Friday, November 28, 2014
Texas Justice calls for state's death penalty to be abolished
As reported in this local article, "Texas Court of Appeals Justice Tom Price on Wednesday denounced the death penalty, saying that Texas' 2005 life without parole law makes it unnecessary and that the possibility of executing a wrongfully convicted person is an 'irrational risk' that should not be tolerated by the criminal justice system." Here is more about this notable development which emerged in a legal challenge to a notable planned execution:
The Dallas Republican's comments, thought to be the first time such views have been voiced by a judge on the state's highest criminal appeals court, came in a strongly worded dissent to the court's Wednesday rejection of an appeal on behalf of Scott Panetti, a Fredericksburg double-killer said to suffer from schizophrenia. Panetti, 56, is scheduled to be executed next Wednesday.
"Based on my specialized knowledge of this process," Price wrote, "I now conclude that the death penalty as a form of punishment should be abolished because the execution of individuals does not appear to measurably advance the retribution and deterrence purpose served by the death penalty; the life without parole option adequately protects society at large in the same way as the death penalty option; and the risk of executing an innocent person for a capital murder is unreasonably high, particularly in light of procedural-default laws and the prevalence of ineffective trial and initial habeas counsel."
Price, 61, a former Dallas County state district judge, has served on the high appeals court since 1996. His term ends this year and he has said he will not seek re-election. In his statement, Price asserted that "society is now less convinced of the absolute accuracy of the criminal justice system."...
"In my time on this court I have voted to grant numerous applications for writs of habeas corpus that have resulted in the release of dozens of people who were wrongfully convicted," Price wrote. "I conclude that it is wishful thinking to believe that this state will never execute an innocent person for capital murder. ... I am convinced that, because the criminal justice system is run by humans, it is naturally subject to human error. There is no rational basis to believe that this same type of human error will not infect capital murder trials."
Price's comments were greeted with surprise by law professors and appellate attorneys active in death penalty cases. "I'm still absorbing it. It wasn't expected," said Maurie Levin, a former clinical law professor at the University of Texas who now is based in Philadelphia. "It's long overdue." While the concerns raised by Price have been "discussed and decried around the country for a number of years now ... for a high court judge, a CCA judge, to articulate them so forthrightly is extraordinary."...
Jani Maselli Wood, an assistant Harris County public defender, an adjunct professor at the University of Houston law school and a former Texas Court of Criminal Appeals staff attorney, said she doubts Price's statement will influence legislators or incoming juries. But, "it will impact his legacy for what he wants us to remember," Wood said. "He says we have life without parole, why do we need death convictions. He is remarkably brave. I think it is heroic."
Price's statement came in a dissent to the court's 6-3 vote not to consider a new appeal on behalf of Panetti that argues his mental condition "renders him categorically ineligible for the death penalty under the Eighth and 14th Amendments, because imposition of the death penalty on offenders with severe mental illness offends contemporary standards of decency." The court found the petition failed to meet requirements for applications of post-conviction writs of habeas corpus.
Judges Elsa Alcala and Cheryl Johnson issued a separate dissenting opinion, saying they would stay Panetti's execution to allow for an examination of his claim that the Eighth Amendment prohibits execution of seriously mentally ill individuals.
The full six-page "Dissenting Statement" by Justice Price can be accessed at this link, and here is one of a number of notable paragraphs from the opinion:
Some might argue that a victim’s family deserves the finality that comes with the execution of an offender. This is a misguided sentiment as the instant case demonstrates. Applicant has been on death row for about twenty years. The victims’ family has not gotten finality after twenty years due to the numerous appeals and writs filed by applicant in which he has contended that his mental status makes him ineligible for execution. And, perhaps, one would say that the answer is speeding up executions. But creating a more restrictive temporal limitation would only increase the risk of executing a wrongfully convicted person. In my experience, a victim’s family is more likely to quickly experience finality through the criminal justice system when an offender is sentenced to life without parole than when he is sentenced to death.
Latest New York recidivism numbers provide more to be thankful for
This New York Daily News article, headlined "Ex-cons returning to New York prisons for new felonies hits all time low: data," reports on encouraging news about recidivism rates in the Empire State. Here are the details:
The number of ex-cons returning to New York prisons for new felonies has reached an all-time low, according to the latest data.
