Friday, December 9, 2016

"How Many Americans Are Unnecessarily Incarcerated?"

Unnecessarily_IncarceratedThe question in the title of this post is the title of this notable new report from The Brennan Center.  The report's preface serves as a useful overview of its coverage and findings, and here are extended excerpts from the preface:

While mass incarceration has emerged as an urgent national issue to be addressed, the reforms currently offered are dwarfed by the scale of the problem. The country needs bolder solutions. How can we significantly cut the prison population while still keeping the country safe? This report puts forth one answer to that question. Our path forward is not offered as the only answer or as an absolute. Rather, it is meant to provide a starting point for a broader discussion about how the country can rethink and revamp the outdated sentencing edifice of the last four decades.

This report is the product of three years of research conducted by one of the nation’s leading criminologists, experienced criminal justice lawyers, and statistical researchers. First, we conducted an in-depth examination of the federal and state criminal codes, as well as the convictions and sentences of the nationwide prison population (1.46 million prisoners serving time for 370 different crime categories) to estimate how many people are currently incarcerated without a sufficient public safety rationale. We find that alternatives to incarceration are more effective and just penalties for many lower-level crimes. We also find that prison sentences can safely be shortened for a discrete set of more serious crimes.

Second, based on these findings, we propose a new, alternative framework for sentencing grounded in the science of public safety and rehabilitation. Many have argued that regimented sentencing laws should be eliminated and replaced with broad judicial discretion. Others counter that this would reinstate a system wherein judges are free to deliver vastly divergent sentences for the same crime, potentially exacerbating racial disparities and perpetuating the tradition of harsh sentences. This report proposes a new solution, building on these past proposals. We advocate that today’s sentencing laws should change to provide default sentences that are proportional to the specific crime.

Many have argued that regimented sentencing laws should be eliminated and replaced with broad judicial discretion. Others counter that this would reinstate a system wherein judges are free to deliver vastly divergent sentences for the same crime, potentially exacerbating racial disparities and perpetuating the tradition of harsh sentences.

This report proposes a new solution, building on these past proposals. We advocate that today’s sentencing laws should change to provide default sentences that are proportional to the specific crime committed and in line with social science research, instead of based on conjecture. These defaults should mandate sentences of alternatives to incarceration for lower-level crimes. For some other crimes that warrant incarceration, they should mandate shorter sentences. Judges should have discretion to depart from these defaults in special circumstances, such as a defendant’s criminal history, mental health or addiction issues, or specifics of the crime committed. This approach is grounded in the premise that the first principle of 21st century sentencing should be to protect public safety, and that sentences should levy the most effective, proportional, and cost-efficient sanction to achieve that goal. It aims to create more uniform sentences and reduce disparities, while preserving judicial discretion when needed....

Based on these findings, this report issues the following recommendations to safely reduce the prison population....

  • Eliminate Prison for Lower-Level Crimes Barring Exceptional Circumstances: State legislatures and Congress should change sentencing laws to mandate alternatives to prison as the default sentences for certain lower-level crimes. These include drug possession, lesser burglary, minor drug trafficking, minor fraud or forgery, minor theft, and simple assault — offenses that now account for 25 percent of the prison population. Alternative sanctions — such as community service, electronic monitoring, probation, restitution, or treatment — should be the default for such crimes instead. Judges should have flexibility to depart and impose a prison sentence if certain enumerated factors are present — for example, repeat serious offenses or heinous circumstances of the crime.

  • Reduce Sentence Minimums and Maximums by Law: State and federal legislatures should reduce the current minimums and maximums prison stays set by laws, or guidelines. These ranges should be proportional to the crimes committed, with judges retaining discretion to depart when appropriate. We recommend that legislators consider a 25 percent cut as a starting point to determine how to reduce sentences for the six major crimes that make up the bulk of the current prison population: aggravated assault, murder, nonviolent weapons offense, robbery, serious burglary, and serious drug trafficking. Sentences would be shorter, but still substantial. For example, the average inmate convicted of robbery now serves 4.2 years. A 25 percent cut would reduce the prison stay to 3.1 years. A similar analysis can be applied to other crimes for which prison may be warranted to determine whether sentences can be safely shortened.

  • Retroactively Apply Reforms: Current inmates should be permitted to petition judges for retroactive application of the two reforms above, on a case-by-case basis. This would allow for safe release of prisoners whose sentences no longer serve a justifiable public safety purpose.

  • Complementary Recommendations: Prosecutors should use their discretion to seek alternatives to incarceration or shorter prison stays in line with the recommendations of this report. Further, the nearly $200 billion in savings from implementing this report’s recommendations can be reinvested in proven crime prevention tactics and in alternatives to incarceration proven to reduce recidivism. While the first steps many states have taken toward prison reform are welcome, they have not gone far enough. It took roughly four decades to build mass incarceration. Yet, at current rates of decline, it will take even longer to undo it.

December 9, 2016 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11)

As opioid deaths officially surpass gun homicides, will national leaders continue to ignore potential live-saving benefits of medical marijuana?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new Washington Post Wonkblog piece, which starts by noting that "opioid deaths continued to surge in 2015, surpassing 30,000 for the first time in recent history, according to CDC data released Thursday." Here is more of the grim data:

That marks an increase of nearly 5,000 deaths from 2014. Deaths involving powerful synthetic opiates, like fentanyl, rose by nearly 75 percent from 2014 to 2015. Heroin deaths spiked too, rising by more than 2,000 cases. For the first time since at least the late 1990s, there were more deaths due to heroin than to traditional opioid painkillers, like hydrocodone and oxycodone....

In a grim milestone, more people died from heroin-related causes than from gun homicides in 2015. As recently as 2007, gun homicides outnumbered heroin deaths by more than 5 to 1. These increases come amid a year-over-year increase in mortality across the board, resulting in the first decline in American life expectancy since 1993.

Congress recently passed a spending bill containing $1 billion to combat the opioid epidemic, including money for addiction treatment and prevention. "The prescription opioid and heroin epidemic continues to devastate communities and families across the country — in large part because too many people still do not get effective substance use disorder treatment,” said Michael Botticelli, Director of National Drug Control Policy, in a statement. "That is why the President has called since February for $1 billion in new funding to expand access to treatment."

Much of the current opioid predicament stems from the explosion of prescription painkiller use in the late 1990s and early 2000s.  Widespread painkiller use led to many Americans developing dependencies on the drugs.  When various authorities at the state and federal levels began issuing tighter restrictions on painkillers in the late 2000s, much of that demand shifted over to the illicit market, feeding the heroin boom of the past several years.

Drug policy reformers say the criminalization of illicit and off-label drug use is a barrier to reversing the growing epidemic. “Criminalization drives people to the margins and dissuades them from getting help,” said Grant Smith, deputy director of national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance. “It drives a wedge between people who need help and the services they need. Because of criminalization and stigma, people hide their addictions from others.”

These depressing data spotlight one of many reasons I am supportive of medical marijuana reforms for the treatment of pain. It is functionally impossible to die from an overdose of marijuana, and thus it will always be in some important ways safer for someone to become dependent on marijuana rather than on opioids for pain relief. In addition, as highlighted in a number of posts from my other blog, there is considerable research emerging from various sources that the opioid epidemic is somewhat less deadly in states that have robust medical marijuana programs.

