Thursday, January 18, 2018

"Rate My District Attorney: Toward a Scorecard for Prosecutors’ Offices"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new report recently released by the Stanford Criminal Justice Center and authored by Katherine Moy, Dennis Martin, and David Alan Sklansky. Here is its executive summary:

Local prosecutor elections can have uniquely consequential results for the American criminal justice system. Paradoxically, however, these elections attract much less voter engagement than other races, and incumbents are repeatedly re-elected.  As a result, activists seeking to convince prosecutors to pursue reforms, or to elect new reform-minded prosecutors, have a hard time communicating just how well a given office is performing.

A prosecutorial rating system is one approach to remedying this information gap. Much like indices used in other public policy areas, such a rating system could be a critical way of communicating to voters and potential electoral challengers whether a prosecutors’ office has effectively pursued the electorate’s policy priorities.

This report begins to chart a path toward building such a rating system.  Drawing on the expertise of experienced public policy index developers, the report outlines a procedure that developers can follow to design and build their own scorecard.  The process described in the report involves several stages, during which developers will need to grapple with key policy and logistical issues.

Although the contours of the process are flexible, the report lays out the following steps to developing a prosecutorial rating system:

1) Gather key personnel and experts and set project benchmarks.

2) Define the index’s goals and target audience, including any intermediaries that might be enlisted to convey the index’s message.

3) Select the variables the index will use to measure performance and decide how much weight to attribute to each variable.

4) Gather data for each variable, including any proxy measurements to use where direct data is unavailable.

5) Aggregate and normalize the data in a coherent, rigorous, digestible format.

6) Disseminate and build support for the index.

Each of these stages involves complex decisions, many of which may need to be revisited throughout the development process. But walking through each of the stages methodically can help highlight areas of dispute and place in a broader procedural context.  By keeping the index’s overall goals in mind as they work through the minute details of each stage, developers are more likely to be able to create a successful index to help meet their reform objectives.

 

January 18, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court unanimously rejects constitutional attack on consideration of victim impact statements at sentencing

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court handed down a notable short ruling today in Massachusetts v. McGonagle, SJC-12292 (Mass. Jan. 18, 2018) (available here). Here is how the unanimous opinion starts and ends:

General Laws c. 258B, § 3 (p), permits "victims . . . to be heard through an oral and written victim impact statement at sentencing . . . about the effects of the crime on the victim and as to a recommended sentence."  We transferred this case here on our own motion to answer two questions: first, whether the United States Supreme Court's recent decision in Bosse v. Oklahoma, 137 S. Ct. 1 (2016) (per curiam), precludes a sentencing judge from considering victim impact statements "as to a recommended sentence" under the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution and art. 26 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights; and second, whether the sentencing recommendation provision violates the defendant's constitutional guarantee of due process.  We conclude that a sentencing judge's consideration of victim impact statements "as to a recommended sentence" is constitutional because the concerns underpinning the Supreme Court's treatment of victim impact statements before a jury during the sentencing phase of a capital murder trial differ from those at issue here.  We further conclude that a victim's right to recommend a sentence pursuant to G. L. c. 258B, § 3 (p), satisfies the requirements of due process. We therefore answer both questions in the negative and affirm....

"Few, perhaps no, judicial responsibilities are more difficult than sentencing. The task is usually undertaken by trial judges who seek with diligence and professionalism to take account of the human existence of the offender and the just demands of a wronged society."  Rodriguez, 461 Mass. at 259, quoting Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48, 77 (2010).  The concerns underlying the Supreme Court's holdings in Booth and Bosse, that sentencing decisions not be made based on emotion, apply in nearly every sentencing decision.  They raise an important caution. When a crime victim recommends a particular sentence to a judge, that judge must dispassionately consider that recommendation, cognizant that the sentencing decision is the judge's and the judge's alone.  We expect judges to make sentencing decisions devoid of emotion, prejudice, and the relative status of a particular crime victim.

We all stand equal before the bar of justice, and it is neither cruel nor unusual or irrational, nor is it violative of a defendant's due process guarantees, for a judge to listen with intensity to the perspective of a crime victim.  We affirm.

UPDATE: Not long after noting this case, it dawned on me that this posting might be a fitting place to link this compelling account from the Washington Post of all the compelling victim impact testimony being offered in a high profile case in Michigan this week.  The extended article is headlined "At Larry Nassar sentencing hearing, a parade of horror and catharsis," and here is the context:

Nearly a year and a half after one woman filed a police report and contacted a newspaper, the criminal cases against Larry Nassar are nearing an end this week with a marathon sentencing hearing — 105 of the more than 130 girls and women who’ve accused Nassar of abuse are expected to speak — that began Tuesday and could end Friday, before a judge levies a sentence for seven sex crimes Nassar has admitted to as part of a plea deal.

January 18, 2018 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

An accounting of how criminal justice has changed as the folks inside the Beltway have changed

The Marshall Project has this notable new piece headlined "Trump Justice, Year One: The Demolition Derby; Here are nine ways the law-and-order president has smashed Obama’s legacy." Here is how the piece sets up its listing (readers can click through to review the particulars):

On criminal justice, Donald J. Trump’s predecessor was a late-blooming activist.  By the end of President Barack Obama’s second term, his administration had exhorted prosecutors to stop measuring success by the number of defendants sent away for the maximum, taken a hands-off approach to states legalizing marijuana and urged local courts not to punish the poor with confiscatory fines and fees.  His Justice Department intervened in cities where communities had lost trust in their police.

After a few years when he had earned the nickname "Deporter-in-Chief," Obama pivoted to refocus immigration authorities — in effect, a parallel criminal justice system — on migrants considered dangerous, and created safeguards for those brought here as children.  He visited a prison, endorsed congressional reform of mandatory minimum sentences and spoke empathetically of the Black Lives Matter movement.  He nominated judges regarded as progressives.

In less than a year, President Trump demolished Obama's legacy.

In its place, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has framed his mission as restoring the “rule of law,” which often means stiffening the spines and limiting the discretion of prosecutors, judges and law officers. And under President Trump’s “America first” mandate, being tough on crime is inextricably tied to being tough on immigration.

“I think all roads in Trump's rhetoric and Sessions’ rhetoric sort of lead to immigration,” said Ames Grawert, an attorney in the left-leaning Brennan Center’s Justice Program who has been studying the administration’s ideology.  “I think that's going to make it even harder for people trying to advance criminal justice reform because that's bound up in in the president's mind, in the attorney general's mind, as an issue that they feel very, very passionately on -- restricting immigration of all sorts.” 

