Monday, November 23, 2020

"Some Modest Proposals for a Progressive Prosecutor"

the title of this post is the title of this new piece now available via SSRN authored by Steven Zeidman. Here is its abstract:

The progressive prosecutor movement has spawned a number of races for District Attorney where candidates fight to claim the mantle of most progressive potential prosecutor. However, the promises made by self-described forward thinking, if not exactly radical, prosecutor candidates, as well as those made by newly elected District Attorneys, are at best the kind of reformist reforms criticized by many as having little impact on entrenched systems of oppression and as ultimately expanding their reach.

It is incumbent on those looking for fundamental change in prosecutorial practices to try and assess whether any candidates are willing to take bolder steps than simply promising to prosecute more fairly and compassionately.  Instead, the inquiry must be whether the candidate is willing to give up any aspects of the awesome power and the vast resources bestowed upon the office, particularly when it comes to the trial process.

November 23, 2020 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Notable review of New York's recent parole realities

This Times Union has this notable new article on New York's notable parole realities under the full headline "A 'broken' parole process: Data shows widened racial bias: Four years after racial disparities exposed, a state report has yet to be released." Here is how the piece gets started:

A white inmate in a New York prison is significantly more likely on average to be released on parole than a Black or Hispanic person — and that gap has widened in 2020, according to a Times Union analysis of the nearly 19,000 parole board decisions over the last two years.

The disparities continue despite steps by the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision to make the parole board more diverse.  That initiative began about four years ago, after Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo ordered an investigation by the inspector general's office into revelations in a New York Times series that exposed the racial imbalances in parole and prison disciplinary proceedings.  The investigation has languished and no public report has been released.

The inspector general’s office, in an email response to questions, asserted without providing any data that racial disparities have gone down in recent years.  They offered a list of policy changes that have been made, including changes to sentencing guidelines, appeals processes and implicit bias training.

DOCCS, which oversees New York’s 53 state prisons, said the Times Union's analysis was too limited.  Spokesman Thomas Mailey wrote that the analysis was inadequate because detailed factors like disciplinary and program records, positions of the district attorney, sentencing courts and victim impact statements were not considered.

But officials contacted for this story did not provide any evidence countering the Times Union's core findings.  And those findings were averages based on each parole initial hearing and reappearance over the last two years, showing that the racial disparities were prevalent in the outcomes.

In discretionary parole hearings from October 2018 through October 2020, where commissioners from the Board of Parole decided whether incarcerated people should be released from prison, the Times Union’s analysis showed that 41 percent of white people were granted parole, compared to 34 percent of Blacks and 33 percent of Hispanics.  These numbers include initial parole appearances once people meet their minimum sentences, as well as subsequently scheduled reappearances, which are usually every two years.  It excludes more specialized categories such as medical hearings or those relating to deportations.

If Black and Hispanic people were paroled at the same rates as whites over the last two years alone, there would be 675 fewer people behind bars.

November 22, 2020 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, November 20, 2020

US Department of Justice sets three more execution dates

In this July post I wondered aloud "How many federal death row prisoners does Attorney General William Barr want to see executed in 2020?".  My main point in that post was that, after the completion of an initial three federal executions that month thanks to SCOTUS lifting lower court stays, it seemed that AG Barr would likely be able to have completed as many executions he decided to set.  For anyone who might have thought AG Barr would be content with ten executions in 2020 (eight already completed and two more planned), this new DOJ press reveals details he is not done.  This release is titled  "Executions Scheduled for Inmates Convicted of Brutal Murders Many Years Ago," and here are the essentials:

Attorney General William P. Barr today directed the Federal Bureau of Prisons to schedule the executions of three federal-death row inmates sentenced to death for staggeringly brutal murders, including the murder of a child and, with respect to two inmates, the murder of multiple victims.

  • Alfred Bourgeois abused, tortured, and beat to death his young daughter....  Bourgeois is scheduled to be executed by lethal injection on Dec. 11, 2020, at the Federal Correctional Complex, Terre Haute, Indiana.
  • Cory Johnson murdered seven people — Peyton Johnson, Louis Johnson, Bobby Long, Dorothy Armstrong, Anthony Carter, Linwood Chiles, and Curtis Thorne — in furtherance of his drug-trafficking activities....  Johnson is scheduled to be executed by lethal injection on Jan. 14, 2021, at the Federal Correctional Complex, Terre Haute, Indiana.
  • Dustin John Higgs kidnapped and murdered three women — Tamika Black, 19; Tanji Jackson, 21; and Mishann Chinn, 23....  Higgs is scheduled to be executed on Jan. 15, 2021.

November 20, 2020 in Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

NACDL continuing great work spotlighting the ugly trial penalty now through compelling clemency petitions

This news release, titled "NACDL Trial Penalty Clemency Project Submits Second Set of Petitions to White House," reports effectively on work by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers to shine light on, and seek needed remedies for, criminal defendants unfairly subject to the "trial penalty."  Here are some details on NACDL's latest efforts and prior work:

As of this week, NACDL’s Trial Penalty Clemency Project submitted four more federal clemency petitions to the Office of the Pardon Attorney and the White House, adding to the first set of six petitions submitted on October 2, 2020.  Of the four petitions, three concern individuals serving life or lengthy sentences for non-violent drug charges, and one concerns an individual serving over 35 years for a non-violent white-collar conviction.

As of late, increased attention to the criminal legal system has led to public outrage and calls to reform myriad facets of the American legal system.  The trial penalty, though, which refers to coercive prosecutorial practices that induce accused persons to waive fundamental rights under threat of a vastly increased sentence when fundamental rights are asserted, persists in undermining the American criminal legal system.  The most obvious examples of its impact are seen in those who assert their rights and receive a geometrically enhanced sentence.  Though reform is badly needed to end the trial penalty, the only immediate remedy for those individuals living this injustice is executive clemency.  NACDL’s Trial Penalty Clemency Project aims to assist those individuals by pairing applicants with volunteer attorneys who will assist them in preparing a clemency petition.

“The trial penalty makes a mockery of the Constitution’s Sixth Amendment right to trial and is a large and ever-growing cancer on the American criminal legal system,” said NACDL President Chris Adams.  “Every time a defendant opts to hold the government to its burden and go to trial, and receives a substantially more draconian sentence than was previously offered in a plea deal, the American legal system moves further away from justice.  NACDL’s Trial Penalty Clemency Project is a vital step in beginning to remedy this great injustice.”

Thus far, through affiliates, members, and the assistance of organizations in this space like the CAN-DO Foundation, the Last Prisoner Project, and Life For Pot, the Project has identified, reviewed, and assigned more than 20 cases with attorneys.  The attorneys are crafting petitions or supplements to existing petitions focusing on the impact of the trial penalty. In addition to filing the petitions with the Office of the Pardon Attorney, the Project brought the four cases described below, in addition to six previous cases, to the attention of the White House panel on clemency.  NACDL’s Trial Penalty Clemency Project is a component of NACDL’s Return to Freedom Project...

In 2018, NACDL released a groundbreaking report – The Trial Penalty: The Sixth Amendment Right to Trial on the Verge of Extinction and How to Save It. Information and a PDF of NACDL’s 2018 Trial Penalty report, as well as video of the entire 90-minute launch event at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, and other trial penalty-related videos and materials are available at www.nacdl.org/trialpenaltyreport.

In 2019, The Federal Sentencing Reporter, published by University of California Press, released a double issue covering April and June 2019, edited by NACDL Executive Director Norman L. Reimer and NACDL President-Elect Martín Antonio Sabelli, entitled "The Tyranny of the Trial Penalty: The Consensus that Coercive Plea Practices Must End."

And in 2020, NACDL and FAMM released a documentary on the trial penalty, The Vanishing Trial. The trailer for that film is available here.

November 20, 2020 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

SCOTUS grants cert on two new Fourth Amendment cases

The US Supreme Court released this brief order list this afternoon granting certiorari in these two new cases with these questions presented:

19-1414 UNITED STATES V. COOLEY, JOSHUA J.

Cert petition question presented: "Whether the lower courts erred in suppressing evidence on the theory that a police officer of an Indian tribe lacked authority to temporarily detain and search respondent, a non-Indian, on a public right-of-way within a reservation based on a potential violation of state or federal law."

20-157 CANIGLIA, EDWARD A. V. STROM, ROBERT F., ET AL.

Cert petition question presented: "Whether the 'community caretaking' exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement extends to the home."

November 20, 2020 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Is Sally Yates on track to be the next US Attorney General?

E204c9e0-0c25-11eb-a040-3d8028d863aa_1200_630The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new Reuters piece headlined "Biden's possible attorney general pick has moderate track record: progressive critics."  Here are excerpts:

President-elect Joe Biden has pledged to end the federal death penalty and eliminate mandatory minimum sentences, but some progressives say a potential pick for attorney general to carry out those reforms may not be the one to enact bold changes.

Sally Yates, 60, is a leading candidate for the job, according to sources.  The Atlanta native is perhaps best known for being fired from her position as acting attorney general by Republican President Donald Trump in his first month in office when she refused to enforce his first attempt at banning travelers from Muslim-majority nations.

Her history at the Department of Justice (DOJ) — where Democratic President Barack Obama appointed her as deputy attorney general in 2015, and before that as Atlanta’s top federal prosecutor for about five years — make the adviser to the Biden transition team a safe pick for a role subject to confirmation by the U.S. Senate, which may still be under Republican control next year.

Asked for comment, a Yates spokeswoman provided a lengthy list of opinion articles, testimony and other records she said demonstrate Yates’ strong commitment to criminal justice reform.  A Biden transition team spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.

Yates has expressed a measured approach on some criminal justice reforms, including previously voicing some support for the mandatory minimum sentences Biden wants to end — a position some progressives worry may not go far enough at a time of reckoning for the criminal justice system.  “She has done courageous things, but she is a career prosecutor,” said Rachel Barkow, a New York University law professor who previously served on the U.S. Sentencing Commission, which sets federal sentencing guidelines.  “The question will be, if Sally Yates comes in a second time, does she do a better job reading the moment or is she still coming with that DOJ insider lens?”...

Yates, during her 2015 confirmation hearing for deputy attorney general, called mandatory minimum sentences “an important tool for prosecutors,” which could nevertheless be used more judiciously due to the “fiscal reality” facing U.S. prisons.  While she was U.S. attorney in Atlanta, her office also sought the death penalty in some cases, and she testified on the Justice Department’s behalf to urge the U.S. Sentencing Commission to narrowly limit who could qualify to apply retroactively for a drug sentence reduction.

She was also involved in a controversy surrounding a 2014 clemency project, after Pardon Attorney Deborah Leff resigned in protest due to a backlog of 1,000 recommendations sitting in Yates’ office, 100 of which were urging clemency be granted.  In her January 2016 resignation letter, Leff said Yates had blocked her access to the White House, including on cases where Yates had reversed Leff’s clemency determinations.  Yates’ defenders say she was passionate about clemency, and personally reviewed every petition herself.

Some former colleagues say Yates deserves credit for important work that began during the Obama administration, much of which has since largely been undone during Trump’s term.  Yates spearheaded efforts to scale back the federal government’s use of private prisons, revamped the Bureau of Prisons’ education program to better prepare inmates for release and urged limits on solitary confinement.  She also persuaded Obama-era Attorney General Eric Holder to expand on his new policy scaling back the use of mandatory minimums and later publicly rebuked Trump’s first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, after he reversed these policies in 2017.

“Somebody like Sally is very attuned to what has been happening in the country after George Floyd’s murder,” said Vanita Gupta, who headed the DOJ’s civil rights division during Yates’ tenure and now heads the Leadership Conference on Civil & Human rights.  “She is very personally committed to civil rights and criminal justice reform, and I would fully expect that commitment would actually only deepen.”

I sense that Yates' long history as a federal prosecutor and her moderate approach to many reform issues leads some progressives to be rooting against her for the Attorney General position in a Biden Administration.  But I am inclined to view Yates' past criminal justice record somewhat like I view VP-elect Harris' record: I sense they have always been highly attuned to, and quite effective within, the felt legal and political needs of the time, which would suggest at least some ability to step up to the needs of our current criminal-justice-reform-focused times.

I am eager to note here that Sally Yates has recently been actively involved in the Council of Criminal Justice, serving as Co-Chair of the CCJ Board of Trustees and as a member of its federal priorities task force.  As highlighted in this post from May, I was especially impressed with the agenda for reform that the CCJ federal priorities task force produced.   This impressive report, titled "Next Steps: An Agenda for Federal Action on Safety and Justice," included 15 thoughtful recommendations, and I would be thrilled to have a new Attorney General committed to making these particular proposals a reality ASAP:

If the next Attorney General would be able to get even half of these priorities completed in the coming years, that would be quite a set of accomplishments.

November 20, 2020 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

After SCOTUS lifts stay by 6-3 vote, federal government completes it eighth execution of 2020

As reported here via SCOTUSblog, the "Supreme Court on Thursday night allowed the government to proceed with the execution of Orlando Hall, who became the eighth federal inmate to be put to death since the Trump administration resumed federal executions in July."  Here is more:

Hall was sentenced to death for his role in the kidnapping, rape and murder of 16-year-old Lisa René in 1994.  In a one-sentence order, the Supreme Court lifted a district judge’s last-minute injunction that had temporarily blocked Hall’s execution.  Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan dissented and would have left the injunction in place.

The court also rejected three separate emergency requests filed over the past two days in which Hall asked the justices to postpone his execution.  There were no noted dissents to the three brief orders rejecting those requests.  Shortly after the court’s orders, Hall was put to death at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana.  He died at 11:47 p.m., according to local news reports.