Some related posts from Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform:

December 9, 2016 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Pot Prohibition Issues | Permalink | Comments (1)

After split tied SCOTUS stay vote, Alabama completes last scheduled execution of 2016

As reported in this AP piece, the final scheduled execution in the United States in 2016 had a number of noteworthy events and elements for those who support and those who oppose capital punishment.  The AP article is headlined "Alabama inmate coughs, heaves 13 minutes into execution," though I think the SCOTUS action that proceeded the actual execution should be of particular interest for law geeks.  Here are some of the details:

A man who killed an Alabama convenience store clerk more than two decades ago was put to death Thursday night, an execution that required two consciousness tests as the inmate heaved and coughed 13 minutes into the lethal injection. Ronald Bert Smith Jr., 45, was pronounced dead at 11:05 p.m., about 30 minutes after the procedure began at the state prison in southwest Alabama. Smith was convicted of capital murder in the Nov. 8, 1994, fatal shooting of Huntsville store clerk Casey Wilson. A jury voted 7-5 to recommend a sentence of

life imprisonment, but a judge overrode that recommendation and sentenced Smith to death. Smith heaved and coughed repeatedly, clenching his fists and raising his head at the beginning of the execution. A prison guard performed two consciousness checks before the final two lethal drugs were administered.

In a consciousness test, a prison officer says the inmate's name, brushes his eyelashes and then pinches his left arm. During the first one, Smith moved his arm. He slightly raised his right arm again after the second consciousness test. The meaning of those movements will likely be debated. One of Smith's attorneys whispered to another attorney, "He's reacting," and pointed out the inmate's repeated movements. The state prison commissioner said he did not see any reaction to the consciousness tests....

Alabama uses the sedative midazolam as the first drug in a three-drug lethal injection combination. Smith and other inmates argued in a court case that the drug was an unreliable sedative and could cause them to feel pain, citing its use in problematic executions. The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the use of the drug....

Wilson was pistol-whipped and then shot in the head during the robbery, court documents show. Surveillance video showed Smith entering the store and recovering spent shell casings from the bathroom where Wilson was shot, according to the record. In overriding the jury's recommendation at the 1995 trial, a judge likened the slaying to an execution, saying Wilson had already been pistol-whipped into submission and Smith ignored his pleas for mercy. Wilson had a newborn infant at the time of his death. "The trial court described Smith's acts as 'an execution style slaying.' Tonight, justice was finally served," Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange said in a statement after the execution.

U.S. Supreme Court justices twice paused the execution as Smith's attorneys argued for a delay, saying a judge shouldn't have been able to impose the death penalty when a jury recommended he receive life imprisonment. Four liberal justices said they would have halted the execution, but five were needed to do so.

Smith's attorneys had urged the nation's highest court to block the planned execution to review the judge's override. Smith's lawyers argued a January decision that struck down Florida's death penalty structure because it gave too much power to judges raises legal questions about Alabama's process. In Alabama, a jury can recommend a sentence of life without parole, but a judge can override that recommendation to impose a death sentence. Alabama is the only state that allows judicial override, they argued. "Alabama is alone among the states in allowing a judge to sentence someone to death based on judicial fact finding contrary to a jury's verdict," attorneys for Smith wrote Wednesday.

Lawyers for the state argued in a court filing Tuesday that the sentence was legally sound, and that it is appropriate for judges to make the sentencing decision....

Alabama has been attempting to resume executions after a lull caused by a shortage of execution drugs and litigation over the drugs used. The state executed Christopher Eugene Brooks in January for the 1993 rape and beating death of a woman. It was the state's first execution since 2013. Judges stayed two other executions that had been scheduled this year.

December 9, 2016 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Thursday, December 8, 2016

"Death Row Dogs, Hard Time Prisoners, and Creative Rehabilitation Strategies: Prisoner-Dog Training Programs"

The title of this post is the title of this intriguing looking new paper authored by Paul Larkin now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

The use of Prisoner-Dog Programs (PDPs) is an innovative rehabilitative strategy that takes advantage of the bond that humans have had with dogs for thousands of years. Numerous state correctional facilities, along with the BOP, have adopted these programs to give prisoners, and sometimes dogs, a second chance.  The informal results witnessed to date appear positive for everyone concerned.

Inmates benefit because the animal-training instruction they receive, along with the experience they acquire training dogs in their care, provides them with a skill that they can use after their release.  More importantly, the relationship that a prisoner builds with his dog teaches him the need to achieve a goal; the importance of discipline and patience, along with disutility of violence, in being successful; the value and sense of self-worth in empathizing and caring for another creature; and, perhaps for the first time, the emotional bond with another living creature that allows him to feel and express love.  Dogs benefit because they escape their own death row and find their own “forever” homes.  Prisons benefit because the close interaction between prisoners and dogs leads to a reduction in the number of infractions and amount of violence. Members of the community benefit by receiving a dog that can become a service dog or a treasured family member. And society benefits from a reduction in the recidivism rate of participating inmates.  That is a “win-times-five.”

Prisoners, private parties, private organizations, correctional officials, and observers have all offered testimonials to the worthwhile effects of PDPs.  Dogs have done so too, in their own way.  To prove the utility of PDPs as a valuable rehabilitative strategy, Congress should instruct the GAO or the Justice Department to analyze existing PDPs to determine whether they are operating effectively and efficiently.

December 8, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Fascinating accounting of considerable racial disparity in Florida sentencing

A helpful reader altered me to an extraordinary series of articles now in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune examining disparities in Florida's sentencing system, all under the heading "Bias on the Bench."  The lead article is headlined "Florida’s broken sentencing system: Designed for fairness, it fails to account for prejudice," and it starts this way:

Justice has never been blind when it comes to race in Florida. Blacks were first at the mercy of slave masters. Then came Jim Crow segregation and the Ku Klux Klan. Now, prejudice wears a black robe.

Half a century after the civil rights movement, trial judges throughout Florida sentence blacks to harsher punishment than whites, a Herald-Tribune investigation found. They offer blacks fewer chances to avoid jail or scrub away felonies. They give blacks more time behind bars — sometimes double the sentences of whites accused of the same crimes under identical circumstances.

Florida lawmakers have struggled for 30 years to create a more equitable system. Points are now used to calculate sentences based on the severity of the crime, the defendant’s prior record and a host of other factors. The idea is to punish criminals in Pensacola the same as those in Key West — no matter their race, gender or wealth. But the point system has not stopped discrimination.

In Manatee County, judges sentence whites convicted of felony drug possession to an average of five months behind bars. They gave blacks with identical charges and records more than a year. Judges in the Florida Panhandle county of Okaloosa sentence whites to nearly five months for battery. They lock up blacks for almost a year. Along the state’s northeast shore, judges in Flagler County put blacks convicted of armed robbery away for nearly triple the time.

“It’s unconscionable,” said Wengay Newton Sr., a former St. Petersburg city commissioner and Democrat, who was elected to the Florida House of Representatives in November. “That’s like running a red light in a white car and your ticket is $100 and running a red light in a black car and your ticket is $300.”

