Tuesday, February 28, 2017
What are we likely to hear (or hoping to hear) from Prez Trump tonight about crime and punishment?
Prez Trump is slated to give his first speech to Congress tonight, and this Politico piece reports on some of the advance buzz coming from the White House about the tone and content of the speech. Here are brief excerpts from the report that might interest sentencing fans:
President Donald Trump’s highly-anticipated first address to Congress on Tuesday will detail an “optimistic vision” for the nation that vows to push a “bold agenda” on tax and regulatory overhauls, reforms in the workplace and a promise to “sav[e] American families from the disaster of Obamacare.”
That’s according to a list of 11 key bullet points outlining Trump’s speech from the White House that was obtained by POLITICO in advance of the address. In it, Trump will also paint his agenda with broad, unifying tones, saying he will “invite Americans of all backgrounds to come together in the service of a stronger, brighter future for our nation.”
“All Americans share a desire for safe communities for themselves and their families,” reads one of the points....
Here is the outline of Trump’s address, distributed by the White House:...
• In Tuesday night’s speech, he will lay out an optimistic vision for the country that crosses the traditional lines of party, race and socioeconomic status. It will invite Americans of all backgrounds to come together in the service of a stronger, brighter future for our nation.
• All Americans share a desire for safe communities for themselves and their families....
• It will be a speech addressed to ALL Americans AS Americans — not to a coalition of special interests and minor issues.
• Americans can expect a speech that is grounded firmly in solving real problems for real people. How can we make sure that every American who needs a good job can get one? How can we get kids who are trapped in failing schools into a better school? How we can keep gangs and drugs and violent crime out of their neighborhoods?
• The President will reach out to Americans living in the poorest and most vulnerable communities, and let them know that help is on the way.
Based on Prez Trump's prior speeches, I am expecting mostly generalities rather than many specifics on the topics of crime and punishment. But the tone and nature of generalities here could still provide addition insight into the likely direction and priorities for the administration of the federal criminal justice in the Trump era.
Monday, February 27, 2017
"How Trump's Twitter use could help bring down NC sex offender law"
The title of this post is the catchy headline of this news article providing a summary of today's Supreme Court oral argument in Packingham v. North Carolina, which involves a First Amendment challenge to a North Carolina law a law that makes it a felony for any person on the state's registry of former sex offenders to “access” a wide array of websites. Here are excerpts from the press account:
A Supreme Court justice pointed to President Trump's use of Twitter during arguments in a challenge to a North Carolina law that forbids registered sex offenders from using social media.
The law, Justice Elena Kagan said, makes it illegal for a group of people to communicate with the president using his favored form of communication. "This has become a crucially important channel of communication," Kagan said.
The justices heard oral arguments Monday in Packingham v. North Carolina. Lester Packingham is a registered sex offender who posted a statement on Facebook celebrating the dismissal of a traffic ticket. Police in Durham, N.C., indicted him for breaking the state's 2008 law that bans sex offenders from using social media that allows children to be members, including Facebook, Twitter and Instagram....
Questions from Kagan and the three other liberal justices suggested they are concerned the law overly restricts free speech. It "forecloses some of the most important channels of communication in our society," Justice Sonia Sotomayor said.
Kagan said in addition to blocking a channel of communication with President Trump, the ban also restricts how sex offenders interact with lawmakers and with religious groups. "These sites have become embedded in our culture as a way to exercise constitutional rights," Kagan said.
Senior Deputy Attorney General Robert Montgomery for North Carolina said sex offenders have alternative ways to express their first amendment rights. The law, he said, is a protection for children against sex offenders who have a high rate of repeat offenses....
Conservatives on the court asked few questions. Chief Justice John Roberts noted the lack of precedent in a case dealing with social media. Justice Samuel Alito said perhaps the law could be narrowed to impact fewer websites.
Amy Howe at SCOTUSblog here has a more fulsome account of the argument under the heading "Justices skeptical about social media restrictions for sex offenders." This full transcript of the SCOTUS oral argument is available here.
Ohio Secretary of State reports that 82 non-citizens have recently cast votes in Ohio
Because I continue to be intrigued by Prez Trump's claim that millions of persons committed a crime by voting illegally in our last election, I find interesting this new story about illegal voting in Ohio headlined "82 non-citizens voted in Ohio, Husted says." Here are the details:
Nearly 400 non-citizens are registered to vote in Ohio — 82 of whom have managed to cast ballots in at least one election since 2015, Secretary of State Jon Husted said Monday. Husted, a Republican and likely candidate for Ohio governor, said his office discovered the 385 registrations from non-citizens on a biennial review of the state's voter database. In total, 7.9 million people were registered to vote in Ohio as of the November election, so the non-citizens make up fewer than 1 in every 20,000 registered voters — far from the widespread voter fraud President Donald Trump has claimed.
Husted is sending law enforcement the names of the 82 non-citizens who voted, so officials can investigate and decide whether to prosecute. His office will send letters to the non-citizens who registered but never voted, requesting they cancel their registration. If they fail to do so, they could ultimately face prosecution. Election fraud can carry a fifth-degree felony charge in Ohio.
As Trump has alleged voter fraud in last year's election, Husted has countered that election fraud isn't a common problem. Still, his office has boasted of its three reviews of the voter rolls to look for non-citizens, the first such reviews conducted by an Ohio secretary of state. “In light of the national discussion about illegal voting it is important to inform our discussions with facts. The fact is voter fraud happens, it is rare and when it happens, we hold people accountable,” Husted said Monday in a statement.
Husted didn't say how which elections the 82 non-citizens had voted in, but even if they all voted in November 2016, they couldn't have swayed Ohio's presidential result, for instance. Eighty-two votes would have amounted to 0.0015 percent of the state's November voters. None of the non-citizens cast a vote in a race that was tied or decided by one vote, Husted said....
The secretary of state's office began the biennial review in 2013. Reviews that year and in 2015 uncovered a total of 44 non-citizens who voted in an election. Of those, eight people have been convicted of breaking the law and two other cases still are pending, spokesman Josh Eck said.