Hall’s case reached the Supreme Court after a flurry of litigation in the lower courts over the execution, which the government had scheduled for Thursday at 6 p.m.  On Thursday afternoon, Judge Tanya Chutkan of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia issued an injunction blocking the execution.  The injunction was based on an earlier finding from Chutkan that the government’s method of execution violates the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act because the government uses a lethal dose of sodium pentobarbital without obtaining a prescription for that drug.

The government immediately appealed Chutkan’s injunction.  The government argued that the prescription requirement in the FDCA does not apply to lethal-injection drugs.  It also argued that Hall was not entitled to an injunction based solely on the lack of a prescription.

The Supreme Court sided with the government, issuing an order just before 11 p.m. that lifted Chutkan’s injunction. The majority did not explain its reasoning, and none of the three justices who noted their dissent wrote an opinion explaining why.  At the same time, the court denied Hall’s three emergency applications, each of which presented separate legal arguments for a postponement of his execution....

Hall’s case was the first case involving a pending execution in which Justice Amy Coney Barrett participated since she joined the bench in October.  Barrett, a devout Catholic, co-wrote a 1998 article on the moral and legal dilemma that Catholic judges face in capital cases due to the church’s opposition to capital punishment.  That article raised questions in her confirmation hearings about possible recusals from such cases.  Barrett cited her full participation in capital cases as a law clerk for Justice Antonin Scalia and as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit.

A few prior recent related posts:

November 20, 2020 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, November 19, 2020

"How Governors Can Use Categorical Clemency as a Corrective Tool: Lessons from the States"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting new report from the Urban Institue.  Here is its executive summary:

Governors in most states have executive clemency authority that allows them to change the terms of someone’s criminal justice system involvement, including by issuing pardons or by granting commutations to adjust the sentences of people in prison.  Though many clemency deliberations are independent case-by-case assessments, in some cases, governors can also extend clemency eligibility categorically to groups of people in prison to mitigate structural issues or accomplish larger reform goals.  In this report, we provide a high-level overview of state executive categorical clemency and offer examples of how state governors have used this strategy as a corrective tool to address problems in the criminal justice system.

November 19, 2020 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

"'Some Mother's Child Has Gone Astray': Neuroscientific Approaches to a Therapeutic Jurisprudence Model of Juvenile Sentencing"

the title of this post is the title of this new paper authored by Michael Perlin and Alison Lynch now available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

There is a robust body of evidence that tells us that the juvenile brain is not fully developed by age 18, and this evidence should and does raise important questions about the sentencing of juveniles in criminal cases.  This evidence, though, must be considered in the context of public opinion (about certain juvenile crimes that have been subject to saturation publicity) in the context of judges’ decisionmaking (where such judges do not want to be perceived as “soft on crime”).  The conflict between what we now know and what (false) “ordinary common sense” demands (in the way of enhanced punishments) flies squarely in the face of therapeutic jurisprudence precepts.  If the legal process is to seek to maximize psychological well-being and if it is to coincide with an “ethic of care,” then, it is necessary for those involved in the criminal justice system to speak publicly about this topic, and to “call out” those — be they elected politicians, editorial writers and commentators in the conservative media, or judges — who urge retributive and punitive sentences for adolescents and children.

In this paper, we will first give a brief overview about the current neuroscientific findings about juvenile brain development in the context of criminal behavior, and then discuss the current sentencing standards and regulations that are in place.  Then, we will discuss the impact of therapeutic jurisprudence as a framework for advocating for juvenile clients, in order to maximize and preserve their psychological well-being and to mitigate trauma.  Finally, we will offer recommendations for how experts can work with attorneys who are presenting sentencing arguments, in order to make the most comprehensive, scientifically persuasive case for leniency in juvenile sentencing.

November 19, 2020 in Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Pyrrhic victory for federal death row inmates in DC Circuit lethal injection litigation

As reported in this Courthouse Legal News piece, headlined "Federal Executions on Track but DC Circuit Flags Legal Errors," two federal defendants scheduled to be executed in coming days and weeks got some cold comfort from the DC Circuit today:

Though it declined to block two federal executions, the first just over 24 hours away, the D.C. Circuit was critical Wednesday that seven lethal injections have been carried out in the last few months without medical prescriptions.

This year alone, President Donald Trump’s Justice Department has carried out more federal executions than the combined total of his predecessors from the last 57 years. That record has sat undisturbed so far against a litany of challenges to the new lethal-injection protocol unveiled last year by Attorney General William Barr after a 17-year hiatus on the death penalty at the federal level.

Inmates suffered their latest defeat Wednesday morning when the D.C. Circuit declined to stay the executions of Orlando Hall set for Thursday and Brandon Bernard on Dec. 10.

In a rare rebuke from the appeals court as to the government’s death-penalty practices, however, the court revived the inmates’ claims that the government must obtain a prescription before using the drug pentobarbital to kill prisoners....

[In] a September ruling ... U.S. District Judge Tanya S. Chutkan found that the Trump administration violated the law by carrying out death sentences with unprescribed pentobarbital, but that Supreme Court decisions foreclosed her from blocking the upcoming executions.

The Supreme Court cleared the way for the first federal execution to proceed this year, overturning a temporary ban that Chutkan had ordered. In her latest ruling, Chutkan concluded that “most of the evidence” brought by attorneys to show flash pulmonary edema grips an inmate while they are still awake was already reviewed by the justices and did not reach the high bar to grant injunctive relief.

But the 2-1 appeals panel ruled Wednesday that Chutkan “should have ordered the 2019 protocol to be set aside to the extent that it permits the use of unprescribed pentobarbital in a manner that violates the FDCA.” Though the court revived the inmates’ Eighth Amendment challenge, it affirmed “denial of a permanent injunction to remedy the FDCA violation.”

Jonathan S. Meltzer, an attorney for Hall, said they would ask the Supreme Court this afternoon to issue a stay. The Justice Department did not respond to whether it plans to bring its own challenge to the Wednesday ruling. Hall has requested to go to the execution chamber at 6 p.m. for his scheduled death on Thursday. He was convicted for the kidnapping, rape and murder of a 16-year-old girl in 1994.

Bernard, set to be executed next month, was sentenced to death for the killing of two youth ministers at Food Hood. One of his five co-defendants, Christopher Vialva, was the most recent federal prisoner to die by lethal injection, executed by the Trump administration in September.

Lisa Montgomery, bringing a separate lawsuit backed by the ACLU, is scheduled to die on Dec. 8 — two days before Bernard — and would be the first woman executed by the U.S. government since 1953.

The full split panel ruling from the D.C. Circuit is available at this link.

November 18, 2020 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Seventh Circuit panel reverses below-guideline 16-year prison sentence as substantively unreasonable in terrorism case

Regular readers know I do not blog much about federal sentence reasonableness review these days because there is usually not that much worth blogging about.  Out of many thousands of appeals brought by federal defendants each year, typically only a few hundred are successful, and these are usually involve miscalculation of the guideline range.  The government rarely appeals, though it does often have a better success rate in the few dozen appeals it brings each year. 

In one particular (and rare) categories of cases, namely terrorism cases, the government has a particularly notable history of appellate success when arguing a sentence in unreasonably lenient (see posts linked below for some historical examples).  A helpful reader made sure I did not miss a new Seventh Circuit panel ruling handed down yesterday in this category: US v. Daoud, No. 19-2174 (7th Cir. Nov. 17, 2020) (available here).  Federal sentencing fans will want to review this 26-page opinion in detail, but the start and few passages from the body of the opinion provides the basics:

Adel Daoud pressed the button to detonate a bomb that would have killed hundreds of innocent people in the name of Islam.  Fortunately, the bomb was fake, and the FBI arrested him on the spot.  Two months later, while in pretrial custody, Daoud solicited the murder of the FBI agent who supplied the fake bomb.  Two and a half years later, while awaiting trial on the first two charges, Daoud tried to stab another inmate to death using makeshift weapons after the inmate drew a picture of the Prophet Muhammad.  Daoud eventually entered an Alford plea, and the cases were consolidated for sentencing.  The district court sentenced Daoud to a combined total of 16 years’ imprisonment for the crimes.  The government appeals that sentence on the ground that it was substantively unreasonable.  We agree.  We vacate the sentence and remand for resentencing....

[W]hile the district court paid lip service to the seriousness of the offenses, it undercut its own statements by unreasonably downplaying Daoud’s role in each offense.  District courts have broad discretion as to how to weigh the § 3553(a) factors, but a district court’s sentence must reflect a reasonable view of the facts and a reasonable weighing of the § 3553(a) factors....  Here, the district court sterilized Daoud’s offense conduct in ways that cannot be reconciled with the objective facts of these violent offenses.  That unreasonable view of the facts prevented the district court from properly weighing the seriousness of the offenses when selecting its sentence....

In the district court’s telling, Daoud’s age, mental health, and general awkwardness and impressionability converged to render him uniquely susceptible to criminal influence. A sentencing court is well within its rights to consider a defendant’s mental limitations in mitigation.... But that factor only goes so far in this case.  Daoud committed the attempted bombing around his 19th birthday.  He was 19 when he solicited the FBI agent’s murder and 21 when he tried to stab a fellow inmate to death.  In other words, he was college aged at all relevant times.  He may have been immature, but, as the court recognized, he was old enough to know what he was doing.

Prior posts on similar reasonableness ruling:

November 18, 2020 in Booker in the Circuits, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

County in Washington State approves new diversion program focused on community restoration

This local article, headlined "King County Council OKs plan to let community groups decide some punishment -- not judges," reports on a notable new diversion program just approved in Seattle's county.  Here are the interesting details:

The King County Council on Tuesday voted Tuesday to approve funding for a groundbreaking criminal justice diversion program that will let community groups decide what punishment -- if any -- should be handed out for a select group of accused felons.

The county council voted 9-0 to approve a program known as Community Restorative Pathways, adding funding for it in the county's $12.59 million biennium budget. Instead of facing a judge, juveniles and adults accused of a first-time, non-violent felony offense will be offered an alternative where a non-profit community panel will decide how the accused person can be held accountable for their crime.

Suspects accused of violent crimes and crimes against persons would not be eligible for the diversion program, and if the offender fails to follow through with the community groups recommended punishment or accountability, the original criminal charges could still be pursued in court.

“We can send that person instead (of jail) to a community accountability group, who will define what they think accountability means,” said King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg. It’s a new concept for King County Superior Courts and the King County Prosecutor’s Office, which has 7,000 cases waiting for disposition, double the amount in a normal year. Accountability would not include jail or even a conviction, said Satterberg, who declined to define what accountability means.

“That’s up to the community groups,” he said, adding that it would target 800 juveniles and 1,000 adults to start. “These are low-level felonies, property offenses, no domestic violence, no sexual assault cases (and) decisions you would make if you were in my shoes.”

The program is slated to begin in mid-2021 and be implemented no later than the start of 2022. The budget for the program is set at $6.2 million, money that would have gone to the King County Sheriff’s Office.

King County Executive Dow Constantine proposed the idea along with Satterberg. Constantine has pledged to phase out the King County Jail after the pandemic is over, what he described as a cost-cutting move. “Locking people up is very costly and it’s not affirmative for people's lives,” King County Councilmember and Budget Chairperson Jeanne Kohl-Welles told KOMO News just before the budget vote. “But we also have to make sure to protect the public, so this is hard, it’s not going to be easy."

November 18, 2020 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

"The Rule of Judicial Political Affiliation in Criminal Sentencing Outcomes"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper now available via SSRN authred by Wendy Calaway, Jennifer Kinsley and Taylor Wadian.  Here is its abstract:

Legislative efforts to bring consistency to criminal sentencing outcomes has been much discussed in academic literature and Congressional hearings alike.  Despite these efforts disparate sentencing outcomes persist.  Researchers have studied many variables seeking to understand these disparities but have been unable to form a consensus around the cause. Perhaps because of the lack of a firm understanding of the issue among researchers, legislative intervention at both the state and federal level has largely failed to address the issue of judicial characteristics that may drive sentencing disparities.  As a result, absent from the conversation on criminal sentencing reform is empirical and anecdotal evidence about how judges make determinations within the range of outcomes specified by the legislature.  New data on federal sentencing outcomes collected by Harvard researchers, however, finds a direct connection between the political party of the President who appointed the federal judge and the length of a defendant’s sentence.  As the Harvard study reports, federal judges appointed by Republican presidents sentence defendants on average to three more months in prison than federal judges appointed by Democratic presidents.  Republican-appointed judges in the federal system also sentence black defendants more harshly than Democratic-appointed judges.

As will be discussed in this Article, the central premise of the Harvard political sentencing study — that judicial political affiliation influences sentencing outcomes, even those that are highly guided by legislative criteria — also holds true on the state level with respect to elected, rather than appointed, judges.  As we report, empirical evidence from the state of Ohio demonstrates that elected Republican judges sentence defendants to lengthier terms of incarceration than elected Democratic judges by a statistically significant margin.  This evidence suggests that, rather than being entirely guided by specified statutory criteria, judges bring preexisting sentencing ideologies to the bench and make decisions with a range of sentencing outcomes based at least in part on their individual philosophies and beliefs.  Based on these findings, we argue that in order to address the issue of sentencing disparities, reform efforts should take action to specifically address the behavior and motivation of individual judges.

November 17, 2020 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Notable new Gallup poll numbers on perceptions of the US criminal justice system

Bnlwz2mfyu2twk35wjqfzwThis new Gallup release, headlined "Fewer Americans Call for Tougher Criminal Justice System," reports on new polling number concerning pubic views on the US criminal justice system.  Here are the details:

Americans' belief that the U.S. criminal justice system is "not tough enough" on crime is now half of what it was in Gallup's initial reading of 83% in 1992.  The latest measure, at 41%, is the lowest on record and down slightly from the previous reading in 2016 -- although it remains the view of the plurality.  At the same time, there has been a seven-percentage-point uptick among those who say the system is "too tough" (21%) and no change among those who think it is "about right" (35%).