The Herald-Tribune spent a year reviewing tens of millions of records in two state databases — one compiled by the state’s court clerks that tracks criminal cases through every stage of the justice system and the other by the Florida Department of Corrections that notes points scored by felons at sentencing.

Reporters examined more than 85,000 criminal appeals, read through boxes of court documents and crossed the state to interview more than 100 legal experts, advocates and criminal defendants. The newspaper also built a first-of-its-kind database of Florida’s criminal judges to compare sentencing patterns based on everything from a judge's age and previous work experience to race and political affiliation.

No news organization, university or government agency has ever done such a comprehensive study of sentences handed down by individual judges on a statewide scale. Among the findings:

• Florida’s sentencing system is broken. When defendants score the same points in the formula used to set criminal punishments — indicating they should receive equal sentences — blacks spend far longer behind bars. There is no consistency between judges in Tallahassee and those in Sarasota.

• The war on drugs exacerbates racial disparities. Police target poor black neighborhoods, funneling more minorities into the system. Once in court, judges are tougher on black drug offenders every step of the way. Nearly half the counties in Florida sentence blacks convicted of felony drug possession to more than double the time of whites, even when their backgrounds are the same.

• Florida's state courts lack diversity, and it matters when it comes to sentencing. Blacks make up 16 percent of Florida’s population and one-third of the state’s prison inmates. But fewer than 7 percent of sitting judges are black and less than half of them preside over serious felonies. White judges in Florida sentence black defendants to 20 percent more time on average for third-degree felonies. Blacks who wear the robe give more balanced punishments.

• There’s little oversight of judges in Florida. The courts keep a wealth of data on criminal defendants. So does the prison system. But no one uses the data to review racial disparities in sentencing. Judges themselves don’t know their own tendencies.

Without checks to ensure equality, bias reigns.

Here are links to the other pieces in the series:

December 8, 2016 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8)

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Recalling the work of AG-designee Senator Jeff Sessions on crack/powder sentencing reform

NA-CM623_SESSIO_16U_20161206163606The Wall Street Journal has this new article flagging the sentencing reform work of Senator Jeff Sessions, who is Prez-Elect Donald Trump's pick to serve as our next Attorney General. The article is headlined "Jeff Sessions, Civil-Rights Groups Find Some Common Ground on Crack Sentencing: Attorney-general pick, targeted for his record on race, advocated for parity in cocaine punishments." Here are excerpts:

Civil-rights groups are set to battle Sen. Jeff Sessions’s nomination as attorney general over what they see as his disturbing record on racial equality. But there is one chapter in the former prosecutor’s career where they share a sliver of common ground.

Mr. Sessions was for years Congress’s most avid supporter of cutting the disparity between sentences for crack and powder cocaine, at a time when other lawmakers were loath to be seen as soft on crime. There has been a growing consensus that harsh penalties for crack, typically bought and sold on city streets, have taken an undue toll on African-American communities, while black leaders have long viewed the disparity as little short of racist.

To Mr. Sessions’s critics, the issue doesn’t come close to compensating for his career-long opposition to expanding civil-rights protections and reducing mandatory sentences, and more broadly for what they see as a general indifference to issues important to minorities.

But to the Alabama senator’s supporters, it is an overlooked part of a résumé they say is sometimes caricatured. “This was a personal agenda item for him,” said Matt Miner, Mr. Sessions’s former chief counsel. “This law was not calibrated to target serious drug dealers and was disproportionately affecting African-Americans, and it offended him.”

In a rare bipartisan move, Mr. Sessions and Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois ultimately struck a deal in 2010 to reduce, though not eliminate, the sentencing disparity. Mr. Sessions hung a copy of the resulting legislation, signed by President Barack Obama, in a prominent spot in his office next to his desk, Mr. Miner said....

In 1995, the U.S. Sentencing Commission tried to put the sentencing guidelines on par, but Congress rejected the proposal. Weeks later, riots broke out in the federal prison in Talladega, Ala., and spread to other federal facilities, an uprising the Bureau of Prisons attributed partly to Congress’s rejection of the cocaine measure. Mr. Sessions, then Alabama’s attorney general, was elected to Congress the following year. His first sentencing bill, in 2001, lowered the sentencing disparity to 20-to-1.

Mr. Sessions declined to comment for this article. But he told The Wall Street Journal at the time that the crack penalties were unfair and in many cases made cities less safe, not more so. On the Senate floor, he cited studies showing that African-Americans made up 84% of defendants sentenced for trafficking crack but only 31% of those sentenced for powder. “The five-gram trigger point for crack that was intended to protect African-Americans has resulted in heavy penalties for African-Americans, penalties that lack a rational basis,” Mr. Sessions said in 2002. He reintroduced the proposal in 2006 and 2007.

The Fair Sentencing Act, ultimately signed into law in 2010, raised the trigger for a five-year sentence to 28 grams of crack and the 10-year trigger to 280 grams of crack. The triggers for powder cocaine remained at 500 and 5,000 grams.

Advocates for criminal-justice changes aren’t expecting much support from Mr. Sessions on some of their other priorities. “It’s not entirely clear why he supported the Fair Sentencing Act,” said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, which worked with Mr. Sessions on the issue for years. Mr. Sessions has opposed efforts to reduce sentences for nonviolent drug offenders and to investigate law-enforcement agencies accused of violating civil rights.

Others are even more downbeat.

“He has taken positions so diametrically opposed to civil and human rights that there is little hope he would bring the sense of hope and openness he brought to the Fair Sentencing Act to the job of attorney general,” said Wade Henderson, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. “I consider it a one-off where he could show he was more enlightened and less doctrinaire than some of his colleagues.”

Mr. Henderson’s group is one of 145 organizations that signed a letter opposing Mr. Session’s nomination. The letter cites racially insensitive remarks allegedly made by Mr. Sessions; his unsuccessful prosecution of three black voting-rights activists on fraud charges; his support for voter ID laws that many activists say are designed to tamp down minority voting; and his opposition to a 2009 law expanding federal prosecution of hate crimes....

Kevin Ring, vice president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums and himself a former offender, said he hopes Mr. Sessions will at least leave discretion to federal prosecutors rather than ordering them to seek maximum penalties. “I’m looking for a silver lining,” he said.

A few prior related posts on Senator Sessions and sentencing reform:

December 7, 2016 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

"How Tough on Crime Became Tough on Kids: Prosecuting Teenage Drug Charges in Adult Courts"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new report from The Sentencing Project. Here is its Introduction:

Transfer laws in 46 states and the District of Columbia permit youth to be tried as adults on drug charges.

Successful campaigns to raise the age of juvenile court jurisdiction have rolled back some excesses of the tough on crime era.  After the implementation of Louisiana’s SB 324 in 2017 and South Carolina’s SB 916 in 2019, just seven states will routinely charge 17-year old offenders as adults, including the two states that also charge 16-year olds as adults.  Despite other state laws that differentiate between adults and youth, placing limits on teens’ rights to serve on juries, vote, or marry without parental consent, the criminal justice system in these jurisdictions erases the distinction when they are arrested.

Though the vast majority of arrested juveniles are processed in the juvenile justice system, transfer laws are the side door to adult criminal courts, jails, and prisons.  These laws either require juveniles charged with certain offenses to have their cases tried in adult courts or provide discretion to juvenile court judges or even prosecutors to pick and choose those juveniles who will be tried in adult courts.