Trump continues to claim — without any evidence — that massive voter fraud marred the 2016 presidential election. On Jan. 23, the new president told congressional leaders between 3 million and 5 million illegal votes caused him to lose the popular vote to Democrat Hillary Clinton. Trump won the election with a convincing victory in the Electoral College, even as Clinton won the popular vote by nearly 2.9 million votes.
If the Ohio story is reasonably representative of the national story (as is often the case with bellwether Ohio), then we might reasonably suspect that there may have been between 3 thousand and 5 thousand illegal votes case in the 2016 election. Whether or not Ohio is representative of other states in this particular context, I am quite pleased to learn that the crime of voter fraud is not rampant in the great state of Ohio.
Senate Judiciary Committee this week to consider two (holdover) nominees to US Sentencing Commission
Sentencing fans in general and federal sentencing fans in particular should be interested in and intrigued by the first agenda item listed for this Wednesday's Executive Business Meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee: Nominations — Charles R. Breyer, to be a Member of the United States Sentencing Commission (Reappointment); Danny C. Reeves, to be a Member of the United States Sentencing Commission.
After the nominations of Judges Breyer and Reeves were stalled last Congress, outgoing Prez Obama thereafter renominated them for the US Sentencing Commission in January after the new Congress got to work. I have been somewhat pessimistic about the prospects of these holdover nominees getting a hearing and a vote, but perhaps my pessimism was misguided. Of particular important, if Judges Breyer and Reeves receive confirmation from the Senate in short order, they would join Acting USSC Chair Judge Bill Pryor and Commissioner Rachel Barkow to form a quorum on the USSC. (The Commission needs seven voting members to be fully staffed, but four members are sufficient to get stuff done if they all vote together on amendments and other action items.)
Notably, as previously flagged here and now highlighted here at the USSC website, the Commission promulgated some notable and consequential proposed amendments in late 2016 when it still had a nearly full compliment of Commissioners, and those proposed amendments have generated a whole lots of public comment. If the USSC gets two more Commissioners in the coming days, and if the two new folks and the two existing folks agree to move forward with some form of the amendments promulgated late last year, it is possible that the first big tangible federal sentencing development of the "Trump era" involves significant federal sentencing guideline amendments. (But, of course, this is a whole lot of "ifs" and thus nobody should count on anything in this space these days.)
SCOTUS grants cert on (yet another) AEDPA habeas procedure case
It has now been more than two decades since the passage of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), and that law has had lots and lots of impacts on federal habeas practice and procedure. One big impact has been lots and lots of technical habeas procedure issues needing SCOTUS attention, and another such issue is now before the Court on the merits after a certiorari grant this morning in Wilson v. Sellers. Here is the SCOTUSblog case page for Wilson v. Sellers, and here is its description of the issue now before the Justices:
Issue: Whether the court's decision in Harrington v. Richter silently abrogates the presumption set forth in Ylst v. Nunnemaker — that a federal court sitting in habeas proceedings should “look through” a summary state court ruling to review the last reasoned decision — as a slim majority of the en banc U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit held in this case, despite the agreement of both parties that the Ylst presumption should continue to apply.
Will a Justice Gorsuch be a strong SCOTUS voice against over-criminalization?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this recent National Review commentary authored by C. Jarrett Dieterle and headlined "Gorsuch v. Over-Criminalization." Here are excerpts:
Much of the media attention to date surrounding President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch has centered on the judge’s views of originalism, separation of powers, administrative law, and related topics. Largely overlooked has been an area where Judge Gorsuch’s track record shows a keen awareness of another issue critical to the federal courts: America’s criminal-justice system.
The importance of criminal law is underscored by the breathtaking size of the federal criminal code. Nearly 5,000 federal crimes are on the books, not including the sort of regulatory crimes that likely push the number above 300,000. Worse yet, many criminal laws are written in vague terms that fail to clearly identify what constitutes a crime, leaving Americans in the dark about whether their conduct in many cases is criminal.
In a 2013 lecture for the Federalist Society, Gorsuch confronted the problem of over-criminalization, whereby criminal laws target conduct that is not inherently wrong. Using examples of obscure crimes, such as ripping off a mattress tag, Gorsuch argued that no American can possibly comprehend all the activities prohibited by federal law. “Without written laws, we lack fair notice of the rules we must obey,” as he puts it, adding that fair notice is also lacking when we have “too many written laws.”...
Gorsuch’s expressions of concern about over-criminalization haven’t been confined to speeches. In last year’s Caring Hearts Home Services v. Burwell decision, he had harsh words for a federal agency that forgot its own regulations and misapplied them to a home health-care provider....
Gorsuch has equally strong views on the issue of criminal intent. Under traditional common law, acting with mens rea (a guilty or criminal mind) is a core component of committing a crime. This understanding prevents individuals who inadvertently or accidently do something wrong from being branded criminals....
Gorsuch also has shown willingness to rely on another historical judicial doctrine, the “Rule of Lenity”: Courts that confront ambiguous and vague criminal statutes are urged to interpret those laws in favor of defendants. Gorsuch applied this rule — also a favorite of the late Justice Antonin Scalia — in United States v. Rentz (2015), a case involving a law that imposed heightened penalties on individuals who “use” a gun to commit a violent crime or drug offense.... “Our job is always in the first instance to follow Congress’s directions,” Gorsuch wrote. “But if those directions are unclear, the tie goes to the presumptively free citizen and not the prosecutor.”
Gorsuch’s principle that any “tie” should go to citizens over the government shows his wariness of the vast powers possessed by prosecutors in an over-criminalized society. His tendency to view criminal laws, especially vague ones, with a healthy measure of skepticism should give opponents of over-criminalization a much-needed ally on the nation’s highest court.