Approximately 10% of former inmates get sent back to the big house for crimes committed after they’re released — the lowest recidivism rate since state authorities began counting in 1985. At the same time, the overall prison return rate is hovering at about 40% — mainly due to repeated parole violations....
There was a significant drop in repeat felonies after the state amended its draconian Rockefeller drug laws, according to the data released by the Department of Corrections. Those 1970s-era laws mandated prison sentences for even low-level offenders.
The decline also accompanied a 20% drop in violent crimes and serious property crimes over the past 15 years.
Those who did wind up behind bars for a second time were often there for failing to meet parole stipulations like required drug programs, curfews and counseling. Most of those ex-cons return to prison within 18 months, the state data showed.
Programs designed to help transition prisoners back to civilian life have also helped to smooth the way, according to state officials. The number of ex-inmates sent back to prison within three years of release had dropped from 19% in 1985 to 9% in 2010, according to the data....
The state prison system released 24,605 inmates in 2010. Of those, 2,682 served their entire sentences without parole — and they had a higher-than-average return rate at 18%. Individuals with more past convictions were likelier to return with new ones, the report said.
Thursday, November 27, 2014
So grateful for so much...
including all the folks who regularly check out this blog and help ensure that I continue to benefit so much from sharing stories and ideas here about sentencing law and policy. Rather than stay on topic, here is a humerous holiday poem for folks to enjoy on this joyous holiday:
Wednesday, November 26, 2014
Senator Rand Paul links Ferguson tragedy to harms of the modern drug war
Regular readers know I am always interested in Senator Rand Paul's distinctive perspective on criminal justice issues. This new Time op-ed, headlined "The Politicians Are To Blame in Ferguson," has Senator Paul touching on broader themes as he connects recent events in Ferguson with his belief in the need for systemic reforms to the US criminal justice system. Here are excerpts:
We are witnessing a tragedy in Ferguson. This city in Missouri has become a focal point for so much. The President and the late Michael Brown’s family have called for peace. I join their calls for peaceful protest, but also reiterate their call to action — “channel your frustration in ways that will make a positive change.”
In the search for culpability for the tragedy in Ferguson, I mostly blame politicians. Michael Brown’s death and the suffocation of Eric Garner in New York for selling untaxed cigarettes indicate something is wrong with criminal justice in America. The War on Drugs has created a culture of violence and put police in a nearly impossible situation.
In Ferguson, the precipitating crime was not drugs, but theft. But the War on Drugs has created a tension in some communities that too often results in tragedy. One need only witness the baby in Georgia, who had a concussive grenade explode in her face during a late-night, no-knock drug raid (in which no drugs were found) to understand the feelings of many minorities — the feeling that they are being unfairly targeted.
Three out of four people in jail for drugs are people of color. In the African American community, folks rightly ask why are our sons disproportionately incarcerated, killed, and maimed?
African Americans perceive as true that their kids are more likely to be killed. ProPublica examined 33 years of FBI data on police shootings, accounted for the racial make-up of the country, and determined that: “Young black males in recent years were at a far greater risk of being shot dead by police than their white counterparts — 21 times greater.”
Can some of the disparity be blamed on a higher rate of crime in the black community? Yes, but there is a gnawing feeling that simply being black in a high-crime area increases your risk for a deadly altercation with police.
Does bad behavior account for some of the interactions with law enforcement? Yes, but surely there must be ways that we can work to prevent the violence from escalating....
Reforming criminal justice to make it racially blind is imperative, but that won’t lift up these young men from poverty. In fact, I don’t believe any law will. For too long, we’ve attached some mythic notion to government solutions and yet, 40 years after we began the War on Poverty, poverty still abounds.,,,
This message is not a racial one. The link between poverty, lack of education, and children outside of marriage is staggering and cuts across all racial groups. Statistics uniformly show that waiting to have children in marriage and obtaining an education are an invaluable part of escaping poverty....
I will continue to fight to end the racial disparities in drug sentencing. I will continue to fight lengthy, mandatory sentences that prevent judges from using discretion. I will continue to fight to restore voting rights for non-violent felons who’ve served their sentences. But my hope is that out of tragedy, a preacher or teacher will arise — one who motivates and inspires all of us to discover traits, ambitions, and moral codes that have slowly eroded and left us empty with despair.