It is widely understood that serious offenses, such as homicide, often are tried in adult criminal courts.  In fact, for as long as there have been juvenile courts, mechanisms have existed to allow the transfer of some youth into the adult system 2 During the early 1990s, under a set of faulty assumptions about a coming generation of “super-predators,” 40 states passed legislation to send even more juveniles into the adult courts for a growing array of offenses and with fewer procedural protections.  The super-predators, wrote John J. DiIulio in 1995, “will do what comes ‘naturally’: murder, rape, rob, assault, burglarize, deal deadly drugs, and get high.”

This tough-on-crime era left in its wake state laws that still permit or even require drug charges to be contested in adult courts.  Scant data exist to track its frequency, but fully 46 states and the District of Columbia permit juveniles to be tried as adults on drug charges.  Only Connecticut, Kansas, Massachusetts, and New Mexico do not.  States have taken steps to close this pathway, including a successful voter initiative in California, Proposition 57.  Nationwide, there were approximately 461 judicial waivers (those taking place after a hearing in juvenile court) in 2013 on drug charges.  The totals stemming from other categories of transfer are not available.

From 1989 to 1992, drug offense cases were more likely to be judicially waived to adult courts than any other offense category.  Given the recent wave of concern over opiate deaths, it is reasonable to fear a return to this era, even as public opinion now opposes harsh punishments for drug offenses.

The ability of states to send teenagers into the adult system on nonviolent offenses, a relic of the war on drugs, threatens the futures of those teenagers who are arrested on drug charges, regardless of whether or not they are convicted (much less incarcerated) on those charges.  Transfer laws have been shown to increase recidivism, particularly violent recidivism, among those convicted in adult courts.  Research shows waiver laws are disproportionately used on youth of color. Moreover, an adult arrest record can carry collateral consequences that a juvenile record might not.  Since very few criminal charges ever enter the trial phase, the mere threat of adult prison time contributes to some teenagers’ guilty pleas. This policy report reviews the methods by which juveniles can be tried as adults for drug offenses and the consequences of the unchecked power of some local prosecutors.

December 7, 2016 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

At 11th hour, more advocacy for Prez Obama to make big 11th-hour clemency push

As regular readers may recall, and as I cannot help but highlight these days, I was aggressively calling for Prez Obama to make significant use of his clemency power from literally his first day in office.  This January 20, 2009 post was titled "Is it too early to start demanding President Obama use his clemency power?" and in 2010 I authored this article in the New England Journal on Criminal and Civil Confinement under the title "Turning Hope-and-Change Talk Into Clemency Action for Nonviolent Drug Offenders."

I suppose I should be happy that, with Prez Obama on his way out the door, a lot of other folks are now finally joining this call for action with some urgency.  This New York Times editorial, headlined "President Obama’s Last Chance to Show Mercy," is today's example of the clemency chorus now growing. Here are excerpts:

The Constitution gives presidents nearly unlimited authority to grant pardons and commute sentences — decisions that no future administration can reverse. Unfortunately, for most of his presidency, Barack Obama treated mercy as an afterthought. Even as thousands of men and women endured outrageously long sentences for low-level, nonviolent drug offenses as a result of the nation’s misguided drug war, Mr. Obama granted relief to only a tiny handful.

In the last two years, however, Mr. Obama has changed course. In 2014 he directed the Justice Department to systematically review cases of people serving out sentences that would be far shorter had they been convicted under new, more lenient sentencing laws.

While that clemency process has moved far too slowly — beset by both administrative obstacles and bureaucratic resistance — grants have been accelerating throughout 2016. Mr. Obama has now shortened or ended the sentences of more than 1,000 prisoners, and he will most likely be the first president since Lyndon Johnson to leave office with a smaller federal prison population than he inherited.

There are thousands more people deserving of release, but their prospects under the next administration don’t look good. President-elect Donald Trump ran on a “law and order” platform that sounded a lot like the punitive approach that led to exploding prison populations in the first place. His choice for attorney general, Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, has fiercely opposed criminal sentencing reform and called Mr. Obama’s grants of clemency an abuse of power. In other words, for many federal inmates, their last hope lies in Mr. Obama’s hands.

Up to now, the president has reviewed clemency requests on a case-by-case basis. With only weeks left in office, Mr. Obama should consider a bolder approach: blanket commutations for those inmates still serving time under an old law that punished possession or sale of crack cocaine far more harshly than powder cocaine — a meaningless distinction that sent disproportionate numbers of young black and Latino men to prison for decades....

The idea of blanket commutations is being pushed by a coalition of criminal-justice reform advocates, including former judges and prosecutors, who urged the president in a letter last week to use his clemency power aggressively while he still can.  The group called for the release of thousands more nonviolent offenders in low-risk categories, including elderly inmates, who are the least likely of all to commit new crimes, and those with convictions for drugs other than crack.  The coalition argues that it is possible to make these grants in the short time remaining, if the administration is committed to getting it done.

Mr. Trump may well dismantle a lot of Mr. Obama’s legacy, but he can’t touch grants of clemency.  Mr. Obama has taken important steps toward unwinding the decades-long imprisonment binge.  With much of that progress now at risk, he has only a few weeks left to ensure a measure of justice and mercy for thousands of people.

December 7, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Oklahoma's top criminal court gives significant effect to Miller's limits on juve LWOP sentences

As reported in this local article, headlined "Resentencings ordered in two high-profile Oklahoma murder cases," the top criminal court in Oklahoma issues two big ruling about juve LWOP sentencing late last week. Here are the basics:

Oklahoma's youngest murderers can no longer be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole unless they are found to be "irreparably corrupt and permanently incorrigible."  A divided Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals established the new restrictions in rulings made Friday in two high-profile murder cases.

The first ruling involved a murderer who was 16 at the time.  The second involved a murderer who was 17 at the time. Both must be resentenced, the appeals court ruled.  In both cases, the appeals court concluded the punishment of life without parole "is constitutionally infirm" because jurors were not presented evidence involving "important youth-related considerations."...

The appeals court came up with a new instruction to be given to juries in future murder cases involving a defendant who was under age 18 at the time of the crime.  Jurors will be told "no person who committed a crime as a juvenile may be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole unless you find beyond a reasonable doubt the defendant is irreparably corrupt and permanently incorrigible."

A murderer sentenced to a life term, with a chance at parole, is eligible for consideration under current law after spending 38 years and three months in prison.

I received an email about these rulings from The Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, and here is part of that email (with links to the decisions):

On Friday, Oklahoma’s highest criminal court applied Miller v. Alabama and Montgomery v. Louisiana to discretionary juvenile life without parole, affording an opportunity for resentencing to more than 45 people in Oklahoma sentenced to die in prison for crimes committed as children.

In two decisions, the court affirmed United States Supreme Court limitations on sentencing children to life in prison. These decisions should dramatically limit, if not prevent, the imposition of life sentences for children in Oklahoma going forward....

Oklahoma has joined a growing number of states that apply Miller and Montgomery to sentences of juvenile life without parole where the judge had discretion whether or not to impose life without parole, including Connecticut, Georgia, and South Carolina.