Sunday, February 26, 2017
SCOTUS considering cases involving sentencing and collateral consequences in coming days
This coming week the Supreme Court hears arguments in three cases that ought to be over interest to sentencing fans. Here are the basics of the cases in the order they are to be consider in the next two days, with descriptions and links to argument previews via SCOTUSblog:
Issue: Whether, under the court’s First Amendment precedents, a law that makes it a felony for any person on the state's registry of former sex offenders to “access” a wide array of websites — including Facebook, YouTube, and nytimes.com — that enable communication, expression, and the exchange of information among their users, if the site is “know[n]” to allow minors to have accounts, is permissible, both on its face and as applied to petitioner, who was convicted based on a Facebook post in which he celebrated dismissal of a traffic ticket, declaring “God is Good!”
Issue: Whether a conviction under one of the seven state statutes criminalizing consensual sexual intercourse between a 21-year-old and someone almost 18 constitutes an “aggravated felony” of “sexual abuse of a minor” under 8 U.S.C. § 1101(a)(43)(A) of the Immigration and Nationality Act — and therefore constitutes grounds for mandatory removal.
Issue: Whether the Supreme Court's decision in Pepper v. United States overruled United States v. Hatcher and related opinions from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit to the extent that those opinions limit the district court's discretion to consider the mandatory consecutive sentence under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c) in determining the appropriate sentence for the felony serving as the basis for the Section 924(c) conviction.
For all sorts of reasons, Packingham seems likely to get the most attention of this bunch. But Dean could provide to be a sleeper post-Booker case for federal sentencing fans.
Saturday, February 25, 2017
"Conservative Criminal Justice Advocates Try To Change The System — Even In The Trump Era"
The title of this post is the title of this new BuzzFeed News piece which follows up with this subheadline: "Conservative groups pushing for changes to the criminal justice system flooded this year’s conservative confab known as CPAC hoping to convince more people on the right to embrace their cause." Here are excerpts:
Groups, like the American Conservative Union Foundation, an arm of the ACU, which hosts CPAC, hope to convince more people on the political right to embrace the cause as a conservative one by leveraging their recent successes at the state level and reminding lawmakers that it’s an issue with support from multiple conservative groups.
“I do feel that letting politicians know that we are large in numbers and we do support this, and we are present at all of these events, we’re not going to go away; it’s something that’s important and it’s […] a part of the conservative movement,” says Christina Delgado, a spokesperson for the conservative group FreedomWorks....
But some, especially members of the Republican conference in Congress, have expressed concerns over whether reforms — which aim to reduce mass incarceration, rising prison costs, and recidivism rates — represent a soft-on-crime approach to the criminal justice system that could jeopardize public safety. “You do have people that have a bit more of a reactionary tough-on-crime approach that have come up to the booth and talked to us about it,” says Derek Cohen, deputy director of Texas-based Right on Crime, which is also attending CPAC. “But once you start talking to them about, you know, the practicalities of running a criminal justice system, they actually get it very quickly.”...
Delgado says the issue came up in questions during a Thursday event hosted by FreedomWorks that featured Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin, a Republican who recently signed an order to try to help ex-offenders land jobs after their sentence is up. Delgado says Bevin noted “it’s not about going softer on crime, it’s about just making sure that we’re addressing the more important aspects of crime, and that is the actual danger, the actual criminals, the actual problem.”
Cohen says different types of conservatives — social, fiscal, libertarian — “all have their own reasons for actually being interested in the reform campaign.” For many libertarians, it’s issues such as civil asset forfeiture that make the case for criminal justice reform. For fiscal conservatives, it’s about cutting rising corrections costs.”...
But even with progress happening in Republican-leaning states, it remains to be seen where exactly the new Trump administration will fall on specific federal criminal justice issues. Trump said he wanted to “bring back law and order” during the election campaign, but has not detailed what that will mean.
Though not all are convinced Trump will be swayed by the arguments for criminal justice reform — his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, was a vocal opponent during his time in the Senate — pro-reform groups are hoping state successes appeal to Trump. “As President Trump considers how best to reduce crime and restore public safety, we hope that he can learn from reform champions in states like Oklahoma, Louisiana and Kentucky to chart a new path for America,” Steve Hawkins, president of the Coalition for Public Safety — another CPAC attendee — said in a statement to BuzzFeed News.
Cohen says Right on Crime, which has attended the last five CPACs, has met with members of Congress recently, and that “there seems to be renewed energy” in passing reform legislation. Judiciary Committee members Sens. Dick Durbin and Chuck Grassley have said they plan on re-introducing the bill in the current sessions of Congress. “Now, what shape that reform’s going to be in, I think is a bit premature to say,” Cohen said, “but there definitely is the same appetite if not a greater one.”
Recent prior related post:
February 25, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8)
Disconcerting review of modern America highlighting impacts of opioid epidemic and mass criminal enforcement
A helpful reader highlighted to me this extended article from Commentary by Nicholas Eberstadt that covers a lot of (depressing) ground about modern realities in the United States. The full title of the piece highlights its themes: "Our Miserable 21st Century: From work to income to health to social mobility, the year 2000 marked the beginning of what has become a distressing era for the United States." I recommend the full article for lots of reasons (especially for those still struggling to figure out why so many folks were inclined to vote for Prez Trump), and here snippets of passages that struck me as particularly interesting for those concerned with modern opioid problem and broader criminal justice realities:
The opioid epidemic of pain pills and heroin that has been ravaging and shortening lives from coast to coast is a new plague for our new century. The terrifying novelty of this particular drug epidemic, of course, is that it has gone (so to speak) “mainstream” this time, effecting breakout from disadvantaged minority communities to Main Street White America. By 2013, according to a 2015 report by the Drug Enforcement Administration, more Americans died from drug overdoses (largely but not wholly opioid abuse) than from either traffic fatalities or guns. The dimensions of the opioid epidemic in the real America are still not fully appreciated within the bubble, where drug use tends to be more carefully limited and recreational. In Dreamland, his harrowing and magisterial account of modern America’s opioid explosion, the journalist Sam Quinones notes in passing that “in one three-month period” just a few years ago, according to the Ohio Department of Health, “fully 11 percent of all Ohioans were prescribed opiates.” And of course many Americans self-medicate with licit or illicit painkillers without doctors’ orders.