I will continue the fight to reform our nation’s criminal justice system, but in the meantime, the call should go out for a charismatic leader, not a politician, to preach a gospel of hope and prosperity. I have said often America is in need of a revival. Part of that is spiritual. Part of that is in civics, in our leaders, in our institutions. We must look at policies, ideas, and attitudes that have failed us and we must demand better.
Nearly a year into clemency initiative, turkeys remain more likely to get Prez Obama pardon than people
As detailed in this AP story, headlined "Obama Defends Legal Authority — to Pardon Turkeys," there was much jocularity at the White House today as President Obama continued the White House tradition of giving executive grace to a couple of feathered friends:
President Barack Obama has issued an executive action that some of his Republican opponents may be hard-pressed to disagree with — sparing Thanksgiving turkeys from the dinner table.
In the spirit of the holiday, Obama on Wednesday took "action fully within my legal authority, the same kind of action taken by Democrats and Republican presidents before me," to pardon the National Thanksgiving Turkey, a 49-pound bird named Cheese. He also spared an alternate turkey, a 47-pounder named Mac. Both came from Cooper Farms in Oakwood, Ohio.
"If you're a turkey, and you're named after a side dish, your chances of escaping Thanksgiving dinner are pretty low," Obama said at the annual event, which drew international media coverage. He was accompanied by his daughters, Malia and Sasha, who declined his invitation to pet the birds. "No," Malia said....
"So these guys are well ahead of the curve. They really beat the odds," he said of Mac and Cheese. Obama last week announced a series of highly anticipated executive actions immigration that have left Republicans crying "fowl."
Joking about his poultry action, Obama said: "I know some will call this amnesty. But don't worry. There's plenty of turkey to go around." Later Wednesday, Obama took his family to a neighborhood food pantry to donate a pair of turkeys "that didn't make the cut."...
At the pardoning ceremony, Obama referenced news reports that questioned the wisdom of the turkey pardon tradition and said "it is a little puzzling that I do this every year." But Obama said he enjoys the tradition because "with all the tough stuff that swirls around in this office, it's nice once in a while just to say 'Happy Thanksgiving,' and this is a great excuse to do it."
Presidents as far back as Abraham Lincoln spared turkeys, according to the White House. President George H.W. Bush granted the first turkey pardon in November 1989.
At the risk of being a holiday party pooper, I cannot help but note that it has now been a full 10 months since the Obama Administration publicly announced (as detailed here) that it was eager to identify low-level, nonviolent drug offenders for possible clemency relief. Since that time, however, the President has granted clemency to a grand total of one prisoner and now to two turkeys. Thus, as I have said often in the past and will continue to say unless things change dramatically, President Obama's clemency record to date to be not merely disappointing, but truly disgraceful.
A few of many recent and older posts concerning federal clemency practices:
- "White House Seeks Drug Clemency Candidates" ... like Weldon Angelos and Chris Williams?
- Justice Department formally announces its clemency initiative plans and guidelines
- Is Prez Obama likely to grant clemency to "hundreds, perhaps thousands" of imprisoned drug offenders?
- New Slate pitch for Prez to use clemency powers to address crack sentencing disparities
- ProPublica reveals more ugliness in federal clemency process
- ProPublica urges next AG to "Fix Presidential Pardons"
- "Presidential Pardons Heavily Favor Whites"
- Investigation reveals (shockingly?!?!) that politicians and politics impact federal pardons
- DOJ audit of federal clemency process with sound and fury signifying nothing
- Updated numbers on President Obama's disgraceful clemency record
- "Obama's Mercy Dearth"
- Los Angeles Times calls out our "no-pardon president"
"The Neuroscientific Case Against Retributive Justice"
The title of this post is the title of this interesting new article by Stephen Morris and Robert Robinson available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
Retributive Justice is the theory of justice according to which individuals are either rewarded or punished as payback for the moral rights/wrongs they have committed. Consequentialist considerations such as deterrence and prevention do not figure into justifications for treatment from this perspective. This theory also holds that the severity of the punishment ought to be in proportion to the severity of the crime. The central tenant of the retributive model of justice — namely, that reward/punishment gives people what they deserve — relies crucially upon the intuition that people are sometimes accountable for their actions in some strong metaphysical sense. In particular, we may intuitively feel justified in holding someone morally responsible if her actions were intentional, rather than accidental or coerced. This common view is captured by what we call the "Principle of Retribution": i.e., the view that it is fair to hold an agent morally responsible, and therefore punish her for her crimes, only if her actions were freely willed, intentional, and uncoerced. It follows from this that unless free will exists for human beings, retributivist justice (at least insofar as human beings are concerned) cannot be justified.