Here are nine ways Trump has transformed the landscape of criminal justice, just one tumultuous year into his presidency.

January 18, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Detailing how AG Sessions seeks to block sentencing reforms in White House criminal justice reform push

Vice News has this new piece providing a little backstory on how and why the event last week at the White House was focused only on prison reform and lacked any discussion of sentencing reform.  The piece is headlined "Jared Kushner’s prison reforms hit a brick wall called Jeff Sessions," and here are excerpts:

For the past six months, the president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner has been working on a potentially bipartisan initiative: to reform the U.S. criminal justice system.  Kushner has been holding “listening sessions” to develop White House agenda on criminal justice reform, including policy recommendations such as providing incentives to companies for hiring former felons, investing in inmates once they leave prison, and perhaps most importantly, reforming sentencing laws, including mandatory minimum sentencing, a relic of the 1980s and 90s war on drugs and the focus of a three-year bipartisan reform effort in the Senate.

It all culminated in last week’s White House roundtable discussion on prison reform with President Trump, several Republican governors, and conservative activists. Except one thing was missing: sentencing reform.  Attorney General Jeff Sessions opposes reforming mandatory minimum sentencing and effectively blocked it from becoming part of the White House reform agenda, according to three people who attended meetings with White House advisors on the issue over the past few months.

“Sessions was very powerful in the Senate, but I think he’s actually more powerful now to oppose the bill,” a source familiar with White House meetings on the issue said. “He has an ability to keep in line several members on the conservative side, the DOJ would take a position on the bill, that would scare the Republicans.”

As the prison reform debate played out, Kushner expressed support for limiting mandatory minimum sentencing, according to individuals who have discussed these issues with him, aligning him with Senate Republicans on the Judiciary Committee.  But Kushner dropped the issue from the agenda in order to get Sessions to attend the roundtable discussion last week.

At the meeting Trump suggested creating more programs for job training, education, mentoring and drug addiction aimed at rehabilitation.  There was no discussion of sentencing laws. The White House did not respond to a request for clarification about the Kushner’s nor the White House’s official position on sentencing reform.

“The president directed the Attorney General to reduce violent crime in this country and he is focusing the Department’s efforts on achieving that goal. Incarceration remains necessary to improve public safety, and the effectiveness of incarceration can be enhanced by the implementation of evidence-based reentry programs,” a spokesperson for the Department of Justice said.

“They were never going to be able to get the President to say he supports sentencing reform based on what Sessions has told him,” a source familiar with the meetings said.

A majority of Republicans and Democrats support reforming mandatory minimum sentencing, which takes sentencing leeway away from judges.  Since then the federal prison population has quadrupled; more than half of all federal inmates were sentenced using mandatory minimum laws.

Meaningful sentencing reform is considered key to any reform package that could be brought to vote in the Senate.  Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, Judiciary Committee Chairman, said sentencing reform is a must-have if Trump wants a bill to pass.  “Any proposal that doesn't include sentencing reform is not going to get through the committee,” a spokesman for Grassley said in an email....

In October, the Senate Judiciary Committee unveiled its latest criminal justice reform bill — the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act — to eliminate many mandatory-minimum sentences for drug crimes.  This is not the first time Congress has tried to pass comprehensive reform.  The same bill made it out of the committee in 2015, but was never voted on due to loud opposition from a group of Republicans, including then-Senator Jeff Sessions.

I remain confident that any number of bills with sentencing reform components could get a majority of votes on the floor of the House and the Senate if leadership would bring these bills up for a vote.  But I surmise AG Sessions has enough sway with leadership (especially in the Senate) to get them to prevent a vote on any bills the AG opposes.

That all said, the kinds of prison reform being discussed and seemingly now endorsed by AG Sessions — some version of the corrections part of the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act — could be a very significant type of reform that could have a positive impact for every federal offender. Sentencing reform in the form of a reduction in the length and reach of mandatory minimums would be very important in lots of ways, but these mandatories only directly impact roughly 1/4 of all new federal offenders each year and it is unclear exactly when and how any mandatory minimum sentencing reforms would be extended to the roughly 90,000 current federal drug offense prisoners. Corrections reforms that allow prisoners to earn reductions in their sentences could and likely would impact all 180,000+ current federal prisoners and all those new prisoners brought into the system every years.

Of course, we need to see the particulars of any "evidence-based reentry programs" and other prison reforms that AG Sessions can abide before being able to assess effectively who might benefit from a reform bill with only the corrections part of the reform equation.  But my main point it to highlight that the import and impact of any discussed reform always has devilish elements in the details, and a that good form of prison reform may be even better and much more consequential than a middling form of sentencing reform.

January 17, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Lies, damn lies and fascinating statistics in the US Sentencing Commission FY 2017 sentencing data

I just noticed that the US Sentencing Commission last week released its latest standard quarterly data report, and this one is extra exciting because it contains preliminary data on all cases sentenced during fiscal year 2017.  Critically, FY17 runs October 1, 2016 through September 30, 2017, so a good chunk of the data reflect a period in which Attorney General Loretta Lynch was still in charge of the Justice Department.  Still, a majority of the data reflects sentencings after Attorney General Jeff Sessions took over, and the final third of FY 2017 had all sentencings taking place after AG Sessions issued his May 2017 charging and sentencing memorandum directing federal prosecutors to more regularly seek within-guideline sentences.

I provide all this backstory largely as a prelude to highlighting how similar the USSC FY17 data look to FY16 data. I also thought it interesting to compare some of these data to FY13 and FY09, the last two Prez election year USSC data sets. (I am drawing all these data from Table 19, then Table 6 of these USSC data reports.)

USSC FY        Total Sentences (mean in month)     Drug Trafficking Sentences (mean in month)     Immigration Sentences (mean in month)

2009                81,347 (47 months)                                  23,931 (78 months)                                         25,924 (17 months)

2013                80,035 (45 months)                                  22,354 (72 months)                                         24,972 (16 months)

2016                67,740 (44 months)                                  19,231 (66 months)                                         20,052 (13 months)

2017                66,409 (45 months)                                  18,980 (70 months)                                         20,333 (12 months)

One can mine a lot more data from the FY 2017 report to tell a lot more stories about how, at least so far, formal and informal changes by AG Sessions have not yet made a dramatic impact on federal sentencing statistics.  Indeed, one might be heartened by the fact that fewer federal cases were sentenced in FY 2017 than in the last 15 years, and I think fewer federal drug trafficking sentences were imposed in FY17 than in nearly any other year in the past two decades (though the uptick in average sentence is interesting and may prompt a future post). 

