Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Hoping (and even expecting) some criminal justice reform discussion during Democrats' first Prez debate

Regular readers know I am ever eager to have the national political conversation focus on criminal justice issues, and thus today I am giddy with pre-Democrat-debate anticipation.  As detailed in lots of prior posts linked below, there are plenty of criminal justice topics that would merit attention given that all the Democratic candidates have made notable criminal justice reform statements and have a diverse set of (lengthy) government service records in this arena.  Topics that are less likely to engage the GOP field but should lead to some interesting discourse among the Democratic Prez candidates include the death penalty (which candidate Michael O'Malley catgorically opposes) and private prisons (which candidate Bernie Sanders categorically opposes) and full Colorado-style marijuana legalization (which perhaps everyone opposes except the majority of voters in many key states).

Of particular note, especially with a majority of the Democratic candidates having served in the Senate, tonight's debate is the first since a bipartisan group of Senators announced the remarkable Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 (basics of SRCA here).  It would be real interesting, though perhaps much too wonkish, to ask the candidates whether they share some liberal concerns that SRCA does not go nearly far enough to combat the problems of mandatory minimum sentencing and mass incarceration.  I would especially like to hear from former Senator Jim Webb, who was complaining about mass incarceration for years before doing so became hip, on this topic.

Because I will off-line much of the rest of today, this will be my last pre-debate post on criminal justice politics.  I will close by linking to some prior relevant Campaign 2016 posts and also by encouraging readers to fill the comments with questions they would like to see asked of the candidates.

October 13, 2015 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Could local DA elections be a critical means to fighting mass incarceration?

ImagesLots of sophisticated analyses of the roots and causes of modern mass incarceration, especially the empirical work done by John Pfaff, rightly suggest that the activities of local prosecutors are a critical part of the overall story.  Consequently, I find both notable and astute this new Economist commentary which suggests local elections for district attorneys can and should be a focal point for advocates looking to combat mass incarceration.  The piece is headlined "Two cheers: The best way to reduce the prison population," and here are excerpts:

In 2013 Charles Hynes, Brooklyn’s district attorney, was voted out of office after 24 years on the job. The ousting of an elected local prosecutor is rare in America. Incumbents who run for re-election win 95% of the time. Until Mr Hynes got the boot, no incumbent DA had lost a vote in Brooklyn since 1911. Mr Hynes’s fate needs to be more common, however, if America is to cease to be the world’s leading jailer. At present, it accounts for 5% of the world’s population and nearly 25% of its prisoners. Elected public prosecutors, such as Brooklyn’s Mr Hynes, are largely to blame.

The incarceration rate is like the water level in a bathtub. If the tap runs faster than the water drains, the level rises. The mandatory minimum sentences and truth-in-sentencing laws passed in the 1980s and 1990s blocked the outflow from America’s prison system. Proposals for sentencing reform, such as the bipartisan bill introduced by Chuck Grassley, a Republican senator from Iowa who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, would clear it a bit, by returning some discretion to judges and parole boards. But it would be even better to turn down the gushing tap.

Although the crime rate began to decline in the 1990s, the rate of admissions to prisons continued to climb for two decades, until it peaked in 2006. The criminal-justice system managed to put more and more people behind bars for 15 years, even though fewer and fewer people were committing crimes. The admissions rate has now reverted to the level in the late-1990s, but remains three times greater than it was 30 years ago when the crime rate was higher than it is today....

DAs can decide whether charges will be filed against arrested persons and, if so, what they will be charged with. Less than 5% of criminal cases go to trial: most end in plea bargains. And it is DAs who decide which plea deals to offer and accept, in effect determining whether offenders will be sent to prison and, if so, for how long. By and large, they are not a merciful lot.

They are also usually elected at county level, whereas prisons are run at state level. Short sentences — less than a year in most jurisdictions — are often served in county jails, putting county taxpayers on the hook. Punitive DAs can take the fiscal burden off the people who elect them by foisting the cost of imprisonment onto states.

If legislators cannot rein in DAs, that job must fall to voters. Because unseating an incumbent is so unusual, and because there are more than 3,000 county and state district attorneys, this may seem an unpromising path to a lower incarceration rate. But more than half of state prisoners, who make up the vast majority of the incarcerated, are housed in just ten states. Within those states, most prisoners come from a few large metropolitan jurisdictions. Moreover, these areas tend to contain lots of rehabilitation-minded liberals as well as minority voters, who are more likely to have family members in prison. Prosecutors in California and New York have already changed tack, and incarceration rates in those states have fallen.

Kenneth Thompson, Brooklyn’s first black DA, managed to knock Mr Hynes off his perch by highlighting a couple of dodgy murder convictions and speaking out against aggressive police tactics. And though sentencing reform is obviously needed too, the election of just a handful of “smart-on-crime” DAs in and around big cities like Houston, Chicago, Miami and Los Angeles could cut America’s incarceration rate even more dramatically.

I am not convinced that local DA elections are the "best way" to attack mass incarceration, but I do think that the work of all prosecutors (local, state and federal) should be subject to a lot more scrutiny and accountability and should be a concern for all those interested in modern criminal justice reforms.

October 13, 2015 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Lots of media previews of today's two big SCOTUS sentencing cases

The Supreme Court returns from a long weekend with two cases that should remake, or at least will refine, retroactivity jurisprudence and capital sentencing procedures. I have previewed Montgomery v. Louisiana and Hurst v. Florida in a bunch of prior posts, and here I will provide links to a handful of mainstream media coverage of the cases:



October 13, 2015 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, October 12, 2015

"The Reverse Mass Incarceration Act"

Mass_Inc_CoverThe title of this post is the title of this intriguing new idea/report coming today from the Brennan Center for Justice.  Here is the report's introduction:

Leaders across the political spectrum agree: The United States must end mass incarceration.  But how?  What bold solutions will achieve this change?

Our prison crisis has many causes. One major contributor: a web of perverse financial incentives across the country that spurred more arrests, prosecutions, and prison sentences. A prime example is the 1994 Crime Bill, which authorized $12.5 billion ($19 billion in today’s dollars) to states to increase incarceration.  And 20 states did just that, yielding a dramatic rise in prison populations.

To reverse course, the federal government can apply a similar approach. It can be termed a “Reverse Crime Bill,” or the “Reverse Mass Incarceration Act.” It would provide funds to states to reduce imprisonment and crime together.