In the fall of 2016, Alan Krueger, former chairman of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers, released a study that further refined the picture of the real existing opioid epidemic in America: According to his work, nearly half of all prime working-age male labor-force dropouts — an army now totaling roughly 7 million men — currently take pain medication on a daily basis....
But how did so many millions of un-working men, whose incomes are limited, manage en masse to afford a constant supply of pain medication? Oxycontin is not cheap. As Dreamland carefully explains, one main mechanism today has been the welfare state: more specifically, Medicaid, Uncle Sam’s means-tested health-benefits program.... In 21st-century America, “dependence on government” has thus come to take on an entirely new meaning....
The drop in crime over the past generation has done great things for the general quality of life in much of America. There is one complication from this drama, however, that inhabitants of the bubble may not be aware of, even though it is all too well known to a great many residents of the real America. This is the extraordinary expansion of what some have termed America’s “criminal class” — the population sentenced to prison or convicted of felony offenses — in recent decades. This trend did not begin in our century, but it has taken on breathtaking enormity since the year 2000.
Most well-informed readers know that the U.S. currently has a higher share of its populace in jail or prison than almost any other country on earth, that Barack Obama and others talk of our criminal-justice process as “mass incarceration,” and know that well over 2 million men were in prison or jail in recent years. But only a tiny fraction of all living Americans ever convicted of a felony is actually incarcerated at this very moment. Quite the contrary: Maybe 90 percent of all sentenced felons today are out of confinement and living more or less among us. The reason: the basic arithmetic of sentencing and incarceration in America today. Correctional release and sentenced community supervision (probation and parole) guarantee a steady annual “flow” of convicted felons back into society to augment the very considerable “stock” of felons and ex-felons already there. And this “stock” is by now truly enormous.
One forthcoming demographic study by Sarah Shannon and five other researchers estimates that the cohort of current and former felons in America very nearly reached 20 million by the year 2010. If its estimates are roughly accurate, and if America’s felon population has continued to grow at more or less the same tempo traced out for the years leading up to 2010, we would expect it to surpass 23 million persons by the end of 2016 at the latest. Very rough calculations might therefore suggest that at this writing, America’s population of non-institutionalized adults with a felony conviction somewhere in their past has almost certainly broken the 20 million mark by the end of 2016. A little more rough arithmetic suggests that about 17 million men in our general population have a felony conviction somewhere in their CV. That works out to one of every eight adult males in America today.
We have to use rough estimates here, rather than precise official numbers, because the government does not collect any data at all on the size or socioeconomic circumstances of this population of 20 million, and never has. Amazing as this may sound and scandalous though it may be, America has, at least to date, effectively banished this huge group—a group roughly twice the total size of our illegal-immigrant population and an adult population larger than that in any state but California—to a near-total and seemingly unending statistical invisibility. Our ex-cons are, so to speak, statistical outcasts who live in a darkness our polity does not care enough to illuminate—beyond the scope or interest of public policy, unless and until they next run afoul of the law.
Thus we cannot describe with any precision or certainty what has become of those who make up our “criminal class” after their (latest) sentencing or release. In the most stylized terms, however, we might guess that their odds in the real America are not all that favorable. And when we consider some of the other trends we have already mentioned — employment, health, addiction, welfare dependence — we can see the emergence of a malign new nationwide undertow, pulling downward against social mobility.
Friday, February 24, 2017
Interesting commentary on Prez Obama's Harvard Law Review article and his criminal justice legacy
As noted in this prior post, last month the Harvard Law Review published this lengthy article authored by Barack Obama titled "The President’s Role in Advancing Criminal Justice Reform." Today I saw at the interesting new site Carceral Complex this pair of follow-up commentaries:
President Obama’s Criminal Justice Legacy: What Went Wrong by Dustin Palmer
The themes of the potent and extended first piece by Dustin Palmer are summarized toward its conclusion:
Law reviews are an excellent place for professorial musings, but the weight of the law (and its failures) is borne by the people. After combing through the legalese, it is important to evaluate actions, not words. Obama’s rhetoric fits comfortably within the narrative of what supporters might have hoped would happen when a young former community organizer and constitutional law professor was elected president. The article itself, and its length, surely attempts to function as a “final word” on his justice reform efforts. Anecdotes about taking clemency participants to lunch or visiting a federal prison paint images of the compassionate, hopeful campaigner.
His actual record – on fundamental, defining aspects of the justice system – is much to the contrary. Failures to reform the War on Drugs, immigration abuse, police militarization, civil asset forfeiture, and the surveillance state left the criminal justice system not “smarter, fairer, and more effective” but undeniably worse. They are a national tragedy, and this failure will define his legacy.
The second shorter piece by Brett Diehl is somewhat less harsh, but not really less damning:
One is left with a sense that the HLR article may represent more of an attempt to construct an individual legacy than to empower actual reform. It was clear by January 2017 that many of the gains in rethinking criminal justice policy of the previous eight years would be rolled back under Trump and his Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions. Yet Obama’s piece ends, like most of his speeches, with an optimistic declaration that, “I remain hopeful that together, we are moving in the right direction.” Ever an optimist, not once does he mention the incoming administration.
Yes, Obama’s administration made important gains in specific geographic and policy areas. But overall, it failed to shift the paradigm around criminal justice in our nation. In writing to the audience of the HLR, this failure was perpetuated. While it may reach the occasional lay reader, the piece’s formatting, length, and density surely scared off many potential readers (myself included). In this, Obama’s presidency proves to be more words over actions: rhetorical power, fit for us to remember fondly, without bold progress.