Of course, these data may start looking very different in FY 2018 and beyond as new US Attorneys appointed by Prez Trump take over and their new cases make it all the way to sentencing. Still, I think it notable and interesting that the first run of federal sentencing data of the Trump Era shows a continued decline in overall sentences imposed and in drug trafficking sentences imposed.

January 17, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

"Breaking Down Barriers: Experiments into Policies That Might Incentivize Employers to Hire Ex-Offenders"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new Rand Corporation research report. Here is its summary and some of its key findings and recommendations:

The rate of criminal punishment in the United States has had far-reaching economic consequences, in large part because people with criminal records are marginalized within the labor market. Given these negative economic implications, federal, state and local officials have developed a host of policies to encourage employers to hire ex-offenders, with varying degrees of success.  To inform policies and programs aimed at improving employment rates for ex-offenders, we examined employer preferences regarding policy options targeted to incentivize hiring individuals with one nonviolent felony conviction.

In our experiments, we found employers were 69 percent more likely to consider hiring an ex-offender if a hiring agency also provides a guaranteed replacement worker in the event the ex-offender was deemed unsuitable and 53 percent more likely to hire an ex-offender who can provide a certificate of validated positive previous work performance history.  Having consistent transportation provided by a hiring agency increased the likelihood of being considered for hire by 33 percent. 

Employers also were found to be 30 percent more likely to consider an ex-offender for hire if the government increases the tax credit from 25 percent of the worker’s wages (up to $2,500) to 40 percent (up to $5,000) — double the current maximum amount allowed by the Work Opportunity Tax Credit — and 24 percent more likely to hire an ex-offender if the government completed all tax-related paperwork.

Key Findings

Worker Replacement and Fee Discounts Increase Hiring Prospects for Ex-Offenders...

Tax Credits Have a Similarly Positive Effect...

Employer Access to Previous Performance Could Factor into Hiring...

Recommendations

  • Staffing agencies and reentry or reintegration programs could increase the likelihood of employment for people with a criminal record if they guarantee prospective employers a replacement employee.
  • State policymakers should consider expanding post-conviction certification programs. Across both the tax credit and staffing agency discount experiments, employers demonstrate a clear preference for wanting to know whether an ex-offender job candidate has a consistent work history and verifiable positive employment references versus simply knowing whether the person follows company codes of conduct.
  • Tax agencies should consider reducing the paperwork that companies have to fill out for credits. Government agencies could also consider providing help to prepare and submit the forms.
  • Ensuring reliable transportation to and from a job site for candidates with a criminal record increases the likelihood an employer will support hiring such individuals. As with reducing paperwork, the impact of this policy is more limited than many of our other tested policy features.

January 17, 2018 in Collateral consequences, Offender Characteristics, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Taking a critical look at recent report on "Federal Prosecution of Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children Cases"

Guy Hamilton-Smith has this notable new piece at In Justice Today discussing a new Bureau of Justice Statistics report. The BJS report, available here, is titled "Federal Prosecution of Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children Cases, 2004-2013." Guy Hamilton-Smith's critical assessment, available here, is titled "New DOJ Report Demonstrates Stunning Disingenuity on Cases Involving Sexual Exploitation of Children." Here is how the commentary starts and additional excerpts with a sentencing bite:

A recent bombshell report from the Department of Justice claims that the number of people prosecuted in federal court for commercial sexual exploitation of children roughly doubled between 2004 and 2013.

The title of the report from the DOJ’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, Federal Prosecution of Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children Cases, 2004–2013, conjures the specter of children being forced into sexual slavery. The titling and framing of the report leaves a casual reader with the impression that more and more children are falling victim to commercial sex offenses  —  such as sex trafficking  —  and that DOJ has placed a high priority on prosecuting these offenses.

The actual data contained within the report itself, however, merits no such dramatic conclusion. The DOJ defines the phrase the “commercial sexual exploitation of children” (CSEC) as involving “crimes of a sexual nature committed against juvenile victims for financial or other economic reasons,” the obvious implication being that these “CSEC” defendants are directly involved in the trafficking of children for sexual purposes. However, according to the BJS’ own data, the vast majority of the defendants charged with CSEC offenses were accused, not of producing of child pornography or of child sex trafficking, but of consuming child pornography, including images of cartoon obscenity....

The growth in these types of child pornography prosecutions is not necessarily indicative of an increase in rates of offending.  Rather, it is more likely the result of law enforcement’s ability to secure confessions and convictions with relatively little effort. In the vast majority of these cases, investigators monitor peer-to-peer networks for hash values of images that are known to be child pornography, serve administrative subpoenas on service providers for records associated with those IP addresses, and knock on front doors with search warrants. Defenses are usually slim to none. Guilty pleas are exceedingly common: The BJS data reveals that 92.5% of defendants prosecuted in federal court for possession, receipt, or distribution of child pornography pled guilty.

Including such defendants under the banner of “CSEC” is sloppy at best and disingenuous at worst.  While the DOJ’s commitment to battling commercial sexual exploitation of children is admirable, their framing and presentation of the data as implication of an epidemic is at odds with the numbers themselves.

Underscoring the need for clarity and objectivity is the fact that defendants prosecuted for non-production child pornography offenses are amongst the most harshly punished defendants in all of the federal system. The report indicates that they are the least likely of all federal defendants to be given non-custodial sentences, even over and above violent and weapon offenses, and that "Prison sentences imposed on defendants convicted of CSEC offenses were among the longest in the federal justice system. The mean prison sentence imposed on convicted CSEC defendants increased by 99% from 2004 to 2013, from 70 to 139 months."

Sentences to the north of a decade are routine for CSEC defendants by virtue of the United States Sentencing Guidelines. These provide a recommended “range” in months of imprisonment based on both the severity of an offense and a person’s criminal history. Offenses, depending on specific characteristics of how they are committed, can receive enhancements that result in lengthier terms of imprisonment.

There are a number of significant sentencing enhancements for child pornography cases which are routinely applied. These may have held some rough logic in an era before Google, but they make little sense now. Use of a computer? Enhancement.  More than ten images?  Enhancement.  Distribution, even unintentional distribution, as discussed above?  Enhancement. More than 10 images (note that a video file, regardless of length, is counted as 75 images)? Enhancement.  Sentence enhancements are piled on such that, even for those individuals with no criminal record and no evidence they sexually assaulted a child, the recommended sentences can easily dwarf the statutory maximum sentences.