Americans' perceptions of whether the criminal justice system in the U.S. is too tough, not tough enough or about right in its handling of crime since 1992.  The percentage saying it is not tough enough has fallen from 83% in 1992 to 41% now.  At the same time, the percentage saying it is about right has risen from 12% in 1992 to the current 35%, and those who think it is too tough has increased from 2% in 1992 to 21% now.

Across the five times Gallup has asked this question since 1992, when public perceptions of national and local crime rates were at or near their highest points, there has been a steady decrease in the percentage saying the system is not tough enough and increases in the percentages saying it is too tough or about right.  These changes coincide with declines in crime rates in the U.S.  The latest reading is from Gallup's annual Crime poll, conducted Sept. 30-Oct. 15, 2020.

Americans' faith in the U.S. criminal justice system remains low according to Gallup's 2020 Confidence in Institutions poll conducted earlier this year, and confidence in one element of that system -- the police -- fell to a record-low level in the same poll.  This decline in confidence in the police followed several high-profile deaths of Black Americans at the hands of police officers, including George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Rayshard Brooks.

Views of the criminal justice system vary by party identification and racial background.  A 58% majority of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents say the criminal justice system is not tough enough.  However, this view is shared by less than half as many Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents (25%), while 37% think the system is about right and 35% too tough.

More White Americans than non-White Americans say the justice system is not tough enough on crime (45% vs. 31%, respectively).  The plurality of non-White adults, 40%, think it is about right, while 26% believe it is too tough.

Americans across these four party and racial subgroups have become significantly less likely to say the criminal justice system is not tough enough, but it has declined the most among Democrats, falling from 62% in 2000 to 25% today.  Over the same period, Democrats' view that the system is too tough has grown from 6% to 35%.

Given two options for approaches to lowering the U.S. crime rate, more Americans prefer putting money and effort into addressing social and economic problems such as drug addiction, homelessness and mental health (63%) rather than putting money and effort into strengthening law enforcement (34%).

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

Monday, November 16, 2020

"Presidential Pardons and the Problem of Impunity"

The title of this post is the title of this quite timely article authored by Frank Bowman III now available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

This Article considers the reach of the President’s pardon power and its potential employment as one means of creating legal impunity for a President and his personal and political associates.  It addresses, in particular, the possibility that a President might issue self-interested pardons to himself, family members, or political or business associates.  The Article reviews the constitutional origins of the federal pardon power, and the law and practice of its use since the Founding era, and concludes:

A President cannot constitutionally pardon himself, though the point is untested.  In theory, a President could resign, or under the Twenty-fifth Amendment withdraw temporarily from the office, transform the Vice President into the President or Acting President, and secure a pardon from the his former subordinate.  But that seems improbable.

A President can pardon anyone but himself (both humans and corporations), and those pardons, once issued, are almost certainly unchallengeable and irrevocable.  A presidential pardon can cover any (and perhaps all) federal crimes the beneficiary has ever committed, so long as such crimes occurred and were completed prior to the issuance of the pardon. A president cannot pardon crimes that have not yet been committed.  Consequently, a pardon issued corruptly might itself constitute a crime that could not be pardoned.

The pardon power does not extend to state crimes or to any civil or administrative action brought by federal or state authorities.  A presidential pardon cannot block congressional investigations.  Finally, because a pardon effectively erases the Fifth Amendment privilege as to offenses covered by the pardon, it might make it easier for criminal and civil investigative authorities and Congress to compel testimony from the person pardoned.

Therefore, presidential pardons could inconvenience, but could not prevent, thorough investigations of the private and public actions of a former President or his associates.  The Article concludes by recommending a thorough, but judicious, use of available investigative avenues to inquire into well-founded allegations of wrongful behavior by former presidents and their personal and political associates.

November 16, 2020 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Justice Sotomayor dissents at length from SCOTUS refusal to reinstate order for Texas prison to implement COVID protections

As reported in this SCOTUSblog post, the "Supreme Court on Monday afternoon rejected a request from two inmates at high risk for complications from COVID-19 to reinstate an order by a federal district court that would require Texas prison officials to take basic safety precautions to combat the virus."  Justice Sotomayor issued a lengthy dissent from the ruling, which was joined by Justice Kagan, and here are parts from the start and end of this 11-page opinion:

I write again about the Wallace Pack Unit (Pack Unit), a geriatric prison in southeast Texas that has been ravaged by COVID–19.  See Valentine v. Collier, 590 U.S. ___ (2020) (statement respecting denial of application to vacate stay).  The Pack Unit is a “‘tinderbox’” for COVID–19, not only because it is a dormitory-style facility, “making social distancing in the living quarters impossible,” but also because the vast majority of its inmates are at least 65 years old, and many suffer from chronic health conditions and disabilities....

In July, the District Court held a weeks-long trial that revealed rampant failures by the prison to protect its inmates from COVID–19.  In September, the District Court entered a permanent injunction requiring prison officials to implement basic safety procedures.  The Fifth Circuit, however, stayed the injunction pending appeal.  Now, two inmates, Laddy Valentine and Richard King, ask this Court to vacate the stay.  Because they have met their burden to justify such relief, I would grant the application....

The people incarcerated in the Pack Unit are some of our most vulnerable citizens.  They face severe risks of serious illness and death from COVID–19, but are unable to take even the most basic precautions against the virus on their own. If the prison fails to enforce social distancing and mask wearing, perform regular testing, and take other essential steps, the inmates can do nothing but wait for the virus to take its toll.  Twenty lives have been lost already. I fear the stay will lead to further, needless suffering.

November 16, 2020 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Federal judge orders Missouri to improve its parole process

As reported in this local piece, headlined "Judge orders revamp of Missouri’s ‘unconstitutional’ parole system," a notable new federal district court ruling last week "spurred by a class-action lawsuit in 2017 by state prison inmates, requires the state’s Department of Corrections to implement over two dozen reforms related to the agency’s unconstitutional handling of parole revocation proceedings."  Here is more:

The lawsuit alleged that the current practices resulted in the unlawful reincarceration of thousands of people each year. “These reforms should result in fewer people thrown back behind bars, and slow the churn at prison reception centers,” said Amy Breihan, co-director of the MacArthur Justice Center.

The 55-page order from U.S. District Judge Stephen R. Bough found the Department of Corrections has been intentionally failing to provide state-funded counsel to eligible parolees. The court ordered the department to ensure all eligible parolees have an attorney appointed for any proceeding to move forward.  The judge also ordered several other changes. While the agency previously would not disclose evidence against an individual until the hearing, officials are now required to provide evidence at least five days prior to a revocation hearing.

The court also wants the state to move faster on revocation hearings that have previously resulted in parolees waiting hundreds of days in detention. “Having reviewed the evidence presented at the hearing and in the parties’ briefing on the matter, the court finds constitutional deficiencies in the current parole revocation process remain and issues this order to remedy such due process violations,” Bough wrote.

November 16, 2020 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Members of Congress urge Attorney General Barr "to suspend all federal executions"

There have already been seven federal executions in 2020, and there are three more federal executions scheduled in the next month: as this BOP page details, one execution is scheduled for this coming Thursday, and two more are scheduled for the second week of December.  But a few members of Congress, as detalled in this press release, have written to Attorney General William Barr to urge him "to suspend all federal executions so the incoming Biden-Harris Administration can evaluate and determine the future use of the death penalty by the federal government."

The full short letter is available at this link, and here are its concluding sentiments:

President-Elect Biden’s plan for strengthening America’s commitment to justice includes the elimination of the federal death penalty and Vice-President-Elect Harris is an original cosponsor of legislation we have introduced to eliminate the federal death penalty. A record number of Americans voted in favor of President-Elect Biden and Vice-President Elect Harris and they deserve an opportunity to implement their policy agenda without the Trump Administration rushing to take preemptive and irreversible steps.

While you will remain in office for a few more weeks, going forward with executions in the weeks before the new administration takes office would be a grave injustice. 

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

"The Curriculum of the Carceral State"

The title of this post is the title of this recently published essay by Alice Ristroph.  Here is its abstract:

This Essay scrutinizes the canons of substantive criminal law, with a particular focus on the curricular canon.  By curricular canon, I mean the conceptual model used to teach the subject of criminal law, including the cases, narratives, and ideas that are presented to students.  Since the middle of the twentieth century, American law schools have offered (and often required) a course in criminal law in which homicide is the paradigm crime and legality is a core organizing principle.  The curricular canon depicts criminal law as a necessary and race-neutral response to grave injuries, and it also depicts criminal law as capable of self-restraint through various internal limiting principles. 

This model does not correspond closely to actual legal practices, and it never did; it was designed to model what criminal law could become.  Though this curricular model was developed by men who wanted to improve and constrain the criminal law, instead it probably contributed to the vast expansion of criminal interventions in the second half of the twentieth century.  The Essay reveals the pro-carceral implications of the prevailing canon, and it offers the outline of a different model that could alter American attitudes toward criminal law.  

I highly recommend everything penned by Alice Ristroph, and I am especially excited to see her turn her attention to the gaps between "our curricular model and our present criminal law reality" and to how "American law schools, through the required course on substantive criminal law, have contributed affirmatively to the collection of phenomena commonly labeled mass incarceration."  And reading this great piece reminded me of this very short commentary I wrote in the very first issue of the Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law way back in 2003 to flag my concerns that "failing to discuss the modem dynamics of criminal law doctrine and practice ... [results in] a substantive criminal law course that is often archaic, incomplete and perhaps unjustifiable."  My point back then was that modern criminal justice developments, particularly the drug war, plea realities and sentencing reforms, made the Model Penal Code outdated as a fundamental teaching text.  As I put it then:

The original MPC retains important historical value as a compendium of post-war scholarly thinking about criminal law, and its impact as a practical reform project remains profound. However, because the fundamental issues and concerns of criminal law doctrine and practice have shifted so dramatically in the last 40 years, the original MPC's continued use as a criminal law textbook operates, in my view, as a considerable disservice to criminal law academics and students, and ultimately to the entire field of criminal justice....

[T]he front-line realities of modem criminal law doctrine and practice have become quite grim and messy, and yet study of the original MPC can suggest that criminal law doctrine and practice is quite enlightened and orderly.  The MPC — and our teaching of it — trumpets the foundational concepts of actus reus and mens rea; yet the act requirement is often functionally eclipsed in a world in which conspiracy and possession offenses are staples, and the import of mental states is often functionally eclipsed in a world in which most sentencing factors are strict liability elements.  The MPC — or perhaps more particularly our teaching of it — suggests that homicides and other serious offenses are the central concern of the criminal justice system; yet modem criminal dockets are clogged with 60 times more felony drug and property cases than homicide cases. The MPC — and especially our usual methods for teaching it — suggests that many cases raise legal and factual claims and defenses that are resolved at trials where burdens of proof and precise offense elements are scrupulously considered; yet such matters very rarely occupy real criminal courts as judges spend the bulk of their time processing and sentencing the 19 out of every 20 defendants whose convictions are secured through guilty pleas.  And of course the MPC could not discuss — and I fear our teaching still fails to discuss — the enormous economic and personal costs and consequences of making mass incarceration a defining element of the modem American criminal justice system.

Gosh, I sure wish these musings of mine from this 2003 article felt more dated now, but Alice Ristroph's article effectively highlights how these problems have only gotten worse over time.

November 15, 2020 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, November 12, 2020

"Nondelegating Death"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper just posted to SSRN and authored by Alexandra Klein.  Here is its abstract:

Most states’ method-of-execution statutes afford broad discretion to executive agencies to create execution protocols.  Inmates have challenged this discretion, arguing that these statutes unconstitutionally delegate legislative power to executive agencies, violating the state’s non-delegation and separation of powers doctrines.  State courts routinely use the non-delegation doctrine, in contrast to the doctrine’s historic disfavor in federal courts.  Despite its uncertain status, the non-delegation doctrine is a useful analytical tool to examine decision-making in capital punishment.

This Article critically evaluates responsibility for administering capital punishment through the lens of non-delegation.  It analyzes state court decisions upholding broad legislative delegations to agencies and identifies common themes in this jurisprudence.  This Article positions legislative delegation in parallel with historic and modern execution practices that utilize responsibility shifting mechanisms to minimize participant responsibility in carrying out capital sentences and argues that legislative delegation serves a similar function of minimizing accountability in state-authorized killing.

The non-delegation doctrine provides useful perspectives on capital punishment because the doctrine emphasizes accountability, transparency, and perceptions of legitimacy, core themes that permeate historic and modern death penalty practices.  Creating execution protocols carries a high potential for arbitrary action due to limited procedural constraints, secrecy, and broad statutorily enacted discretion.  The decision to authorize capital punishment is a separate policy decision than the decision of how that punishment is carried out.  This Article frames a more robust non-delegation analysis for method-of-execution statutes, and argues that legislators determined to utilize the penalty should carry greater accountability for investigating and selecting methods of execution and should not be allowed to delegate these decisions.

November 12, 2020 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Harvard Law Review SCOTUS issue covers the handful of notable criminal justice rulings from last Term

As hard-core law nerds know, the November issue of the Harvard Law Review is always devoted to the Supreme Court's prior Term work.  And as long-time readers know, in years past I have sometimes been disappointed when the November HLR SCOTUS issue does not give considerable attention to the Court's considerable criminal justice work. 