Thursday, February 23, 2017
AG Sessions, reversing recent decision made during Obama Administration, signals DOJ return to reliance on private prisons
As reported in this Bloomberg News piece, "U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered the Federal Bureau of Prisons to continue using private prisons, rescinding an order by former President Barack Obama’s administration." Here is more context:
Sessions signed the order on Feb. 21, according to a Justice Department statement. The Justice Department last year halted a decade-long experiment of hiring private companies to help manage the soaring prison population. "The memorandum changed long-standing policy and practice, and impaired the Bureau’s ability to meet the future needs of the federal correctional system," Sessions wrote in a new memo released Thursday but dated Feb. 21. "I direct the Bureau to return to its previous approach."
The move comes as President Donald Trump’s administration has pledged to crack down on illegal immigration and crime. The majority of inmates held at private facilities used by the Justice Department are sentenced “criminal aliens,” according to the Bureau of Prisons. That largely encompasses undocumented immigrants convicted of drug offenses or entering the U.S. without proper documentation.
For a variety of reasons, I do not find this development all that surprising or really all that big of a deal. But I know a lot of reform advocates on the left are especially troubled by the private prison industry, and thus I suspect this move will be another talking point for those concerned about the direction of the federal criminal justice system under the new Administration.
Florida legislators talk of repealing mandatory minimums for nonviolent offenses
As reported in this local article, headlined "In major Tallahassee reversal, mandatory sentences called a waste of taxpayer money," there is a notable movement to repeal some mandatory minimum sentences in the Sunshine State. Here are the details:
Cynthia Powell is serving a 25-year sentence for selling 35 pills for $300 in 2002. Her incarceration at Homestead Correctional Institution costs taxpayers an average of $18,064 per year — or $451,600 by the time she is released in 2023.
The Florida Senate Criminal Justice Committee concluded Tuesday that’s money poorly spent. It voted unanimously for SB 290, which would end minimum mandatory sentences for nonviolent offenses like Powell’s. The measure represents a major shift from the tough-on-crime bills of the last two decades that filled prisons and created what both liberals and conservatives now believe has been a subclass of lifers in jail and a waste of tax money. The “prison diversion bill” would save the state $131 million in avoided costs and put 1,001 fewer people in jail, said Sen. Daryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, the bill’s sponsor.
The measure would allow judges to depart from the 118 minimum mandatory sentences in Florida law but excludes drug traffickers. It restores the Florida Sentencing Commission, which existed from 1982 to 1997, but limits its scope to determining the severity ranking that adds points to an offender’s record based on certain offenses. Anyone who commits a violence offense, is not eligible for the court’s leniency.
Reforming Florida’s legacy of harsh sentencing is one of several reforms being pushed by a coalition of liberal and conservative advocates that were passed unanimously by the Senate committee on Tuesday. “We are in an interesting juncture in our society and the Legislature, where Democrats and Republicans in both chambers agree that it’s really time to look at our criminal justice system and start to make some reforms,” said Sen. Randolph Bracy, D-Orlando, chairman of the committee....
Greg Newburn, director of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a conservative group that supports ending mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent crimes, said “dozens of states have already made the decision to move in this area.” They include Georgia, Oklahoma and North Carolina. “The results are uniform,” he said. “We get lower crime. We get smaller prison populations. They’ve closed prisons and saved tens of millions of dollars.”
If Powell, the Homestead inmate, had sold two fewer pills in 2002, she would have gotten a 15-year sentence, he said. If she sold them today, it would be a seven-year sentence. Instead, she won’t be released until 2023. “There are many other people in similar situations who simply don’t need to be there,” he said. “It’s a waste of money. We receive no public safety benefit whatsoever.”
His organization supports full repeal of mandatory minimum drug laws — as states such as Michigan, New York and Delaware have done — but he considers the piecemeal progress proposed by the Senate “a good reform.”
Jim DeBeaugrine of the Center for Advanced Justice, a sentencing reform advocacy group, warned the committee that giving drug offenders shorter sentences will only keep them out of prison if they receive treatment for substance abuse and mental health issues. “If you try to do it on the cheap, the results of this outcome are compromised,” he said. “The only way you will ever end the issue of mass incarceration is you’ve got to stop putting so many people in prison.”
Wednesday, February 22, 2017
Buck's notable dis of state finality interests in "flawed" capital sentence
Though there are a number of interesting procedural and substantive elements to the Supreme Court's ruling today in Buck v. Davis reversing a Texas death sentence (basics here), I am especially intrigued by the short shrift given by the Chief Justice's majority opinion to the state's claimed interest in finality. (Regular readers know I can get fixated on finality and have written at length about why I think convictions and sentences ought to be treated differently for finality purposes.) Here is all that Chief Justice Roberts writing for the Court had to say about finality (with my emphasis added):
In opposition, the State reminds us of the importance of preserving the finality of judgments. Brief for Respondent 34. But the “whole purpose” of Rule 60(b) “is to make an exception to finality.” Gonzalez, 545 U.S., at 529. And in this case, the State’s interest in finality deserves little weight. When Texas recognized that the infusion of race into proceedings similar to Saldano’s warranted confession of error, it effectively acknowledged that the people of Texas lack an interest in enforcing a capital sentence obtained on so flawed a basis. In concluding that the value of finality does not demand that we leave the District Court’s judgment in place, we do no more than acknowledge what Texas itself recognized 17 years ago.
In his dissent, Justice Thomas says the majority opinion "belittles Texas’ claimed interest in finality," and I think that is a fair characterization of the passage above. I am also inclined to turn this belittling into a broader and enduring "Buck finality principle": a state has little or no valid interest in preserving the finality of a (capital) sentence that is obviously "flawed" in some significant way. Though I do not expect this Buck dis of state finality interests to significantly impact finality jurisprudence, I do expect to cite this Buck the next time I need to respond to any claims that flawed sentences must be preserved in the name of finality.