No other class of offense in the federal system (or, indeed, in many states) is characterized by such extreme sentences.  As courts have noted, there is virtually no empirical or reasoned bases for any of these enhancements beyond naked revulsion and desire for retribution. Some scholars have suggested that such severe punishments represent punishment by proxy. In other words, they are intended to obscure and compensate for the failure of law enforcement to investigate and prosecute actual cases of child sexual trafficking and commercial exploitation. In seeking to justify such draconian punishments even for “end users,” prosecutors and others (including courts) have advanced a market theory  —  that even possession of such images drives a market for child pornography.  The United States Sentencing Commission, in a 2012 report to Congress, noted that such arguments are without empirical support. Notably, similar arguments were made in support of harsh treatment of drug addicts in the 1970’s and 80’s as a way of winning the war on drugs.

Whatever the underlying rationale, the draconian nature of these sentences has attracted attention and push back in recent years, including from an extremely unlikely group: federal judges, some of whom are recognizing the inherent unfairness of enhancements for these types of offenses, and beginning to impose sentences far more lenient than those recommended by the guidelines.

Equating garden variety child pornography defendants with child sex traffickers is an abdication of reason and rationality. Unfortunately, the DOJ has not signaled any intention of reversing course.  Rather, if the trends in the report are any indication, it appears to be accelerating the use of what might justifiably be described as a prosecutorial machine that crushes defendants in child pornography possession cases, while failing to even charge far more culpable defendants.

January 17, 2018 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

"A Smarter Approach to Federal Assistance with State-Level Criminal Justice Reform"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by John Pfaff for the American Enterprise Institute. Here is its abstract:

This brief explains how Congress and the president can best help reduce our country’s outsized reliance on imprisonment, a goal with rare, widespread bipartisan support.  Successful interventions will need to target issues that previous efforts have overlooked or ignored, and they will need to take better account of the haphazard ways that costs, benefits, and responsibilities are fractured across city, county, state, and federal governments.  If designed properly, however, federal efforts could play an important role in pushing our criminal justice system to adopt more efficient, as well as more humane, approaches to managing and reducing crime.

January 16, 2018 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Effective state-by-state review of recent crime rate and imprisonment rate declines

PSPP_35_states_cut_crime_and_imprisonment_infographicThe folks at The Pew Charitable Trusts' public safety performance project have this terrific new state-by-state accounting of recent crime and incarceration rates under the heading "National Prison Rate Continues to Decline Amid Sentencing, Re-Entry Reforms: More than two-thirds of states cut crime and imprisonment from 2008-16." The infographic alone merits a click-through, and her is the accompanying text:

After peaking in 2008, the nation’s imprisonment rate fell 11 percent over eight years, reaching its lowest level since 1997, according to an analysis of new federal statistics by The Pew Charitable Trusts. The decline from 2015-16 was 2 percent, much of which was due to a drop in the number of federal prisoners. The rate at which black adults are imprisoned fell 4 percent from 2015-16 and has declined 29 percent over the past decade. The ongoing decrease in imprisonment has occurred alongside long-term reductions in crime. Since 2008, the combined national violent and property crime rate dropped 23 percent, Pew’s analysis shows.

Also since that 2008 peak, 36 states reduced their imprisonment rates, including declines of 15 percent or more in 20 states from diverse regions of the country, such as Alaska, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Connecticut. During the same period, almost every state recorded a decrease in crime with no apparent correlation to imprisonment (see Figure 1). The latest data, released Jan. 9 by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, show that trends in crime and imprisonment continue to be unrelated:

• Across the 45 states with crime declines from 2008-16, imprisonment rate changes ranged from a 35 percent decrease to a 14 percent increase.

• 35 states cut crime and imprisonment rates simultaneously.

• 21 states posted double-digit declines in both rates.

• The average crime decline across the 10 states with the greatest declines in imprisonment was 19 percent, and across the 10 states with the largest imprisonment growth it was 11 percent.

The annual national violent crime rate increased in 2015 and 2016, but many cities are reporting reductions for 2017, and both violent and total crime rates remain near record lows. National, state, and local crime rates shift for complex and poorly understood reasons, and experts offer a wide range of possible explanations; overall, however, the rates of reported violent and property crime have declined by more than half since their 1991 peaks, falling to levels not seen since the late 1960s.

Starting with Texas in 2007, more than 30 states have adopted sentencing and corrections reforms designed to improve public safety and control taxpayer costs. The reforms vary from state to state, but typically they prioritize prison space for people who have committed serious offenses and invest some of the savings in effective alternatives to incarceration. Research shows that investment in evidence-based re-entry programs reduces recidivism, contributing to declines in crime and imprisonment. Several states have cut return-to-prison rates significantly, including Georgia (35 percent) and Michigan (43 percent) over the past decade.

The lack of a consistent relationship between the crime and imprisonment trends reinforces a growing body of research and expert consensus that imprisonment in many states and the nation as a whole has long since passed the point of diminishing returns. This indicates that local, state, and federal policymakers can adopt additional reforms to reduce imprisonment without jeopardizing public safety.

January 16, 2018 in National and State Crime Data, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (2)

Is "tough-on-crime" no longer a winning political strategy?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new Daily Beast article authored by Inimai Chettiar and Udi Ofer, which is headlined "The ‘Tough on Crime’ Wave Is Finally Cresting." Here are excerpts:

For decades, politicians competed to see who could push the most draconian criminal justice policies. Jeff Sessions's announcement this month that he would authorize federal prosecutors to go after pot even in states where it is legal seems ripped straight from that playbook.  But the “tough on crime” Attorney General may be in for a surprise.  In 2018, it turns out, demagoguery about crime no longer packs a political punch.  In fact, support for reform may prove to be a sleeper issue in 2018 and 2020.

This would be a big change. Candidates most prominently began to compete on crime in the tumultuous 1960s.  Richard Nixon won with ads showing burning cities and scowling young men, ads crafted by an unknown aide named Roger Ailes.  Ronald Reagan launched a “war on drugs.”  George H.W. Bush won in 1988 with notorious ads telling the story of Willie Horton, who was allowed out of prison under a weekend furlough program.  Bill Clinton in 1992 bragged of his support for the death penalty. These chest-thumping themes were echoed in hundreds of campaigns down the ballot each year....

Over the last decade, a bipartisan movement has arisen to push back and revise criminal justice policy. Throughout 2016 it made real strides. Black Lives Matter and advocates brought national awareness. The Democratic and Republican parties included reducing imprisonment in their platforms — a stark reversal of past policy.  Every major candidate for president — with the exception of Donald Trump — went on the record supporting justice reform.