The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals also required a finding of “irreparable corruption and permanent incorrigibility” beyond a reasonable doubt before life without parole can be imposed on children, consistent with the U.S. Supreme Court’s holding in Montgomery that life without parole is unconstitutional when imposed on the vast majority of children.

December 7, 2016 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Georgia completes ninth and last execution of 2016

As reported here by BuzzFeed News, "William Sallie was executed Tuesday night in Georgia for the 1990 murder of his father-in-law, Jack Moore, after the US Supreme Court denied two requests to halt it." Here is more:

Sallie became the ninth person to be executed in Georgia this year, making it the state with the most executions so far in 2016. It was also the highest number of executions in the state since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.

In March 1990, Sallie broke into the home of his in-laws, Jack and Linda Moore, where his ex-wife Robin and their two-year-old son, Ryan, were living after Sallie lost a bitter custody battle. Robin’s 17-year-old sister, April, and 9-year-old brother Justin also lived in the rural home in Bacon County, according to court documents. Sallie shot the Moores as they slept in their bed, killing Jack and wounding Linda. He then handcuffed Linda and Justin to the bed rail and abducted Robin and April to his mobile home where he raped them, according to evidence presented at the trial. He released them a day later and was arrested shortly after.

The Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles denied clemency for Sallie on Monday. Sallie’s clemency petition and an appeal filed in the US Supreme Court argue that his execution will be unconstitutional as he has been denied federal court review of his claims of juror bias because of a procedural technicality. The US Supreme Court denied his request, with no noted dissents by any of the justices.

His lawyers argued that Sallie’s death sentence was imposed at the urging of a juror who was “patently biased” against him and was dishonest about her life experiences that would have affected her judgement during jury selection.

December 7, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

"Bill Would Create Law Clerkships on Capitol Hill"

The title of this post is the headline of this new National Law Journal article that discusses a terrific program that a terrific colleague has been advocating for.  Here is how the article begins:

Is the fifth time the charm for a proposed congressional clerkship program for new lawyers? It might be.

A bipartisan coalition of four U.S. senators on Monday introduced a bill that would create a dozen yearlong clerkships on Capitol Hill for recent law graduates—a long-discussed program modeled after judicial clerkships that aims to give lawmakers deeper legal resources while providing future leaders of the legal profession with legislative experience.

Previous iterations of the Daniel Web­ster Congressional Clerkship Program passed in the House of Representatives but stalled in the Senate amid gridlock and Republican concerns over unspecified costs. Now, advocates of the program say a fresh slate of Senate co-sponsors that spans the aisle, as well as changes that clarify the program won't require additional funds, mean conditions are finally ripe for the bill's passage.

"We have members who are excited to push the bill and we have a window here before the end of the lame duck," said Dakota Rudesill, a professor at Ohio State University Michael E. Moritz College of Law who has been working on the initiative for a decade and serves as the national coordinator of the Congressional Clerkship Coalition.

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, is co-sponsoring the bill along with Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and John Hoeven, R-North Dakota. While Congress is tasked with creating laws, it's the only branch of the government without a designated clerkship or fellowship for young lawyers.

"Really, when you look at the greater landscape and you compare it to the well-established judicial clerkship experience and the executive branch attorney honors programs, there's really a void when it comes to the legislative arena," said Joe Gambino, a 2013 graduate of Georgetown University Law Center who worked on the clerkship initiative as a student in Rudesill's clinic, where the professor taught before moving to Ohio State. "This bill would really fill that void and allow some of the top talent from our nation's law schools to spend a formative year in the legislative branch. That's really not an option to them right now."

The problem isn't that there are too few lawyers on Capitol Hill, Rudesill said. Rather, it's that those lawyers often aren't focused on the nuts of bolts of making law: researching and drafting bills, statutory analysis, and utilizing congressional procedure rules. Instead, lawyers are typically tasked with policy making, constituent matters and messaging, Rudesill said.

Having clerks with a deep understanding of how to create laws will benefit Congress and will help elevate Congress' status within the legal profession, he added. "The legislative experience gap is significant because we do not have people in the top ranks of the legal profession who have done legislative work from the inside," Rudesill said. "We believe that correlates to less appreciation for the role of Congress and legislation in the U.S. legal system." The proposed clerkship is intended for promising young attorneys who will take their Capitol Hill experience into other leadership roles within the legal profession, not necessarily those aspiring to government careers, he said.

December 6, 2016 in Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

SCOTUS unanimously upholds broad interpretation of insider trading in Salman

The Supreme Court handed down this morning its first significant criminal justice ruling of the Term via a unanimous decision in Salman v. US, No. 15-628 (S. Ct. Dec. 6, 2016) (available here).  Here is how the opinion authored by Justice Alito for a unanimous court gets started:

Section 10(b) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 and the Securities and Exchange Commission’s Rule 10b–5 prohibit undisclosed trading on inside corporate information by individuals who are under a duty of trust and confidence that prohibits them from secretly using such information for their personal advantage.  48 Stat. 891, as amended, 15 U.S.C. § 78j(b) (prohibiting the use, “in connection with the purchase or sale of any security,” of “any manipulative or deceptive device or contrivance in contravention of such rules as the [Securities and Exchange Commission] may prescribe”); 17 CFR § 240.10b–5 (2016) (forbidding the use, “in connection with the sale or purchase of any security,” of “any device, scheme or artifice to defraud,” or any “act, practice, or course of business which operates . . . as a fraud or deceit”); see United States v. O’Hagan, 521 U.S. 642, 650–652 (1997).  Individuals under this duty may face criminal and civil liability for trading on inside information (unless they make appropriate disclosures ahead of time).

These persons also may not tip inside information to others for trading. The tippee acquires the tipper’s duty to disclose or abstain from trading if the tippee knows the information was disclosed in breach of the tipper’s duty, and the tippee may commit securities fraud by trading in disregard of that knowledge.  In Dirks v. SEC, 463 U.S. 646 (1983), this Court explained that a tippee’s liability for trading on inside information hinges on whether the tipper breached a fiduciary duty by disclosing the information. A tipper breaches such a fiduciary duty, we held, when the tipper discloses the inside information for a personal benefit.  And, we went on to say, a jury can infer a personal benefit — and thus a breach of the tipper’s duty — where the tipper receives something of value in exchange for the tip or “makes a gift of confidential information to a trading relative or friend.” Id., at 664.

Petitioner Bassam Salman challenges his convictions for conspiracy and insider trading.  Salman received lucrative trading tips from an extended family member, who had received the information from Salman’s brother-in-law.  Salman then traded on the information.  He argues that he cannot be held liable as a tippee because the tipper (his brother-in-law) did not personally receive money or property in exchange for the tips and thus did not personally benefit from them.  The Court of Appeals disagreed, holding that Dirks allowed the jury to infer that the tipper here breached a duty because he made a “‘gift of confidential information to a trading relative.’” 792 F.3d 1087, 1092 (CA9 2015) (quoting Dirks, supra, at 664).  Because the Court of Appeals properly applied Dirks, we affirm the judgment below.