"The Constitutional Law of Incarceration, Reconfigured"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Margo Schlanger now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
As American incarcerated populations grew starting in the 1970s, so too did court oversight of prisons. In the late 1980s, however, as incarceration continued to boom, federal court oversight shrank. This Article addresses the most central doctrinal limit on oversight of jails and prisons, the Supreme Court’s restrictive reading of the constitutional provisions governing treatment of prisoners — the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause and the Due Process Clause, which regulate, respectively, post-conviction imprisonment and pretrial detention. The Court’s interpretation of the Eighth Amendment’s ban of cruel and unusual punishment, in particular, radically undermined prison officials’ accountability for tragedies behind bars — allowing, even encouraging, them to avoid constitutional accountability. And lower courts compounded the error by importing that reading into Due Process doctrine as well.
In 2015, in Kingsley v. Hendrickson, a jail use of force case, the Court relied on 1970s precedent, not subsequent caselaw that had placed undue emphasis on the subjective culpability of prison and jail officials as the crucial source of constitutional concern. The Kingsley Court returned to a more appropriate objective analysis. In finding for the plaintiff, the Supreme Court unsettled the law far past Kingsley’s direct factual setting of pretrial detention, expressly inviting post-conviction challenges to restrictive — and incoherent — Eighth Amendment caselaw. The Court rejected not only the defendants’ position, but the logic that underlies 25 years of pro-government outcomes in prisoners’ rights cases.
But commentary and developing caselaw since Kingsley has not fully recognized its implications. I argue that both doctrinal logic and justice dictate that constitutional litigation should center on the experience of incarcerated prisoners, rather than the culpability of their keepers. The takeaway of my analysis is that the Constitution is best read to impose governmental liability for harm caused to prisoners — whether pretrial or post-conviction — by unreasonably dangerous conditions of confinement and unjustified uses of force. In this era of mass incarceration, our jails and prisons should not be shielded from accountability by legal standards that lack both doctrinal and normative warrant.
Supreme Court, voting 6-2, reverses Texas death sentence reached after defense attorney introduced expert who linked race and violence
The Supreme Court handed down three opinion this morning, and the big one for sentencing fans is the capital case from Texas, Buck v. Davis, No. 15-8049 (Feb. 22, 2017) (available here). The Chief Justice wrote the opinion for the Court, and here is that opinion's opening and some of its substantive analysis on the case's highest-profile issue:
A Texas jury convicted petitioner Duane Buck of capital murder. Under state law, the jury could impose a death sentence only if it found that Buck was likely to commit acts of violence in the future. Buck’s attorney called a psychologist to offer his opinion on that issue. The psychologist testified that Buck probably would not engage in violent conduct. But he also stated that one of the factors pertinent in assessing a person’s propensity for violence was his race, and that Buck was statistically more likely to act violently because he is black. The jury sentenced Buck to death.
Buck contends that his attorney’s introduction of this evidence violated his Sixth Amendment right to the effective assistance of counsel. This claim has never been heard on the merits in any court, because the attorney who represented Buck in his first state postconviction proceeding failed to raise it....
Given that the jury had to make a finding of future dangerousness before it could impose a death sentence, Dr. Quijano’s report said, in effect, that the color of Buck’s skin made him more deserving of execution. It would be patently unconstitutional for a state to argue that a defendant is liable to be a future danger because of his race. See Zant v. Stephens, 462 U. S. 862, 885 (1983) (identifying race among factors that are “constitutionally impermissible or totally irrelevant to the sentencing process”). No competent defense attorney would introduce such evidence about his own client....
Dr. Quijano’s testimony appealed to a powerful racial stereotype—that of black men as “violence prone.” Turner v. Murray, 476 U. S. 28, 35 (1986) (plurality opinion). In combination with the substance of the jury’s inquiry, this created something of a perfect storm. Dr. Quijano’s opinion coincided precisely with a particularly noxious strain of racial prejudice, which itself coincided precisely with the central question at sentencing. The effect of this unusual confluence of factors was to provide support for making a decision on life or death on the basis of race....
[W]e cannot accept the District Court’s conclusion that “the introduction of any mention of race” during the penalty phase was “de minimis.” 2014 WL 11310152, at *5. There were only “two references to race in Dr. Quijano’s testimony”—one during direct examination, the other on cross. Ibid. But when a jury hears expert testimony that expressly makes a defendant’s race directly pertinent on the question of life or death, the impact of that evidence cannot be measured simply by how much air time it received at trial or how many pages it occupies in the record. Some toxins can be deadly in small doses.
Justice Thomas authored a dissent in Buck, joined by Justice Alito, which gets started this way:
Having settled on a desired outcome, the Court bulldozes procedural obstacles and misapplies settled law to justify it. But the majority’s focus on providing relief to petitioner in this particular case has at least one upside: Today’s decision has few ramifications, if any, beyond the highly unusual facts presented here. The majority leaves entirely undisturbed the black-letter principles of collateral review, ineffective assistance of counsel, and Rule 60(b)(6) law that govern day-to-day operations in federal courts.
Tuesday, February 21, 2017
A few notable criminal justice panels at CPAC
It is around that time of year for the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), and the misbehavior of one conservative is generating all the pre-CPAC buzz. But, as has been the story for the last few years, sentencing fans should be intrigued by some of the criminal justice reform programming appearing on the CPAC 2017 agenda. Specifically, I found notable these two panels scheduled for Friday this week:
Prosecutors Gone Wild
Moderator: Pat Nolan, ACU Foundation Center for Criminal Justice Reform
David A. Keene, The Washington Times
Sidney Powell, Former U.S. Attorney
Kevin Ring, Families Against Mandatory Minimums
Conservatives Leading the Way on Criminal Justice Reform in State Capitals
Moderator: David Safavian, ACU Foundation Center for Criminal Justice Reform
State Rep. Julie Emerson (LA-39)
Marc Levin, Right on Crime, Texas Public Policy Foundation
Pat Nolan, ACU Foundation Center for Criminal Justice Reform
February 21, 2017 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)
Reversing course, Florida Supreme Court allows capital prosecutions to proceed while state legislature still working through Hurst fix
As explained in this local article, on Monday the Florida Supreme Court issued a new ruling about the administration of the death penalty, and issue which has been a big mess for the state since the Supreme Court's Hurst ruling last year. Here are the basics:
In what was described as an “about-face” after a previous ruling, the Florida Supreme Court on Monday ordered that death penalty cases can proceed, even with an unconstitutional law still on the books. The order came as the Legislature prepares to address a pair of Florida high court rulings last fall that struck down the state’s most recent death-penalty sentencing scheme as unconstitutional and effectively halted capital cases.
