her up at an East Nashville Sonic restaurant and taken her to his home.

Brown, now 30, was tried as an adult and convicted of first-degree murder in 2006. She was given a life sentence. Had Haslam declined to intervene, Brown would not have been eligible for parole until she was 69. The state parole board, which considered Brown's case in 2018, gave the governor a split recommendation, with some recommending early release and some recommending she stay in prison....

In recent years, celebrities have highlighted her case, fueling intense interest and a renewed legal fight to get her out of prison. Activists, lawmakers and celebrities, including Rihanna and Kim Kardashian West, have cited Brown's case as an illustration of a broken justice system. Brown was a victim herself, they said, and didn't deserve her punishment.

The Gov's official press release on this decision is available at this link.

January 7, 2019 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Clemency and Pardons, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (8)

Purported SCOTUS originalists and liberals, showing yet again that they are faint-hearted, refuse to consider extending jury trial rights to restitution punishments

I noted in this post the array of per curiam rulings and statements that the Supreme Court released today to get 2019 off to an interesting criminal justice start.  Regular readers will not be surprised to learn that one particular decision, namely the decision to deny certiorari in Hester v. US, has me revved up.  Hester involves a claim that the Sixth Amendment jury trial right recognized in Apprendi, Blakely, Booker and Southern Union is applicable to cases in which findings are essential for the imposition of criminal restitution.  Dissenting from the denial of cert in a this lovely little opinion, Justice Gorsuch explains why this is only logical and is consistent with an originalist approach to the Constitution:

[T]he government argues that the Sixth Amendment doesn’t apply to restitution orders because the amount of restitution is dictated only by the extent of the victim’s loss and thus has no “statutory maximum.”  But the government’s argument misunderstands the teaching of our cases.  We’ve used the term “statutory maximum” to refer to the harshest sentence the law allows a court to impose based on facts a jury has found or the defendant has admitted.  Blakely v. Washington, 542 U.S. 296, 303 (2004).  In that sense, the statutory maximum for restitution is usually zero, because a court can’t award any restitution without finding additional facts about the victim’s loss.  And just as a jury must find any facts necessary to authorize a steeper prison sentence or fine, it would seem to follow that a jury must find any facts necessary to support a (nonzero) restitution order.

The government is not without a backup argument, but it appears to bear problems of its own.  The government suggests that the Sixth Amendment doesn’t apply to restitution orders because restitution isn’t a criminal penalty, only a civil remedy that “compensates victims for [their] economic losses.”  Brief in Opposition 8 (internal quotation marks omitted).  But the Sixth Amendment’s jury trial right expressly applies “[i]n all criminal prosecutions,” and the government concedes that “restitution is imposed as part of a defendant’s criminal conviction.”  Ibid.  Federal statutes, too, describe restitution as a “penalty” imposed on the defendant as part of his criminal sentence, as do our cases.  18 U.S.C. §§ 3663(a)(1)(A), 3663A(a)(1), 3572(d)(1); see Paroline v. United States, 572 U.S. 434, 456 (2014); Pasquantino v. United States, 544 U.S. 349, 365 (2005).  Besides, if restitution really fell beyond the reach of the Sixth Amendment’s protections in criminal prosecutions, we would then have to consider the Seventh Amendment and its independent protection of the right to a jury trial in civil cases.

If the government’s arguments appear less than convincing, maybe it’s because they’re difficult to reconcile with the Constitution’s original meaning.  The Sixth Amendment was understood as preserving the “‘historical role of the jury at common law.’” Southern Union, 567 U. S., at 353.  And as long ago as the time of Henry VIII, an English statute entitling victims to the restitution of stolen goods allowed courts to order the return only of those goods mentioned in the indictment and found stolen by a jury.  1 J. Chitty, Criminal Law 817–820 (2d ed. 1816); 1 M. Hale, Pleas of the Crown 545 (1736).  In America, too, courts held that in prosecutions for larceny, the jury usually had to find the value of the stolen property before restitution to the victim could be ordered.  See, e.g., Schoonover v. State, 17 Ohio St. 294 (1867); Jones v. State, 13 Ala. 153 (1848); State v. Somerville, 21 Me. 20 (1842); Commonwealth v. Smith, 1 Mass. 245 (1804).  See also Barta, Guarding the Rights of the Accused and Accuser: The Jury’s Role in Awarding Criminal Restitution Under the Sixth Amendment, 51 Am. Crim. L. Rev. 463, 472–476 (2014).  And it’s hard to see why the right to a jury trial should mean less to the people today than it did to those at the time of the Sixth and Seventh Amendments’ adoption.

Students of the Apprendi-Blakely line of cases have long known that there were not very good arguments to preclude the application of jury trial rights to criminal restitution awards, and those arguments got even weaker when the Supreme Court ruled in Southern Union that the jury trial right also applied to findings needed to impose criminal fines.  And notably, Southern Union was a 6-3 ruling with only the traditional Apprendi haters, Justices Alito, Breyer and Kennedy, in dissent.

So why does the jury trial still mean less to the people today facing restitution punishments than it did to those at the time of the Sixth and Seventh Amendments’ adoption?  The only answer I can provide is hinted in the title of post.  Supposed SCOTUS originalists like Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Thomas and Kavanaugh apparently do not want to here follow originalist principles to what would appear to be their logical conclusion.  Supposed SCOTUS liberals like Justices Ginsburg and Kagan do not want to here protect a certain type of right of a certain type of criminal defendant. (Justice Sotomayor, who never shrinks from following constitutional rights wherever she thinks they must extend, joined Justice Gorsuch's dissent here). 

When push comes to shove — or rather, when criminal defendants make a serious claim that a serious constitutional right should be given serious meaning — still too many justices seem to become faint-hearted in the application of their purported principles and commitments.  Drat. 

January 7, 2019 in Blakely in the Supreme Court, Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

Supreme Court order list full of (state-friendly) criminal justice per curiams and notable cert denial with statements

The Supreme Court is full back in action for the New Year, beginning with this new long order list with the always-expected long list of denials of certiorari and denials of rehearing. But the list also includes these two notable per curiam rulings:

City of Escondido v. Emmons, No. 17-1660, which summarily reverses/vacates a Ninth Circuit ruling that two officers were not entitled to qualified immunity in a excessive force case.

Shoop v. Hill, No. 18-56, which summarily vacates a Sixth Circuit ruling that an Ohio capital defendant was entitled to habeas relief because the state courts misapplied precedents concerning an Eighth Amendment intellectual disability claim.

In addition, the SCOTUS order list includes these two cert denials that prompted notable statements from the Justices:

Hester v. US, No. 17-9082, concerned whether the Sixth Amendment requires jury findings in support of restitution orders and Justice Alito issued a concurrence in the cert denial, largely in response to Justice Gorsuch's extended dissent which was joined by Justice Sotomayor.

Lance v. Sellers, No. 17-1382, concerned a Georgia capital defendant's claim that his lawyer was constitutionally ineffective and Justice Sotomayor issued a lengthy dissent from the cert denial which was joined by Justices Ginsburg and Kagan.

In a separate post, I may have more to say about some of these rulings, particularly Justice Gorsuch's dissenting opinion in Hester.

UPDATE:  I now do have a new post on the Hester case here under the title "Purported SCOTUS originalists and liberals, showing yet again that they are faint-hearted, refuse to consider extending jury trial rights to restitution punishments."  And Amy Howe here at SCOTUSblog has a review of all the action today in the first big SCOTUS order list for 2019.

January 7, 2019 in Death Penalty Reforms, Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, January 06, 2019

Two helpful reviews of the FIRST STEP Act and what it does (and does not do)

I have seen two recent reviews of the politics, policy, practicalities and potential of the FIRST STEP Act.  Here are links to the two helpful pieces, with a small excerpt from each:

From the Brennan Center, "How the FIRST STEP Act Became Law — and What Happens Next"

The FIRST STEP Act changes the conversation on mass incarceration

The FIRST STEP Act is a critical win in the fight to reduce mass incarceration. While the bill is hardly a panacea, it’s the largest step the federal government has taken to reduce the number of people in federal custody. (The federal government remains the nation’s leading incarcerator, and more people are under the custody of the federal Bureau of Prisons than any single state system.)

The FIRST STEP Act’s overwhelming passage demonstrates that the bipartisan movement to reduce mass incarceration remains strong. And the bill, which retains major parts of SRCA’s sentencing reform provisions, is now known as “Trump’s criminal justice bill.” This means that conservatives seeking to curry favor with the president can openly follow his example or push for even bolder reforms. Finally, this dynamic creates a unique opening for Democrats vying for the White House in 2020 to offer even better solutions to end mass incarceration.

From FAMM, "Frequently Asked Questions on the First Step Act, S. 756"

Q20: What does the First Step Act do to improve compassionate release?

A: The First Step Act makes a number of important reforms to how the BOP handles compassionate release requests.  The Act requires increased notification to prisoners on the availability of compassionate release and their eligibility for it.  It will also require the BOP to expedite the application review process for terminally ill prisoners and make sure that families are notified of a person’s terminal illness and given a chance to visit that person quickly.