But, as noted in this post from last year, the 2019 HLR SCOTUS issue provided a sign of the modern criminal justice times with its Foreword and a lead commentary focused on criminal justice issues.  The November 2020 issue of the Harvard Law Review, which is available at this link, has its lead pieces understandably focused on other topics this year, but it remains heartening to see that seemingly all the noteworthy criminal cases of OT 2019 SCOTUS are covered in case comments in this issue: 

November 11, 2020 in Recommended reading, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Should we want Congress to try to limit the President's pardon power?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable new New York Times op-ed By Jack Goldsmith.  The full title of this piece highlight its main points: "Trump Loves to Use the Pardon Power. Is He Next? There is little to be done right now about the president’s self-serving ways, but Congress can limit future abuses." Here are excerpts:

President Trump has abused the pardon power like none of his predecessors. But we likely ain’t seen nothing yet. Now that he has lost the election, Mr. Trump will likely pardon himself, friends, family members and Trump business entities and employees for any crime they might have committed before or during his presidency.

Mr. Trump’s pardons to date, and those likely to come during a transition, reveal the problems with the supposed “absoluteness” of the pardon power — and should prompt legal reform to clarify limits on its abuse.

The pardon power that the Constitution confers on the president has just two stated limitations: A president cannot pardon for impeachment, and a presidential pardon can excuse or mitigate punishment only for federal offenses. There is little that can be done at this point to stave off a potential wave of pardons in the lame duck period, but the federal crime limitation means that Mr. Trump cannot stop state criminal investigations, including one in progress by the Manhattan district attorney into possible bank and insurance fraud by Mr. Trump and his companies.

But for federal crimes, the president can — with the stroke of a pen — erase a criminal conviction or criminal exposure for basically whomever he wants and for almost any reason. Unsurprisingly, Mr. Trump’s pardons and commutations have largely served his personal interests.

Notorious examples include the pardon for Joe Arpaio, the former Arizona sheriff who was convicted of defying a federal court order against profiling Hispanics; the pardons for the president’s political supporters Conrad Black and Pat Nolan; and the sentence commutation for Mr. Trump’s friend Roger Stone, who was convicted of obstruction of justice and related crimes and who many believe refused to implicate Mr. Trump in the hope of presidential relief from punishment.

Such self-serving pardons are not without precedent. Bill Clinton pardoned his half brother, a friend who refused to cooperate with the independent counsel investigating the president and two notorious fugitives from justice who were suspected of obtaining favorable consideration through an aggressive lobbying campaign and the support of politically influential allies. George H.W. Bush pardoned the former defense secretary Caspar Weinberger and several national security officials who had been convicted or indicted on a charge of perjury and obstruction of justice in connection with the Iran-contra scandal, in which Mr. Bush himself was suspected of criminal involvement....

Mr. Trump has proclaimed “the absolute right to pardon myself.” While neither the Constitution nor judicial precedents overtly speak to the issue, the Justice Department declared in 1974 a self-pardon would “seem” to be disallowed “under the fundamental rule that no one may be a judge in his own case.” Scholars are torn on the matter. The issue, which would arise if after Mr. Trump leaves office the new administration indicts him for a crime for which he pardoned himself, can be settled only by the Supreme Court.

There is little that can be done at this point to stave off a probable wave of opportunistic pardons.  But in light of what we already know about his pardon practices, Congress should enact two reforms to prevent future abuses.

First, it should check the most extreme abuses of the pardon power by expressly making it a crime for a president to issue a pardon as part of a bribe or as an inducement to obstruct justice.  Current law does not explicitly cover the president and should be reformed to leave no doubt. Second, Congress should declare that presidential self-pardons are invalid. Such a declaration would not resolve the constitutional question, but it could inform the answer when a court addresses it.

It might be that Mr. Trump’s pardons prove so abusive that a constitutional amendment to the pardon power will be warranted.  The challenge in that case will be to draft an amendment that checks presidential abuses without curtailing a vitally important mechanism, when properly deployed, for mercy and reconciliation. This is one of many ways that Mr. Trump’s abuses of presidential power will have long-lasting consequences for American justice.

Regular readers surely know that I am MUCH more troubled by the modern disuse of the pardon power than by its misuse.  And Goldsmith's first suggestion to make it a crime to "issue a pardon ... as an inducement to obstruct justice" might arguably make a crime of at least one act of clemency by many of our presidents in the last half-century.  Because the pardon power is already chilled enough, I think we should be trying to enhance and politically motivate its proper use, rather than worrying so much about its occasional misuse.

November 10, 2020 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (6)

"Drug Policy Implications: Elections 2020"

Drug-Policy-Implications-Elections-2020_for-web-email2The title of this post is the title of this panel discussion taking place (on Zoom) next Monday afternoon, November 16, 2020 from 1-2:15 pm EST, sponsored by the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center.  Here is the basic description of the event and the planned speakers:

The 2020 election will have a monumental impact on how the United States addresses a broad range of policy issues, and drug enforcement and policy is no exception.  Numerous states approved medical or full marijuana legalization via ballot initiative, and voters in other states weighted in on drug-related criminal justice ballot initiatives.  At the federal level, marijuana reform has been gaining momentum and federal officials will undoubtedly take cues from the nationwide election results to determine the pace of reform on an array of drug enforcement and policy issues.

Join our panel of experts for a post-election discussion of the 2020 election results and what they are likely to mean for drug enforcement and policy at both the state and federal level.

Speakers

  • John Hudak, deputy director of the Center for Effective Public Management and a senior fellow in Governance Studies, Brookings Institution
  • Maritza Perez, director of the Office of National Affairs, Drug Policy Alliance
  • Tamar Todd, legal director, New Approach PAC

Moderated by:

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

November 10, 2020 in Campaign 2020 and sentencing issues, Drug Offense Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Noticing marijuana reform as criminal justice reform in Arizona after passage of Prop 207

Regular readers, particularly those who also keep up with my work over at Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform, know that I strongly believe that marijuana reform can and should always be a form of criminal justice reform.  This local article, headlined "Prop 207 could have huge impact on criminal justice reform in Arizona," details part of this story in one state one week after its big reform vote:

We are learning more about how Proposition 207 will impact our criminal justice system. The proposition legalizes recreational marijuana in Arizona and will become official when election results are certified in about a month.

Steven Scharboneau, Jr. is an attorney with the Rosenstein Law Group. “Arizona is one of the only states where a drug conviction for marijuana is a felony conviction, so it has life-lasting implications," Scharboneau said....

Adam Trenk is a Rose Law Group partner and director of the firm’s cannabis law department. “I think it’s really a big deal and a really big step for our state," Trenk said. Trenk said Prop 207 is really the first of its kind. “Historically we would, we being the state’s court systems, would seal records, but they wouldn’t necessarily expunge records," Trenk said.

Starting July 12, 2021, people previously convicted of select marijuana offenses can petition to have their records expunged. Essentially, this will give people a clean slate, which is what Scharboneau said his work is all about. “If we really work hard to make the laws more fair so people can actually have a fair chance at that second chance," Scharboneau said....

Rebecca Fealk, the Legislative Policy Coordinator there, said the group is working to get the word out about this measure and the impact it will have on criminal justice reform. “If somebody had a marijuana conviction, they were often denied food stamps, they were denied Pell Grants to be able go to college and do these things that allowed them to be part of our community," she said. “And so by having the opportunity to remove those, we are allowing people to be more successful and remove the harm the criminal justice system has done."

I believe that the Montana marijuana legalization ballot initiative also included some remedial criminal justice provisions, but that such reforms will require follow-up legislative action in other states.  Still, I sense there is continuing and growing momentum in marijuana reform quarters to ensure any and all reforms come with remedial provisions.  When I wrote an article on this topic a few years ago, "Leveraging Marijuana Reform to Enhance Expungement Practices," I was eager to see these intersecting issues get more attention, and I am now quite happy that they are.

UPDATE: I just saw this official press release from yesterday that details an immediate and tangible criminal justice impact from the passage of Prop 207 in Arizona. The release is titled "MCAO to Dismiss All Pending and Unfiled Charges of Possession of Marijuana," and here is the full text:

With the passage of Proposition 207, the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office (MCAO) will be dismissing all pending and unfiled charges of possession of marijuana and any associated paraphernalia charges that are before this office. Instead of continuing to spend resources on these cases, this office will begin implementing the will of the voters immediately.

We are instructing Deputy County Attorneys to file a motion to dismiss any charge covered by Proposition 207. If those charges make up the entirety of the charges of the case, the entire case will be dismissed. If there are other felony charges the case will remain pending, but we will file motions to dismiss the charges covered by Proposition 207. This will include all cases pending in Early Disposition Court, those currently in diversion or pending trial, and those set for sentencing or probation violation hearings.

Priority will be given to cases with court dates and those in custody. The office will also be filing motions to dismiss bench warrant cases where all the charges are covered by Proposition 207.

November 10, 2020 in Collateral consequences, Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, November 09, 2020

"The Intersectionality of Age and Gender on the Bench: Are Younger Female Judges Harsher with Serious Crimes?"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper now available via SSRN authored by Morris Hoffman, Francis Shen, Vijeth Iyengar and Frank Krueger. Here is its abstract:

We analyzed sentencing data from sixteen years of criminal trials in the State of Colorado, consisting of almost 3,000 individual sentences, and discovered an interaction effect of harm, gender, and age not reported in any of the empirical or experimental literature.  Young female judges punished high harm crimes substantially more than their male and older female colleagues.  These results, if confirmed, could have significant strategic and tactical implications for practicing lawyers.  They may also inform policies surrounding judicial selection, education, training, and retirement.

November 9, 2020 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

After Tennessee Gov postpones last scheduled state execution of year, will all three scheduled federal 2020 executions still go forward?

As reported in this local article, "Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee has granted death row inmate Pervis Payne a temporary reprieve due to the COVID-19 pandemic."  Here is more:

Payne's execution was scheduled for Dec. 3, 2020. The reprieve lasts until April 9, 2021. Lee said in a written statement that the reprieve was issued "due to the challenges and disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic," but did not elaborate further.

Payne, who is being held on death row in Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville, is convicted of the 1987 deaths of Millington woman Charisse Christopher, 28, and her 2-year-old daughter, Lacie.  Christopher’s 3-year-old son, Nicholas, survived multiple stab wounds in the brutal attack that took place in Christopher’s apartment.

“This additional time will also allow us to investigate Mr. Payne’s strong innocence claim, together with the Innocence Project," said Kelley Henry, Payne's attorney.  "We are grateful to the 150 faith, legal, legislative, and community groups in Memphis and across the state that support clemency for Mr. Payne. Together with Mr. Payne’s family, we will continue the fight to prove Mr. Payne’s innocence.”

The reprieve also allows time for the Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators to potentially pass legislation that would allow a defendant already sentenced to the death penalty and whose conviction is final to still bring a petition regarding a claim of intellectual disability. Although members of the caucus filed the bill Wednesday, it cannot be passed until January at the earliest, initially after Payne's scheduled execution.

Payne has maintained his innocence, and his attorneys have said that he is intellectually disabled, but have been unable to litigate the claim in Tennessee due to procedural reasons. In federal court, Payne’s attorneys have filed a petition asking the court to prevent his execution until hearing his claim that he is intellectually disabled....

During his 1988 trial, Payne said he discovered the gruesome crime scene after hearing calls for help through the open door of the apartment. He said he bent down to try to help, getting blood on his clothes and pulling at the knife still lodged in Christopher's throat. When a white police officer arrived, Payne, who is Black, said he panicked and ran, fearing he would be seen as the prime suspect.

The Shelby County District Attorney's Office has maintained that regardless of what DNA testing shows, the evidence to convict Payne of the crimes was overwhelming. An officer saw him leaving the scene of the crime drenched in blood, and Payne admitted to being there.  His baseball cap was found looped around the 2-year-old victim's arm, and his fingerprints were found inside the apartment.

Payne’s case has drawn the support of a large coalition of advocates, led by the Ben F. Jones Chapter of the National Bar Association, urging for the DNA testing.  The coalition includes the Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators, Memphis Chapter of the NAACP, the Memphis Bar Association, 100 Black Men of Memphis, National Council of Negro Women (Memphis Chapter), Stand for Children Tennessee, Memphis Interfaith Coalition for Action and Hope (MICAH) and several leaders in the Church of God in Christ (COGIC), of which Payne is a member.

It strikes me as quite notable and ultimately disturbing that, for a crime that took place 33 years ago(!), it seems that a global pandemic was needed to justify a short reprieve to provide time "to investigate Mr. Payne’s strong innocence claim."  Also, if Payne is actually intellectually disabled and thereby categorically ineligible for execution under the Eighth Amendment, it seems quite problematic to preclude him from properly litigating this constitutional issue fully for mere procedural reasons.

These case specifics aside, this Death Penalty Information Center page details that this planned Tennessee execution had been the last state execution scheduled for 2020.  So, due to lots COVID disruptions as well as other factors, it appears the total number of state executions in 2020 will be only seven individuals, marking the lowest yearly total of state executions in almost 40 years.  But, of course, the federal government really revved up its machinery of death in 2020, and there have already been seven federal executions in 2020.  Moreover, there are three more federal executions still scheduled for 2020: as this BOP page details, one execution is scheduled for next Thursday, and two more are scheduled for the second week of December.

Even if we did not have a consequential federal election this month, the federal defendants scheduled for execution in the coming weeks would surely be seeking a reprieve based on COVID concerns and perhaps on other grounds as well.  But, especially given that the Joe Biden campaign talked about seek to abolish the federal death penalty, if these condemned defendants can find a way to get their executions postponed until after January 20, 2021, they might benefit from a new Administration eager to now completely turn off the entire federal machinery of death.

November 9, 2020 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, November 08, 2020

So who are you rooting for to be the next US Attorney General?