We begin by looking back at how theories of retributive justice grew up alongside theories of distributive justice and we describe how those theories have subsequently grown apart. From there we argue that current empirical research in the field of neuroscience casts doubt on the legitimacy of the retributive model of justice insofar as it undermines a particular understanding of free will that appears necessary for its own justification. Much of the recent work on neuroscience's impact on the subject of free will has centered on the work of Benjamin Libet, whose experiments provided evidence that people's actions were initiated by unconscious brain processes that occurred prior to any conscious awareness of decision making on the part of the actor. We argue that the strongest case that neuroscience makes against the type of free will at issue comes not from Libet's work, but rather from more recent studies indicating that human behavior can be predicted with a high degree of accuracy based on unconscious neural processes. Furthermore, the case against the relevant sort of free will is bolstered by extensive research suggesting that much, if not all, of the explanations for human behavior involving conscious causes are no more than confabulations that attempt to put a conscious narrative upon actions that have strictly unconscious origins. Finally, we provide empirical evidence that determinism is — for all intents and purposes — the correct position with regard to human cognition, decision making, and choice. We then argue that insofar as retributive justice seems to require that some actions depend on actions that are non-determined, neuroscience suggests that retributive justice is unjustifiable.
We conclude by providing insight for revising our thinking about criminal justice and what we owe to those who commit crimes. In particular, we discuss how the common theory of distributive justice — which remains intact and includes principles guaranteeing individual liberty and equality of opportunity — gives advice on how we have failed people antecedent to their crimes, and how a person is best dealt with after her crime has been committed.
Some unusual suspects working to stop Texas from executing mentally ill condemned murderer
This new Mother Jones article reports on some of the interesting persons who are eager to prevent Texas from carrying out a notable death sentence next week. The article is headlined "Can Ron Paul and Conservative Evangelicals Save a Texas Death-Row Inmate? A rightwing crusade aims to stop the execution of Scott Panetti, a mentally ill convicted murder." Here are excerpts:
When Scott Panetti represented himself in a Texas capital murder case in 1995, wearing a purple cowboy suit and calling himself "Sarge," he called as a witness a veterinarian who once lived across the street from him. Panetti questioned the vet about the time he euthanized Little Blue, Panetti's old dog. The episode had nothing to do with the case. Other witnesses Panetti tried to call to the stand: John F. Kennedy and Jesus.
Trial transcripts, medical records, and expert witness testimony have documented that Panetti suffers from severe schizophrenia. He believes Texas is going to execute him to stop him from preaching the gospel — not because he shaved his head, donned camo fatigues, and shot and killed his in-laws in 1992. The Supreme Court has declared that executing the mentally ill violates the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment, but several Texas and federal courts — including the US Supreme Court — have reviewed Panetti's case, and each one has ruled that the state can proceed with his lethal injection. Now, with Panetti’s execution scheduled for December 3, the only thing that might save him is a national campaign being mounted by conservatives, including former Texas Republican congressman and libertarian icon Ron Paul.
Panetti's lawyers have filed a clemency petition with the Texas Board of Pardons and Parole, which can recommend that Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican, commute Panetti's sentence to life in prison without parole. That petition has received an outpouring of support from conservatives and evangelicals. In addition to Paul, this group includes Jay Sekulow, an evangelical lawyer famous for pressing religious liberties cases on behalf of social conservatives.
Paul's involvement in the case is unusual. Last year, he publicly endorsed a new advocacy group, Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, saying, "I believe that support for the death penalty is inconsistent with libertarianism and traditional conservatism." This was the result of a years-long evolution....
It’s also unusual for conservative Christians to support a clemency petition like Panetti's. The last time evangelicals really rallied en masse to prevent a pending execution was in 1998, in the case of Karla Faye Tucker, who converted to Christianity in prison and became a conservative cause celebre. Despite the pleadings of evangelicals such as Pat Robertson, the Texas governor at the time, George W. Bush, went ahead with the execution, and Tucker became the first woman executed in the state since 1863.