The United States has 5 percent of the world’s population, yet has 25 percent of the world’s prisoners.  If the prison population were a state, it would be the 36th largest — bigger than Delaware, Vermont, and Wyoming combined.  Worse, our penal policies do not work.  Mass incarceration is not only unnecessary to keep down crime but is also ineffective at it.  Increasing incarceration offers rapidly diminishing returns.The criminal justice system costs taxpayers $260 billion a year.  Best estimates suggest that incarceration contributes to as much as 20 percent of the American poverty rate.

During the crime wave of the 1970s and 1980s, lawmakers enacted stringent laws to instill law and order in devastated communities. But many of these laws went too far.  The federal government played an outsize role by financially subsidizing states to incarcerate more people.  Today, the federal government sends $3.8 billion to states and localities each year for criminal justice.These dollars are largely focused on increasing the size of our justice system.

But times have changed.  We now know that mass incarceration is not necessary to keep us safe.  We now know that we can reduce both crime and incarceration. States like Texas, New York, Mississippi, and California have changed their laws to do just that.  For the first time in 40 years, both crime and incarceration have fallen together, since 2008.

How can this momentum be harnessed into action? Just as Washington encouraged states to incarcerate, it can now encourage them to reduce incarceration while keeping down crime. It can encourage state reform efforts to roll back prison populations.  As the country debates who will be the next president, any serious candidate must have a strong plan to reform the justice system.

The next president should urge Congress to pass the Reverse Mass Incarceration Act. It would encourage a 20 percent reduction in imprisonment nationwide. Such an Act would have four components:

  • A new federal grant program of $20 billion over 10 years in incentive funds to states.
  • A requirement that states that reduce their prison population by 7 percent over a three-year period without an increase in crime will receive funds.
  • A clear methodology based on population size and other factors to determine how much money states receive.
  • A requirement that states invest these funds in evidence-based programs proven to reduce crime and incarceration.

Such an Act would have more reach than any of the other federal proposals. It could be implemented through budgeting procedures. It could be implemented as a stand-alone Act. Or, it could be introduced as an amendment to a pending bill.

October 12, 2015 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Montgomery wards: noticing the lack of originalism analysis of sentencing finality

As noted in this prior post, I have been doing a series of posts in preparation for the US Supreme Court hearing oral argument in Montgomery v. Louisiana, and today's post is of the "dog that didn't bark" variety.  Specifically, upon quickly reviewing the 20+ briefs that have been submitted in Montgomery (all of which can be found via this SCOTUSblog page), I noticed that there was essentially no discussion of what an originalist constitutional interpretation would have to say about finality/retroactivity doctrines like Teague and their application to Eighth Amendment doctrines or sentencing outcomes more generally.  (Notably and tellingly, a number of briefs discussing the jurisdictional issue flagged by SCOTUS in Montgomery do provide some originalism analysis of that issue.  But these briefs, nor any of those just focused on the finality/retroactivity issue, had anything to say about how an originalist perspective might inform the Court's work in this case.)

For those who are not big fans of originalist constitutional interpretation, perhaps the absence of any discussion or debate in the Montgomery briefing about what the Framers would have thought about Eighth Amendment retroactivity is a welcome development.  But as I sought to spotlight in this recent law review article and this blog post last year, I think it would be interesting and potentially quite useful to examine at some lengthy whether and how the Framing generation considered finality/retroactivity issues.  Of particular note, as I explain in my article, the text of the Constitution itself reveals, at least indirectly, that the Framers likely did not have an especially strong commitment to criminal justice finality interests:

The Constitution’s text can be read to suggest the Framers were decidedly eager to provide or preserve opportunities for defendants to seek review and reconsideration of their treatment by government authorities.  Article I, Section 9 instructs Congress that the “Privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended,” Article II, Section 2 provides that the President “shall have Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offences against the United States,” and Article III, Section 2 provides that the Supreme Court “shall have appellate Jurisdiction.”  These provisions codify in our nation’s charter all the traditional mechanisms long used by individuals to challenge or seek modification of the exercise of government power through criminal justice systems.  These provisions alone may not support a strong originalist claim that the Framers disfavored treating criminal judgments as final.  Nevertheless, by precluding Congress from suspending habeas review, by empowering the President to grant clemency, and by authorizing the Supreme Court to hear appeals, the Constitution ensured that criminal defendants in a new America would have various means to seek review and reconsideration of the application of governmental power even after an initial criminal conviction and sentencing.

In part because I am neither a historian nor especially enthralled by originalism, I did not pursue these ideas in this SCOTUS amicus brief that I helped submit in the Montgomery case. But I was hoping that maybe someone or some group drawn to originalism would discuss what an originalist constitutional interpretation might have to say about finality/retroactivity doctrines like Teague and their application to Eighth Amendment doctrines or sentencing outcomes more generally. One Justice who often seems drawn to Eighth Amendment originalism, Justice Thomas, almost never asks questions, and thus I am not expecting him to bring up the issue during oral argument. But maybe I can dream, at least for the next few hours, that Justice Scalia might enjoy puzzling the advocates by asking a question on this front during argument.

Prior posts in this series and concerning finality matters:

October 12, 2015 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (4)

Does the Sixth or Eighth Amendment matter more for jury's role in capital punishment?

The question in the title of this post is the primary uncertainty likely to impact Supreme Court debate over Florida's capital punishment system during tomorrow's scheduled oral argument in Hurst v. Florida.  Helpfully, Lyle Denniston has this lengthy preview post at SCOTUSblog titled "Defining the jury's role on death penalty," and here are excerpts:

For years, the Supreme Court has been engaged in an energetic effort to enhance the role of the jury in criminal courts. No part of that has been more actively pursued than deepening the jury’s involvement in sentencing — a part of the process long dominated by trial judges. A new case from Florida, set for argument at 11 a.m. on Tuesday, provides a new test.

Florida is the last state to hold out against a common requirement that jurors must be unanimous in both specifying why a convicted individual is eligible for a death sentence and recommending a sentence. Juries in Florida death penalty cases have only an advisory role to begin with, and even that influence on the judge is potentially lessened by the lack of unanimity and by the judge’s authority to make the key decisions anyway.

The Court is examining the case of a brutal slaying at a Popeye’s fast-food restaurant in Pensacola, Fla. (Hurst v. Florida), to determine how far a state may go to assign the important decisions on death sentencing to the judge. The Justices attempted to curb that role, and give more of it to the jury, in a 2002 decision but the Florida Supreme Court has essentially exempted the state’s capital punishment process from that ruling.