Most significantly, the First Step Act gives federal prisoners the ability to petition directly to the sentencing court for compassionate release in the event that the BOP has waited more than 30 days to respond to a petition or the federal prisoner has been denied compassionate release after exhausting all administrative remedies at the BOP.

January 6, 2019 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, January 04, 2019

"Why Aren’t Democratic Governors Pardoning More Prisoners?"

The question in the title of this post is the headline of this notable new piece in The Atlantic by Matt Ford. The subtitle adds "It's one of the most effective tools for reducing mass incarceration, but few are taking advantage of it."  Here are excerpts:

Governors in most states have the power to pardon or commute sentences, either at their sole discretion or with some level of input from a commission. Since most convictions occur at the state level, some governors can wield even greater influence on criminal justice than the president can.  But most governors rarely use this power, and few have made it a mainstay of their tenure in office — a major missed opportunity for justice and the public good.

Some outgoing governors were particularly resistant. New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez, a former prosecutor, issued only three pardons during her two terms in office and added new restrictions to deter applicants.  Florida Governor Rick Scott turned the state’s clemency system into a hopeless slog.  Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker issued no pardons during his eight years in power, and in one of his final official acts, he signed a bill requiring state officials to keep a list of pardoned people who commit subsequent crimes and the governor who pardoned them.

All three of those governors hail from the Republican Party, which traditionally favored tough-on-crime policies. But even Democratic governors can be stingy.  New York Governor Andrew Cuomo made headlines last month when he pardoned 22 immigrants who faced deportation or couldn’t apply for citizenship because of previous state convictions.  The pardons gave Cuomo a chance to cast himself as a leading figure in the Democratic resistance to President Trump.  But with almost 200,000 New Yorkers in prison, probation, or parole, issuing fewer than two dozen pardons is hardly a courageous act....

What would it look like if governors pursued a more aggressive approach to their clemency powers?  Jerry Brown, California’s outgoing governor, carved out a model of sorts.  The state’s longtime leader spent his fourth and final term in office setting a national benchmark for clemency: The Times of San Diego reported that Brown has pardoned at least 1,332 inmates since 2011, quadrupling the number issued by the preceding four governors combined.  The burst of activity is particularly stark compared to his two immediate predecessors, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Gray Davis, who respectively issued fifteen and zero pardons....

So where could a more apprehensive governor begin? Perhaps the most prudent place would be the swelling numbers of elderly prisoners who were condemned to spend their dying years behind bars.  In a December 2017 report, the Vera Institute for Justice found that roughly 10 percent of prisoners in state custody in 2013 — roughly 131,000 people — were more than 55 years old. Demographic trends are expected to raise that figure to 30 percent by 2030.  Multiple states already have compassionate-release programs for elderly or dying prisoners; governors could fast-track pardon and commutations to accelerate the process.

January 4, 2019 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

"Career Motivations of State Prosecutors"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting new article authored by Ronald Wright and Kay Levine.  Here is its abstract:

Because state prosecutors in the United States typically work in local offices, reformers often surmise that greater coordination within and among those offices will promote sound prosecution practices across the board.  Real transformation, however, requires commitment not only from elected chief prosecutors but also from line prosecutors—the attorneys who handle the daily caseloads of the office.  When these individuals’ amenability to reform goals and sense of professional identity is at odds with the leadership, the success and sustainability of reforms may be at risk.

To better understand this group of criminal justice professionals and their power to influence system reforms, we set out to learn what motivates state prosecutors to do their work.  Using original interview data from more than 260 prosecutors in nine different offices, we identify four principal career motivations for working state prosecutors: (1) reinforcing one’s core absolutist identity, (2) gaining trial skills, (3) performing a valuable public service, and (4) sustaining a work-life balance.  However, only two of these motivations — fulfilling one’s core identity and serving the public — are acceptable for applicants to voice in the hiring context, even in offices that employ a significant number of former defense attorneys.  From this finding we offer a cautionary tale to job applicants as well as to office leaders, particularly chief prosecutors who want to reform office practices and to make those changes stick.

January 4, 2019 in Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, January 02, 2019

Noting the notable "new crop of reform-minded prosecutors"

Though I do not expect a new wave of progressive prosecutors to radically change American criminal justice system, I do hope they can and will be important contributor to whole new conceptions of how to approach crime and punishment in the USA.  This new AP piece talks about some of the notable new folks taking office this year, and here are excerpts:

To get elected as a district attorney, sounding tough on crime used to be the most effective campaign strategy. But in recent years, district attorneys have been winning elections by sounding big on reform.

Next month, at least eight new reform-minded prosecutors will take office in cities around the country after winning their local elections by promising to be more compassionate toward drug addicts and more evenhanded in the treatment of minorities. Some won their races against long odds and deeply entrenched tough-on-crime attitudes.

In Chesterfield County, Virginia, a Democratic defense attorney who promised to eliminate cash bonds for nonviolent offenders won a traditionally conservative district held by a Republican for 30 years.

In Massachusetts, a lawyer who pledged to stop prosecuting a list of more than a dozen nonviolent crimes became the first African-American woman to win the district attorney’s office in Suffolk County, a district that includes Boston.

And in Dallas County, Texas, former Judge John Creuzot won after promising to reduce incarceration rates by 15 percent to 20 percent and to treat drug crimes as a public health issue. “Justice is HEART work” was part of his campaign slogan.

For decades, that kind of mantra by someone running for district attorney would have been seen as soft on crime and a turnoff for many voters. But a shift began in some communities several years ago when candidates began tapping into public frustration over high incarceration rates, disparate treatment of minorities, and the decades-old war on drugs....

This new crop of prosecuting attorneys is facing resistance to proposals for sweeping reforms, mainly from police and prosecutors in their own offices who are accustomed to decades-old policies of locking up defendants as long as possible....

Rachael Rollins, who won the District Attorney’s seat in Boston, raised the ire of everyone from police to retail store owners when she promised to stop prosecuting crimes such as shoplifting, resisting arrest, larceny under $250, drug possession and trespassing. She pledged to dismiss the cases or require offenders to do community service or complete education programs. “Accountability does not necessarily have to equal incarceration,” Rollins said. “There are many different tools we can use to hold people accountable.”

Larry Krasner, a civil rights attorney and public defender in Philadelphia, won a longshot bid for the District Attorney’s office in 2017. During his first year in office, Krasner has let go about 30 assistant prosecutors — 10 percent of the 300 lawyers in his office — and made it mandatory that he personally has to approve any plea deal that calls for more than 15 to 30 years in prison.

One of the challenges he’s faced and the newly elected DAs will likely face is an institutionalized belief that prosecutors should always seek the most serious charge and longest sentence possible. “I think resistance comes in many forms,” Krasner said. “There’s definitely a resistance that comes from the court system itself.”

Many of the new prosecutors have pledged to treat drug cases less like crimes and more like a public health problem. Scott Miles, a longtime defense attorney, won the Commonwealth’s Attorney job in Chesterfield County, just south of Richmond, Virginia, after promising to reduce felony drug offenses to misdemeanors in simple possession cases. Miles promised to “replace our outdated war-on-drugs approach to addiction.”

Kevin Carroll, president of the Chesterfield Fraternal Order of Police, said he is concerned that Miles will go too easy on drug offenders who often commit other crimes to support their habit. “If you’re not going to get in trouble for it, what’s the fear?” he said. “The truth of the matter is, unfortunately, for a lot of the people who are addicted to drugs, their ability to understand the difference between right and wrong is compromised. The fact is they’ll do what they need to do to get the drugs, and if they have to steal, they’ll steal.”

Lucy Lang, executive director of the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said the new batch of reform-minded prosecutors represents a shift in the public’s attitude toward the criminal justice system. “It’s a little hard to say whether this reflects a massive sea change,” Lang said. “But I do think that this reflects an increase in awareness on the public’s part of the civil rights crisis we have found ourselves in as a result of overpolicing and mass incarceration over the past 50 years.”

January 2, 2019 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Monday, December 31, 2018

NY Gov closes out 2018 with clemency grants

This New York Post piece, headlined "Cuomo grants clemency to 29 convicts, including murderers," reports on a final act of sentencing significance from the Governor of New York. Here are the basic details:

Gov. Cuomo granted clemency to 29 convicts Monday — including four serving lengthy sentences for murder.

Twenty-two of the inmates won pardons, including several immigrants convicted of drug crimes who were facing possible deportation. Nine others had their sentences commuted, four for murder and three for armed robbery.

“These actions will help keep immigrant families together and take a critical step toward a more just, more fair and more compassionate New York,” the governor said in a statement.

The convicted murderers had all served between 20 and 33 years and had committed the crimes in their teens. Alphonso Riley-James and Roy Bolus, both 49, were were part of a group involved in a drug deal in Albany that went bad and left two men dead.

But neither inmate was accused of causing the deaths, Cuomo said, and both have served 30 years of a potential life sentences. The governor said both showed remorse and had exemplary records in prison....

Two other convicted killers were also crime victims themselves, the governor said. Dennis Woodbine, 42, served almost 22 years of a 25-to-life sentence following an incident in Brooklyn in 1998, when he was 19. While chasing a group of young men who had stolen his jewelry, Woodbine fired a gun and struck and killed an innocent bystander. He has since earned a B.A. and is a mentor in the organization Rehabilitation Through the Arts and was featured in a PBS documentary.