I would be eager to hear from readers about who they would like to to see nominated by Joe Biden to be the next US Attorney General.  This Politico article, headlined "Meet the contenders for Biden’s Cabinet," discusses these purported front-runners:

With Tommy Tuberville’s defeat of Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.) on Tuesday, Jones will be unemployed come January and available to join Biden’s cabinet. Jones wouldn’t add to the Cabinet’s diversity, but the former U.S. attorney in Alabama has credibility when it comes to civil rights: He led the successful prosecutions of two members of the Ku Klux Klan involved in the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, nearly 40 years later. Jones also happens to be a friend of Biden’s, dating back to his work on Biden’s first presidential campaign in 1988.

Jones, however, is likely to have competition for the Attorney General post, including from Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez. Perez is “in the mix,” said Oscar Ramirez, a Democratic lobbyist who worked in the Obama administration and is active in Latino Democratic circles. Another person who’s tracked the early jockeying for attorney general said allies of Perez have floated his name.

Perez has Justice Department experience: He served as assistant attorney general for civil rights in President Barack Obama’s administration before Obama tapped him as Labor secretary. But he also faces a potential obstacle with Republicans likely to remain in control of the Senate: No Republicans voted to confirm him as Labor secretary in 2013, and it’s unlikely that his years leading the DNC have endeared him to the GOP.

Another name being mentioned is Sally Yates, a former deputy attorney general in the Obama administration, who became a progressive cause célèbre when President Donald Trump fired her in the early days of his presidency for refusing to defend his executive order barring entry to people several Muslim countries. California Attorney General Xavier Becerra is another potential candidate, Ramirez said, although he’s also been mentioned as a possible Homeland Security secretary. California Gov. Gavin Newsom might also tap Becerra, a former congressman, to fill the Senate seat that Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will vacate in January. (Becerra previously succeeded Harris as California attorney general in 2017 following Harris’ election to the Senate.)

This USA Today article, headlined "President-elect Joe Biden seeks diverse Cabinet to 'look like America' in leading federal departments," throws out these additional names:

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., a white member of the Senate Judiciary Committee where she has been harshly critical of Attorney General William Barr. She dropped her presidential campaign after the South Carolina primary and endorsed Biden....

Stacey Abrams, a Black former member of the Georgia Legislature who was among those considered as Biden’s running mate.  Abrams has been a fierce advocate for voting rights after running an unsuccessful but high-profile campaign for governor of Georgia, a state that was surprisingly competitive for Biden.

Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., a Black member of the Senate Judiciary Committee and presidential candidate, was a key sponsor of sweeping criminal justice legislation aimed at cutting mandatory minimum sentences and reducing the federal prison population.

Preet Bharara, who was born in India, a former chief federal prosecutor in Manhattan’s Southern District of New York, was fired by Trump after the then-newly elected president had asked him to remain on the job.  Bharara subsequently described a series of contacts with Trump before his firing that he said threatened the Justice Department’s independence from the White House.

I have always been a big Cory Booker fan, in part because he has long been a vocal advocate for a range of federal sentencing reforms.  So I think he is the candidate I am rooting for, though I sense he may be a relative long shot.  And I am genuinely eager to hear from readers about their thoughts about people on this list or anyone else who might become our nation's next "top law enforcement officer" for the United States.

November 8, 2020 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (7)

Pondering marijuana reform echoes after another historic election cycle

I briefly flagged here a few days ago the remarkable success of drug policy reform ballot initiatives in red and blue states nationwide.  And the success particularly of marijuana reform initatives in Arizona, Mississippi. Montana, New Jersey, and South Dakota has me thinking and writing a lot about what's next in this space over at Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform.  Specifically, I have been blogging reactions to marijuana's big election night via these new posts:

November 8, 2020 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

"What Biden’s Win Means for the Future of Criminal Justice"

The title of this post is the headline of this extended new piece from The Marshall Project, which begins this way:

During his presidential campaign, Joe Biden promised to end private prisons, cash bail, mandatory-minimum sentencing and the death penalty.  Candidate Biden also said the U.S. could reduce its prison population by more than half.  While he didn’t put forward as progressive or as detailed a platform as many of his competitors for the Democratic nomination (including his running mate Kamala Harris), Biden has nevertheless, quietly, been elected on the most progressive criminal justice platform of any major party candidate in generations.  So what can he actually do?

Biden will face the same constraints as all incoming presidents after a campaign of big promises.  Government moves slowly, time and political capital are limited, and his administration will likely need to prioritize the pandemic and the related economic fallout in the early days.  But if he’s serious about tackling criminal justice, here’s what experts say to expect from the Biden administration on key issues.

I recommend checking out the full lengthy discussion, and here are snippets from a few of its sentencing pieces:

The Death Penalty

Biden can’t unilaterally end the death penalty, but he can speed up its demise and use symbolism to signal a new era.  Ultimately, the death penalty is symbolic. It has never been used to punish more than a tiny fraction of the most serious murders, but it makes very long prison sentences appear lenient by comparison.

On the campaign trail, Biden said he’d work to end the federal government’s use of the death penalty.  His record is mixed.... Although only Congress can fully abolish the federal death penalty, the president can do a great deal to speed its yearslong decline across the country.  Trump’s attorney general, William Barr, oversaw the most federal executions of any presidential administration since Eisenhower.  A new attorney general could stop them immediately, and return to the Obama-era practice of seeking no executions. A new attorney general could tell U.S. attorneys to only seek new death sentences for rare crimes like terrorism and mass shootings, which would still apply to defendants like Charleston church shooter Dylann Roof and Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokar Tsarnaev.... — Maurice Chammah

Mandatory Minimums

Biden has said he wants to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences, a legacy of the tough-on-crime ’80s.  To make this happen at the federal level, he’d need to appoint a range of officials who share this view, and get buy-in from Congress....

Biden’s criminal justice platform pledges to eliminate federal mandatory minimums.  Biden hasn’t specified which ones, but advocates say if he does tackle them, he will likely focus on drug crimes.  There are more than 60,000 people currently serving mandatory minimum sentences in federal prison, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission. 10,000 entered the system last year alone.  A broad clemency effort or a law change, if it were retroactive, could reduce the federal prison population by a quarter almost overnight.

Repealing mandatory minimums — or passing a “safety valve” law that doesn’t repeal them but gives judges the discretion to sidestep them — would require an act of Congress. Part of the problem, say scholars who study the issue, are the Attorney General and the Department of Justice, whose opinions carry a lot of weight with Congress.  So the first step a President Biden could take to signal his commitment to repealing mandatory minimums is to appoint officials who share his view, says Rachel Barkow, a law professor at NYU and a former member of the U.S. Sentencing Commission, which helps draft federal sentencing guidelines.  An Attorney General who is skeptical of mandatory minimums could also instruct federal prosecutors to use them judiciously, as Eric Holder did in 2013.... — Beth Schwartzapfel

Clemency

Biden has lots of power to revamp and supercharge the clemency process — but he hasn’t given much indication that he intends to use it. Clemency, which includes reversing criminal convictions (pardons) and shortening sentences (commutations), is the president’s most direct means to reduce incarceration. Biden made no bold promises on these topics during the campaign. He has promised to “broadly use his clemency power for certain non-violent and drug crimes,” as Obama did at the end of his administration....

Biden could ask Harris to take the lead on clemency since she laid out a more detailed plan than his own during the Democratic primary. Harris said she would remove clemency decisions from the Department of Justice and open a federal sentence review unit, where a team of lawyers would be exclusively tasked with reviewing old sentences and considering reductions.... — Jamiles Lartey

Private Prisons

Biden can move the 14,000 federal prisoners currently held in private facilities without too much struggle. After that it gets harder.  Biden and Harris both pledged to end the federal government’s use of private prisons during the 2020 campaign, a position that is extremely popular among Democrats partywide.  Experts say the incoming administration is likely to build on guidance issued under the Obama administration in 2016, rescinded by Trump, that encourages the director of the Bureau of Prisons to stop renewing contracts with private facilities when they expire, in an effort to ultimately phase out their use.... — Jamiles Lartey

Reducing The Prison Population

Biden can’t implement new programs or rewrite outdated sentencing laws at the state level.  But he can use federal funding to send a message.  Crime prevention is a central feature of Biden’s criminal justice plan.  He has pledged to set aside $20 billion in federal funding to states that adopt evidence-based crime prevention programs and that opt for diversion programs over incarceration....

Under Biden’s plan, states would have access to federal funding if they agreed to implement programs designed to keep people out of prison.  The funding comes with some stipulations: States must eliminate mandatory minimums and they must create earned credit programs for people currently serving time.  It’s unclear what kinds of programs states could or should adopt in order to get the funding.  Biden has emphasized the need for states to invest in programs that address several underlying drivers of crime such as illiteracy and limited early education.  Congress would have to enact Biden’s plan.  — Nicole Lewis

Though indirectly mentioned in the Mandatory Minimum section, I am a bit disappointed that appointments to the US Sentencing Commission is not mentioned. The USSC, with the right appointees, could provide to be a particularly important and consequential agency at a moment in which implementation of the FIRST STEP Act is really still just getting started and during which other legislative reforms are being widely discussed.

November 8, 2020 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tomorrow can be today for some Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force criminal justice recommendations

Now that former VP Joe Biden is starting to begin work as Prez Elect Joe Biden, I started thinking about some of Dr. Martin Luther King's famous words about the persistent and pressing need for urgent action to advance justice.  As MLK put it in one 1967 speech:

We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today.  We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late.  Procrastination is still the thief of time.

With the fierce urgency of now in mind, I looked through the criminal justice reform recommendations [available here] from the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force (discussed here) to see which ones might be acted upon ASAP.  Many of the recommendations involve matters that will require congressional action (e.g., "End the federal crack and powder cocaine disparity in sentences") or that must await Prez Elect Biden officially taking office (e.g., "Direct DOJ to collect data on federal prosecution practices").  But there are at least two notable recommendations involving the creation of an independent task force or board which could begin work right away: 

Task Force on Prosecutorial Discretion: Create a new task force, placed outside of the U.S. Department of Justice, to make recommendations for tackling discrimination and other problems in our justice system that result from arrest and charging decisions.

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

Notably, Prez Elect Biden has now promised to announce on Monday a COVID task force. I am pleased he is acting fast on this critical front; but in this unfolding conundrum of life and history, I am always going to be urging leaders to treat tomorrow as today with regard to criminal justice reforms.

November 8, 2020 in Campaign 2020 and sentencing issues, Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, November 06, 2020

Can we be hopeful federal leaders will make deals to advance federal criminal justice reforms in the next Congress?

The question in the title of this post, which I am most eager to answer in the affirmative, results from reading this new Politico article headlined "America's new power couple: Mitch and Joe; How a Biden presidency and McConnell-led Senate might actually get along."  It still feels a bit too early, since lots of votes are still being counted, to start mapping out possible legislative agendas for the next two years.  But these passages have me thinking about the prospects for more (badly needed) federal criminal justice reforms:

During Barack Obama’s presidency, Joe Biden’s propensity for cutting deals with Mitch McConnell became a running source of aggravation for liberals. Now it will be the key to getting anything done at all.  “Some of the Democrats would say, ‘Joe always wants to make a deal. Joe always wants to make a deal.’ And I’m thinking: ‘Hell, yeah, that’s his job.’” Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) said in an interview Thursday. “Why wouldn’t he want to make a deal?”...

McConnell and Biden may have reason to find some common ground.  Under Trump, McConnell has already succeeded in his longtime goal of reshaping the judiciary; soon his role will shift to the most powerful Republican in Washington who must also defend a razor-thin majority.  And Biden was elected running not on the most liberal agenda but in part on his ability to work with the other side, predicting “you'll see an epiphany occur among many of my Republican friends” if Trump loses...

Democratic officials are already acknowledging that their legislative ambitions are much smaller than they were a week ago, but they think there is room for agreement on things like a coronavirus aid package, infrastructure, higher education and rural broadband.  Republicans mostly agree....

The Biden team and Biden himself are thinking through how McConnell as majority leader will reshape his administration and wondering if McConnell will be a deal-maker or the kind of antagonist who said making Obama a one-term president was his top priority, according to an official close with the Biden team.

I am disappointed that this article does not list criminal justice reform as a subject matter where "there is room for agreement," but long-time readers know how criminal justice has become an arena for important bipartisan discussion and work.  And looking back at the notable criminal justice reform recommendations [available here] from the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force (discussed here), there are at least a few of the listed priorities that ought to be able to garner some bipartisan support (though some are a lot more likely than others):

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

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

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

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

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

The line in the Politico article noting that "McConnell has already succeeded in his longtime goal of reshaping the judiciary" has me wondering whether Senator McConnell might be less adverse to giving federal judges significantly more sentencing discretion now that he views so many as the product of his own king-making.

November 6, 2020 in Campaign 2020 and sentencing issues, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, November 05, 2020

An effective disquisition on the drug war's descent

This lengthy new New York Times article provides a thoughtful review of how diverse coalitions have now come together to start unwinding the war on drugs. The full title of this piece highlights its themes: "This Election, a Divided America Stands United on One Topic: All kinds of Americans have turned their back on the destructive war on drugs." I recommend the full piece, and here is how it starts and ends:

It can take a while to determine the victor in a presidential election.  But one winner was abundantly clear on Election Day. Drugs, once thought to be the scourge of a healthy society, are getting public recognition as a part of American life. Where drugs were on the ballot on Tuesday, they won handily.

New Jersey, South Dakota, Montana and Arizona joined 11 other states that had already legalized recreational marijuana. Mississippi and South Dakota made medical marijuana legal, bringing the total to 35.