In Ring v. Arizona thirteen years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that a judge may not make the factual findings about “aggravating factors” — the seriousness of the crime that can make an individual eligible to be sentenced to death — because that role under the Sixth Amendment belongs to the jury. The Court has said repeatedly that, if a potential sentence is to be made more severe, the enhancement must be based upon the jury’s findings.

The Court, however, has never ruled that juries must be used in the sentencing phases of a case in which a death sentence is a possibility, and it has never ruled that a jury recommendation of a death sentence must be by a unanimous vote. It has allowed guilty verdicts by less than unanimous votes in cases involving lesser crimes. The case set for a hearing next Tuesday could provide new interpretations on both of those issues....

Florida law splits up the roles on death sentencing between the jury and the judge. The jury’s advisory role is to ultimately recommend a sentence to the judge. To do that, the jury weighs aggravating and mitigating factors and decides whether to recommend a death sentence. It can make that final recommendation on a split vote — it must be at least seven to five, as it was in Hurst’s case. But there is no need for even a majority of jurors to agree on even one of the aggravating factors the jurors as a group had apparently indicated did exist.

The sentencing duty then shifts to the judge, who does the same weighing process of the two kinds of factors; in doing so, the judge is not bound by what the jury concluded. The judge then decides for or against a death sentence, again with no duty to follow the jury’s recommendation.

The Florida Supreme Court, upholding that process as used in Hurst’s case, found no constitutional problem with the role of either the jury or the judge. The state court divided four to three, with the dissenting justices arguing that the Florida approach violates both the Sixth and Eighth Amendments and deviates from the Supreme Court’s ruling in Ring v. Arizona.

Hurst’s lawyers took the case on to the Supreme Court, raising two multi-faceted questions, with most of them focusing on the split role of judge and jury. The Court granted review in March, rephrasing the issue to be whether the Florida scheme violates either the Sixth Amendment or the Eighth Amendment “in light of this Court’s decision in Ring v. Arizona.” The order did not specify whether it would consider Hurst’s argument that he also had a claim of mishandling in his trial of a mental disability claim, but the Court did not appear to have accepted that for review and it has dropped out of the case.

Hurst’s brief on the merits largely separates the arguments between the Sixth Amendment, claiming that provision is violated by the jury’s limited role in finding whether Hurst was eligible for a death sentence, and the Eighth Amendment, claiming that provision is violated by allowing the judge to impose the sentence after a split verdict by the jury. However, he also levels a separate Sixth Amendment challenge to the judge’s role in imposing a death penalty....

Florida’s brief on the merits noted that the Supreme Court has examined its capital punishment scheme at least four times before and has not found it to be flawed under the Constitution. The state also insisted that Hurst’s lawyers had exaggerated what is required under Ring v. Arizona. That decision, it contended, only mandates a role for the jury in the death-eligibility analysis, and does not insist that it have a role in the actual selection of the sentence to be imposed.

As fans of Ring v. Arizona should recall, a few of the Justices still on the Court now considered these issues to be primarily of Sixth Amendment concern (Justices Scalia, Thomas and Ginsburg), whereas some other of the Justices still on the Court viewed these issues primarily from an Eighth Amendment perspective (Justices Kennedy and Breyer). And, notably, the four newer Justices have had a lot of distinct (and differing) things to say about both the Sixth and Eighth Amendments in recent years. How all this will add up to a majority ruling in Hurst remains to be seen, but I will suggest that anyone sentenced to death in Florida after a non-unanimous jury recommendation already ought to be getting ready to file a new habeas petition as soon as we get a ruling in Hurst.

October 12, 2015 in Blakely in the Supreme Court, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Is anyone surprised to learn of government dysfunction as Oklahoma operates machinery of death?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this latest local story from a state that has spotlighted how jurisdictions are continue to struggle with lethal injection protocols.  The piece is headlined "Emails from Gov. Fallin's office show state agencies' struggle to respond to scrutiny over execution," and it begins this way: 

An examination of more than 40,000 pages of records released Thursday by Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin’s office in response to an open-records request provides a picture of multiple state agencies scrambling under pressure to send coordinated, consistent responses to reporters and each other after an April 2014 execution went awry.

The Tulsa World requested the documents 17 months ago after Clayton Lockett’s April 29, 2014, execution — the first in Oklahoma to be carried out using the sedative midazolam — ended 43 minutes after it began in what records later called a “bloody mess” carried out by inexperienced medical staff who were using the wrong size needles to start IVs in Lockett’s veins.

Lockett was set to die for the murder of 19-year-old Stephanie Neiman of Perry ahead of Charles Warner, who received a death sentence for the rape and murder of 11-month-old Adrianna Waller.  The state issued a temporary stay for Warner after realizing Lockett’s lethal injection had gone wrong.

An autopsy report released to the World on Thursday, the contents of which were first reported by The Oklahoman, shows that Warner was executed Jan. 15 using potassium acetate rather than potassium chloride, the latter of which is required according to Oklahoma’s lethal-injection protocol.  In correspondence to attorneys representing Lockett and Warner, John Hadden, an assistant attorney general, told them potassium chloride would be used as part of a three-drug cocktail in the lethal injection.

Many of the records provided Thursday had little to do with the World’s or other media outlets’ requests, but the emails exchanged between Fallin’s office, Attorney General Scott Pruitt’s staff and Department of Corrections personnel show numerous people were involved in drafting replies to media inquiries.  Officials from each agency appeared not to know on multiple occasions whether they, or a spokesperson from the Department of Public Safety, should comment publicly on questions about the fallout from Lockett’s execution and subsequent DPS investigation.

October 12, 2015 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Sunday, October 11, 2015

"The Future of Parole Release: A Ten-Point Reform Plan"

The title of this post is the title of this timely and intriguing new paper authored by Edward Rhine, Joan Petersilia and Kevin Reitz now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

This article lays out a 10-point program for the improvement of discretionary parole release systems in America.  Taken together, our recommendations coalesce into an ambitious model that has never before existed in the US.  Even if adopted separately, our recommendations would work substantial incremental improvements in the current practices of all paroling systems.