In a pair of October opinions, the state court ruled that a new law — passed in response to a U.S. Supreme Court decision in a case known as Hurst v. Florida — was unconstitutional because it required only 10 jurors to recommend death “as opposed to the constitutionally required unanimous, 12-member jury.” The October majority opinion in the case of Larry Darnell Perry also found that the new law “cannot be applied to pending prosecutions.”
But in a reversal of that decision Monday, the majority ruled that capital cases can move forward, even before lawmakers fix the statute. Attorney General Pam Bondi hailed the ruling, saying in a statement it “provides our courts with the clarification needed to proceed with murder cases in which the death penalty is sought.”...
The majority on Monday decided that the new law can be applied to pending prosecutions — and is constitutional — “if 12 jurors unanimously determine that a defendant should be sentenced to death.”
But in her dissent, Justice Barbara Pariente argued that what could be a “temporary” fix, until lawmakers address the issue, could lead to more litigation. “Such concerns are precisely why it is for the Legislature, not this (Supreme) Court, to enact legislation curing the act’s fatal 10-2 provisions, assuming the Legislature intends for the death penalty to continue to be imposed in Florida,” Pariente wrote in a dissent joined by Justice Peggy Quince.
But [House Judiciary Chairman Chris] Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, said the decision “finally” tells lower courts they can proceed with capital cases. “That is what I think people within the criminal justice system would expect. What they did not expect is to have a paralysis created and that’s what the court had done. Today they have alleviated that paralysis by at least allowing cases to proceed,” he said.
Defense lawyers, however, took a harsher view. “As a society, we rely upon court precedent to determine how to interpret and apply the laws. The (Supreme) Court’s about-face within these opinions is confounding. They also seem incongruent with the court’s unanimous plea, in (a case known as) Steele, to the Legislature to fix what the court said it couldn’t,” 10th Judicial Circuit Assistant Public Defender Pete Mills, who also serves as chairman of the Florida Public Defenders Association Death Penalty Steering Committee, told The News Service. Mills was referring to a 2005 opinion in State vs. Steele in which the court urged the Legislature to require a unanimous jury vote, rather than the previous simple majority vote, in capital-case proceedings.
While Monday’s opinion may have resolved questions about how the courts can proceed, for now, it likely won’t slow down the Legislature’s rush to address the issue early in the session that begins March 7. “We still want to move it rapidly, get it up and out to make sure there’s no question that this is what the statute says and that we have a working death penalty scheme in the state of Florida,” Sprowls said.
Sprowls’ committee is slated to consider a measure (HB 527) Tuesday that would do away with the 10-2 jury recommendations and instead require unanimity for death sentences to be imposed. A Senate panel will give a final vetting to a similar proposal the following day. The issue deals only with the sentencing phase of death-penalty cases, after jurors unanimously find defendants guilty of crimes. House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’ Lakes, and Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, told The News Service — before the court’s decision Monday — they wanted to send a death penalty measure requiring unanimous jury recommendations to Gov. Rick Scott by the end of the session’s first week.
“My position on it is that you have about 200 death penalty cases that are in abeyance right now, because of the Supreme Court’s ruling, and I can’t think of anything more important to the family of victims and also to a person charged with a capital felony that their cases proceed justly and with due process through the criminal justice system,” Negron said Wednesday. “To me, it’s our responsibility as legislators to make sure that the law is appropriately enforced. That would be a top priority.” The cases “in abeyance” referred to more than half of Florida’s Death Row inmates who are eligible for new sentencing hearings under a separate state court ruling addressing retroactivity of the Hurst decision, which was predicated on a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a case known as Ring v. Arizona.
The full Florida Supreme Court ruling discussed here is available at this link.
US Sentencing Commission releases big new report on "Recidivism Among Federal Drug Trafficking Offenders"
The US Sentencing Commission today released the second major report emerging from a huge assessment of federal offenders released from prison in 2005. This USSC webpage provides this background and highlights from this 149-page data-rich report:
This report, Recidivism Among Federal Drug Trafficking Offenders examines a group of 10,888 federal drug trafficking offenders who were released in calendar year 2005. These 10,888 offenders, who were all U.S. citizens, represent 42.8 percent of the 25,431 federal offenders who were released in calendar year 2005 and analyzed in the Commission’s 2016 report, Recidivism Among Federal Offenders: A Comprehensive Overview. In the future, the Commission will release additional publications discussing specific topics concerning recidivism of federal offenders.
Chapter One summarizes the group studied in this report as well as its key findings. It also explains the methodology used in the report. Chapter Two provides an overview of the statutes and guidelines most often applicable to federal drug trafficking offenses, and reports the demographics and recidivist behavior of drug trafficking offenders as a whole. Chapters Three through Seven provide detailed information about offenders as classified by the drug types studied in this report: powder cocaine, crack cocaine, heroin, marijuana, and methamphetamine. Chapter Eight concludes by reviewing the report’s findings.
Some highlights of the Commission’s study are that:
Over the eight-year follow-up period, one-half (50.0%) of federal drug trafficking offenders were rearrested (see bar chart). Of those drug trafficking offenders who recidivated, the median time to rearrest was 25 months.
In general, there were few clear distinctions among the five drug types studied. One exception is that crack cocaine offenders recidivated at the highest rate (60.8%) of any drug type. Recidivism rates for other drug types were between 43.8% and 50.0% (see table).
Nearly one-fourth (23.8%) of drug trafficking offenders who recidivated had assault as their most serious new charge followed by drug trafficking and public order offenses.