December 6, 2016 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Intriguing discussion of how religion might have helped save the death penalty in Nebraska

584656d34e0b2.imageThis new local article, headlined "How religion impacted Nebraska’s death penalty vote," discusses the intersection of religious beliefs and support for capital punishment among Cornhuskers. Here are the details:

While the presidential election surprised most people, the results of one Nebraska vote shouldn’t have been a surprise. Nebraska voters resoundingly repealed a bill eliminating the state’s death penalty, with 61.2 percent voting to reinstate the punishment and 38.8 percent hoping to keep it off the books. As Nebraska is a solid Republican state, its death penalty vote matches national statistics. 72 percent of Republicans nationwide support the death penalty, according to a September Pew Research poll.

But for some Nebraskans, the death penalty vote wasn’t a political decision, but a decision based on religious beliefs. Christians are more likely to support capital punishment than other groups, according to the same Pew Research Poll. White evangelical Protestants are most in favor, with 69 percent supporting the death penalty, followed by white mainline Protestants at 60 percent. By a narrow margin, more Catholics oppose the death penalty than support it, at 46 percent to 43 percent.

But these views are contrary to official statements from some Christian leaders. Major religious groups, including the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Episcopal Church, have published statements opposing the death penalty on religious grounds. This means people often disagree with their denomination’s official statements on the issue.

Allison Johnson, a minister at The Lutheran Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, echoed the anti-death penalty sentiments of the ELCA church she serves on campus. If she’d been registered to vote in Nebraska instead of Wisconsin, Johnson would have voted to retain the bill, she said. “Jesus didn’t overcome systems of violence and injustice by more killing,” she said. “Jesus overcame them by absorbing them and dying himself.”

But the Rev. Jerry Thompson of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church at UNL said the issue is more complicated than that. Thompson has voiced opposition to the death penalty and voted to retain the bill. “I think of those passages where Jesus says, ‘Forgive your enemies, forgive those who have abused you, pray for them,’” Thompson said. “That doesn’t suggest to me putting them to death is part of the Christian way of life.”

But voting to reinstate capital punishment doesn’t make a Christian a hypocrite, he said. “You could hold religious beliefs and still vote in favor of keeping the death penalty,” Thompson said. “I don’t think that one thing necessarily leads to the other.” The complexity of the issue is one reason for the divide among Christians, Thompson said.

Plus, conversation about the death penalty doesn’t crop up much in day-to-day life, said the Rev. Steve Mills of St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church. While Mills is against capital punishment, it’s a low priority on his list of things to preach about, he said. “I know the church will speak about [the death penalty], but I don’t think the church has a huge push with it,” Mills said. “I think that’s kind of where it’s not clearly articulated frequently. It just comes up around election time.”

But not all pastors at UNL are against the death penalty on religious grounds. The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and the Southern Baptist Convention are two groups that favor it. Pastor Bill Steinbauer of the University Lutheran Chapel, a Missouri Synod church at UNL, said he rarely discussed capital punishment this fall, although politics was a hot topic. “I think when Christians tend to argue over things, this isn’t one of them,” Steinbauer said. “It’s one more of those things where we can agree to disagree. I don’t see that as being a big, divisive thing.”

He’s against the death penalty for reasons not found in the Bible. “I’m not morally against it; my reasons for being against it are more practical,” he said. “Based on the reading of Scripture, the Bible allows for the government to have capital punishment. But I would also say that it’s somewhat of a case-by-case thing too. If the government is undeniably corrupt and the government is enacting injustice upon people even through the use of the death penalty, no Lutheran pastor would stand up and say, ‘Hey, that’s perfectly OK.’”...

UNL student David Magnuson supports the government’s ability to pass punishment. “You know, it is wrong for someone to kill someone, even in retribution; that’s always wrong, but that doesn’t apply to governments,” Magnuson said. “The government is not a person; it is a higher entity, and its role is to be just through laws.” The senior criminal justice major is active both religiously and politically, serving in UNL’s Reformed University Fellowship youth group and interning for Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson....

Magnuson grew up in a non-denominational church in Texas, a state where he says “every Christian supports the death penalty.” “Here, it is different, and I’ve met people who don’t support it,” Magnuson said. “It’s a very complex issue, and it’s not a good topic. [But] I think the worst crime you can do is kill someone.” Magnuson said he rejects the argument that it’s cheaper to have a criminal spend life in prison. “Just paying for an inmate in prison is such a strain on society,” he said. “You’re paying to keep them alive. I think we should just kill them, and kill them fast. That’s what we do in Texas, and I think it’s great.”

The best argument he’s heard against the death penalty is that it gives inmates time to find God. But he said the death penalty can’t “stop God’s plan.” “It’s not the government’s role to play Jesus; It’s not,” Magnuson said. “That’s people’s role to play Jesus, and obviously, if we were in a perfect world, we wouldn’t deal with this problem.”

December 6, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Religion, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

"The Link Between Race and Solitary Confinement: Men of color are overrepresented in isolation, while whites are typically underrepresented."

The title of this post is the full headline of this new Atlantic piece.  Here is how it gets started (with links from the original):

Stark disparities in prisoners’ treatment are embedded into criminal-justice systems at the city, county, state, and federal levels, and have disproportionate, negative effects on men of color. A new analysis from the Association of State Correctional Administrators and Yale Law School provides a fresh trove of information with which to explore the racial dynamics in state and federal prisons — specifically through their findings on solitary confinement.

“People of color are overrepresented in solitary confinement compared to the general prison population,” said Judith Resnik, a professor at Yale Law School and one of the study’s authors. “In theory, if race wasn’t a variable, you wouldn’t see that kind of variation. You worry. It gives you a cause to worry.”

The study concluded that, overall, black male prisoners made up 40 percent of the total prison population in those 43 jurisdictions, but constituted 45 percent of the “restricted housing population,” another way to describe those in solitary confinement.  In 31 of the 43, the percentage of black men who spent time in solitary wasn’t proportional to their slice of the general population — it was greater.  Latinos were also disproportionately represented in solitary: On the whole, 21 percent of inmates in confinement were Latino, even though this group constituted only 20 percent of the total population.  Overall, in 22 of the 43 jurisdictions, Latinos were overrepresented in relation to their general-population numbers.

The numbers look slightly different at the state level. In some states, the racial makeup of prisons and their solitary-confinement populations appeared more balanced — like in Kentucky, where white prisoners made up 70 percent of both the general and restricted-housing populations. Black prisoners represented 28 percent of those imprisoned and 27 percent of those in solitary. The dynamic is similar in the District of Columbia, with whites representing 2 percent of both the general and solitary-confinement populations, and blacks representing 90 percent and 94 percent of those groups, respectively.

By and large, similarly aligned figures can be found throughout the country. But in some states, the racial disproportions are startling.  

For example, in a handful of states where Latinos represent a large swath of the overall population, the racial disparities are significant. In California, Latinos made up 42 percent of the general prison population, but 86 percent of those in solitary confinement. Whites, by contrast, were 22 percent of the general population, but only nine percent of those in solitary. And in Texas, Latinos made up 50 percent of those in solitary, but only 34 percent of the overall prison population. Yet again, whites’ figures were lower: They represented 32 percent of the general prison population, but 25 percent of the population in solitary confinement. Mississippi, too, had dissimilar numbers among the racial groups.