The article is written by three authors who have taken sharply different views on the fundamental question of whether contemporary determinate or indeterminate sentencing systems have been the more successful systems across American states.  Likewise, the authors have given different advice to jurisdictions on whether parole release should be retained, abolished, or reinstituted (Rhine 2012; Petersilia 2003; Reitz 2004).  Nonetheless, the authors agree that discretionary parole-release is an important feature of U.S. sentencing and corrections that will not disappear in the foreseeable future — and all three share a common interest in improving those systems as much as possible.  Indeed, regardless of one’s views on the “determinacy/indeterminacy” debate, it would be irresponsible not to give assistance to the majority of states that continue to vest meaningful authority over prison sentence length in paroling agencies.

October 11, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Federal judicial power to expunge old convictions getting lots of (hip?) attention in EDNY

It is perhaps fitting that in the Eastern District of New York, home to hipster haven Brooklyn, has become the central location for an important new discussion and debate over important (and hip?) questions concerning the legal authority of federal judges to expunge old convictions.  The always great Collateral Consequences Resource Center has highlights of some of the goings on via these two new posts:

The first of these above-referenced posts discusses this fascinating amicus brief filed this past week in one of two federal expungement cases before US Distrct Judge John Gleeson, a brief which the judge requested and which merits it own separate future post.

The second of the posts from CCRC spotlights that, perhaps unsurprisingly, now that Judge Gleeson has suggested federal judges might have some authority to expunge old convictions, other judges are being asked to consider doing the same.

In my view, these matters are (and should continue to be) hot and hip not only for persons interested in criminal justice reform issues, but also for those interested more general in federal court powers and what a judiciary can and should do given gaps in statutory answers to importance criminal justice questions.

October 11, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

"Number of Older Prisoners Grows Rapidly, Threatening to Drive Up Prison Health Costs"

StatelineAgingPrisonersLineGraphThe title of this post is the title of this informative Stateline posting from The Pew Charitable Trusts.  Here are the primary passages: 

In a year when the nation’s overall prison population dropped, the number of older inmates grew rapidly in 2014, continuing a trend that translates into higher federal and state prison health care spending....

In 1999, inmates age 55 and above — a common definition of older prisoners — represented just 3 percent of the total population.  By 2014, that share had grown to 10 percent.

Like senior citizens outside prison walls, older inmates are more likely to experience dementia, impaired mobility, and loss of hearing and vision, among other conditions.  In prisons, these ailments present special challenges and can necessitate increased staffing levels and enhanced officer training, as inmates may have difficulty complying with orders from correctional officers.  They can also require structural accessibility adaptions, such as special housing and wheelchair ramps.  For example, in Florida, four facilities serve relatively large populations of older inmates.  These units help meet special needs, such as palliative and long-term care.

Additionally, older inmates are more susceptible than the rest of the prison population to costly chronic medical conditions.  In 2011-12, for example, 73 percent of state and federal prisoners age 50 years or older reported to the Bureau of Justice Statistics that they had experienced a chronic medical condition such as hypertension, arthritis, asthma, or diabetes, among others.  Younger inmates age 18 to 24 (28 percent) or 25 to 34 (41 percent) were much less likely to have reported such a condition.

All of these challenges create additional health and non-health expenses for prisons, which are constitutionally required to provide adequate medical attention and respond to the unique needs of these inmates.

The National Institute of Corrections pegged the annual cost of incarcerating prisoners 55 and older with chronic and terminal illnesses at, on average, two to three times that of the expense for all other inmates.  More recently, other researchers have found that the cost differential may be wider.

In May, the Department of Justice’s inspector general found that within the Federal Bureau of Prisons, institutions with the highest percentages of aging inmates spent five times more per inmate on medical care — and 14 times more per inmate on medication — than institutions with the lowest percentage of aging inmates.

A few (of many) recent and older related posts:

October 11, 2015 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Should GOP Prez candidates be questioned on why being pro-life and anti-government doesn't lead to death penalty opposition?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this The Week commentary authored by Bonnie Kristin and headlined "The rise of the anti-death penalty conservative." Here are excerpts:

[P]rotesting abortion is not all the consistent pro-life ethic entails.  As typically expressed, most often in Catholic circles, consistent defense of human life in all its forms also requires opposition to the death penalty and assisted suicide (as well as any involuntary form of euthanasia).

"Life is something that comes from God and shouldn't be taken away by man," explains Father Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest.  Those with a consistent pro-life ethic "are concerned about a person from womb to tomb."  For all Christians, consistent pro-lifers argue, "Something is definitely wrong when we claim to follow a man who halted an execution (John 8:1–11) and then was unjustly executed by the state, but still prefer justice over mercy."...

[T]here are some conservatives for whom capital punishment is already a pressing issue. "For those of us who are pro-life and maintain the far-from-radical notion that our government shouldn't kill innocent Americans, the death penalty fails to live up to our standards," argues Marc Hyden of Conservatives Concerned About The Death Penalty (CCATDP), a nonprofit that exists to question "a system marked by inefficiency, inequity, and inaccuracy."

And marked by these difficulties it most certainly is.  As CCATDP enumerates, the problems and perils of capital punishment in modern America are many.  There's the risk — as in the Glossip case and too many others, like Marlon Howell or Cameron Todd Willingham — of accidentally killing an innocent person.   More than 150 people sentenced to die in America have been exonerated in the last four decades, some after spending 30 years or more on death row.

Beyond that, the death penalty is exorbitantly expensive for taxpayers — as much as 10 times more expensive than a life sentence by some calculations.  The lengthy process drags out the grief of murder victims' families, endlessly resuscitating it with a new appeal or evidence.  And there's no evidence that the threat of death deters crime.  Furthermore, capital punishment is implemented in a systemically unfair manner: Factors like where you live, your race and the race of your alleged victim, and even whether your judge is elected or appointed can all influence whether you're sentenced to prison or death.

With inequities like these, Hyden argues, there's nothing "limited or wise about giving an error-prone government the power to kill its citizens, especially when many of us don't trust the state to even deliver mail."

In spite of the evidence that — as conservatives tend to agree in other policy arenas — the government is neither competent nor trustworthy, polling suggests that CCATDP is still in the minority on the right: Only 11 percent of Americans oppose both abortion and the death penalty. There is "no significant correlation between attitudes about the legality of abortion and views on capital punishment," according to Robert P. Jones of OnFaith, and if we zoom in on Tea Partiers, support for a consistent pro-life ethic drops to just 7 percent.