Federal drug trafficking offenders had a substantially lower recidivism rate compared to a cohort of state drug offenders released into the community in 2005 and tracked by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Over two-thirds (76.9%) of state drug offenders released from state prison were rearrested within five years, compared to 41.9% of federal drug trafficking offenders released from prison over the same five-year period.
A federal drug trafficking offender’s Criminal History Category was closely associated with the likelihood of recidivism. But note that career offenders and armed career criminals recidivated at a rate lower than drug trafficking offenders classified in Criminal History Categories IV, V, and VI. (Related data and policy recommendations are discussed in the Commission's 2016 Report to the Congress on Career Offender Sentencing Enhancements.)
A federal drug trafficking offender’s age at time of release into the community was also closely associated with likelihood of recidivism.
February 21, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (2)
Justice Sotomayor (joined by Justice Breyer) authors lengthy dissent to denial of cert in Alabama lethal injection protocol challenge
This morning, the US Supreme Court got back to work through the issuance of this lengthy order list. The one cert grant was involves a federal criminal case, Class v. US, concerning whether a defendant who pleads guilty can still challenge the constitutionality his statute of conviction (SCOTUSblog case page here). But the part of the order list likely to get the most attention is this lengthy dissent from the denial of certiorari authored by Justice Sotomayor in a Alabama capital case concern lethal injection protocols. Here is the start, heart and end of the extended opinion (which Justice Breyer joined in full):
Nearly two years ago in Glossip v. Gross, 576 U. S. ___ (2015), the Court issued a macabre challenge. In order to successfully attack a State’s method of execution as cruel and unusual under the Eighth Amendment, a condemned prisoner must not only prove that the State’s chosen method risks severe pain, but must also propose a “known and available” alternative method for his own execution. Id., at ___, ___ (slip op., at 13, 15).
Petitioner Thomas Arthur, a prisoner on Alabama’s death row, has met this challenge. He has amassed significant evidence that Alabama’s current lethal-injection protocol will result in intolerable and needless agony, and he has proposed an alternative — death by firing squad. The Court of Appeals, without considering any of the evidence regarding the risk posed by the current protocol, denied Arthur’s claim because Alabama law does not expressly permit execution by firing squad, and so it cannot be a “known and available” alternative under Glossip. Because this decision permits States to immunize their methods of execution — no matter how cruel or how unusual — from judicial review and thus permits state law to subvert the Federal Constitution, I would grant certiorari and reverse. I dissent from my colleagues’ decision not to do so....
The decision below permits a State, by statute, to bar a death-row inmate from vindicating a right guaranteed by the Eighth Amendment. Under this view, even if a prisoner can prove that the State plans to kill him in an intolerably cruel manner, and even if he can prove that there is a feasible alternative, all a State has to do to execute him through an unconstitutional method is to pass a statute declining to authorize any alternative method. This cannot be right....
The decision below is all the more troubling because it would put an end to an ongoing national conversation — between the legislatures and the courts — around the methods of execution the Constitution tolerates. The meaning of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishments “is determined not by the standards that prevailed when the Eighth Amendment was adopted in 1791” but instead derives from “‘the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.’” Kennedy v. Louisiana, 554 U. S. 407, 419 (2008) (quoting Trop v. Dulles, 356 U. S. 86, 101 (1958) (plurality opinion)). Evolving standards have yielded a familiar cycle: States develop a method of execution, which is generally accepted for a time. Science then reveals that — unknown to the previous generation — the States’ chosen method of execution causes unconstitutional levels of suffering. A new method of execution is devised, and the dialogue continues. The Eighth Amendment requires this conversation. States should not be permitted to silence it by statute....
Twice in recent years, this Court has observed that it “has never invalidated a State’s chosen procedure for carrying out a sentence of death as the infliction of cruel and unusual punishment.” Baze, 553 U. S., at 48 (plurality opinion); Glossip, 576 U. S., at ___ (slip op., at 3) (same). In Glossip, the majority opinion remarked that the Court “did not retreat” from this nonintervention strategy even after Louisiana strapped a 17-year-old boy to its electric chair and, having failed to kill him the first time, argued for a second try — which this Court permitted. Id., at ___– ___ (slip op., at 3–4). We should not be proud of this history. Nor should we rely on it to excuse our current inaction.
Monday, February 20, 2017
Awakening to a sleepy sentencing debate: do tired federal judges sentence more harshly?
I just came across this pair of notable papers exploring empirically whether and how less sleep might mean more punishment from federal judges:
"Sleepy Punishers Are Harsh Punishers: Daylight Saving Time and Legal Sentences" by Kyoungmin Cho, Christopher Barnes, and Cristiano Guanara
Abstract: The degree of punishment assigned to criminals is of pivotal importance for the maintenance of social order and cooperation. Nonetheless, the amount of punishment assigned to transgressors can be affected by factors other than the content of the transgressions. We propose that sleep deprivation in judges increases the severity of their sentences. We took advantage of the natural quasi-manipulation of sleep deprivation during the shift to daylight saving time in the spring and analyzed archival data from judicial punishment handed out in the U.S. federal courts. The results supported our hypothesis: Judges doled out longer sentences when they were sleep deprived.
"Are Sleepy Punishers Really Harsh Punishers?: Comment" by Holger Spamann
Abstract: This comment points out four severe reservations regarding Cho et al.’s (PS 2017) finding that U.S. federal judges punish more harshly on “sleepy Mondays,” the Mondays after the start of Daylights Savings Time. First, Cho et al.'s finding pertains to only one of at least two dimensions of harshness, and the opposite result obtains in the second dimension. Second, even within the first dimension, Cho et al.'s result is statistically significant only because of a variable transformation and sample restrictions that are neither transparent in the article nor theoretically sound. Third, reanalysis of the data with superior methods reveals no significant “sleepy Monday” effect in the years 1992- 2003. Fourth, sentences were on average shorter on “sleepy Mondays” out of sample, namely in 2004-2016.