Then came the startling rise of President Trump. In his inaugural address, he warned of “American carnage” and rampant crime.  His attorney general, Jeff Sessions, had killed the bipartisan sentencing reform bill as a senator. Now, at the Justice Department, he is piece-by-piece dismantling his predecessors’ efforts to reduce federal imprisonment rates.  This has chilled the artery of many politicians once eager to support reform efforts in Washington.

For Trump and Sessions, it seemed, it was still 1968. They are waging traditional scare politics.  But something unexpected happened on the way to the backlash.

Lawmakers in blue and red states alike pressed forward with reforms.  In 2017, 19 states passed 57 pieces of bipartisan reform legislation.  Louisiana reduced sentences. Connecticut modernized bail.  Georgia overhauled probation.  Michigan passed an 18-bill package to reduce its prison population.

And in the 2017 elections, candidates won on platforms that proactively embraced justice reform. In Virginia, for example, gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie defined his campaign by running modern day “Willie Horton” ads against Ralph Northam for restoring the right to vote to former prisoners, and branded him as “weak” on MS-13. Voters handed Northam a sizeable win. In deeply conservative Alabama, Doug Jones campaigned on criminal justice reform. Trump repeatedly attacked Doug Jones as “soft on crime.” But Jones beat Roy Moore.

Urban politics have been transformed, too.  District attorneys campaigning on reducing imprisonment are winning across the nation, most recently in Philadelphia.  Justice reform proved a powerful organizing issue among the young and in communities of color.

January 16, 2018 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Monday, January 15, 2018

Some new quotes at the end of the latest MLK day

I was stuck in a car for most of this day for celebrating the life and legacy of Martin Luther King, and thus I am only now getting a chance late in the day to honor this great man.   Many years, I make sure to spend time listening to the full "I Have A Dream" speech Dr. King delivered in the "symbolic shadow" of Abraham Lincoln in August 1963.  I have previously flagged some quotes from that speech, but this year I figured I would look to another MLK source for inspiration.  Specifically, as I gear up to go back to teaching, I thought interesting a few lines from this MLK college essay titled "The Purpose of Education."  A mere eighteen years old, MLK shows himself to already be wise beyond his years (and enduringly timely):

Education must also train one for quick, resolute and effective thinking.  To think incisively and to think for one's self is very difficult.  We are prone to let our mental life become invaded by legions of half truths, prejudices, and propaganda.  At this point, I often wonder whether or not education is fulfilling its purpose.  A great majority of the so-called educated people do not think logically and scientifically.  Even the press, the classroom, the platform, and the pulpit in many instances do not give us objective and unbiased truths. To save man from the morass of propaganda, in my opinion, is one of the chief aims of education.  Education must enable one to sift and weigh evidence, to discern the true from the false, the real from the unreal, and the facts from the fiction.

The function of education, therefore, is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically.  But education which stops with efficiency may prove the greatest menace to society.  The most dangerous criminal may be the man gifted with reason, but with no morals....

We must remember that intelligence is not enough.  Intelligence plus character -- that is the goal of true education.  The complete education gives one not only power of concentration, but worthy objectives upon which to concentrate.

Links to some prior MLK Day posts:

January 15, 2018 | Permalink | Comments (7)

Sunday, January 14, 2018

"How to make an innocent client plead guilty"

The title of this post is the headline of this depressing and depressingly familiar tale told by public defender Jeffrey D. Stein in The Washington Post.  Here is an excerpt:

The conversation almost always begins in jail.  Sitting with your client in the visitation room, you start preparing them for the most important decision the person has ever made.  Though the case is just a few days old, the prosecution has already extended a plea offer that will expire within the week.  And, because local laws might require detention for certain charges at the prosecutor’s request, or because criminal justice systems punish those unable to pay bail, your client will have to make that decision while sitting in a cage.

Your client is desperate, stripped of freedom and isolated from family.  Such circumstances make those accused of crimes more likely to claim responsibility, even for crimes they did not commit.  A 2016 paper analyzing more than 420,000 cases determined that those who gained pretrial release were 15.6 percentage points less likely to be found guilty.  Not surprisingly, prosecutors commonly condition plea offers on postponing hearings where defendants may challenge their arrests and request release....

You lay out options for your client.  You could go to trial, but that might mean waiting in jail for months, if not years, before a jury hears the case.  The idealist in you — the one who enrolled in law school to “change the system” and to fight for justice on behalf of those who need it most — hopes your client will proclaim a decision to go to trial.  But a wary voice in the back of your head reminds you of the risk and life-altering consequences of losing....

The other option, you explain to your client, is to accept the plea offer.  In some cases, the sentencing difference between accepting a plea and losing at trial can be a matter of decades.  It’s no wonder 95 percent of all defendants accept plea offers.  Or that, according to the National Registry of Exonerations, 15 percent of all exonerees — people convicted of crimes later proved to be innocent — originally pleaded guilty.  That share rises to 49 percent for people exonerated of manslaughter and 66 percent for those exonerated of drug crimes.

You tell your client that they would probably win at trial, but if they lose, they will go to prison. The plea promises some meaningful benefit: getting out of jail sooner, avoiding deportation, not losing a job, seeing a daughter before her next birthday.  But your client would have to accept responsibility for a crime they may not have committed....

The judge turns to you and asks, “Does either counsel know of any reason that I should not accept the defendant’s guilty plea?” You hesitate.  You want to shout: “Yes, your honor! This plea is the product of an extortive system of devastating mandatory minimums and lopsided access to evidence.  My client faced an impossible choice and is just trying to avoid losing his life to prison.”

But you stand by your client’s decision, which was made based on experiences and emotions only they can know.  You reply: “No, your honor.”  The marshals lead your shackled client to a cage behind the courtroom.  And the judge moves on to the next case.

January 14, 2018 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Campaign to recall Brock Turner's sentencing judge turns in many signatures

As reported in this local article, headlined "Effort to recall Stanford rape case judge submits almost 100,000 signatures," a high-profile lenient sentence may soon be putting a California judge's job in jeopardy. Here are the details:

The campaign to recall a judge who issued what many considered a light sentence to a former Stanford swimmer convicted of sexual assault cleared its first hurdle Thursday.

Recall organizers, led by Stanford law Professor Michele Dauber, filed a petition and nearly 100,000 signatures with the Santa Clara County Registrar of Voters in San Jose to place a measure on the June ballot to recall Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky.

If successful, it would be the first recall of a California judge in 87 years.

In June 2016, Persky sentenced former Stanford swimmer Brock Turner to six months in jail after he was found guilty of sexually assaulting an unconscious woman by a dumpster outside of a fraternity party on the college campus, resulting in a national outcry that Turner received special treatment. Prosecutors had argued that Turner should spend six years in state prison, but Persky gave him six months in county jail. He ended up being released in three.