So in 2016, Republican debate moderators looking for a tough but thoughtful question to add to their list should consider question grilling presidential contenders on the death penalty.  Thanks to the Planned Parenthood footage — not to mention the cross-partisan popularity of the broader cause of criminal justice reform, as well as the consistently pro-life Pope Francis — the timing is good.  And thanks to the clear discrepancies between opposition to big government handing out a license to kill, on the one hand, and support for the death penalty on the other, the chance to catch candidates in hypocrisy is pretty good, too.

Some prior related posts:

October 10, 2015 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Death Penalty Reforms, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (9)

Via the National Review, an unintended parody of various arguments against modest federal sentencing reform

Tumblr_mr31fpWYLB1qzpxx1o1_500I generally respect and benefit form the work Bill Otis does over at Crime & Consequences criticizing sentencing reform movements because, despite sometimes overheated rhetoric, he generally uses sound data and reasonable aguments to make out the best case in defense of the modern federal sentencing status quo.  Though I think Bill is often wrong on the merits, especially with respect to federal statutory sentencing reform issues, he is justifiably seen as an important voice in the public-policy debate because he regularly makes responsible and sober claims in support of his various positions.

I bring all this up as a prelude to spotlighting this notable new National Review commentary by Andrew McCarthy, headlined "Keep Minimum Sentencing, to Discourage Criminals." This lengthy piece, in my view, reads almost like a parody (unintentionally, I assume) of many arguments against federal sentencing reform that Bill and some other prosecutors make much more soundly in other settings. Here are some few passages from the piece that strike me as especially cringe-worthy:

Young Americans for whom the Reagan administration is ancient history, New Yorkers who grew up in the post-Giuliani City — they have no memory of what it was like from the Sixties into the early Eighties. For them, the revolution in crime-fighting that so dramatically improved the quality of American life is not revolutionary. It is simply ... life. There is nothing hard-won about it. It is not informed by the dark days when rampant crime was fueled by a criminal-rights campaign premised on many of the same loopy ideas that undergird Washington’s latest fetish, “sentencing reform.”

The worst of those ideas is to roll back “mandatory minimum” sentences. These are terms of imprisonment, often harsh ones, that must be imposed for serious crimes. Mandatory minimums tie the hands of judges, mandating that they take hard criminals off the streets rather than slap them on the wrists. Before the Reagan era, federal penal laws prescribed potentially severe sentences for serious offenses ...[but a] judge was also free to impose the minimum sentence of no time whatsoever. What punishment to impose within that expansive statutory range from zero to 50 years was wholly the judge’s call. In effect, this nearly boundless discretion transferred control over punishment for crime from the public to the courts.

Federal judges tend to be very good at the difficult job they are trained to do: apply law, which is frequently arcane and sometimes inconsistent, to factual situations, which have their own complexities. This skill, however, does not necessarily translate into expertise in making punitive judgments that are governed less by legal rules than gut feeling — gut feeling being what controls broad discretion....

Even if many judges were not instinctively sympathetic to arguments in favor of harsh sentencing, sympathy comes with the institutional territory. The judge’s duty is not to promote public safety; it is to ensure that parties before the court receive justice. It is a bedrock conceit of those who toil in the justice system that the public perception of justice is just as vital as the objective reality of justice. Thus, the judge has great incentive to bend over backward to give convicted defendants every bounce of the due-process ball.

It is a lot easier to call for a harsh sentence from the peanut gallery than to be the judge who has to impose a sentence after a desperate plea for leniency has been made and while the defendant’s mother, wife, and kids weep in the first row. So whether the pressures were ideological, institutional, or rooted in human nature, judges were often weak sentencers. That weakness translated into the inadvertent promotion of crime by failing to disincentivize it and failing to sideline career criminals. Mandatory minimums were thus enacted by overwhelming congressional margins in order to divest judges of the discretion to impose little or no jail time for serious crimes and habitual criminals.

It is the latest Beltway fashion to demand that mandatory minimums be rolled back, if not repealed, on the theory that incarceration causes rather than drastically reduces crime. Or, since that claim doesn’t pass the laugh test, on the theory that incarceration is racist — the great American conversation ender. Beyond the in terrorem effect of the racism smear, the latter rationale relies on the overrepresentation of minorities, particularly blacks and illegal aliens, in the prison population — and banks on your being too cowed to bring up the overrepresentation of minority communities in the crime-victim population.

Alas, a “reform” that reduces mandatory minimums will benefit only one class of people — serious felons who commit many more crimes than they are prosecuted for. And racism? Please. We have, to take one pertinent example, a harsh mandatory minimum sentence for predators who are convicted of a felony after having previously being convicted of three other serious crimes. Congress wasn’t targeting race; it was targeting sociopaths.

Understand, I am not contending that the criminal-justice system is without flaws badly in need of correction. But the main problem is not severe sentencing. It is over-criminalization.

Too much formerly innocent private conduct has become prohibited, making criminals out of essentially law-abiding people. Law is supposed to be a reflection of society’s values, not a tool by which society is coerced to transform its values. Moreover, when the statutes, rules, and regulations proliferate to the point that it becomes unreasonable to expect average people to know what is forbidden, we no longer have a nation of laws; we have a nation of men arbitrarily deciding which of the presumptively guilty get punished and which go unscathed.

If a problem is not accurately diagnosed, it will not be cured. There is a prescription for what ails us, but it is most certainly not a repeal of the severe sentences enacted to address serious crime. Nothing that rewards real criminals at the expense of the people they victimize should trade under the name of “reform.”

I share the closing sentiment that a problem need to be accurately diagnosed to be solved. But there are so many problems in the arguments before that sentiment, I almost feel unable to unpack them all in the space. What I find especially peculiar are the suggestions here that sound sentencing is necessarily only about "gut feeling," that it is problematic judges consider "every bounce of the due-process ball," and that sentencing would be better if more attentive to every "call for a harsh sentence from the peanut gallery." Also remarkable is the suggestion that any and everyone subject to an existing federal mandatory minimum is a "sociopath" that must be subject to severe punishment because surely they have committed "many more crimes than they are prosecuted for."

All these curious contentions aside, I find it especially remarkable how McCarthy concludes after saying nothing is wrong with the harsh mandatory drug and gun sentences created in recent decades by Congress and applied (inconsistently) by federal prosecutors. He says the "main" problem is other federal criminal laws created in recent decades by Congress and applied (inconsistently) by federal prosecutors which creates, so he claims, a "nation of men arbitrarily deciding which of the presumptively guilty get punished and which go unscathed." In other words, it seems, when it comes to imposing punishment for crimes, we should continue to distrust modern judges and trust old mandatory sentencing laws created by Congress in the 1980s, but when it comes to defining what is a crime, we should not trust Congress because somehow they enact criminal laws (but not "severe sentences") that are not really "a reflection of society’s values."