The citizens of Washington, D.C., voted to decriminalize psilocybin, the organic compound active in psychedelic mushrooms. Oregon voters approved two drug-related initiatives. One decriminalized possession of small amounts of illegal drugs including heroin, cocaine and methamphetamines. (It did not make it legal to sell the drugs.) Another measure authorized the creation of a state program to license providers of psilocybin.

Election night represented a significant victory for three forces pushing for drug reform for different but interlocking reasons. There is the increasingly powerful cannabis industry. There are state governments struggling with budget shortfalls, hungry to fill coffers in the midst of a pandemic.

And then there are the reform advocates, who for decades have been saying that imprisonment, federal mandatory minimum sentences and prohibitive cash bail for drug charges ruin lives and communities, particularly those of Black Americans.

Decriminalization is popular, in part, because Americans believe that too many people are in jails and prisons, and also because Americans personally affected by the country’s continuing opioid crisis have been persuaded to see drugs as a public health issue....

If states are the laboratories of democracy, then, as Mr. Pollan put it, some of the measures passed on Tuesday will set up interesting experiments.  Neighboring states will watch as Montana and New Jersey create regional cannabis destinations to be envied, imitated or scorned; unlike some other states, Montana and New Jersey do not directly border states where marijuana is fully legal, so they could draw more customers from out of state (though it is illegal to bring marijuana into a state where it is criminal). 

And it’s not entirely clear that marijuana is always the fiscal boost its champions say it is, even as cannabis tourism has helped states like California and Colorado. A state assessment of the financial impact of legalization in Montana, for example, showed that the state expected significant revenue — as much as $48 million a year in 2025 — but that its implementation costs would be nearly as high.

Policy wonks will assess the performance of Oregon’s health authority as it creates its program to license psilocybin distributors, an unusual function for a state department of health regardless of the drug in question.  And Americans all over the country will note — warily or hopefully — what happens in Oregon, now that possession of all controlled substances has been decriminalized.

Adam Eidinger, an activist in Washington, D.C., who proposed the ballot measure that pushed to legalize marijuana there, was also the treasurer of the campaign to decriminalize psilocybin.  (The campaign operated out of his house in the Kalorama neighborhood, home to the Obamas and Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump.)

Next year, Mr. Eidinger plans to campaign for an initiative in D.C. to decriminalize possession of all controlled substances, much like the one that passed in Oregon. “People want to end the drug war,” he said.

Mr. Sabet, the former White House drug policy adviser, did not expect the nation to follow in Oregon’s footsteps — at least not immediately. “I don’t know if I’d put my money on America wanting to legalize heroin tomorrow,” he said.

November 5, 2020 in Campaign 2020 and sentencing issues, Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

New Jersey COVID-related prison releases results in single-day 15% drop of state's prison population

As detailed in this local article, headlined "'It's over, baby': NJ begins releasing inmates who survived COVID spread in prisons," there was a big reform story in New Jersey that became an especially tangible reality yesterday.  Here are some of the details:

"I'm coming out!" Lissette Cardoso shouted through a second-floor window of a beige, nondescript halfway house in Paterson.  Four family members stood on the street in the cold outside.  They'd been waiting for more than 10 years.

Cardoso walked out of the halfway house just before 8:30 a.m. Wednesday, after a decade-long prison term for a string of convenience store robberies.  Her sentence ended three months early and with a kiss to her boyfriend — through their masks — amid a flood of hugs and tears.  "It's over, baby," Luz Salamanca, Cardoso's sister, said as Salamanca's daughter kissed Cardoso's cheeks.  "It's over, you hear me?"

Cardoso was one of thousands of people expected to leave state prisons and halfway houses on Wednesday under a first-in-the-nation law reducing sentences for inmates who served time during the coronavirus pandemic.  State officials said 2,261 inmates would be released throughout the day, marking a single-day drop of 15% in the state prison population.

The drastic decline was lawmakers' response to the coronavirus's devastation in New Jersey prisons.  The death rate inside Garden State prisons was the highest in the nation, according to the nonprofit criminal justice newsroom The Marshall Project....

While Gov. Phil Murphy has scored high marks with the public for his handling of the virus overall, prisons remained a trouble spot.  Murphy and his administration were criticized for moving too slowly to test the incarcerated population and reduce the number of people locked up, both efforts seen as key ways to slow the contagious virus's spread in a setting where social distancing is nearly impossible.

In fact, all but one of the 52 COVID-related deaths in state prisons were reported after Murphy in April created a framework for people to be released.  Lawmakers and prisoner advocacy groups said Murphy's plan allowed the corrections commissioner, Marcus Hicks, too much discretion and that more people should have gotten out.

Ultimately lawmakers put forward a bill, S2519, that reduced sentences by up to eight months for inmates who served during the public health emergency.  According to the American Civil Liberties Union and Prison Policy Initiative, the effort is unique in the nation because it changed state law instead of leaving action up to the executive branch.

Only inmates who are within a year of release are eligible for time off their sentences, and those convicted of murder and some sexual offenses are not allowed to get out early. The law will also give inmates time off if there is another public health emergency.  "We now have a system in place that allows us to be prepared the next time there is an infectious disease that causes pandemonium in our prison systems," said Alexander Shalom, senior supervising attorney and director of Supreme Court advocacy for the ACLU in New Jersey. "And that puts us really far ahead.”

But the law wasn't easily passed.  It was delayed for weeks in Trenton because of concerns that the state cut funding for reentry programs just as it was about to embark on an unprecedented release effort.  Ultimately that state aid was replenished, and Murphy signed the bill into law last month, greenlighting up to 3,000 releases over the next three months. The bulk of those inmates were to get out Wednesday....

While many New Jerseyans were awaiting election results early Wednesday, an informal army of advocates, religious leaders and reentry professionals flooded transit centers, hoping to catch people as they were released.  Each inmate met with a social services worker before being released to connect them with resources, according to Department of Corrections spokeswoman Liz Velez.  The department also gave people with a financial need a food stipend, packages of food or "an emergency supportive stipend to those who have indicated the greatest hardship," she said.

Velez said on Tuesday afternoon, the eve of the releases, that she did not have numbers of how many people had been given identification cards or enrolled in benefits like food stamps or Medicaid.  Releasing a large number of people all at once has prompted concern among some reentry groups and officials, who said the Murphy administration was not providing them enough information to identify who needs help.

November 5, 2020 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, November 04, 2020

"Drugs Won Big During the U.S. Election"

The title of this post is the title of this Vice piece highlighting one clear pattern of clear winners during election 2020. Here are excerpts:

Despite the uncertainty over the outcome of the U.S. presidential race Wednesday morning, Mississippi cannabis advocate Natalie Jones Bonner was feeling “absolute joy.”  Jones Bonner, 59, was celebrating the passing of Initiative 65, a ballot measure that will establish a medical cannabis program in the state.

Mississippi is one of a handful of states to pass drug reform measures last night.  In a groundbreaking decision, Oregon voted to support Measure 110, which will decriminalize all drugs, including cocaine and heroin.  Oregon also voted to legalize access to psychedelic mushrooms for medicinal purposes.

Arizona, Montana, New Jersey, and South Dakota all voted to legalize cannabis for recreational purposes.  South Dakota additionally voted yes to establishing a medical cannabis regime. Voters in the District of Columbia passed a measure to decriminalize shrooms.

The outcomes are a boon for drug reform advocates and the cannabis industry, making the possibility of federal weed decriminalization more feasible.  Currently, 33 states allow medical cannabis and 11 have recreational regimes.  Several of the states that passed measures last night have historically been proponents of the war on drugs, with Black people disproportionately arrested for drug crimes....

Matt Sutton, spokesman for the Drug Policy Alliance, said the support of drug reform is crucial in the context of wider conversations around police brutality and the failings of the criminal justice system.  He said Oregon’s decriminalization measure could result in a 95 percent decrease in racial disparities in arrests, according to the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission.

Sutton said it’s “remarkable” that weed legalization would pass in states like Montana, which has the highest rate of racial disparities in weed arrests, and South Dakota, where 10 percent of all arrests are tied to cannabis.

Economic gains, particularly as the pandemic is draining state resources, are in part behind the bilateral support of cannabis reform.  Sutton said he expects New Jersey’s decision to legalize cannabis to light a fire under New York, which has stalled in setting up its legal recreational regime.

Over at Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform I have been blogging a few reactions to marijuana's big election night via these two new posts:

November 4, 2020 in Campaign 2020 and sentencing issues, Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

California voters reject ballot initiatives to roll back sentencing reforms and to eliminate cash bail among other notable votes

As reported in this AP piece, there were some notable mixed results on a number of California criminal justice ballot initiatives.  Here is the AP accounting of the two biggest items:

California has upheld several criminal justice changes, endorsing recent efforts to ease mass incarceration by reducing penalties and allowing for earlier releases. Voters also appeared likely to maintain the state’s current cash bail system as a majority opted for the status quo on both criminal justice ballot measures.

Voters on Tuesday defeated Proposition 20, rejecting supporters’ pleas to address what they called the “unintended consequences” of two previously approved ballot measures. One lowered penalties for drug and property crimes in 2014, while the second two years later allowed the earlier parole of most felons.

Voters by a 63% to 37% margin rejected proposals that would have barred criminals convicted of certain serious offenses from earlier release, increased penalties for repeated retail thefts, toughened parole standards and allowed for broader DNA collections.  Opponents said the measure would have set back reforms just as the nation focuses on a criminal justice system that has treated people of color inequitably.

Jay Jordan, executive director of Californians for Safety and Justice that backed the reforms, called the proposition’s defeat “a significant milestone in California’s ongoing effort to make its criminal justice system more effective” and said it would advance national reform efforts. Former governor Jerry Brown championed the 2016 ballot measure that allowed most felons to seek earlier parole and put $1 million of his remaining campaign funds into contesting Proposition 20....

Voters were also leaning toward keeping the state’s current cash bail system, with 55% rejecting a law passed in 2018 that would substitute risk assessments to decide who should remain in jail awaiting trial. The law stalled when the bail industry went to the ballot box.

Even some prominent civil rights groups agreed the system is broken but said the proposed fix might be even worse because it relies on risk assessments that The Bail Project says “codify systemic racism and could lead to higher rates of incarceration in some jurisdictions.”

State Sen. Bob Hertzberg, a Democrat from Los Angeles who wrote the law, said before Election Day that ending cash bail would put California “on the path to a more fair and more safe justice system that treats everyone equally under the law.” While most states recently have altered their pretrial release laws or policies, voters’ approval of Proposition 25 would make California “the only state with a complete prohibition on fiscal conditions of release,” according to National Conference of State Legislatures criminal justice expert Amber Widgery.

Under the new system, no one would pay bail and most misdemeanor suspects would remain free. Those charged with felonies or misdemeanor domestic violence, sex offenses or driving while intoxicated would be evaluated for their perceived risk of committing another crime or not appearing in court. Most would eventually be released, unless they are accused of certain crimes like murder or arson, or if a judge finds there are no conditions like electronic monitoring that could ensure their appearance at future hearings.

All the results of the California propositions can be found on in this article, which notes that another notable criminal justice reform passes:

Proposition 17 –  Allow Felon Parolees to Vote (Yes = 59.0%, No = 41.0%)

The passage of Proposition 17 grants the right to vote to parolees with felony convictions. Imprisoned convicted felons remain disqualified from voting.

And this Los Angeles Times piece, headlined "From George Gascón to jail diversion, criminal justice reform got a big boost in California," highlights the criminal-justice-reform-minded votes in Los Angeles bringing in a new DA and a local measure requiring "that 10% of locally generated, unrestricted county money — estimated between $360 million and $900 million — be spent on a variety of social services, including housing, mental health treatment and investments in communities disproportionally harmed by racism [while] the county would be prohibited from using the money on prisons, jails or law enforcement agencies."

November 4, 2020 in Campaign 2020 and sentencing issues, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Rounding up some accounts of SCOTUS oral arguments in Jones, the latest juvenile LWOP case

I listened live yesterday morning to the Supreme Court oral argument in Jones v. Mississippi18-1259, which will address "Whether the Eighth Amendment requires the sentencing authority to make a finding that a juvenile is permanently incorrigible before imposing a sentence of life without parole."  The full argument in Jones is available here, and it is worth the 90 minutes for a full listen because nearly all the Justices were quite engaged and the arguments by counsel were consistently strong and interesting.

If you would rather read accounts of the case and argument, here are a few: 

From Kent Scheidegger at Crime & Consequences, "An Aggressive Interpretation of Precedent

From Amy Howe and SCOTUSblog, "Argument analysis: Justices debate requirements for life sentences for juveniles"

From Nina Totenberg at NPR, "Supreme Court Examines When Juveniles May Be Sentenced to Life Without Parole"

From Steven Erickson at Crime & Consequences, "The Muddy Waters of Miller"

From Mark Walsr at Education Week, "High Court Weighs Whether Juvenile Life Without Parole Requires 'Incorrigibility'"

November 4, 2020 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, November 03, 2020

Sentencing reform ballot initiative in Oklahoma, SQ 805, appears likely to lose badly

I have been following closely, as highlighted by prior posted noted below, the interesting ballot initiative in Oklahoma seeking to limit the impact of nonviolent criminal history on sentencing outcomes.  Notably, back in 2016, Oklahoma voters approved a ballot initiative downgrading drug possession and a slate of minor property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors.  So state voters have a history of backing sentencing reform via ballot initiative.  But it seems that SQ 805 did not garner comparable support from Sooner voters.

Specifically, as of 10:15pm EST as reported here, there are over 88% of precincts reporting, and the NO vote has nearly 61% while the YES votes is just over 39%.  So it looks like this ballot initiative will not just lose, but lose by a sufficiently large margin that it might discourage other related reform efforts in the near future.