While Persky became a prominent public figure after the Turner decision, the recall campaign has attempted to demonstrate a pattern of judicial bias that extends beyond Turner’s case.... At a news conference Thursday morning, Dauber listed a series of cases in which she believed Persky’s handling of sexual assault cases had been too lenient, including a 2011 civil trial on the alleged gang rape of a 17-year-old high school girl by members of the De Anza Community College baseball team. Persky allowed defendants to show photos of the victim wearing a revealing outfit to the jury....

After serving half of his sentence, Turner was required to register as a sex offender after moving back home with his family in Ohio. He recently appealed his conviction, arguing that he didn’t receive a fair trial.

To qualify for June’s election, the Persky recall campaign was required to turn in 58,634 valid signatures by Feb. 2. Organizers submitted a petition with 94,518 signatures that filled 11 boxes outside of the Registrar of Voters office, which now has 30 days to verify them. “We are very confident that we are going to have thousands more than we need to qualify,” Dauber said.

Persky has tried several times to block the recall effort....

Persky based Turner’s jail sentence on a recommendation from the county probation department. The judge noted that prison would have “a severe impact” on the former Stanford swimmer. The petition to place the recall on the ballot is only the first step in the campaign to push out Persky, Dauber said. If the recall is placed on the ballot, voters also will be asked to select a candidate to fill Persky’s seat on the bench. Cindy Hendrickson, an assistant district attorney for Santa Clara County, is the only candidate to date who has filed papers.

On Thursday, Dauber framed the recall effort in historical context by describing the first successful recall effort in California history. “In 1913, the women’s clubs of San Francisco, much like we have done here, banded together to recall a judge named Charles Weller for lenient decisions on sexual assault,” she said.

Dauber also noted the national momentum of the current #MeToo movement. “Women are standing up and refusing to accept the normalization of harassment and abuse by privileged men, and the movement runs all the way from Hollywood to Silicon Valley to media to politics to the legal profession,” Dauber said, expressing support for Hendrickson.

Persky’s ruling — along with the publication of a gut-wrenching letter the victim read in court during Turner’s sentencing hearing — prompted former Vice President Joe Biden to write an open letter to the victim noting that she is a “warrior” who has been failed by many people and institutions.

In a number of prior posts about the Brock Turner case, I have noted concerns both about the lenient sentence he received and about the campaign to recall his judge. Here is just a sampling of the prior posts this case has generated:

January 13, 2018 in Celebrity sentencings, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

Noticing the rise in LWOP as death sentencing declines in Texas

This lengthy article from the Houston Chronicle, headlined "Harris County leads Texas in life without parole sentences as death penalty recedes," provides an astute review of the sentencing impact of a decline of death sentencing.  Here are excerpts (with the closing sentences prompting some commentary):

Once known as the "capital of capital punishment," Harris County is now doling out more life without parole sentences than any other county in the state.

In the 12 years since then-Gov. Rick Perry signed the life without parole or "LWOP" bill into law, Harris County has handed down 266 of those sentences — nearly 25 percent of the state's total, according to data through mid-December obtained from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

"It's concerning, but this is like economics or engine performance, there's no free lunch," said Houston defense attorney Patrick McCann. "We have far fewer death cases than we used to. That's a tremendous win. But now we have a lot of LWOP sentences."

The county's reliance on the lengthiest sentence available in capital murder cases comes as the Houston area — and Texas as a whole — has shifted away from capital punishment. For the first time in more than 30 years, 2017 saw no new death sentences and no executions of Harris County killers. And although part of that downturn stems from the possibility of life without parole, some experts see possible drawbacks....

Andy Kahan, the city of Houston's victim advocate, described life without parole as a "saving grace" for victims' families. "Like it or not, there's some really evil people out there that commit some horrible atrocities that deserve to be locked up for life," he said. "In a utopian world it'd be great if we didn't have to have it but that's not reality."

While Harris County grabs the lion's share of the state's life without parole sentences, Dallas County came in right behind with 120, according to Texas Department of Criminal Justice data through Dec. 18. Tarrant County had 69 of the state's 1,067 total such sentences, while Bexar County had 47 and Hidalgo had 26....

Just over 17 percent of the state's population lives in Harris County, according to Texas Department of State Health Services population projections for 2016. That makes for an LWOP rate of 6 sentences per 100,000 residents, which is higher than in all but two counties with populations over 100,000.

In comparison to murder figures, the relatively large number of life without parole sentences looks less surprising. According to an analysis of DPS data, in 2016 Harris County accounted for 27.7 percent of the state's murders and 22.7 percent of the murders cleared.

And while Harris County accounts for a disproportionate number of total executions nationwide — more than any other county or entire state, except the rest of Texas — it has generated only a small fraction of the total life without parole sentences across the country, based on TDCJ figures and a 2017 Sentencing Project report.

"Where the corporate culture has changed is the willingness to seek death," McCann said, referring to local prosecutors. "Cases that ten years ago would have been death even with LWOP are now charged as non-death," McCann said. "But that doesn't mean that they've stopped charging the LWOP cases."

To some extent, Texas' relatively low LWOP use compared to national numbers may stem from the fact that prosecutors have only had the option for life without parole since 2005. Before that, the harshest choices were death — or the possibility of release after 40 years....

Texas became the last death penalty state to adopt the option, after Harris County prosecutors dropped their opposition. Initially it only applied to capital murder, but later the law was expanded to include crimes like repeated sexual assault of a child.

From the statute's inception, Harris County was one of its biggest users. "It's not surprising because Harris County is also the driver of the death penalty numbers and most juvenile commitments as well," Henneke said. "Across the board Harris County is the incarceration county."...

Unlike with death-sentenced cases, there's no automatic appointment of post-conviction appellate counsel and no punishment phase of the trial, which makes the whole process quicker and cheaper. "Life without parole was an unintentional gift to major urban prosecutors' offices," McCann said. "It makes it very easy to dispose of a large number of violent and often youthful offenders without any more thought than one would need to toss away a piece garbage."

The last few passages highlight what has long been my enduring concern as abolitionist have pushed for LWOP sentences as an alternative to the death penalty. Though the extreme LWOP sentence may at first be only available for the worst murders, once on the books it can and often does creep to be applicable to a range of other crimes. And capital cases come with super due-process, much of which is constitutionally requires; LWOP can be imposed, as this article puts it, "quicker and cheaper." While I understand why abolitionists celebrate the use of LWOP in order to engineer a decline in capital cases, I also lament the various ways abolitionist advocacy for LWOP alternatives have contributed to modern mass incarceration and further entrenched carceral commitments and contentments.