I trust I am not the only one who see how backward a lot of what is being said here. But apparently the folks at the National Review see reasonable logic or some kind of wisdom here that perhaps requires spending more time in the Beltway to understand. Or maybe I just need to go re-watch Breaking Bad, which NR has extolled, so I can better understand the "sociopaths" federal judges cannot be trusted to sentence properly because they have the wrong "gut feeling" while concerned with "every bounce of the due-process ball."

October 10, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Friday, October 9, 2015

In defense of Ohio officials trying to figure out how to get execution drugs legally

This new AP story, headlined "Ohio Challenges FDA's Stand on Execution Drug," provides more details and context for the notable letter sent today by Ohio officials to the FDA (first reported here). Here are excerpts (with my bold emphasis):

With two dozen scheduled executions in limbo, Ohio sent a forceful letter to Washington on Friday asserting that the state believes it can obtain a lethal-injection drug from overseas without violating any laws.

The letter to the Food and Drug Administration stopped short of suggesting Ohio is moving forward to obtain the powerful anesthetic sodium thiopental. However, the state asked to begin discussing with federal officials about acquiring the substance legally.

The FDA had warned Ohio in June that importing the restricted drug could be illegal as a result of recent federal court decisions, setting up the latest roadblock to carrying out the death penalty.

Ohio hasn't executed anyone since January 2014, when condemned killer Dennis McGuire gasped and snorted repeatedly during a 26-minute procedure with a two-drug method that had yet to be tried. Ohio abandoned that method in favor of other drugs it now can't find.

Pharmaceutical companies have discontinued the medications traditionally used by states in executions or put them off limits for use in lethal injections. Stephen Gray, chief counsel for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation & Correction, said the state has no intention of violating the law to obtain such drugs — but "the responsibility to carry out lawful and humane executions when called upon by the courts to do so is enormous, and it is a responsibility that ODRC does not take lightly."

Death penalty opponents have seized on trouble with lethal injections, as in McGuire's case, and difficulty in obtaining drugs as further justification for ending it.  Supporters of capital punishment encourage states to continue to pursue legal avenues for getting the drugs — or find alternatives — so that condemned killers can be brought to justice.

Ohio's latest correspondence comes as the state is set to resume executions in a little over three months. The state is scheduled to execute Ronald Phillips on Jan. 21 for raping and killing his girlfriend's 3-year-old daughter in 1993. Another 23 executions have been scheduled into 2019.

In part because I know and respect, both professional and personally, a number of Ohio executive officials, I have highlighted parts of the story above that I suspect may have led many of them to feel duty-bound to explain to FDA why Ohio thinks it legally could (and perhaps sensibly should) seek to import lethal injection drugs.  Ohio has a long (and sometimes ugly) history with its lethal injection protocols, but Ohio officials have always seemed (at least to me) to be willing and eager to make reasonable efforts to adjust its execution protocols in order to try to carry out lawful death sentences in the most humane way possible.  I perceive that an effort to find a legal way to import sodium thiopental is another example of Ohio officials making this effort.

Of course, opponents of the death penalty are often quick to say that no execution is humane and that Ohio's troubles with executions protocols and drug acquisition provide further reasons for the state to get entirely out of the capital business.  Ironically, I suspect many Ohio executive officials personally share this perspective, especially because their jobs would surely get easier if they did not have to worry about the next scheduled execution (or the 23 others right behind it).  But all executive officials, short of perhaps Ohio Gov John Kasich, are duty-bound to apply the existing law enacted by Ohio's elected representatives, not the law as would serve their own personal interests.  (Indeed, in neighboring Kentucky, Kim Davis recently highlighted the ugliness that can ensure when executive officials seek to elevate personal law over the actual law.)  

Consequently, unless and until the Ohio General Assembly repeals the death penalty or Gov Kasch uses his clemency authority to create an execution moratorium, it strikes me as defensible (and arguably obligatory) for Ohio executive officials to look to secure drugs needed for execution by any and all lawful means.  And it will now be especially interesting to see if FDA official will be willing and able to work with Ohio officials to help the state lawfully secure execution drugs (assuming, as I think all should, that this is what Ohio would like to be able to do).

Prior related post:

October 9, 2015 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (13)

Ohio tells FDA it can be legal to import sodium thiopental to carry out death sentences

In this post a few months ago, I reported on a letter sent by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to the head of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation Correction (ODRC) expressing concern that Ohio might be trying to import illegally the drug it needed to carry out scheduled executions.  Now I can report on an interesting official response sent today from ODRC back to FDA.  In a four-page letter, ODRC provides an extended explanation for how, in Ohio's view, it could be legal for it to import certain drugs needed to carry out executions.

The full letter from ODRC to FDA, which is available for downloading below, merits a careful read by anyone closely following the challenges many states are having securing needed drugs for executions.  As a kind of summary, here is how the ODRC letter starts and concludes:

Your June 26, 2015 letter to Director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (ODRC), Gary Mohr, referenced some unspecified information you had received about Ohio's "inten[t] to obtain bulk and finished dosage forms of sodium thiopental." Based on this information, you referenced two federal court decisions, Beaty v. FDA, 853 F. Supp. 2d 30 (D.D.C. 2012) and Cook v. FDA, 733 F.3d 1(D.C. Cir. 2013), and sought to "remind [Ohio] of the applicable legal framework" for importation of sodium thiopental. Contrary to the implication in your letter that the importation of sodium thiopental is currently prohibited, there is a legal framework for a state, if it so chooses, to import sodium thiopental in accordance with both the federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FDCA) and the June 2012 Court Order issued by Judge Leon in Beaty. Further, please be advised that if at some point in the future the State of Ohio should choose to pursue the importation of sodium thiopental or any other drug that may be used to carry out a sentence of lethal injection, Ohio has no intention of breaking any federal laws or violating any court orders in an attempt to procure the legal drugs necessary to carry out constitutionally approved and court-ordered death sentences....