Prior related posts:

November 3, 2020 in Campaign 2020 and sentencing issues, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Offender Characteristics, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Some places to watch for results on criminal justice ballot initiatives

Images (2)The folks at Vox have created this webpage which will help track "live results" from some of the criminal justice ballot initiatives that voters are considering today around the country. Here is the set up:

In Oklahoma, voters could ban harsh sentencing enhancements that can keep people in prison longer for nonviolent crimes. In California, voters will consider three measures: one to affirm the end of cash bail, another to let people vote while on parole, and a third to roll back recent criminal justice reforms. In Nebraska and Utah, voters could prohibit slavery as a criminal punishment, including forced prison labor.  And in Kentucky, voters could approve a controversial crime victims’ rights law.

Not all of these are for reform as many people think of it today. Some of the initiatives, particularly in California and Kentucky, have been criticized by activists seeking to end mass incarceration and the war on drugs. But depending on how voters decide on these initiatives, they could continue the broader work of the past decade to fix America’s punitive criminal justice system.

The Vox page leaves out the large number of drug reform initiatives, but thankfully the folks at Marijuana Moment have created this great webpage with tracking tools to follow all the marijuana and drug reform ballot initiatives that voters are considering today around the country.  Here is how its set up:  

Marijuana Moment is tracking 11 separate cannabis and drug policy reform measures on ballots in seven states.  Stay tuned to this page for results as votes are counted.

Make sure to follow Marijuana Moment and our editors Tom Angell and Kyle Jaeger on Twitter for live news and analysis, and check our homepage for individual articles about each ballot measure as races are called.

Thanks to support from ETFMG | MJ, we have a single tracker tool below that lets you cycle through all of the key measures as well as separate standalone tools for each initiative.

And do not forget about this great web resource put together by the folks I have the honor to work with at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law's Drug Enforcement and Policy Center.  The resource collects and organizes information and links about the significant number of drug policy reforms proposals appearing on state ballots this election cycle.  

Though I am interested in all these results, I am especially eager to see how Oklahoma's novel criminal history reform measure, how South Dakota's marijuana legalization initiative, and how Oregon's drug decriminalization measure fare. The nature of the issues and the states in which they are taking place strike me as especially interesting and important.

As always, I would be interested to hear from readers about what issues or races they are following especially closely tonight.

November 3, 2020 in Campaign 2020 and sentencing issues, Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Shrinking the Accountability Deficit in Capital Charging"

The title of this post is the title of this paper authored by Sherod Thaxton and recently posted to SSRN. Here is its abstract:

The price of capital trials, appeals, and clemency proceedings have skyrocketed since the U.S. Supreme Court lifted its moratorium on the death penalty, but this has not translated to more reliable case outcomes — the rate of serious reversible error and wrongful convictions has steadily increased during the same time period.  The overly aggressive use of the death penalty by prosecutors has not only been convincingly linked to these high reversal rates, but may also increase crime, decrease the likelihood of arrests for homicides, and lead to heightened risks of miscarriages of justice for non‐capital defendants.  It follows that limiting hawkish prosecutorial decision‐making in potentially capital cases may be particularly effective in reducing the prevalence of error and reducing unnecessary expense.  Curbing the virtually unfettered discretion of prosecutors is not a new idea, but extant proposals tend to suffer from shortcomings that are likely to render them impractical or ineffective.  Any viable legal intervention must increase prosecutorial accountability for inadequate charge‐screening in capital cases while still permitting prosecutors to retain discretion in seeking the death penalty.  This essay describes a reform that consists of two primary components: (1) an advisory (i.e., non‐binding) opinion from a reviewing authority assessing the appropriateness of a prosecutor’s decision to seek the death penalty in a case based on the totality of evidence, and (2) financial and administrative cost-shifting mechanisms capable of disincentivizing prosecutorial overreaching in capital charging.

November 3, 2020 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Listening to today's SCOTUS oral argument in two big sentencing cases

The year 2020 has been remarkable for so many reasons, and this morning it means for me a focus on the Supreme Court rather than on voting on this historic 2020 Election Day.  This is because I already voted early (about two weeks ago, in fact), and COVID realities mean that oral arguments are now available in real time.  And because SCOTUS this morning just happens to be hearing its two biggest sentencing cases on the docket, I plan to listen in live.  Here are the basics thanks to SCOTUSblog with links to where all can listen:

Jones v. Mississippi, 18-1259 

Issue: Whether the Eighth Amendment requires the sentencing authority to make a finding that a juvenile is permanently incorrigible before imposing a sentence of life without parole.

 LISTEN to Jones HERE

 

Borden v. United States, 19-5410

Issue: Whether the “use of force” clause in the Armed Career Criminal Act encompasses crimes with a mens rea of mere recklessness.

LISTEN to Borden HERE

November 3, 2020 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, November 02, 2020

Reviewing just some of many Campaign 2020 posts

My very first post this election cycle, which for which I created the category archive Campaign 2020 and sentencing issues, was way back in February 2019.  Over 20 months and nearly 100 posts later, I am so very glad that Campaign 2020 is now so very close to being over.  And I am also glad that Election Night eve gives me an excuse to review posts from this election cycle and flag 10 posts now worth highlighting again:

From February 2019, Brennan Center produces policy brief on "Ending Mass Incarceration: A Presidential Agenda" 

From April 2019, Spotlighting how "politicians are catching up with American voters" on criminal justice reforms 

From July 2019, Former Veep Joe Biden releases extended "Plan for Strengthening America’s Commitment to Justice" 

From September 2019, Prez Trump has reportedly soured on politics of criminal justice reform after FIRST STEP Act achievement

From January 2020, Might the 2020 campaign bring back "law and order" as a political wedge issue?

From February 2020, Noting political import and impact of Prez Trump's Super Bowl ad touting criminal justice reform 

From July 2020, Notable criminal justice reform recommendations from Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force 

From August 2020, "The RNC Can't Figure Out Where It Stands on Criminal Justice Reform" 

From October 2020, Some notable (and mostly heartening) criminal justice discussion in final Prez debate of 2020 

From October 2020, Covering just some of many criminal justice reforms stories percolating in 2020 election

November 2, 2020 in Campaign 2020 and sentencing issues, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Background reading before argument in Jones v. Mississippi, the latest SCOTUS foray into Eighth Amendment limits on juve sentencing

Remarkably, it has been more than a decade since the US Supreme Court kicked off its interesting (and uncertain) new line of Eighth Amendment jurisprudence with its ruling in Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010)Graham declared sentencing juveniles to life without parole (LWOP) for non-homicide offenses to be unconstitutional, and was quickly followed by Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012), which held that mandatory LWOP sentences were unconstitutional for juveniles convicted of homicide. Four years later, Montgomery v. Louisiana, 136 S. Ct. 718 (2016), declared that Miller was to be applied retroactively, and now Jones v. Mississippi will explore exactly what Miller and these other cases actually mean for discretionary sentencing of juvenile homicide offenders.

A whole lot of amicus briefs have been filed in Jones on both sides, and the US Solicitor General has also weighed in and been granted leave to participate in tomorrow's scheduled oral argument.  Amy Howe at SCOTUSblog has this preview, which sets up the case this way:

After Miller and Montgomery, state courts can sentence individual juveniles to life without the possibility of parole as long as the sentence is not a mandatory penalty under state law.  On Tuesday, the justices will hear oral argument in a case that asks them to decide what their rulings in Miller and Montgomery require states to do before imposing that sentence.  A Mississippi man contends that the sentencer must find that the juvenile is incapable of rehabilitation, while the state counters that it is enough that the sentencer considered the juvenile’s youth.

For those looking for other background reading beyond the briefs, there have been a number of good commentaries about the issues in this line of rulings published recently:

-- by Brandon Garrett in The Atlantic, "Life Without Parole for Kids Is Cruelty With No Benefit: The United States is the only country that allows this practice, and soon the Supreme Court could get rid of it."

-- by Katie Rose Quandt in In These Times, "The Supreme Court Said Their Sentencing Was Unconstitutional. But They’re Still Behind Bars. Despite SCOTUS rulings against life without parole sentences for juveniles, most who received that sentence remain incarcerated." 

-- by Marc Levin in the Texas Lawyer, "On Election Day, Remember All Youths Are Candidates for Change"

I am looking forward to the Court's consideration of Jones in part because the case presents the three newest Justices with their first big opportunity to weigh in on the Eighth Amendment in a noncapital case.  Based on Justice Gorsuch's work in capital Eighth Amendment cases, I am not expecting him to be a vote for an expansive interpretation of Miller.  But, especially because Justice Kavanaugh and Justice Barrett both are parents to teenage kids, I am wondering if they might be a bit more open to a more expansive view of the Eighth Amendment in this context.

November 2, 2020 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Will reform of quirky approach to jury sentencing greatly impact Virginia's criminal justice system?

A helpful reader reminded me that I had forgotten to blog about a recent significant change in sentencing procedure in Virginia, which is effectively explained in this local article from a few weeks ago headlined "Virginia lawmakers vote to reform 224-year-old jury sentencing law."  Here are the basics:

Virginia lawmakers passed a closely watched bill Friday aimed at ensuring people can exercise their right to a jury trial without risking much steeper punishments.

Criminal justice reform advocates frequently called the legislation one of the most important changes the General Assembly could adopt during a special legislative session that has been largely devoted to issues of policing, courts and prisons.  “Everything else is window dressing compared to this bill,” said Sen. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond, who proposed the measure.  “The result will be an end to excessive sentencing in the Commonwealth of Virginia.”

Virginia and Kentucky are currently the only two states where if a defendant or prosecutor asks for a jury trial, the jury must also hand down the sentence....  Morrissey’s bill will transfer sentencing responsibilities to the judge unless a defendant specifically requests it be set by the jury.

The state’s unusual approach to sentencing dates to 1796 and has been called the jury penalty because it often leads to criminal sentences that are significantly longer than defendants would have faced if they had opted for a trial before a judge or taken a prosecutor’s plea deal.  That’s because unlike judges, juries must hand down sentences that fall within statutory sentencing ranges.  And unlike judges, juries aren’t provided the sentencing guidelines that tell them what the typical punishment is for a similarly situated defendant.

That means a defendant facing a robbery or drug distribution charge would face a five year mandatory sentence if a jury finds him guilty, whereas a judge issuing the sentence could suspend time based on the facts of the case and mitigating circumstances.  Juries exceeded sentencing guidelines in half of the cases they heard in 2018, according to the Virginia Sentencing Commission, which found they issued prison sentences that were on average four years longer than would have been recommended.  Judges, meanwhile, handed down sentences that exceeded guidelines in just 9 percent of cases.

Lawmakers and advocates say prosecutors often take advantage of the arrangement by tacking on charges with steep mandatory penalties and threatening to demand a jury trial if the defendant doesn’t accept a plea agreement. “Most defendants plead out, even when they did not do it.  This is a very difficult decision people have to make,” said Del. Don Scott, D-Portsmouth, who like many lawmakers argued the leverage the law gives to prosecutors contributes to Virginia’s higher than average incarceration rates.  “This would be a revolutionary change in the way we do sentencing.”

While the bill won limited bi-partisan support, Republicans mostly opposed the measure, as did most prosecutors in the state.  They warned that the reform could lead to a huge uptick in jury trials that would require more judges, more courtrooms and more prosecutors — all things that would cost the state millions of dollars.... 

The Virginia Association of Commonwealth’s Attorneys estimated the change could lead to an eightfold increase in jury trials, writing in a letter to lawmakers that without additional money to hire more prosecutors, they’d be forced to agree to plea deals “that are not commensurate with the crime or the harm inflicted upon the victim.”...

Supporters of the bill, which included a contingent of commonwealth’s attorneys from some of the state’s most populated areas, said the concerns about an explosion of jury trials were misplaced, noting that Virginia would simply be adopting the system already used in most states.  And even if the number of jury trials did increase, that would only prove that the existing system was preventing defendants from exercising their constitutional rights.

I would like to be optimistic that this procedural reform would ensure an "end to excessive sentencing" in Virginia, but we see an awful lot of excessive sentencing in a lot of other jurisdictions that have a more "traditional" approach to trials and sentencing.  And, as the question in the title of this post is meant to suggest, I sincerely doubt Virginia will see a huge increase in jury trial  after this law becomes effective.  As we see nationwide, in all jurisdictions, there are a broad array of legal and structural factors that create, in the words of Justice Kennedy in Lafler v. Cooper, 566 U.S.156 (2012), "the reality that criminal justice today is for the most part a system of pleas, not a system of trials."

Because I generally believe juries should play a larger role in the administration of our modern criminal justice systems, I tend to be a supporter of jury sentencing in principle.  But Virginia's recent experiences, which prompted these latest reforms, serve as an important reminder that just how jury sentencing operates in practice plays a critical role in whether this form of sentencing can serve as a help or hinderance to a more fair and transparent and effective criminal justice system.

November 2, 2020 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

No new cert grants from SCOTUS, but order lists includes interesting per curiam reversals including one on prison conditions and qualified immunity

This morning's Supreme Court order list starts by noting that "Justice Barrett took no part in the consideration or decision of the motions or petitions appearing on this Order List." That fact may in part explain why the Court did not grant certiorari in any cases. But the order list is still an interesting read because it included two per curiam opinions, in McKesson v. Doe and Taylor v. Riojas, summarily reversing lower court opinion to order further proceedings in the Fifth Circuit. 