January 13, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (11)

Friday, January 12, 2018

Supreme Court grants cert on a couple of (small?) sentencing cases

Via this order list, the US Supreme Court added twelve cases to its merits docket.  A couple involve sentencing issues, and here they are with an assist from SCOTUSblog:

Chavez-Meza v. United States, No. 17-5639

Issue: Whether, when a district court decides not to grant a proportional sentence reduction under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2), it must provide some explanation for its decision when the reasons are not otherwise apparent from the record, as the U.S. Courts of Appeals for the 6th, 8th, 9th and 11th Circuits have held, or whether it can issue its decision without any explanation so long as it is issued on a preprinted form order containing the boilerplate language providing that the court has “tak[en] into account the policy statement set forth in 18 U.S.S.G. § 1B1.10 and the sentencing factors set forth in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a), to the extent that they are applicable,” as the U.S. Courts of Appeals for the 4th, 5th and 10th Circuits have held.

Lagos v. United States, No. 16-1519

Issue: Whether 18 U.S.C. § 3663A(b)(4) covers costs for reimbursement under the Mandatory Victims Restitution Act that were “neither required nor requested” by the government, including costs incurred for the victim's own purposes and unprompted by any official government action.

As the title of this post suggests, my first take is that these issues are pretty small in scope and significance.  But I am still always excited to see SCOTUS care about sentencing matters.

January 12, 2018 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1)

"Mental Health Courts and Sentencing Disparities"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new empirical paper now available via SSRN authored by E. Lea Johnston and Conor Flynn.  Here is the abstract:

Despite the proliferation of mental health courts across the United States, virtually no attention has been paid to the criminal justice effects these courts carry for participants.  This article provides the first empirical analysis of differential sentencing practices in mental health and traditional criminal courts.  Using a case study approach, the article compares how Pennsylvania’s Erie County Mental Health Court and county criminal courts sentenced individuals who committed the same offenses and held the same average criminal history score.  Information on the mental health court — including eligibility criteria, plea bargaining and sentencing procedure, sentencing policies, program length, graduation rates, likelihood of early discharge, and consequences of unsuccessful termination — derive from interviews with key mental health court professionals, five years of collected sentencing and dispositional data, and court materials.  The Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing provided the county-level data, which were disaggregated by offense and criminal history score. The article analyzes sentencing for twelve offenses spanning four offense grades.

The findings are striking.  First, analysis reveals that anticipated mental health court sentences typically exceed — by years — the supervisory periods that offenders would otherwise receive in a county criminal court.  Second, mental health court participants with multiple convictions were significantly more likely to receive consecutive, as opposed to concurrent, sentences than those sentenced by traditional courts.  Third, the analysis suggests the mental health court usually does not divert individuals from jail or prison sentences — a primary justification for these courts — but instead merely extends state control over individuals with serious mental illnesses.  Fourth, key mental health court actors appear unaware of likely sentencing disparities or the high rate of participant failures.  Thus, offenders choosing between mental health and traditional courts may go uninformed about these fundamental differences.  The article concludes with suggestions for future research.

January 12, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Notable comments by Prez Trump during meeting on prison review

I spent most of Thursday on the road, and various news stations were reporting on statements by Prez Trump others than those on the topic of prison reform. But, as this official White House page reveals, Prez Trump made some comments during a meeting that ought not be overlooked. Here are excerpts:

We’ll be discussing a number of opportunities to improve our prison system to better promote public safety and to help former prisoners reenter society as productive citizens. Very important. Very big topic. It’s become a very big topic, especially, I think, over the last 12 months or so. We’ve been focused on it very strongly.

We support our law enforcement partners, and we’re working to reduce crime and put dangerous offenders behind bars. At the same time, we want to ensure that those who enter the justice system are able to contribute to their communities after they leave prison, which is one of many very difficult subjects we’re discussing, having to do with our great country.

The vast majority of incarcerated individuals will be released at some point, and often struggle to become self-sufficient once they exit the correctional system. We have a great interest in helping them turn their lives around, get a second chance, and make our community safe. Many prisoners end up returning to crime, and they end up returning to prison. Two-thirds of the 650,000 people released from prison each year are arrested again within three years.

We can help break this vicious cycle through job training — very important, job training — mentoring, and drug addiction treatment. And you know how we’re focused on drugs pouring into our country and drug addiction. It’s a big problem even as we speak of this subject. We’ll be very tough on crime, but we will provide a ladder of opportunity to the future....

My administration is committed to helping former inmates become productive, law-abiding members of society.

This Hill article about the meeting, headlined "Trump, Kushner meet with advocates on prison reform," includes quotes from advocates and lawmakers suggesting reasons for optimism and pessimism concerning possible federal legislative reforms moving forward after this notable meeting.

January 11, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)

Press reports indicate White House listening session to be focused only on reentry issues, not sentencing reform

As noted here yesterday, there are plans for an afternoon meeting at the White House on criminal justice issues.  But, as this new Newsweek article details, it seems that sentencing reform is not going to be part of the discussion.  The article's headline provides the essentials, "Trump and Kushner's Prison Reform Plan Not Expected to Reduce Sentences or Fix Prison Conditions," and here are the details:

President Donald Trump will hold a listening session on prison reform Thursday that will focus on improving prisoner reentry – the process of preparing inmates for release–with a conservative approach, multiple people in talks with the administration told Newsweek.

The session is only expected to include politicians and religious and nonprofit leaders from the right. It is not expected to include discussion on topics like prison conditions or sentencing reform.

In attendance will be three Republican governors who instituted criminal justice reform in their states–Governor Nathan Deal of Georgia, Governor Matt Bevin of Kentucky and Governor Sam Brownback of Kansas–along with televangelist Paula White, according to Derek Cohen, the director of Right on Crime at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, which has been in discussions about conservative reentry reform methods with the Trump administration. “All the policy issues we’ve discussed with the administration have a conservative orientation,” said Cohen, who added that prison ministries are crucial to a successful release. “Faith is going to be an integral part of any reentry plan.”

The Texas Public Policy Foundation and the Trump administration have discussed cutting government regulation to make it easier for former prisoners to get jobs, Cohen said. Getting rid of restrictions that bar ex-cons from working as barbers, for example, allow inmates to more easily get a job upon release and reduce the likelihood of recidivism, he added.