The governor also commuted the sentence of Michael Crawford, 38, who served 20 years of a 22-to-life sentence after being convicted at age 17 of shooting an individual who stole concert tickets from him in Buffalo in 1999. The governor also commuted the sentences of three other prisoners convicted of robbery or weapons possession.

The full official statement and list of clemency grants from Gov Cuomo is available at this link.

December 31, 2018 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, December 30, 2018

A hasty review of the SL&P year that was 2018

Year in review stories are catnip to me, so I figured I might as well use an unexpected little pocket of free time to create my own listing of big events in 2018 based on a lightning quick review of blog posts from the past year.  This listing is not representative or even all that reflective, and I welcome reader input on stories forgotten or unmentioned (or poorly ranked).  So, for giggles and comment, here is a list of post titles and links providing an imperfect, too-quick review of some notable stories from the past year:

25. Congress finally enacts "Paroline fix" that should improve victim restitution in federal child porn cases 

24. The Matthew Charles saga: another sad example of why complete abolition of parole was a mistake for federal sentencing

23. Entire First Circuit urges Supreme Court to revisit Harmelin's limits on Eighth Amendment challenges to extreme adult prison sentence 

22. What a difference a DA can make: new Philly District Attorney taking new approach to juve lifer resentencings 

21. Noticing the continued decline of the federal prison population (for now) ... and a story embedded with intricacies 

20. Judge Aaron Persky recalled by voters in response to lenient sentencing of Brock Turner 

19. "Charlottesville Jury Recommends 419 Years Plus Life For Neo-Nazi Who Killed Protester" 

18. Examining thoughtfully modern trend to prosecute overdose deaths as homicides

17. California reduces reach of its broad felony-murder law, and provides for retroactive sentence reductions accordingly 

16.  Paul Manafort found guilty of 8 of 18 counts ... and now faces real possibility of spending many years in federal prison

15. DPIC releases year-end report noting that 2018 was "fourth consecutive year with fewer than 30 executions and 50 death sentences"

14. DOJ casting new marijuana enforcement memo in terms of "rule of law" and "local control"

13. Bill Cosby gets 3 to 10 years of state imprisonment with no bail pending appeal

12.  Michael Cohen sentenced to three years in federal prison ... and joins ranks rooting hard for passage of the FIRST STEP Act

11. Washington Supreme Court strikes down state's death penalty based on its arbitrary administration

10. Child molester/gymnastics coach Larry Nassar gets (only?!?) 40 to 175 years as state prison sentence for mass molestation

9. Supreme Court grants cert on Haymond from Tenth Circuit to address when Apprendi and Alleyne meet supervised release!! 

8. Kimme’s accomplishment: Prez Trump commutes LWOP sentence of Alice Johnson!!

7. Prez Trump makes (tough) nominations to US Sentencing Commission (notably, these USSC nominees never got a Senate hearing or vote) 

6. How many federal prisoners may have Dimaya claims and how many procedural challenges will they face raising them? 

5. Criminal justice reform ballot measures passing in Florida and Louisiana, but losing badly in Ohio

4. Jeff Sessions is no longer Attorney General of the United States 

3. Justice Anthony Kennedy has announced his retirement ... which means a lot for the future of sentencing jurisprudence and so much more

2. DC Circuit Judge Brett Kavanaugh nominated by Prez Trump to replace Justice Kennedy

1. Prez Trump signs historic (though modest) FIRST STEP Act into law ... and now comes the critical work of implementing it well!!

December 30, 2018 in On blogging, Recap posts, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, December 28, 2018

"Predictions of Dangerousness in Sentencing: Déjà Vu All Over Again"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper authored by Michael Tonry no available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

Predictions of dangerousness are more often wrong than right, use information they shouldn’t, and disproportionately damage minority offenders.  Forty years ago, two-thirds of people predicted to be violent were not.  For every two “true positives,” there were four “false positives.”  Contemporary technology is little better: at best, three false positives for every two true positives.  The best-informed specialists say that accuracy topped out a decade ago; further improvement is unlikely. 

All prediction instruments use ethically unjustifiable information.  Most include variables such as youth and gender that are as unjust as race or eye color would be.  No one can justly be blamed for being blue-eyed, young, male, or dark-skinned.  All prediction instruments incorporate socioeconomic status variables that cause black, other minority, and disadvantaged offenders to be treated more harshly than white and privileged offenders.  All use criminal history variables that are inflated for black and other minority offenders by deliberate and implicit bias, racially disparate practices, profiling, and drug law enforcement that targets minority individuals and neighborhoods.

December 28, 2018 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, December 27, 2018

More than 40 months after death sentencing, lawyers for Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev file their 1000+-page appellate brief with First Circuit

As reported in this local article, headlined "Lawyers: Tsarnaev ‘should not have been tried in Boston’," a very long appellate brief has been filed in a very high-profile federal capital case.  A federal jury handed down Dzhokhar Tsarnaev death sentence way back in May 2015, a full month before Donald Trump had even announced he was running for President.  But now, as Prez Trump heads into the second half of his term, Tsarnaev's team of lawyers has fully briefed his complaints about his trial and sentencing.  Here are the basic details:

Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s appellate team presented their oft-delayed opening argument Thursday, urging sparing him a federal execution and allowing him to be retried for the 2013 Patriots Day terror attack that killed an 8-year-old boy and two women.  Their premise is summed up in the opening line: “This case should not have been tried in Boston.

“Forcing this case to trial in a venue still suffering from the bombings was the District Court’s first fundamental error, and it deprived Tsarnaev of an impartial jury and a reliable verdict, in violation of the Fifth, Sixth, and Eighth Amendments,” the brief states.

The partially redacted document filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit spans 1,124 pages, nearly half of which is the 500-page opening brief alone.

Absent a new trial, Tsarnaev’s team is asking the Appeals Court to reverse his death sentence and order a punishment of life imprisonment.

Tsarnaev, 25, has been in solitary confinement at the federal Supermax prison in Florence, Colo., since his 2015 conviction.  Tsarnaev’s trial attorneys made repeated bids for a change of venue.  His appeal focuses on and echoes several familiar protests raised during his trial, chief among them the argument that he was a pawn of his domineering big brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev.

Among other things, the public defenders accuse Tsarnaev’s jury forewoman, a restaurant manager his attorneys tried to get removed, of retweeting a social media post calling the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth sophomore a “piece of garbage”  before she received a juror summons, but that she claimed during questioning for her suitability to serve she had not “commented on this case.”  A second juror, a male municipal worker, outright “disobeyed the Court’s instructions,” the brief asserts, by joining a Facebook discussion about the case before he was seated....

Tsarnaev’s appeal blames his 26-year-old brother for his involvement, calling Tamerlan “a killer, an angry and violent man” who “conceived and led this conspiracy.” And but for his influence, “Jahar would never have been on Boylston Street on Marathon Monday.

“Tsarnaev admitted heinous crimes,” the lawyers acknowledge, “but even so — perhaps especially so — this trial demanded scrupulous adherence to the requirements of the Constitution and federal law. Again and again this trial fell short.”

The Tsarnaevs detonated two homemade pressure-cooker bombs packed with shrapnel near the marathon finish line in Copley Square 12 seconds apart on April 15, 2013.  Three spectators were killed — 8-year-old Martin Richard of Dorchester, Krystle Campbell, 29, a restaurant manager from Medford, and Boston University graduate student Lingzi Lu, 23.  More than 260 other people were injured. Sixteen of them lost limbs in the blasts.  Three days later, the brothers shot and killed MIT Police Officer Sean Collier, 27, in his cruiser during an ambush on campus and failed attempt to steal his service weapon.

UPDATE: Thanks to a helpful tweet, I now see that the 500-page brief is available at this link. And there I noticed the final notable section starts this way:

XV. Under The Supreme Court’s Eighth Amendment Jurisprudence, This Court Should Vacate Tsarnaev’s Death Sentences Because He Was Only 19 Years Old At The Time Of The Crimes.

Tsarnaev was just 19 years old when he committed the crimes for which he was sentenced to death. According to now well-established brain science, and increasingly reflected by changing law around the country, the physical development of the brain and related behavioral maturation continues well through the late teens and early 20s. Consistent with the Supreme Court’s Eighth Amendment jurisprudence and a recent resolution adopted by the American Bar Association, this Court should hold that those who commit their crimes as “emerging adults,” when they were under 21 years old, are categorically exempt from the death penalty.

December 27, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (6)

"Hello, FIRST STEP Act! Goodbye, Jeff Sessions! The Year in Criminal Justice Reform"

The title of this post is the headline of this new extended Reason piece authored by Scott Shackford. I recommend the piece in full, and here is how it gets started and its headings:

With the passage of the FIRST STEP Act just before Christmas, 2018 has been a banner year for incremental reforms to our awful criminal justice system. We've seen efforts to reduce levels of incarceration and the harshness of prison sentences, particularly those connected to the drug war; further legalization of marijuana in the states; and efforts to constrain the power of police to seize people's property and money without convicting them. While all this was happening, crime mostly declined in America's largest cities.