Given the specific facts and parameters of those [above-referenced] decisions, it is clear that importation of sodium thiopental is not completely prohibited by Judge Leon's 2012 Orders.  That is, importation of sodium thiopental is not prohibited provided that [five key conditions are met]....

Thus, we believe that if a state were to attempt to import sodium thiopental under these five conditions, then the specific terms of the Beaty injunction would not apply.  In other words, the FDA would not be permanently enjoined from permitting that shipment into the United States, and that it would be lawful and permissible for a state to proceed with such lawful importation.

The responsibility to carry out lawful and humane executions when called upon by the courts to do so is enormous, and it is a responsibility that ODRC does not take lightly.  To that end, ODRC has no intention of attempting to procure drugs for lethal injection in a manner that would violate a proper interpretation of the FDCA.  And, as the federal agency tasked with enforcing the FDCA and subject to the Court Order in Beaty, we would be happy to begin a dialog with the FDA as to how best achieve this goal.

Download DRC to FDA 9 Oct 2015

Prior related post:

October 9, 2015 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Lots of interesting and notable pieces this week from The Marshall Project

Regular readers are likely tired of my regular recommendation of the work being done at The Marshall Project.  But this array of notable original pieces from just this past week reinforces why the site it is on my daily-must-read list:

October 9, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Recommended reading | Permalink | Comments (0)

"The Supreme Court’s Johnson v. United States Ruling: A Vagueness Doctrine Revolution?"

The title of this post is the title of this helpful "Legal Backgrounder" coming from the Washington Legal Foundation and authored by David Debold and Rachel Mondl. Here are a couple of paragraphs from the start and end of the reader-friendly piece:

Apart from the direct effect of Johnson on ACCA sentences, the decision marks an important step in the Court’s vagueness jurisprudence.  Also not to be overlooked is Justice Thomas’s concurrence, which likened the vagueness doctrine to the much-maligned concept of substantive due process, thus raising questions about the legitimacy of a vagueness doctrine in the first place.  In the end, though, the debate over the legitimacy of substantive-due-process rights should have no bearing on the Court’s void-for-vagueness precedents, because vague laws offend traditional notions of procedural due process — that is, the process by which the government may deprive a person of life, liberty, or property....

More than an opinion on mandatory-minimum sentences, Johnson provides a welcome clarification of the law on unconstitutional vagueness.  Yet it remains to be seen how far-reaching the decision will be.  The majority opinion widens the opportunities for challenges to laws where previous challenges would not have been possible under a vague-in-all-applications regime.  Time will tell whether more of those challenges will succeed, or, instead, whether Johnson is relegated to “unique” status, its result ordained by the profound and repeated inability of the Supreme Court and courts of appeals to craft a principled, workable standard for applying a peculiar type ofstatute.  One thing is certain: Johnson will not be the last word on the vagueness doctrine.

October 9, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Highlighting who is now highlighting the inefficacy of sex offender registries

This new local Ohio article, headlined "Sex offender registries draw criticism from some unlikely sources," spotlights that some perhaps unexpected voices are advocating against sex offender registries. Here are excertps (with links from the source):

You might think that all advocates for rape victims would support the practice of forcing sex offenders to publicly register their addresses after their release from prison. But you would be mistaken.

Growing numbers of victim advocates and criminal justice researchers are among those who have concluded that sex offender registries are too costly and provide little or no protection to the public.  "The registry gives the appearance that our community is safer, but we really question whether it lives up to that expectation," said Sondra Miller, president of the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center....

It's not surprising that defense attorneys oppose the registries, but therapists and victim's advocates also are among those calling for change.

"The biggest frustration we have with the registry is it feeds into the myths that the general public has about sexual assault," Miller said.  "It feeds this stranger-danger mentality when we know it's such a small fraction of the sexual assaults that occur in our community."  Miller said the registries give people a "false sense of security" that sex offenders can be easily identified and avoided, when that's not the case. 

Tyffani Dent, a clinical director at the Abraxas Counseling Center and a psychologist who works with both victims and offenders, said registries spread law enforcement too thin. Deputies have to check in not only on repeat, violent offenders but also teenagers who sent illicit text messages to their girlfriends, and who pose little threat to their neighbors.   "I want for victims to get justice," she said. "Unfortunately, registration the way it is now doesn't do what it's designed to do."

Several large-scale studies have shown that registries don't do much to prevent criminals from committing new crimes.

  • A 2008 U.S. Department of Justice study concluded that "Megan's Law showed no demonstrable effect in reducing sexual re-offenses."
  • A 2011 study from the University of Chicago found that "registered sex offenders have higher rates of recidivism" than those who did not have to register.
  • Another study published in 2011 found that a registration requirement has a deterrent effect on sexual offenders, but the notification aspect of the registries leads to higher rates of offense because of the social and financial costs to the offender. 
  • A 2004 Canadian study found that "after 15 years, 73 percent of sexual offenders had not been charged with, or convicted of, another sexual offense."

Dent doesn't think the registry system should be abandoned entirely.  Instead, she favors registering only the most dangerous offenders.  That would free up resources for preventative measures and treatment, such as mental health therapy, which Dent said has been proven to reduce recidivism.   In particular, Dent said cognitive behavioral therapies, which address the way people think and behave, have been proven to reduce recidivism among sex offenders.... 

Miller ... noted that victim's services and treatment programs are both underfunded, and could use some of the more than half a million dollars Cuyahoga County spends maintaining its registry.  "It really is a question of where do we put our resources where we're going to have the maximum impact and I'm not sure the sex offender registry is where we're getting the most impact," Miller said.

This companion story to the one quoted above carries the headline "Sex offender says registry amounts to punishment for life." Here is how it starts:

Nearly three decades ago, Emil Basista was convicted of raping a 33-year-old woman. While serving time in prison, he was retroactively labeled as a sexual predator, a designation that requires him to report where he lives every 90 days to the sheriff's department. Basista, 66, is one of several thousand Ohioans who have tried to challenge the state's sexual offender registration requirements, contending that the publicly accessible registries amount to life-long punishment.

October 9, 2015 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Oops: "Oklahoma used wrong drug in January execution, autopsy report shows"

The title of this post is the headline of this article (with a little extra commentary) from The Christian Science Monitor. Here are the details:

The wrong lethal injection drug was used in an Oklahoma execution in January, an autopsy report obtained by an Oklahoma newspaper shows. The Oklahoman reported Thursday that potassium acetate, instead of potassium chloride as required under the state's protocol, was the final drug administered to stop Charles Frederick Warner's heart during his Jan. 15 execution.