Koch Industries general counsel Mark Holden will also attend the meeting, which he said will be at 1:30 p.m. in the White House’s Roosevelt Room. “Our point of view at Koch is prisoner reentry needs to begin at day one of the sentence” and not “60 or 90 days out” from release, said Holden, who had also been involved in the prison reform talks that Trump senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner began last summer. Holden added that mental health and drug treatment, along with vocational training, need to happen inside prisons so inmates are prepared for life outside when they are released.

“I’m delighted that the president has made this a priority,” said Pat Nolan, director of the American Conservative Union Foundation’s Center for Criminal Justice Reform, which has also been in prison reform talks with the Trump administration. “I’ve been working since 1996 to help build a conservative movement in criminal justice reform, and this is a very important turning point.” Cohen and Nolan will not be at the Thursday session, but others from their organizations are attending....

Kushner’s Office of American Innovation is also working on an apprenticeship plan for released prisoners that could match inmates with employers, according to a conservative leader who has been working with the White House on the reforms, but it’s unclear whether that initiative will be announced Thursday.

Excluding organizations that are seen as liberal, like the ACLU or the NAACP, and leaving out sentencing reform was necessary to gain the support of “old guard conservatives” like U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who will also attend the meeting, the conservative leader said. “Reading the tea leaves, I think what they’ve done is sat down with Mr. Sessions and got him to agree to part of the reforms,” said the conservative leader, who requested anonymity in order to freely discuss the issue. He added that he expects White House Chief of Staff John Kelly to attend and that Housing Secretary Ben Carson and Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta came to previous meetings on the issue.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment late Wednesday evening.

Recent related post:

January 11, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

A not-quite random collection of notable recent sentencing pieces

This week, though only half done, has been full of links to reports or commentaries or other items that seemed blogworthy but that I have not yet found time to blog about.  Particularly because I likely will be off-line much of the rest of this week, I figured I could make up for lost time with a big round-up.  So here goes, in no particular order:

January 10, 2018 in Recap posts, Recommended reading | Permalink | Comments (3)

Notable report of AG Sessions seeking more federal death sentences, but what about carrying out those long ago imposed?

The Wall Street Journal has this notable article today headlined "U.S. to Seek Death Penalty More Often for Violent Crimes; Attorney General Jeff Sessions authorizes federal prosecutors to seek capital punishment in two murder cases and is said to be weighing it in others, including Manhattan terror attack." Here are excerpts (with two particular lines emphasized):

The Justice Department has agreed to seek the federal death penalty in at least two murder cases, in what officials say is the first sign of a heightened effort under Attorney General Jeff Sessions to use capital punishment to further crack down on violent crime.

In a decision made public Monday, Mr. Sessions authorized federal prosecutors to seek the death penalty against Billy Arnold, who is charged with killing two rival gang members in Detroit.  The decision followed the first death-penalty authorization under Mr. Sessions, made public Dec. 19, when he cleared prosecutors in Orlando to seek a death sentence against Jarvis Wayne Madison, who is charged with fatally shooting his estranged wife in 2016.

The Justice Department is also considering seeking death sentences against Sayfullo Saipov, accused of killing eight people in November by driving a truck onto a Manhattan bike lane, and against two defendants in the 2016 slaying of two teenage girls by MS-13 gang members on Long Island, outside of New York City, according to people familiar with the deliberations.

Mr. Sessions views the death penalty as a “valuable tool in the tool belt,” according to a senior Justice Department official. The official said the death penalty isn’t only a deterrent, but also a “punishment for the most heinous crimes prohibited under federal law.” The Justice Department under President Donald Trump expects to authorize more death penalty cases than the previous administration did, the official said....

The last federal execution was in 2003. Since 1963, three federal defendants have been executed. The federal government has secured 25 death sentences since 2007, down from 45 death sentences between 1996 and 2006....

Only 2% of death-penalty cases are sentenced in federal court. Several types of murder cases fall under federal jurisdiction, including those involving drug trafficking, racketeering or — in Mr. Madison’s case — interstate domestic violence and interstate stalking.

The Obama administration sought the federal death penalty in at least four dozen cases, fewer than the Bush administration, according to the Federal Death Penalty Resource Counsel, a federally funded program to assist death penalty lawyers. The cases authorized under the previous administration included ones involving terrorism, the killing of children or law-enforcement officers, and murders by prisoners already serving life sentences.

But in recent years, a Justice Department review of the drugs used to execute prisoners prompted an effective moratorium on federal executions.

Mr. Sessions appears to be seeking the death penalty against a broader set of violent crimes. Former Justice Department officials under President Barack Obama said they typically wouldn’t have authorized capital punishment in a case like Mr. Arnold’s, which involves gang-on-gang violence. Murder cases with “victims who were themselves involved in criminal activity” are the ones where death penalty decisions tend to fluctuate by administration, said David Bitkower, a former Justice Department official under Mr. Obama who prosecuted two death-penalty gang cases.

Eric Holder, who served as attorney general from 2009 to 2015, personally opposed the death penalty. Loretta Lynch, Mr. Holder’s successor, called capital punishment “an effective penalty” at her confirmation hearing.

Mr. Sessions has put combating violent crime at the center of his agenda, encouraging prosecutors to pursue longer prison sentences and approving the hiring of dozens of new violent-crimes prosecutors.

The moves come as the death penalty on the state and federal level has been in decline. State executions are hovering near 26-year lows, partly due to dwindling supplies of lethal drugs and growing legal scrutiny from courts....

Former prosecutors say an increase in death-penalty cases could be time-consuming and expensive for both government and defense lawyers. Appeals in death penalty cases can take decades.

There are 61 prisoners on federal death row, compared with more than 2,800 in the states.

The de facto federal moratorium on executions got started more than a decade ago in the run up to the Supreme Court's first review of the constitutionality of lethal injection protocols in Baze.   After Baze resolved the basic constitutionality of lethal injection protocols, and especially after Glossip back in 2015 had the Supreme Court making pretty clear that jurisdictions could lawfully use a number of potential lethal injection drugs, the justification for continuing the de facto federal moratorium on executions became shaky at best.  Consequently, if AG Sessions is really serious about the death penalty as a "valuable tool in the tool belt," he needs to make an effort to make sure that the tool is actually fully operational.  Sending folks to US death row when there are no executions going forward is really just another way to impose LWOP while perpetuating a functional legal fiction.

Notably, this helpful list of all 61 federal death row prisoners from the Death Penalty Information Center reveals that 10 condemned have been languishing on federal death row for two decades or longer, and most have been there more than a decade.  Especially given that Justice Breyer has often argued that long stays on death row violate the Eighth Amendment, AG Sessions might even suggest he is duty bound to try to speed up the federal execution process in order to avoid possible constitutional violations.

January 10, 2018 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)