But we've also seen increased deliberate efforts to crack down on voluntary sex work by conflating it with forced human trafficking.  And, despite learning from the drug war that harsh mandatory minimum sentences don't reduce the drug trade, lawmakers and prosecutors are yet again pushing for more punishment to fight opioid and fentanyl overdoses.

Here are some highlights (and lowlights) of American criminal justice in 2018:

The FIRST STEP Act passed (finally)....

Marijuana legalization continued apace....

Civil Asset Forfeiture under the microscope....

Attorney General Jeff Sessions shown the door....

The war on sex trafficking leads to online censorship, not safety....

Treating opioid overdose deaths as murders....

Reducing dependence on cash bail....

This strikes me as a pretty good list, though it leaves out some notable state-level developments such as Florida's vote to retrench its expansive approach to felon disenfranchisement and lots of state-level work on reducing collateral consequences.

I welcome reader input on other criminal justice reforms (or just events) from 2018 that they think worth remembering.

December 27, 2018 in Collateral consequences, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Marijuana Legalization in the States, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Spotlighting the enduring challenges posed by risk-assessment mechanisms built into FIRST STEP Act

LawProf Brandon Garrett has this important new Slate commentary headlined "The Prison Reform Bill’s Implementation Will Be Tricky; Here’s how to ensure it’s a success." I recommend the piece in full, and here are excerpts:

The First Step Act, the federal prison reform bill that President Donald Trump signed into law on Friday, represents a bipartisan and major effort at making the criminal justice system fairer.  This step will only be a baby step, however, if the engine that drives the entire piece of legislation — risk assessments of federal prisoners’ likelihood to reoffend — is not used carefully and with sound scientific and public oversight.

The statute ... allows federal prisoners, who now number about 180,000, to earn credits toward early release based on rehabilitative programs and their risk of reoffending.  The statute states that an algorithm will be used to score every prisoner as minimum, low, medium, or high risk.  But the legislation does not say how this algorithm will be designed. The Senate’s version of the First Step Act, which refers to “risk” 100 times, calls for a “risk and needs assessment system” to be developed in 210 days, and then made public and administered to every federal prison within the following 180 days.

That may not be nearly enough time to carefully study all of the questions raised by creating such a massive system.  Take as an example the experience in Virginia, which has been hailed as a national model and “leading innovator” by the American Law Institute for using risk assessment to divert low-risk offenders from prison.  Virginia spent several years developing its risk assessment system.  The Virginia Criminal Sentencing Commission carefully obtained public input, scientific evaluations, and pilot studies, before implementing it statewide.

But in a recent series of studies of the effort to divert prisoners in Virginia, John Monahan, Alexander Jakubow, Anne Metz, and I have found that there is wide variation in how courts and judges apply this risk assessment....  People are not algorithms.  The statute’s fairness will hinge on the discretion that prison officials exercise, informed by the scores from a risk assessment but also by their own judgment.  The First Step Act’s success will similarly depend on resources for real rehabilitative programs.  It calls for evidence-based evaluation of such programs, but that research will also take time.

While using an evidence-informed tool can be better than simply leaving everything to prison officials’ discretion, there needs to be more than buy-in by the decision-makers — the right tools need to be used.  Michelle Alexander and others have raised concerns, for example, with risk assessments that rely on information about prior arrests or neighborhood information that can produce stark racial bias.  The Senate’s version of the act speaks to the potential for bias and asks the comptroller general to conduct a review after two years to identify “unwarranted disparities.”  The act also calls for an independent review body that includes researchers who have studied risk assessment and people who have implemented it.  These are important steps.  Involvement of scientists and the public will be needed to consider whether invidious and potentially unconstitutional discrimination results — otherwise, protracted constitutional litigation challenging these risk assessments will be a foregone conclusion.

Still, there is much that is positive about the bill’s many provisions dealing with risk.  The First Step Act emphasizes not just recidivism but also programs that support rehabilitation.  It is noteworthy that the legislation calls for re-evaluation of prisoners each year so that risk scores are not set in stone. All prisoners are able to reduce their classification.  This should be taken seriously.  The risk of any person may decline dramatically over time simply as a matter of age, as the U.S. Sentencing Commission documented in a study last year.

The statute also makes the attorney general the risk assessor in chief — with input from the independent scientific reviewers — of the risk assessment used on 180,000 prisoners each year.  That scientific input is critical, and it should be solicited from the broader scientific community.  It’s also worth noting that the Department of Justice has recently shut down key science advisory groups; this law hopefully takes an important first step toward bringing science back in.

December 27, 2018 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Another dive into the choppy waters of Miller and Montgomery implementation

I am sure I have posted any number of articles highlighting that implementation of the Eighth Amendment limit of juvenile life without parole sentences has been choppy at best (see here and here and here for a few more examples). The latest iteration of this depressingly evergreen story comes from Mother Jones here under the headline "The Supreme Court Said No More Life Without Parole for Kids. Why Is Antonio Espree One of the Few to Get Out of Prison?".  I recommend this long piece in full, and here is a taste:

As a result of [the Graham and Miller and Montgomery] decisions, the number of states banning life without parole for children in all cases, not just in mandatory sentencing schemes, has quadrupled since 2012. Of the more than 2,600 juvenile lifers in 2016, about 1,700 have been resentenced.

But although Justice Kennedy stated that all but the “rarest of juvenile offenders” should get a shot at parole, some prosecutors continue to argue that many do not deserve this benefit, or that they should serve years longer in prison before they can get out. So far, only 400 juvenile lifers nationwide have been freed.

In part, that’s because the Supreme Court gave states leeway to decide how to review lifers’ cases, leading to inconsistencies across the country. In Pennsylvania, home to the nation’s second-biggest juvenile lifer population, prosecutors are required to “prove beyond a reasonable doubt” that a defendant can never be rehabilitated if they want to deny the option of parole during resentencing; otherwise, the presumption is he should be given a second chance. So far, the state has released more than 150 juvenile lifers, many under the jurisdiction of Philadelphia’s District Attorney Larry Krasner, who campaigned last year on a platform of reducing mass incarceration.

But in Michigan, where 363 juvenile lifers were serving mandatory sentences in 2016, there is no such requirement, and prosecutors have argued that nearly two-thirds of juvenile lifers are those rarest offenders who should be kept in prison for good. “Justice in this country is largely based on where you live,” says Jody Kent Lavy, director of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, an advocacy group.

Even Henry Montgomery, who won his Supreme Court case, isn’t free. In February, the Louisiana parole board rejected his request for release, arguing that he had not finished enough classes in prison.  His lawyers countered that he hadn’t been given much of a chance: For his first three decades at Louisiana’s notorious Angola prison, lifers like him were prohibited from taking classes. (About a third of juvenile lifers nationally say they have been denied access to prison educational programs.)  When the courses opened up, he was deemed ineligible to complete his GED.  A judge described him as a model inmate, but family members of the sheriff’s deputy he killed testified against him at the parole hearing.  So Montgomery, now 72 years old, was denied.  He’ll have to wait a year to reapply.

December 26, 2018 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, December 24, 2018

Lamenting lack of retroactive application of new sentencing changes in FIRST STEP Act (... and so rooting again for robust clemency)

This recent piece from The Guardian, fully headlined "Current inmates feel left behind by Trump's criminal justice reform bill; First Step Act reduces the mandatory sentence for three-strikes offenders but the provisions will not be made retroactive," spotlights how certain inmates have gotten left behind even as the inappropriateness of their sentences inspired key sentencing reforms in the FIRST STEP Act.  Here are excerpts:

On paper, Chris Young seems exactly the kind of person a prison reform bill ought to release from federal custody. In the eight years since he was last free, Young has become an avid reader, taught himself to write computer code and worked as a tutor for fellow prisoners. Right now he’s reading Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus “for fun”.  He also says that since he can’t get real-world practice, he re-reads the same passage of a programming book every day after lunch, to make sure it’s committed to memory.

When he was 22, Young was arrested on a third low-level drug charge. Under so-called “three strikes” laws, he was given a mandatory life sentence.  For decades, in cases involving repeat drug offenders, such laws have stripped federal judges of discretion. The judge who sentenced Young, Kevin Sharp, was so shaken by the experience he retired shortly after.  “What I was required to do that day was cruel,” Sharp tweeted earlier this year.

The bipartisan First Step Act, signed into law by Donald Trump on Friday, softens that “cruel” requirement for federal judges, reducing the mandatory sentence in such cases to 25 years. But it will not do anything for Young.  In one of many compromises made by progressive reform advocates to secure conservative support, this and several other provisions were not made retroactive.  “I’m human and I would have loved to have benefited from the bill, but unfortunately I don’t,” Young told the Guardian from federal prison in Lexington, Kentucky. “I don’t necessarily feel left behind, I just feel [lawmakers] don’t understand what goes on with the … actual humans that their choices and politics affect.”...

Advocates believe [the Act] can be a launching point for state and local reform which could have a much greater impact on the US inmate population. After all, just 10% of people incarcerated in the US are in the federal system.  “I absolutely think that this one is going to be catalytic towards other de-carceration campaigns on the local and state level,” said Glenn Martin, a formerly incarcerated reform advocate who helped bring dozens of former inmate-led groups on board for the First Step Act.