Mr. Warner, convicted of the rape and murder of an 11-month-old in 1997, is the last murderer to be executed at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester. His punishment was carried out almost nine months after the execution of murderer Clayton Lockett, whose botched execution triggered an investigation into the combination of drugs used that went all the way up to the Supreme Court on the grounds of Eighth Amendment rights infringement -- that is, whether or not Oklahoma failed to protect Mr. Lockett from “cruel and unusual” punishment....

The same incorrect drug found in Warner’s autopsy report were delivered to corrections officials Sept. 30 for the scheduled execution of another convicted murderer, Richard Glossip.  After learning of the mistake, Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin granted a last-minute stay and postponed off the executions of two additional death row inmates.

An investigation into the circumstances surrounding Warner's execution was announced by Attorney General Scott Pruitt shortly after.  On Wednesday, Mr. Pruitt said the investigation will cover any previous drug mistake, The Oklahoman reports.

“I want to assure the public that our investigation will be full, fair, and complete and includes not only actions on Sept. 30, but any and all actions prior, relevant to the use of potassium acetate and potassium chloride,” Pruitt said.

Governor Fallin said Wednesday night she supports further inquiry into Warner's execution, and told the newspaper it “became apparent” on Sept. 30 when Glossip’s execution was delayed that a similar mix-up may have occurred in Warner’s case....

“It is imperative that the attorney general obtain the information he needs to make sure justice is served competently and fairly,” Fallin said in an email to The Oklahoman. “Until we have complete confidence in the system, we will delay any further executions.”

She said she and the attorney general delayed Glossip's execution as a precaution, despite the doctor and the pharmacist working with corrections officials agreeing that potassium chloride and potassium acetate are medically interchangeable. “The active ingredient is potassium, which, when injected in large quantities, stops the heart,” the governor said.

She said “it became apparent” during the discussions Sept. 30 about a delay that the Corrections Department may have used potassium acetate in Warner's execution. “I was not aware nor was anyone in my office aware of that possibility until the day of Richard Glossip's scheduled execution,” she said. On Tuesday, Fallin said she has hired an outside attorney “to look at the whole process” and provide oversight.

October 8, 2015 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (20)

Basic elements of House's Sentencing Reform Act of 2015

As noted in this prior post, a bipartisan group of Respresentatives today introduced a version of sentencing reform in the form of this 18-page bill called the Sentencing Reform Act. This press release from the House Judiciary Committee provides this introduction:

The Sentencing Reform Act of 2015 reduces certain mandatory minimums for drug offenses, reduces the three-strike mandatory life sentence to 25 years, broadens the existing safety valve for low-level drug offenders, and provides judges with greater discretion in determining appropriate sentences while ensuring that serious violent felons do not get out early. The bill also contains sentencing enhancements for Fentanyl trafficking, a highly addictive and deadly drug that is becoming a growing epidemic in the United States.

The Sentencing Reform Act of 2015 is the first bill that is a result of the House Judiciary Committee’s criminal justice reform initiative. The Committee continues to work on additional bills that address other aspects of our criminal justice system, including over-criminalization, prison and reentry reform – including youth and juvenile justice issues – improved criminal procedures and policing strategies, and civil asset forfeiture reform. The Committee will roll out more bills addressing these topics over the coming weeks.

The press release also includes quotes from various House members and has links to a "one-pager on the Sentencing Reform Act [that] can be found here and section-by-section [that] can be found here."

October 8, 2015 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

What major federal criminal justice reform now gets 90% support in key swing states?

In this post and others at Crime & Consequences, Bill Otis rightly notes that relatively little objective polling has focused on the array of federal sentencing and correction reforms that are being actively proposed and promoted now by many leaders in the US Senate and House.  Like Bill, I would like to see the media and other independent groups conduct polling on some key aspects of federal drug sentencing and broader rehabilitation-oriented prison reform proposals now being considered on Capitol Hill.

Critically, though, thanks largely to voter-initiated, state-level reforms over the last few years, we are starting to see a lot more media and other independent groups conduct polling on one particular aspect of the federal criminal justice system: blanket marijuana prohibition and criminalization.  The latest polling numbers in this space come from the independent Quinnipiac University Poll, and it finds remarkably high public support for ending marijuana prohibition in swing states in order to allow adults "to legally use marijuana for medical purposes if their doctor prescribes it."  This Quinnipiac press release about its poll places emphasis on closely-divided (and gender/age-distinctive) views on recreational marijuana reform, but I find the medical marijuana poll numbers most remarkable and important. Here are excerpts from the press release (with my emphasis added):

"If men are from Mars and women are from Venus, then the Red Planet might be the more spacey place. That's because men are more likely than women to support legalization of marijuana for recreational use," said Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Poll. "Not surprisingly support for the change is linked to age, with younger voters more likely to see personal use of pot as a good thing."

"But despite the support for legalization, a majority of voters in Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania say they would not use the drug if it were legal," Brown added. "Only about one in 10 voters opposes legalizing marijuana for medical purposes." ...

Florida voters support legalizing personal marijuana use 51 - 45 percent.... Voters support legalizing medical marijuana 87 - 12 percent....

Ohio voters support legalizing personal marijuana use 53 - 44 percent.... Voters support legalized medical marijuana use 90 - 9 percent.

Pennsylvania voters are divided on legalizing personal marijuana use, with 47 percent in favor and 49 percent opposed.... Voters support legalizing medical marijuana 90 - 9 percent.

Among other stories, these latest poll numbers reinforce my concern that federal laws and our federal political leaders (including, it seems, most of the candidates running to be our next President) are badly out of touch with public views on marijuana reform. Even in these purple swing states, roughly 90% (!) of those polled say, in essence, that they do not support blanket marijuana prohibition and criminalization, and yet blanket marijuana prohibition persists in federal law and precious few elected federal office holders (or those seeking to be elected office holders) are willing even to talk about seeking to change these laws in the short term.

That all said, I am getting a growing sense that, over time, more and more promiment establishment politicians are coming to understand just how talking seriously (and modestly) about marijuana reform can be a winning political issue (especially among younger voters).  Still, as evidenced by some recent posts at my Marijuana blog, the politics, policies and practicalities of marijuana reform are so dynamic, I find myself unwilling ever to make bold predictions about what might happen next in this reform space.

Some recent posts from Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform:

October 8, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)