December 6, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, December 5, 2016

Is Georgia really "rushing" to execute a defendant convicted of murder in 1990?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new New York Times commentary authored by Norman Fletcher, who "served on the Supreme Court of Georgia for over 15 years and was its chief justice from 2001 to 2005."  The NY Times gave this commentary the headline "Georgia’s Dangerous Rush to Execution," but the first sentence of the commentary states: "Tomorrow, the State of Georgia intends to execute William Sallie, who was convicted of killing a man in 1990." Though there could be many problems with Georgia's capital system, conducting an execution 26 years after a capital conviction does not seem to me like a "rush job." That lingo aside, here is what former Justice Fletcher goes on to explain in his commentary:

I served as a justice on the Supreme Court of Georgia for over 15 years. During that time I participated in dozens of death-penalty cases and affirmed many of them. That experience, though, exposed me to some of the significant flaws in the system — not just the injustice of the death penalty itself, but specific problems with the way capital cases are handled. Mr. Sallie’s case is a prime example.

Perhaps the biggest problem with Georgia’s system, and one of the reasons the state carries out so many executions, is that it often fails to provide people with lawyers. Mr. Sallie, for example, missed a filing deadline for a federal review of his case by eight days, in part because he didn’t have a lawyer at the time to help him. And this isn’t just a delay tactic; he has several strong claims about constitutional failings during his trial that, if proved, could require the reversal of his conviction. As things stand, he will be executed without review.

Fundamental fairness, due process and the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment require the courts to provide an attorney throughout the entire legal process to review a death sentence. Virtually every capital-punishment state has this safeguard. Georgia is an outlier.

I saw this firsthand as the presiding justice on the State Supreme Court in 1999, in an appeal of a post-conviction hearing for a man named Exzavious Gibson, who was 17 at the time of his crime. It was a critical proceeding, where a lawyer should have raised important details about whether he received adequate representation during his trial — except that, ironically, no volunteer attorney was available. Mr. Gibson, who was poor and apparently, from the records, intellectually disabled and afflicted by acute mental health problems, was forced to represent himself.

That sham of a proceeding is one of the most deplorable vignettes in Georgia’s legal history. But a majority of my fellow justices were less moved, and the court decided, 4-3, that people with death-penalty convictions have no right to counsel at that critical post-conviction stage — a ruling still in force today.

As a result, a door that would have been open to Mr. Sallie in almost any other state was closed to him in Georgia. If it were open, he would be able to present the facts about his trial, which appear to show serious problems with juror bias.

Mr. Sallie’s lawyers amassed volumes of public records and witness statements showing that one of the jurors, despite having a known bias, apparently misled the trial judge and the parties in order to join the jury. (She omitted vital, likely disqualifying information, including striking similarities between her traumatic history of divorce and interstate child custody fights and the domestic strife at the center of Mr. Sallie’s case.) In 2012, after his conviction, she bragged to an investigator that she had persuaded the jury, which was evenly divided between life and death, to vote unanimously for death.

The problem is not just Georgia. The United States Supreme Court has not ruled that the Constitution guarantees a right to an attorney during the critical post-conviction review stage in state courts. Georgia continues to deny counsel — and denies a man like William Sallie the opportunity to defend his life.

December 5, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (12)

"No Bars: Unlocking the Economic Power of the Formerly Incarcerated"

The title of this post is the title of this intriguing little paper authored by Emily Fetsch for the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation and now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

One in three Americans has a criminal record.  Given the significant size of this population, the ability for these individuals to attain economic success after they leave prison has tremendous implications for our economy and economic mobility. But formerly incarcerated individuals face substantial obstacles to employment when they leave prison, from discrimination in hiring to occupational licensing requirements that exclude those with criminal records from specific professions.

This paper summarizes recent research on the employment of formerly incarcerated individuals, focusing in particular on the disproportionate effect of occupational licensing requirements.  The paper concludes with suggestions for policy changes that would reduce the friction this population experiences in the labor market.  These policies would help these individuals become more economically independent and have a positive impact on the economy as a whole.

December 5, 2016 in Offender Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (4)

Bring it, Jeff: why I seriously doubt future AG Sessions will start a foolish new weed war federal offensive

Lead_960The title of this post is my (foolish?) reaction to this notable new Politico magazine article headlined "Jeff Sessions’ Coming War on Legal Marijuana: There’s little to stop the attorney general nominee from ignoring the will of millions of pro-pot voters." Here are excerpts from the start of the article which I follow with a (too brief) explanation for my blunt "bring it" bravado:

By nominating Senator Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III for attorney general, President-elect Donald J. Trump is about to put into the nation’s top law enforcement job a man with a long and antagonistic attitude toward marijuana. As a U.S. Attorney in Alabama in the 1980s, Sessions said he thought the KKK "were OK until I found out they smoked pot.” In April, he said, “Good people don't smoke marijuana,” and that it was a "very real danger" that is “not the kind of thing that ought to be legalized.” Sessions, who turns 70 on Christmas Eve, has called marijuana reform a "tragic mistake" and criticized FBI Director James Comey and Attorneys General Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch for not vigorously enforcing a the federal prohibition that President Obama has called “untenable over the long term.”  In a floor speech earlier this year, Senator Sessions said: "You can’t have the President of the United States of America talking about marijuana like it is no different than taking a drink… It is different….It is already causing a disturbance in the states that have made it legal.”

Sessions has not shared his plans on marijuana enforcement, but if he chooses, he will be able to act decisively and quickly — more so perhaps than with any other of his top agenda items such as re-doubling efforts to combat illegal immigration and relaxing oversight of local police forces and federal civil rights laws. With little more than the stroke of his own pen, the new attorney general will be able to arrest growers, retailers and users, defying the will of more than half the nation’s voters, including those in his own state who approved the use of CBD. Aggressive enforcement could cause chaos in a $6.7 billion industry that is already attracting major investment from Wall Street hedge funds and expected to hit $21.8 billion by 2020.

And so far, Congress has shown no interest in trying to stop the Sessions nomination, at least on this issue. Even members who are in favor of protecting states from federal interference on the marijuana issue have said they support Sessions’ confirmation as attorney general: “I strongly support Jeff Sessions as Attorney General,” said Representative Tom McClintock, Republican from California. “He is a strict constitutionalist who believes in the rule of law. I would expect that he will respect the prerogative of individual states to determine their own laws involving strictly intra-state commerce.”

There are dozens of reasons I think it would be quite foolish as a matter of constitutional law and sound federal policing priorities for future Attorney General Jeff Sessions to start his tenure by using broad federal police powers to criminally prosecute tens of thousands of players in a growing recreational marijuana industry.  This industry is already well-established and producing thousands of jobs and tens of millions in tax revenues in Colorado, Oregon and Washington; it is now gearing up for growth in Alaska, California, Massachusetts and Nevada and maybe Maine.

In the most simple of terms, it would be foolish for the Trump/Sessions Administration to try to "Make America Great Again" via tough federal pot prohibition enforcement because it would show to all who care to pay attention that the GOP's purported affinity for personal freedoms, free markets, limited government and states' rights is a huge bunch of hooey.  But I genuinely believe that most younger GOP Senators — e.g., folks like Ted Cruz, my wish pick for AG, Mike Lee, Rand Paul, Ben Sasse, Tim Scott— have always voiced a genuine commitment to personal freedoms, free markets, limited government and states' rights.  Consequently, I do not think these important GOP voices are going to be quick to bless any efforts by future AG Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III to bring back an era of national federal Prohibition enforcement by executive fiat.