The fed courts nerd in me really likes Mckesson decision because it orders the Fifth Circuit to certify a fascinating questions of Louisiana tort law to the Louisiana Supreme Court in an effort to potentially avoid having to resolve a challenging First Amendment question.  But the Taylor decision gets to the issue of prison conditions and qualified immunity because "Petitioner Trent Taylor is an inmate in the custody of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice [who alleged] that, for six full days in September 2013, correctional officers confined him in a pair of shockingly unsanitary cells."  Here is how SCOTUS kept his lawsuit going:

The Fifth Circuit erred in granting the officers qualified immunity on this basis.  “Qualified immunity shields an officer from suit when she makes a decision that, even if constitutionally deficient, reasonably misapprehends the law governing the circumstances she confronted.”  Brosseau v. Haugen, 543 U.S. 194, 198 (2004) (per curiam).  But no reasonable correctional officer could have concluded that, under the extreme circumstances of this case, it was constitutionally permissible to house Taylor in such deplorably unsanitary conditions for such an extended period of time.  See Hope, 536 U.S., at 741 (explaining that “‘a general constitutional rule already identified in the decisional law may apply with obvious clarity to the specific conduct in question’” (quoting United States v. Lanier, 520 U.S. 259, 271 (1997))); 536 U.S., at 745 (holding that “[t]he obvious cruelty inherent” in putting inmates in certain wantonly “degrading and dangerous” situations provides officers “with some notice that their alleged conduct violate[s]” the Eighth Amendment).  The Fifth Circuit identified no evidence that the conditions of Taylor’s confinement were compelled by necessity or exigency.  Nor does the summary-judgment record reveal any reason to suspect that the conditions of Taylor’s confinement could not have been mitigated, either in degree or duration.  And although an officer-by-officer analysis will be necessary on remand, the record suggests that at least some officers involved in Taylor’s ordeal were deliberately indifferent to the conditions of his cells.

Notably, only Justice Thomas dissented from the Taylor ruling in favor of the prisoner in Taylor, although Justice Alito wrote an extended "concurring in the judgment" statement to explain why he thoughts the "petition [was] ill-suited for review."

November 2, 2020 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, November 01, 2020

"Life Without Parole Sentencing in North Carolina"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Brandon Garrett, Travis Seale-Carlisle, Karima Modjadidi and Kristen Renberg now available via SSRN.  Here is its abstract:

What explains the puzzle of life without parole (LWOP) sentencing in the United States?  In the past two decades, LWOP sentences have reached record highs, with over 50,000 prisoners serving LWOP.  Yet during this same period, homicide rates have steadily declined.  The U.S. Supreme Court has limited the use of juvenile LWOP in Eighth Amendment rulings. Further, death sentences have steeply declined, reaching record lows.  Although research has examined drivers of incarceration patterns for certain sentences, there has been little research on LWOP imposition.

To shed light on what might explain the sudden rise of LWOP, we examine characteristics of the more than 1,627 cases in which LWOP was imposed from 1995 to 2017, in North Carolina, one of the states that imposes the largest numbers of these sentences.  We begin by analyzing defendant race, crime, and sentence patterns by county.  We associate LWOP with homicide rates, and examine interactions between homicide, victim race, and prior LWOP sentencing. 

This first empirical analysis of adult LWOP sentences finds important local variations in its imposition.  We find that as the homicide rate increases within a county, we observe fewer LWOP sentences.  We find that fewer LWOP sentences are predicted to occur as the number of black victim homicides increase in a county, but no such relationship is found when considering the number of white victim homicides.  Finally, we find a strong path dependency and concentration of LWOP sentences in counties, where counties that have imposed LWOP sentences in the past are more likely to continue to do so.  These findings have implications for efforts to reconsider the most severe sentences in the U.S., and they suggest that prosecutorial discretion in seeking long sentences will be important subjects for future research and policy.

November 1, 2020 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, October 31, 2020

"Courts, Culture, and the Lethal Injection Stalemate"

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

The Supreme Court’s 2019 decision in Bucklew v. Precythe reiterated the Court’s great deference to states in Eighth Amendment lethal injection cases.  The takeaway is that when it comes to execution protocols, states can do what they want.  Except they can't.  Notwithstanding courts’ deference, executions have ground to a halt in numerous states, often due to lethal injection problems.  State officials and the Court’s conservative Justices have blamed this development on “anti-death penalty activists” waging “guerilla war” on capital punishment.  In reality, though, a variety of mostly uncoordinated actors motivated by a range of distinct norms has contributed to states’ lethal injection woes. These actors, such as doctors, pharmaceutical companies, and institutional investors, follow their own professional incentives, usually unrelated to the morality of capital punishment.

States’ recent execution difficulties raise important questions about the future of the Eighth Amendment and the American death penalty.  As certain lethal injection protocols and executions themselves become less common, future courts might reconsider their deference in this area.  The Eighth Amendment, after all, encompasses “evolving standards of decency,” which courts often measure with reference to changing state practices.  Though constitutional doctrine has played only a bit part in the execution decline, that decline could eventually reshape constitutional doctrine.

This story also complicates long-accepted constitutional theories.  While the traditional view is that federalism maximizes state policy choices so long as courts and Congress do not interfere, the lethal injection stalemate shows how non-governmental actors, even uncoordinated ones, can undermine state policies.  Courts and the political branches in some states stand united in support of capital punishment.  It is, therefore, noteworthy that unorganized actors pursuing their own institutional objectives have obstructed executions and even cast new long-term doubt on previously entrenched penological practices.

October 31, 2020 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, October 30, 2020

How might the Prez clemency power be wielded next month and next year?

Mark Osler usefully ruminates on the question that serves at the title of this post in this extended new CNN opinion piece headlined "Get ready for a flood of Trump pardons."  I recommend the piece in full (which is much better than the headline likely picked by CNN just to be click bait).  Here is an extended excerpt:

Trump and Biden present very different issues relating to clemency (which includes the power to shorten sentences through a commutation or forgive convictions through pardons).  Trump already has shown his cards: Even taking into consideration the commutations granted last Wednesday to five worthy petitioners, his use of the pardon power has mostly favored friends and Fox News celebrities.  Even his much-celebrated commutation and pardon of Alice Marie Johnson came about only after another reality television star, Kim Kardashian West, intervened.  Biden, meanwhile, is a blank slate.  The concern some may have with him is that he will do too little, at a time when over-incarceration is being critiqued by experts and a broad array of citizens on both the left and right.

While interviewers continually (and appropriately) pepper Trump with questions about whether he will relinquish power if he loses, it is rare that anyone asks him who he might pardon after the election, despite the long and positively bizarre track record he has established.

Similarly, Joe Biden hasn't been pressed on the issue, and he certainly doesn't seem to have thought much about it: In response to a general question about criminal justice by NBC's Lester Holt at a town hall, Biden claimed that the Obama administration granted clemency to "18,000 people."  He was off by about 16,000 (he did better in the last debate, citing the number as "over 1,000").  It could be that Biden overestimates the effectiveness of the Obama clemency initiative, which offered too little, too late.  That well-intentioned project began only after years of inaction, as Obama granted just one commutation of sentence in his first five years.  It also failed to reach so many good cases that when Trump's First Step Act enabled 2,387 crack offenders to be released early, it amounted to far more than the Obama clemency program did, even though both projects targeted the same group.  Clearly, Obama left too many people behind.

Failing to focus on clemency when it matters also lets candidates off the hook for any specific plan for reform. And reform of every part of a system that has enabled systemic racism and unduly long sentences is important.  Right now, the clemency review process has seven steps, is controlled by the Department of Justice (conflicted because it sought the over-long sentences in the first place), and simply doesn't work.  There is broad support for the formation of a clemency review board to advise the president, and that idea even made it into the Biden-Sanders unity plan and the Democratic platform.  Biden, though, hasn't mentioned it (at least in the forums I have reviewed)— in large part because no one has asked.

Even if other criminal justice reforms are enacted, clemency must be reformed as well.  For one thing, other reforms don't do what one form of clemency, pardons, can do: free people from the restrictions of a conviction after they have completed a sentence.  For another, reforms that send cases back to the sentencing judges for review too often exacerbate disparities.  After all, judges who are tough at sentencing are less likely to give a break later, meaning that those who come before them could be disadvantaged. Clemency can be a way to reach those twice-victimized.

October 30, 2020 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Criminal Justice Citizenship"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Daniel McConkie recently posted to SSRN. Here is its abstract:

The American criminal justice system is fundamentally democratic and should reflect an ideal of citizenship that is equal, participatory, and deliberative.  Unfortunately, the outcomes of criminal cases are now almost always determined by professionals (prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges) instead of by juries.  This overly bureaucratized system of adjudication silences the voice of the people.  A better system would strengthen “criminal justice citizenship,” which refers to the right of the citizenry to participate, directly and indirectly, in the criminal justice system and to deliberate in its workings.

The three key principles of criminal justice citizenship are membership, participation, and deliberation. Membership refers to who can participate and whether they can participate on an equal basis.  Where the justice system adheres to this principle, people enjoy a greater sense of belonging, solidarity, and trust in government.  Participation refers to public participation in democratic processes, such as jury service.  Deliberation refers to structured dialogues between lay persons that affect governmental decisions.  Institutions and procedures must be designed to give the people an important role in government, but the nature and extent of that role should be limited by other considerations, such as procedural accuracy and preventing racial discrimination.

This theory of criminal justice citizenship has important applications to jury trials.  Regarding membership, providing broad and equal opportunities for jury service is necessary for democratic legitimacy and fair and effective deliberations. Regarding deliberation, jury trials need to be more transparent; the prevailing procedures of jury deliberations need to be modified; and unanimous verdicts must be required to protect the voice of potentially marginalized jurors.  Regarding participation, jury trials are so rare that it will be necessary to improve criminal justice citizenship by democratically reforming other aspects of the criminal justice system, such as plea bargaining.  The overarching principle is that the people need a more significant role in criminal adjudication, not only because popular participation is good for defendants, but also because it strengthens American democracy.

October 30, 2020 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Will problematic definition of "violence" convictions impact Oklahoma sentencing reform initiative SQ 805?

I have highlighted in a few prior posts SQ 805, a fascinating Oklahoma ballot initiative seeking to block non-violent prior convictions from enhancing statutory punishment ranges.  This new Mother Jones story provide useful context concerning Oklahoma reforms while also noting a potential problem with how SQ 805 is drafted.  The full headline of the piece serves to summarize its coverage: "How a Domestic Violence Loophole Could Doom a Campaign to Cut Oklahoma’s Harsh Prison Sentences: A wrinkle threatens public support for the state’s progress against mass incarceration."  I recommend the piece in full, and here are excerpts:

For the last four years, the fight against mass incarceration in Oklahoma has been a story of unlikely success.  In 2016, after decades of creeping prison populations, the state’s incarceration rate reached levels so astronomical that the Prison Policy Initiative would dub it the “world’s prison capital“: More than 1 in 100 Oklahomans was locked up in a prison, jail, juvenile hall, or immigration detention facility.  But that year, the same electorate that voted to send Donald Trump to the White House by a 36-point margin also approved a ballot measure softening their state’s notoriously hardline criminal code.

That measure, State Question 780, was a turning point.  It downgraded drug possession and a slate of minor property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors, while a second measure ensured the money saved by downsizing prisons would go to rehabilitative programs.  In 2017, 14,000 fewer felony charges were filed by Oklahoma prosecutors; not long after, the state’s prison population began to fall. Meanwhile, politicians took note of the message the voters had sent.  In 2018, the state legislature, where Republicans hold a supermajority, passed more reforms, including streamlining the parole process.  Republican businessman Kevin Stitt made reducing the prison population part of his pitch for the governor’s seat, and won.

This year, Oklahoma voters could send another jolt to the system by voting for State Question 805 — another adjustment to the state’s harsh sentencing practices.  If it passes, SQ 805 could reduce the prison population by 8.5 percent over the next 10 years, according to a projection by the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, a conservative think tank that supports the initiative.

SQ 805 would add a provision to the state constitution prohibiting prosecutors and courts from jacking up the sentences of people convicted of nonviolent felonies if they have an earlier nonviolent felony on their record....

But there’s a significant wrinkle threatening public support for SQ 805, and in turn, Oklahoma’s slow but steady progress against mass incarceration: The measure distinguishes violent from nonviolent felonies using an outdated list from Oklahoma’s legal code.  As of January, that list of “violent” crimes did not include certain domestic violence charges, such as domestic abuse by strangulation, or domestic assault with a dangerous or deadly weapon. If SQ 805 passes, it would continue to allow courts to impose enhanced sentences for any crimes on that list as of January 1, 2020 — including assault and battery, murder, rape, child abuse, and so on — but not those domestic violence charges.  (Oklahoma lawmakers added some domestic violence charges to the violent felonies list in May, too late for SQ 805’s cutoff date.)

Prior related posts:

October 30, 2020 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, October 29, 2020

"The Right to Medication-Assisted Treatment in Jails and Prisons"

The title of this post is the title of this new article just posted to SSRN authored by Samuel Macomber. Here is its abstract:

Opioid withdrawal is a grueling physical ordeal.  Fortunately, the effects of withdrawal — physical suffering, mental distress, and mortality — can be mitigated by proper medical care. In most jails and prisons, however, individuals with opioid use disorder are denied access to proper medical care and are forced to endure involuntary withdrawal.  The refusal to provide adequate medical care for the serious health condition of opioid use disorder is unnecessary, unlawful, and deadly. 

This article argues that correctional facilities have an affirmative obligation to provide medication-assisted treatment to all incarcerated individuals with opioid use disorder, regardless of whether the patient was using legal prescriptions or illicit substances prior to incarceration.  Providing medication-assisted treatment will reduce suffering, save lives, and uphold the state’s promise of human dignity to those whose liberty is restricted by incarceration.  Further, this article argues that the Supreme Court should modify the legal standard for adequate medical care in correctional facilities so that courts need only consider the objective medical need of incarcerated individuals.

October 29, 2020 in Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)