“I think that the Senate — a conservative Republican Senate — has just given permission to conservatives all over the country [to become] engaged in criminal justice reform.” Nonetheless, the lack of retroactivity on a majority of the sentencing reforms was “a tough pill to swallow”.

“It’s one of the concessions that hurts the most,” said Martin. “It’s about fairness, and yet there’s this group of people who continue to be harmed because of the lack of retroactivity.”

That includes people like John Bailey, a 71-year-old inmate of the federal prison in Hazleton, West Virginia which is nicknamed “misery mountain”. Bailey’s brother Oliver said he was struggling to understand the logic of the changes not applying to inmates like John, who was imprisoned in 1992 on a non-violent drug charge. “If you recognize the injustice now,” asked Bailey, “how come it doesn’t apply to those that suffered the same injustice before?”

Advocates who worked on the bill said conservatives and politically vulnerable Democrats opposed retroactivity because of how releasing prisoners early might resonate with voters.

There is one bright spot for the Baileys. One provision of First Step that does apply to current inmates is a requirement that prisoners be housed no more than 500 driving miles from their home. Bailey, who is from St Petersburg, Florida, has spent his prison life in Leavenworth, Kansas and now West Virginia, thousands of miles away. Oliver has not seen John since he was jailed. “At this point something’s better than nothing,” he said. “We need to progress from here.”

It’s a common sentiment. Chad Marks is serving a 40-year sentence on drug conspiracy charges, thanks to another provision First Step will restrict. Marks’ sentence was enhanced by “stacking” language in federal law which dramatically increases a sentence if an offender possesses a firearm in the commission of a drug crime, whether or not it is used. “I don’t understand how lawmakers can say that doing this is wrong,” he said, “and that they are going to fix it, but not apply it retroactively. That was a big blow. What has my focus and attention right now is the fact that lawmakers did something, but my focus is also on a second step coming.”...

Young, Bailey and Marks continue to wait for a second step. While they do, all three must place their primary hope for release in an act of clemency: a pardon or commutation issued by the president. Young’s case has been endorsed by Kim Kardashian, who successfully lobbied for the release of another federal prisoner, Alice Johnson, in June. Marks said he was “more than hopeful that I will find relief through clemency”.

“I am praying that president Trump will find me worthy of mercy and grace,” he said. “I won’t let him down or disappoint him.”

As regular readers know, Prez Trump has been letting me down and disappointing me by having so far failed to make good on all the talk from earlier this year that he was looking at "3,000 names" for possible clemencies. I sincerely hope that Prez Trump and those assisting him on clemency matters are going to give extra attention to persons serving extreme sentences that would no longer be applicable under the new sentencing provisions of the FIRST STEP Act.  (I also think persons serving particularly extreme sentences should file (or seek to re-file) constitutional or other challenges to their sentences that might be emboldened by FIRST STEP Act reforms, but I will discuss this idea in a subsequent post.)

A few of many recent related posts: 

December 24, 2018 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Saturday, December 22, 2018

More notable state clemency developments for the holiday season

In this post a few days ago, I flagged some notable recent clemency grants by Governors in Arkansas and Colorado and Pennsylvania (while also lamenting that Prez Trump has not followed up a lot of big clemency talk with any big clemency action). With the Christmas holiday nudging every closer, I am not surprised (though still pleased and grateful) that Governors in a few more states are using the ink their clemency pens. Here is another round-up of notable new state clemency stories:

Colorado: "Hickenlooper orders clemency for 33 Colorado offenders, including 7 men convicted of murder"

Michigan: "Gov. Rick Snyder grants clemency to lifer Melissa Chapman, 60 others"

Pennsylvania: "Wolf grants clemency to two more inmates, including one midstate woman"

Tennessee: "Tennessee Governor Granted Clemency To 11 People, Cyntoia Brown Not Included"

Texas: "Christmas clemency: Gov. Greg Abbott pardons six Texans, two for marijuana possession"

December 22, 2018 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Federal judiciary has funds for three weeks of shutdown operations ... so let the FIRST STEP Act litigation begin

This notice from the US Courts, headed "Judiciary Operating During Shutdown," reports that "despite a partial shutdown of the federal government that began on Dec. 22, 2018, the Judiciary remains open and can continue operations for approximately three weeks, through Jan. 11, 2019, by using court fee balances and other funds not dependent on a new appropriation."  Here is more:

Most proceedings and deadlines will occur as scheduled. In cases where an attorney from an Executive Branch agency is not working because of the shutdown, hearing and filing dates may be rescheduled.  The Case Management/Electronic Case Files (CM/ECF) system also will remain in operation for electronic filing of documents.

If the shutdown were to continue past three weeks and exhaust the federal Judiciary’s resources, the courts would then operate under the terms of the Anti-Deficiency Act, which allows work to continue during a lapse in appropriations if it is necessary to support the exercise of Article III judicial powers.  Under this scenario, each court and federal defender’s office would determine the staffing resources necessary to support such work.

I sure hope the folks inside the Beltway can get their act together to avoid having the shutdown extend past January 11, and my law nerd heart is warmed by reading "Most proceedings and deadlines will occur as scheduled" until then. Moreover, as the title of this post hints (and as I will be discussing in a few follow-up posts), I think there some important new legal arguments to make (and some old legal arguments that are stronger) now that the FIRST STEP Act is the law of the land. I sincerely hope lawyers and advocates are already getting at least some of those arguments ready for court, and thus I am pleased the courts are still open for business despite the shutdown.

December 22, 2018 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, December 21, 2018

Prez Trump signs historic (though modest) FIRST STEP Act into law ... and now comes the critical work of implementing it well!!

President Donald J. Trump officially signed the FIRST STEP Act into law today, and I am so very excited that a significant piece of sentencing and prison reform finally became law after years and years and years of talk and effort by so many.  I wish the reform was even more significant, especially on the sentencing side, but something is better than nothing and but for a modest reform to crack sentencing terms, we really have had nothing positive coming from Congress on the sentencing side in more than 20+ years.

The White House has this extended "fact sheet" about the FIRST STEP Act under the heading "President Donald J. Trump Secures Landmark Legislation to Make Our Federal Justice System Fairer and Our Communities Safer."  Here is an excerpt:

CREATING SAFER COMMUNITIES AND A FAIRER FEDERAL JUSTICE SYSTEM: The First Step Act will make our Federal justice system fairer and our communities safer.

  • The First Step Act will help prepare inmates to successfully rejoin society and enact commonsense sentencing reforms to make our justice system fairer for all Americans.
  • Among many reforms, the First Step Act will:
    • Promote prisoner participation in vocational training, educational coursework, or faith-based programs by allowing prisoners to earn time credits for pre-release custody.
    • Expand prison employment program opportunities.
    • Enact fair, commonsense reforms to mandatory minimums.
    • Eliminate the three-strike mandatory life sentencing provisions.
    • Give certain offenders the ability to petition the courts for a review of their sentences.

As the title of this post highlights, I am viewing the enactment of the FIRST STEP Act only as completing stage 1 of achieving significant federal criminal justice reform. Stage 2 involves the critical work of implementation, and so many of the large and small elements of the the FIRST STEP Act involve important and challenging implementation issues. Most obviously, the risk assessment system for prisoner programming and time credits needs to be developed and deployed in a fair and effective way and that is easier said than done. And the instruction that federal prisoners be house, whenever possible, within 500 miles of their homes is easier to describe than to ensure. And the new authority created by the FIRST STEP Act for courts to consider directly so-called "compassionate release" motions for sentence reductions presents a profound opportunity and a profound challenge for taking a second look at extreme (and extremely problematic) sentences.

I could go on and on, but I will save FIRST STEP Act "issue spotting" for the days and weeks ahead (I have created a new category archive for this very purpose).  For now I will just savor needed legal change and congratulate all those on the front lines who worked so very hard to help make this day possible.  Wow!

December 21, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (6)

Thursday, December 20, 2018

FIRST STEP Act approved by US House by vote of 358 to 36, will become law as soon as Prez Trump signs!!

As reported in this UPI piece, the US House of Representatives "overwhelmingly approved a bill overhauling the country's criminal justice system Thursday, sending the legislation to President Donald Trump's desk for a signature." Here is more:

The chamber approved the First Step Act with a 358-36 vote two days after the Senate passed it by a similar margin of 87-12. Lawmakers expect Trump to sign the legislation into law Friday.

The House approved a different version of the legislation earlier this year and had to amend it to make the Senate version.

Trump has described the reform as "reasonable sentencing reforms while keeping dangerous and violent criminals off our streets." "Congress just passed the Criminal Justice Reform Bill known as the #FirstStepAct. Congratulations!  This is a great bi-partisan achievement for everybody.  When both parties work together we can keep our Country safer. A wonderful thing for the U.S.A.!!" he tweeted.

House Speaker Paul Ryan welcomed passage of the legislation, saying it's something he's "believed in for a long time."

"These reforms to our criminal justice system will not only reduce recidivism and make communities safer, but they will help people into lives of purpose," he said.

HUZZAH!!!