Moreover, and completely missing from the facile analysis in this superficial Politico article, even if future AG Jeff Sessions were eager to bring back an era of national federal Prohibition enforcement by executive fiat for the emerging recreational marijuana industry, there will still be the bigger and stronger and much more consequential medical marijuana industry chugging along — especially in so many swing/red states that were critical to the election of Donald J. Trump circa 2016.  I am thinking here specifically of now-red states like Arizona and Florida and Michigan and Ohio and Pennsylvania.  Those now-red states alone add up to nearly 100 electoral votes that a whole bunch of Dems would love to win back in 2018 and 2020; and they are all states that, I think, could easily go back into the Dem column if/when establishment Dems finally figure out that medical marijuana reform in a winning issue worth promoting forcefully.  (I have blogged here an explanation for my claim in a post at my other blog that Voter math suggests a possible Hillary landslide IF she had championed marijuana reform.)

Importantly, in this post I have only outlined some obvious political/policy reasons for why I think it would be foolish (and ultimately unlikely) for future AG Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III to bring back an era of national federal pot Prohibition enforcement by executive fiat.  In a future post, assuming readers are interested, I can explain all the reasons I think the other two branches of the federal government — Congress and the federal judiciary — can and would and should find an array of means to "stop the attorney general nominee from ignoring the will of millions of pro-pot voters."  Given that Congress and federal judges over the last eight years have done a whole lot to preclude the Obama Administration from doing too much by executive fiat,  everyone concerned about criminal justice and marijuana policy in the Trumpian future much keep in mind that the Framers gave us a wonderful federal system of check-and-balances that has been pretty effective at keeping the big bad federal government from doing too many stupid things that are obviously against the considered will of the people.

Just sayin'

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy, and Reform

December 5, 2016 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Pot Prohibition Issues, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (13)

Anyone interested in SCOTUS speculating after Ohio repeat execution case again left in limbo?

The question in the title of this post emerges from the latest SCOTUS order list here, which does not mention in any way Broom v. Ohio.  This accounting of Broom from SCOTUSblog's most recent Relist Watch will remind readers why I am paying (too?) much attention to this case:

16-5580

Issues: (1) Whether the first attempt to execute the petitioner was cruel and unusual under the Eighth and 14th Amendments to the United States Constitution and if so, whether the appropriate remedy is to bar any further execution attempt on the petitioner; (2) whether a second attempt to execute the petitioner will be a cruel and unusual punishment and a denial of due process in violation of the Eighth and 14th Amendments to the United States Constitution; and (3) whether a second attempt to execute the petitioner will violate double jeopardy protections under the Fifth and 14th Amendments to the United States Constitution.

(relisted after the November 4, November 10 and November 22 conferences)

For the first few relists in early November, I was speculating that the Justices were waiting for one or more of them (e.g., Justices Breyer and Ginsberg and ____) to complete a dissent from the denial of certiorari.  But now that this unique (and not-so-complicated) case has been in front of SCOTUS for well over a month, I am starting to think the Justices are inclined to hold on to this case until a replacement for Justice Scalia is named; once that new possible Justice is named, the current Justices can and will all have a better sense of whether and how the new Justice might break a possible 4-4 tie in this case.

Before urging readers to check out all the prior posts linked below (and others), I cannot help but flag a phrase in this post from Sept 2009 when Ohio first tried to move forward with a second execution attempt: "it is hard to predict if and when and how the US Supreme Court will be brought into this fray."  It is perhaps worth recalling that this phrase was written when Justices Scalia, Souter and Stevens were all on SCOTUS.  Now, a (lucky?) seven years later, we have Justices Kagan and Sotomayor and an open seat.

Related posts (most from 2009) on botched Broom execution attempt and its aftermath:

December 5, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Shining spotlight on ugly dark racial realities of New York State's prison and parole systems

The New York Times has an important new series of articles examining biases in New York State's prison and parole systems. Here are links to and key passages from the first two articles:

"The Scourge of Racial Bias in New York State’s Prisons"

A review by The New York Times of tens of thousands of disciplinary cases against inmates in 2015, hundreds of pages of internal reports and three years of parole decisions found that racial disparities were embedded in the prison experience in New York.

In most prisons, blacks and Latinos were disciplined at higher rates than whites — in some cases twice as often, the analysis found.  They were also sent to solitary confinement more frequently and for longer durations.  At Clinton, a prison near the Canadian border where only one of the 998 guards is African-American, black inmates were nearly four times as likely to be sent to isolation as whites, and they were held there for an average of 125 days, compared with 90 days for whites.

A greater share of black inmates are in prison for violent offenses, and minority inmates are disproportionately younger, factors that could explain why an inmate would be more likely to break prison rules, state officials said. But even after accounting for these elements, the disparities in discipline persisted, The Times found.

The disparities were often greatest for infractions that gave discretion to officers, like disobeying a direct order.  In these cases, the officer has a high degree of latitude to determine whether a rule is broken and does not need to produce physical evidence.  The disparities were often smaller, according to the Times analysis, for violations that required physical evidence, like possession of contraband.

"For Blacks Facing Parole in New York State, Signs of a Broken System"

An analysis by The New York Times of thousands of parole decisions from the past several years found that fewer than one in six black or Hispanic men was released at his first hearing, compared with one in four white men.

It is a disparity that is particularly striking not for the most violent criminals, like rapists and murderers, but for small-time offenders who commit property crimes like stealing a television from a house or shoplifting from Duane Reade — precisely the people many states are now working to keep out of prison in the first place.

Since 2006, white inmates serving two to four years for a single count of third-degree burglary have been released after an average of 803 days, while black inmates served an average of 883 days for the same crime.

December 5, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, December 4, 2016

After securing right of self-representation, Dylann Roof says he now wants lawyer help for guilt phase of capital trial

Mass murderer Dylann Roof is making headlines again, as reported in this new BuzzFeed News piece, "Dylann Roof Has Changed His Mind And Wants His Attorneys Back: The alleged Charleston church shooter had been representing himself in court, but on Sunday he asked for his lawyers back for part of his trial." Here are the basics:

Dylann Roof, the white supremacist who allegedly killed nine people at a historic black church in Charleston last year, on Sunday asked a judge to allow his defense attorneys to once again represent him at trial — but only through part of the case.

Roof successfully petitioned last week to act as his own lawyer during the death penalty trial in accordance with his rights under the Sixth Amendment. He was then involved in the jury selection process, but was assisted by stand-by counsel. However, Roof changed his mind on Sunday, filing a motion and handwritten letter asking US District Judge Richard Gergel to let his lawyers return, but only for the phase of the trial in which jurors will decide whether Roof is guilty or innocent.

“I would like to ask if my lawyers can represent me for the guilt phase of the trial only,” Roof wrote. “Can you let me have them back for the guilt phase, and then let me represent myself for the sentencing phase of the trial?”

“If you would allow that, then that is what I would like to do,” Roof wrote, signing his name. Judge Gergel is yet to make a decision on the motion, but he had been deeply critical of Roof’s original decision to represent himself, telling the defendant it was “strategically unwise” and “foolhardy.”

December 4, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)