Interestingly, when the prison-reform only versions of this bill received a House vote back in May, only two DOP members voted against it while 30+ Dems voted not because of a concern the bill did not go far enough. With the new version including a few modest sentencing reforms, this time around all Dems voted yea and all 36 nays came from GOP members (as detailed in this final vote tally).

Some of the most recent of many prior related posts as FIRST STEP Act gets ever closer to becoming law:

December 20, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

State clemency developments during a holiday season still full of (foolish?) hope for clemency boldness from Prez Trump

In this post last week, I noted Prez Trump's tweet talking about how criminal justice reform "brings much needed hope to many families during the Holiday Season."  I stressed that long-promised additional clemency action could provide another means for the President to make families happy and hopeful during this special time of year.  (On that front, it is worth recalling that, as posted here, Prez Trump issued his first commutation of Sholom Rubashkin exactly a year ago today.  His other commutations were to Alice Marie Johnson in June 2018, and then Dwight and Steven Hammond in July 2018.)

While we all continue to wait and hope for Prez Trump to use his historic constitutional clemency power to "bring much needed hope to many families," I thought it worth noting some recent actions on this front at the state level.  Specifically, here are relatively recent stories of Governors in Arkansas and Colorado and Pennsylvania making notable use of their clemency powers:

I suspect there may be some more state clemency grants already issued and still to come, though I keep pushing for Prez Trump to be active on this front because I believe it provides a useful push (and perhaps some political cover) for state executives considering clemency petitions. In particular, a GOP Governor is considering a high-profile clemency cases in Tennessee, Cyntoia Brown as reported here, and any kind of peer pressure is likely beneficial in this context.

A few of many recent related posts: 

December 20, 2018 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

"California transformed its justice system. But now crime is up, and critics want rollbacks"

La-1545291924-l4bgfb9fvx-snap-imageThe title of this post is the headline of this notable new Los Angeles Times article that merits a read in full. Here is the first part of the piece:

Over the last decade, California has led the nation in reducing its prison population. The state has shortened sentences and diverted some offenders to the counties for incarceration and supervision, transforming California’s criminal justice system into what supporters hope will become a humane model around the country.

But amid the changes, crime has increased in recent years, sparking debate about the causes and giving ammunition to those leading a new effort to roll back some of the reforms.

An analysis by the Marshall Project and the Los Angeles Times found that California’s crime rates remain near historic lows, but overall crime spiked in both 2012 and 2015, the years that immediately followed two major statewide measures aimed at decreasing the number of people in prison. Those jumps were mainly driven by increases in property crimes, particularly thefts from motor vehicles.

After decades of mirroring national downward trends in violent crime, California saw a 12% increase from 2014 to 2017, while the violent crime rate in the other 49 states together increased only 3%, the analysis showed. In 2014, California voters approved a ballot measure that reduced sentences for many low-level drug and property crimes. California’s property crime rate fell slightly in the last two years, but remains 2% higher than it was in 2014. By contrast, the rate of property crimes in the rest of the nation has dropped by 10% over the same period.

There is no simple explanation. Crime trends vary dramatically from county to county. Thirty-one of the state’s 58 counties saw an increase in violent crime last year, while 22 saw an increase in property crimes. The rest stayed flat or declined. What single factor can explain the fact that violent crime went up 6% last year in Los Angeles but fell 6% in Sacramento?

There also have been large differences in the way counties spent the billions in state money allocated to implement the new measures. Some focused on building jails, others on recruiting and deploying police, and still others experimented with collaborative courts and reentry programs.

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To complicate matters, specific crimes come with their own caveats. Reports of rape have increased nationally since 2013, for example, but sexual assaults have traditionally been underreported, and part of the increase stems from the FBI’s decision to broaden its definition of rape in 2013. (The Marshall Project and Times data analysis excluded rape.) Reports of aggravated assaults in California also have increased, but part of that increase is likely due to underreporting from 2005 to 2012 by the Los Angeles Police Department.

California’s criminal reform revolution began in earnest in 2011 after the U.S. Supreme Court approved a cap on the number of inmates in prison. Lawmakers responded by passing Assembly Bill 109, known as realignment, which lowered the prison population by shifting the burden to the counties to house and supervise thousands of inmates convicted of crimes that the law categorized as nonviolent and nonserious.

Three years later, California voters approved Proposition 47, which turned drug use and most theft convictions from felonies to misdemeanors. In 2016, voters overhauled the state parole system by backing Proposition 57, which gave thousands of inmates the chance to earn an earlier release from prison.

The undeniable result of all these measures is that people are on the street today who would have been locked up in previous years. Critics of the reforms argue that they have created a permissive climate that makes policing harder and weakens the deterrent effect of a possible prison sentence.

“There’s no accountability,” said Assemblyman Jim Cooper (D-Elk Grove). “People know they can get away with things. That’s contributed to it. That’s really been a big source of frustration. No one’s going to jail anymore.” Cooper, a retired Sacramento County sheriff’s captain, has been a leading voice in a coalition of prosecutors and law enforcement groups pushing back.

A statewide initiative that will appear on the 2020 ballot would reverse some provisions of Proposition 47, toughen supervision of parolees and disqualify some prisoners from early release.

Backers of the proposed rollback argue that the state’s drug courts, intended as an alternative to criminal courts, are seeing fewer people because prosecutors can no longer force someone into treatment with the threat of a felony. (Some counties, including San Diego, have reported decreases in drug court participation since Proposition 47, but no statewide figures are available.) Those who favor toughening the law also claim counties are struggling to supervise offenders with violent criminal records.

Supporters of the prison downsizing measures dispute any link between the new laws and an increase in crime. They argue that using 2014 as a baseline — the year with the fewest crimes reported in the state since the 1960s — unfairly skews any analysis. “To look at it from a year-to-year basis is very short-sighted,” said Michael Romano, the director of the Three Strikes Project at Stanford Law School who helped write Proposition 47. “We really have had a sustained downward trend over the past decade or two.” He said it’s unlikely any single factor led to an increase in crime, but rather a combination of issues, such as poverty and unemployment, in different counties throughout the state.

Californians for Safety and Justice, a group that co-authored Proposition 47, points out that several states saw larger increases in violent crime than California from 2016 to 2017. (An analysis by The Times and the Marshall Project found 20 states with larger increases in violent crime rates.) They note that none of the recent laws changed penalties for violent crimes.

In 2013, the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California found that the first major prison downsizing law, realignment, had no effect on violent crime, but did lead to an increase in auto thefts. In 2016, a prestigious social science journal reached a similar conclusion. Under realignment, people convicted of auto theft, a nonviolent felony, usually serve shorter sentences in their local jails and are released under local supervision.

Two studies published this summer — one by a UC Irvine criminologist and another by the Public Policy Institute of California —found no link between Proposition 47 and increases in violent crime. Both noted a possible link between the initiative and increases in larceny, particularly thefts from motor vehicles, although the Irvine study found those links too tenuous to conclude Proposition 47 was to blame.

After national crime data for 2017 released this fall showed California departed from the national trend — violent crime in California ticked up slightly while it fell slightly across the 49 other states taken together — researchers said they planned to revisit the question of a link between Proposition 47 and violent crime. California’s robbery rate jumped 14% from 2014 to 2017; the rest of the country saw a 7% drop. “It is troubling and deserves more attention,” said Magnus Lofstrom, policy director of corrections at the Public Policy Institute of California.

In addition to praising the work of this article, I wanted to flag the possibility that the stories of crime in California might get even more complicated and unclear if and when we get complete data for 2018. The recent Brennan Center report indicates crime is down in 2018 in some major California cities and that murder is down a lot in all big California cities. If these numbers hold true throughout the state reform advocates will have some important data to push back on the claim that reform rollbacks are needed to enhance public safety.

UPDATE The day after running this general story about an uptick in California crime, the Los Angeles Times followed up with this more encouraging local tale under the headline "Crime once plagued San Joaquin County, but now its jail has empty beds. Here’s what it did right."  The unsurprising take-away is that how and how well a jurisdiction implements criminal justice reform impacts how well criminal justice reform works.

December 20, 2018 in National and State Crime Data, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Latest issue of the Federal Sentencing Reporter covers "The 2018 Debate over Federal Statutory Reform Proposals"

I am still so full of ideas and thoughts about what's next after the Senate's passage of the FIRST STEP Act, and in some future posts I will link to writings about second and thirst steps and so on.  But, coincidentally, just today I got notice that the December 2018 issue of the Federal Sentencing Reporter has just been published on-line, and it is a must-read for those looking to fully understand the background and back-story of the FIRST STEP Act.  

This Issue of FSR is already a bit dated, as it went to press last month before anyone was sure if Congress would get some version of the bill to the desk of the President.  But it still effectively highlights, thought the work and words of a number of leading reform advocates, why the path toward passage was so challenging and so important.  Here is snippet of my short introduction, followed by links to all the the original commentary:

This Issue of FSR provides a snapshot of the discussion and debate over the direction and scope offederal statutory reform proposals through 2018.  As of this writing, in early November 2018, meaningful lawmaking in this area is still just a possibility rather than an achieved reality; the momentum for reform that built through the first part of the year was halted by campaign dynamics as members of Congress turned their attention to the 2018 midterm elections.  But with President Trump reportedly embracing(in August) a compromise proposal that would add some [sentencing reform] provisions to the FIRST STEP Act, and with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell pledging to consider taking up criminal justice reform after the midterms, there remain reasons to be optimistic that all the big reform talk reflected in this Issue might yet produce big reform action before the end of 2018.

The materials in this Issue of FSR include both original commentary and primary documents that provide a flavor of the terms of the debate, in Congress and beyond, as political realities shifted from not believing any reform was possible during the Trump administration to strategizing just what kinds of reform should be prioritized. Georgetown Law Professor Shon Hopwood, a leading advocate for federal reforms, solicited original commentaries for this Issue that canvass the major provisions of key bills working their way through Congress in 2018.  Authored by some of the leading policy advocates involved on all sides of the conversation, these articles showcase why the scope and focus of statutory reform has engendered spirited debate.

December 19, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

On cusp of enactment of FIRST STEP Act, a brief trip to the archives via the (not-so-)way back machine

01fbcd89144c25425689e251bd5143038d04f0ceI am so full of ideas and thoughts and ways to celebrate the Senate passage of the FIRST STEP Act, I am not sure what to blog first and in the immediate future.  So, rather than do too much looking forward to what the FIRST STEP Act means when it becomes law (especially because I do not want to jinx anything), I figured I would close out my blogging tonight by doing a little looking back.  Specially, I looked at some archives of posts after Prez Trump got elected, and found these interesting posts (among others) that talked about the possibility of federal criminal justice reform  despite Trump's tough-on-crime rhetoric and his appointment of reform for Jeff Sessions as Attorney General:

I was inspired to review this this interest bit of the recent past in part because the developments this week have has me especially thinking about this post by Bill Otis over at Crime & Consequences from almost exactly two years ago titled "Blowing Smoke on Sentencing Reform."  In that post, Bill Otis explained in his usual manner why he was not convinced by this Bill Keller commentary (also noted above titled) "Why Congress May Bring Criminal Justice Reform Back to Life."   Bill Otis was not entirely off-base to assert that sentencing reform was a uphill battle in this Congress, and he might even defend his analysis by noting that the FIRST STEP Act only includes a few very modest sentencing reforms.  But I bring this up because tonight's overwhelming vote for the FIRST STEP Act ultimately reinforces my belief that there is now a strong (and growing) group of GOP leaders who are very eager to take ownership of criminal justice reform.  And that reality bodes well for the prospects of second and third steps in the next Congress and beyond.

December 18, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

After rejection of contentious proposed amendments, FIRST STEP Act passed by Senate by vote of 87 to 12!!!!

In this post back in August I wondered "Could enhanced FIRST STEP Act get more than 90 votes in the Senate if even brought up for a vote?".  Well, it seems I was off by three votes, as tonight the the US Senate voted 87 to 12 to enact the FIRST STEP Act.  With a vote in the House scheduled for later this week, this bill should be on Prez Trump's  desk before the end of this week and law before Prez Trump heads down to Mar-a-Lago for the holidays.  This USA Today article, headlined "Senate passes First Step Act with push from criminal justice groups; bill goes to House," provides this account of today's historic developments:

Alex Gudich and the team from #cut50 weren’t taking any votes for granted. They spent Tuesday knocking on the doors of senators and urging them to support a criminal justice reform bill up for a vote, something they didn't know would happen that night.

"We knew that it would be a tough vote for many members on both sides," said Gudich, deputy director for the national advocacy group pushing to overhaul the nation’s criminal justice system. "We’re here at a very, very pivotal moment."

In a major step in that effort, the Senate voted 87 to 12 late Tuesday to approve the bipartisan "First Step Act" pushed by Sens. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, Dick Durbin, D-Ill., Mike Lee, R-Utah and Cory Booker, D-N.J. The bill must now go over to the House for a vote. President Donald Trump has supported the measure....

The Senate defeated amendments proposed by Republican Sens. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and John Kennedy of Louisiana that would have required the Bureau of Prisons to notify victims before a prisoner is released and tracked former offenders after they're released.

Several advocacy groups, including #cut50, and national civil rights groups, including the National Urban League, have been a part of a massive push to get the legislation passed. “It’s been a long time in raising the awareness of how the system of mass incarceration is so destructive and needs to be fixed and reformed,” said Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League. “There’s been a lot of groundwork that has been laid over the years.”

The groups have been working on criminal justice reforms for years, including under then-President Barack Obama, but supporters said the effort got a boost earlier this year with the help of Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser. “We were excited to see a breakthrough this year and a shift," Gudich said.

Gudich called the First Step Act “a compromise bill, but importantly it does not add any new mandatory minimum. There are no sentencing enhancements.” Some advocates, however, have complained the measure doesn’t go far enough. Morial said he would have wanted more provisions to deal with bail reforms and more support for reentry programs, but welcomes the effort. “If we could get a perfect comprehensive bill, we’d do it," he said. “This bill is also the product of some difficult political trade-offs. But it’s better to move this bill with all the things it does than to sit back and wait. We could end waiting another three to four years."

Lawmakers particularly praised the work and input of advocates and civil rights groups. “Formerly incarcerated individuals were incredibly important voices in urging the House to get something done meaningful on prison reform,’’ said New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, incoming House Democratic Caucus Chair, a key negotiator. “Nobody is more authoritative on the issue of the victimization that has taken place as a result of over criminalization as a result of the mass incarceration epidemic then those Americans who were directly impacted.”

Indeed, formerly incarcerated people from a host of groups, including #cut50, Prison Fellowship, the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, have lobbied Congress to support reforms. Civil and voting rights groups, including the NAACP and the ACLU, have also been key players along with a host of conservative groups. “We as conservatives share common goals,’’ Kevin Roberts, executive director of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, said during a press conference last week. “We want strong communities and institutions. We want those who have done wrong to be punished and then to seize their own redemption without state interference. Most of all we want safe neighborhoods.”

Morial applauded the passage of the First Step Act, but said more needs to be done. “This is something that we have to work on over time. This bill is a good bill, but this not going to be the last effort at criminal justice reform,’’ he said. “There’s already a lot of movement at the state level… This is a growing movement in America – the idea that we have to fix the system of mass incarceration.”

Some of the most recent of many prior related posts:

UPDATE: I just say that Prez Trump has already tweeted here about this significant legislative development, saying "This will keep our communities safer, and provide hope and a second chance, to those who earn it. In addition to everything else, billions of dollars will be saved. I look forward to signing this into law!"

December 18, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

After hinting prison term might be in works, federal judge delays Michael Flynn sentencing to allow further cooperation

Given that both the Special Prosecutor and Michael Flynn were advocating for him to receive a sentence without any incarceration, I thought his sentencing today could have ended up being a staid affair.  But, as reported in this BuzzFeed News account, US District Judge Emmet Sullivan had different ideas: 

Michael Flynn, Trump's former national security adviser, decided to delay his sentencing on Tuesday after a judge harshly criticized him for lying to the FBI and acting as an unregistered agent for Turkey, and warned him that he might get a better sentence if he finished his cooperation with the government first.

It was a stunning turn of events two hours after what was supposed to be Flynn's sentencing hearing began. Throughout the proceedings, US District Judge Emmet Sullivan had repeatedly asked Flynn if he wanted to go ahead with sentencing, given his lawyers' comments about the conduct of the FBI agents who interviewed him and the fact that he might not be completely finished cooperating.

Flynn each time said he wished to proceed. But following a particularly harsh string of criticism from the judge about the crimes he'd committed, Flynn asked for a break to speak with his lawyers. When they returned, Flynn's lawyer Robert Kelner said they wanted to postpone sentencing to give Flynn time to complete his cooperation. The judge agreed. The parties are now due to file a report with the court on the status of his case by March 13.

Flynn's change of heat came after Sullivan warned him that he couldn't guarantee Flynn wouldn't get prison time, given the seriousness of his crimes. Sullivan noted that Flynn had lied to the FBI while serving as a senior official in the White House, and had acted as an unregistered agent for the Turkish government. (The judge initially implied that Flynn did work for Turkey while he was in the White House, but later said he misspoke; the prosecutor said Flynn's work for Turkey ended in November 2017.)

"Arguably, that undermines everything this flag over here stands for," Sullivan said, gesturing to an American flag displayed behind his chair. "Arguably you sold your country out." Sullivan continued: "I'm not hiding my disgust, my disdain for this criminal offense."

Flynn at that point took up the judge's offer of additional time to consult with his lawyers. Before the judge took a break, however, he asked special counsel prosecutor Brandon Van Grack if Flynn could have been charged with treason for his conversations with now-former Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak in December 2016, after then-president Barack Obama had entered sanctions against Russia for interfering in the election.

Van Grack replied that given the evidence prosecutors had, treason was not something that the government was considering charging Flynn with at the time. Sullivan pressed him, asking if they could have charged Flynn with that crime. Van Grack demurred, saying he was hesitant to answer that question because the offense was so serious.

After the recess, Sullivan said that he hadn't meant to imply that Flynn might have committed treason, he said he was just probing the extent of Flynn's offenses and "was just curious." Van Grack said the government had no reason to believe Flynn committed treason.

Flynn pleaded guilty on Dec. 1, 2017, to one count of making false statements. He admitted lying to FBI agents about his communications in December 2016 with Kislyak while he was serving on Trump's presidential transition team. (He was later accused of lying to Vice President Mike Pence about those contacts as well and resigned). Flynn agreed to cooperate with the government as part of his plea deal; over the past year, according to court filings, he's met with special counsel prosecutors and other Justice Department offices 19 times, for a total of nearly 63 hours.

Flynn was set to become the fifth person sentenced in connection with Mueller's investigation.

Earlier this week, President Donald Trump (in)famously called his former lawyer a "RAT" on Twitter based on his cooperation with federal prosecutors. I wonder if Michael Flynn might soon be getting the same moniker from the President of the United States.

Prior related posts:

December 18, 2018 in Celebrity sentencings, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, December 17, 2018

Cloture vote on FIRST STEP Act gets super-majority support in Senate

As reported in this article from The Hill, the "Senate advanced a White House-backed criminal justice reform bill on Monday, paving the way for senators to try to pass the bill as early as Tuesday." Here is more on the vote and what comes next:

Senators voted 82-12 to end debate on the legislation, which merges a House-passed prison reform bill with a handful of changes to sentencing laws.

Twelve Republicans voted against advancing the legislation despite President Trump endorsing the measure in November: GOP Sens. John Barrasso (Wyo.), Richard Burr (N.C.), Tom Cotton (Ark.), Mike Enzi (Wyo.), John Kennedy (La.), Jon Kyl (Ariz.), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), Jim Risch (Idaho), Ben Sasse (Neb.), Dan Sullivan (Alaska), Mike Rounds (S.D.) and Pat Toomey (Pa.).

The Senate is expected to vote on potential changes to the legislation as soon as Tuesday before taking a final vote on the bill. “There are a number of members with outstanding concerns that they feel are still unresolved. ... The Senate will be considering amendments before we vote on final passage later this week,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said ahead of the vote.

Though supporters rolled out a final version of the bill last week to try to win over more GOP senators, conservatives, led by Cotton and Kennedy, are expected to get votes on three amendments. Cotton, in a National Review op-ed published Monday, said his potential changes would help "limit the damage" and conservatives who had already said they would support the bill "have jumped on the bandwagon too soon."...

Toomey said in a statement that he was still weighing supporting the bill but voted no on Monday because it will block senators from voting on an amendment that he wanted to offer. “The First Step Act contains worthwhile provisions that seek to improve the criminal justice system and reduce offender recidivism, which is why I am seriously considering supporting it. However, today’s procedural vote was designed to preclude amendments, including one I intended to offer to support victims of crime," Toomey said.

The amendment votes are expected to be held with a simple majority threshold, meaning at least a few GOP senators would need to join with all Democrats to block them from getting added to the bill. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who helped craft the deal along with Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Mike Lee (R-Utah), warned that as currently drafted that he believes Cotton's amendments are "poison pills" meant to undercut the legislation as a whole.

I am pretty sure this all means that the FIRST STEP Act is going to be passed by the Senate in the next few days, though there is still uncertainty as to whether it will be with or without the Cotton-Kennedy Amendments. My understanding is that the House will vote on whatever the Senate passes in short order, so some version of the FIRST STEP Act could be on the desk of Prez Trump even before the end of this week.  Wowsa!

December 17, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

"Equitable Gateways: Toward Expanded Federal Habeas Corpus Review of State Court Criminal Convictions"

The title of this post is the title of this new article by Eve Brensike Primus now available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

State prisoners who file federal habeas corpus petitions face a maze of procedural and substantive restrictions that effectively prevent almost all prisoners from obtaining meaningful review of their convictions.  But it is a mistake to think that habeas litigation is just a Kafkaesque nightmare with no constructive potential.  Federal courts do sometimes cut through the doctrinal morass to consider state prisoners’ claims, relying on what this Essay terms equitable gateways to federal habeas relief.  Litigants and courts generally underestimate the potential these gateways offer, with the result that habeas litigation does not focus on them as often as it should.

Here I consider one important category of equitable gateways animated by a concern about ensuring that federal claims get fair consideration in the courts.  When a federal court believes that a state prisoner has not yet had a full and fair opportunity to present her federal claims and have them fairly considered, it is more likely to bypass procedural and substantive restrictions on review.  But state prisoners often fail to highlight certain kinds of fair consideration failures, thus depriving themselves of potential access to the equitable gateways.  This Essay suggests that this blind spot is partly due to the history of fair consideration principles: for decades, the idea of a fair consideration gateway was a central feature of proposals for further restricting the scope of federal habeas review.  In current circumstances, however, fair consideration is a rubric for expanded habeas review, and habeas litigants should take note.

December 17, 2018 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Some of Senator Cotton's suspect claims in his latest case for amendments to the FIRST STEP Act

As noted in an update to this prior post, Senator Tom Cotton has this new National Review commentary making the case for his proposed amendments to the latest version of the FIRST STEP Act under the headline "Fix the First Step Act and Keep Violent Criminals behind Bars."  This commentary closes with a passage that troubled me, especially when I looked up the facts of the case he discusses.  Here is how Senator Cotton concludes (with a few details emphasized by me for further commentary):

So far the debate over First Step has been clouded by euphemism and abstraction, which has prevented the public from understanding what the bill actually does. A concrete example will help clarify the stakes. Richard Crawford is a former NASCAR driver who was convicted in August of trying to force a twelve-year-old girl to have sex with him. Crawford was sentenced to nearly 11 years in federal prison, but the statute he was convicted under does not appear in First Step’s “ineligible prisoners” list.  If the bill passes, he will therefore be eligible for time credits that would reduce his time in prison by up to one-third, or nearly four years.  At the end of his prison sentence he would be moved into pre-release custody or supervised release.  He would essentially be a free man.

Crawford’s sex crime was not obscure, low-level, or “victimless.”  Quite the opposite.  His crime had the potential to shatter a child’s life.  It was punished accordingly by a judge and a jury of his peers.  That is how criminal justice ought to work in America.  Now a group of politicians and activists are in a position to overturn that public judgment with the First Step Act.  Conservatives should resist this revolution.

The last few sentences of this passage initially troubled me because nothing in the FIRST STEP Act serves to "overturn" a jury conviction or even a sentencing term.  Rather, the FSA creates additional incentives, through "time credits," for offenders to engage in recidivism-reducing programs.  I think the FSA is popular because the "public judgment" is that it would generally be better for Crawford to be released in 2025 after having successfully engaged in this programming than to be released in 2028 without having made any effort to better himself.

But even more irksome to me is how Senator Cotton portrays his poster child, Richard Crawford, because it seems a bit much to say he tried "to force a twelve-year-old girl to have sex with him" given that he was convicted based on law enforcement posing as a man soliciting people to have sex with a fictitious 12-year-old.  This article about the case explains:

Crawford was accused of agreeing to pay $50-$75 to have sex with a 12-year-old girl, making arrangements with a man named Mike on Craigslist.  Mike and the 12-year-old girl were fictitious and used by law enforcement to catch Crawford in the act.  He responded to an undercover federal agent via e-mail and text between Feb. 10 and Feb. 28. According to the agent, Crawford texted him, “Love for her to be naked and ready,” and asked for photos of the girl.  Crawford was arrested at a location at which he agreed to meet “Mike” on March 1 by the Seminole County Sheriff’s Office and was indicted March 30.

Crawford claimed he agreed to the scenario because he didn’t believe it really involved a child.  His defense was detailed in a recent court filing, arguing against a lengthy sentence.  "Mr. Crawford testified that he thought 'Mike,' the person he was corresponding with, was engaging in a fantasy and that he agreed to participate," the filing read. "Mr. Crawford did not believe there would be a minor present; instead, he thought there would be an adult woman, presumably 'Mike's' wife or girlfriend, and that he and this woman would act the roles in 'Mike's' fantasy."

"Mr. Crawford consistently maintained that he had no intent to have sex with a minor, and if a minor had been present, he would not have had sex with the minor.”

A jury rejected Crawford's claims of innocence and convicted him of "attempted enticement of a minor to engage in sexual activity."  But to say he tried to force a 12-year-old to have sex seems off since there never was an actual 12-year-old.  Indeed, I think it fair to call Crawford's crime "victimless," though the case really serves as a great indication of how hard it is to place accurate short-hand labels on various crimes (and how easy it is for Senator Cotton to make a crime sound worse than it was is using short-hand labels).  To allow Crawford, who is 60 years old and appears to have no criminal history, the chance to earn "time credits" by completing evidence-based programming to reduce his risk of recidivism seem to me sensible, not scary.  (And, as I understand matters, if a risk assessment procedure were to classify Crawford as "high-risk" he would not in fact get any sentence reductions.)

We will see in the coming days whether Senator Cotton gets his proposed amendments added to the FIRST STEP Act.  But if Richard Crawford is the worst version of Willie Horton that he can conjure up for the coming debate, I am not at all convinced there is any need to carve out still further exceptions to the prison reform provisions that seem well-conceived to try to reduce the recidivism risk of as many federal prisoners as possible.

Some of the most recent of many prior related posts:

December 17, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)