The Panetti case is different. His religious fervor is the product of a brain disorder, and the evangelicals' opposition to his execution is not related to his religious proclamations. It is more of a reflection of the shift in public attitudes regarding capital punishment that has been driven by the growing number of exonerations of death-row inmates, the high number of mentally ill and disabled people sentenced to die, and the inefficient and expensive administration of capital punishment. "A lot of conservatives are late to realize that the whole criminal justice system is part of the government," says Richard Viguerie, a prominent conservative leader and an ardent opponent of the death penalty.
Religious conservatives are increasingly joining those who would like to see the end of the death penalty, citing their movement’s commitment to a "culture of life," which has traditionally focused primarily on restricting abortion. Conservative evangelicals, says Beaudoin, have been animated by the Panetti case over the past few weeks. Her outfit has opposed other executions, but, she says, the Panetti case has hit a nerve. She has been surprised by the number of influential Christians who have signed on to the clemency petition, especially Samuel Rodriguez, the president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Coalition, who's on Time magazine's 2013 list of the 100 most influential people in the world. Abby Johnson, a former Planned Parenthood clinic director who now runs a pro-life ministry for former abortion clinic employees, wrote an editorial in the Dallas News calling on Texas to spare Panetti.
"This is the largest outpouring of support on a death penalty case we've seen from evangelicals, and you can see why, given the ridiculous nature of this case," Beaudoin says. "A lot of folks who signed this [clemency] letter might have given pause about signing on to a letter opposing the death penalty generally, but they think we have no business executing Scott Panetti." She adds, "As Christians, we're called protect the most vulnerable. And there's just no question that Scott Panetti is in that number as someone who's suffered from severe mental illness. We all want to keep society safe, but I'm thankful there are other ways to do that than executing people."
Tuesday, November 25, 2014
"Did Marijuana Kill Michael Brown?"
The title of this post is the headline of this provocative and interesting new piece by Jacob Sullum now up at Reason. Here is how the piece starts and ends:
In a radio interview on August 18, a self-identified friend of Darren Wilson's reported that the police officer suspected Michael Brown was under the influence of drugs the day Wilson shot him to death in Ferguson, Missouri. "He really thinks he was on something," the friend said, "because he just kept coming." Wilson made no mention of that theory during his grand jury testimony on September 16, although he did liken Brown to a "demon" and Hulk Hogan, descriptions reminiscent of the evil and strength sometimes attributed to illegal drugs.
One challenge for anyone pushing a pharmacological explanation of Brown's alleged behavior: Despite speculation that he was on PCP, marijuana is the only drug that was detected in his blood. Kathi Alizadeh and Sheila Whirley, the assistant county prosecutors who presented evidence to the grand jury, did what they could with pot, raising the possibility that Brown had smoked enough to experience "paranoia," "hallucinations," and maybe even a "psychotic episode." They planted that idea in jurors' heads mainly by presenting a toxicologist's misleading testimony about the amount of THC in Brown's blood and the possible effects of large doses....
The prosecutors spent considerable time insinuating that Brown had consumed cannabis in the form of the concentrate known as "wax," even though there does not seem to be any evidence that he did and even though it would not matter if he had. If the issue is Brown's level of intoxication, the amount of material he burned to achieve it is irrelevant. The testimony about wax looks like an attempt to exoticize a familiar drug that people do not usually associate with demonic rage or Hulk-like strength.
Then again, marijuana my be exotic enough as far as the prosecutors are concerned. "You explained that the Delta-9-THC has a psychoanalytic effect?" Alizadeh said at one point. "Psychoactive," the toxicologist corrected her. Later Whirley asked, "Could this amount of THC that was found in the blood be — is it possible that someone [could be] ingesting that amount on a regular basis and not be dead?" The toxicologist explained that "marijuana really isn't lethal." Unless you smoke it before getting stopped by a cop, I guess.
Can and should out-going Maryland Gov commute death sentences to ensure LWOP after state's capital repeal?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this Baltimore Sun article discussing the interesting procedural and practical issues now surrounding the fate of Maryland's death row prisoners and the decisions facing the out-going Maryland Governor who signed the law repealing the state's death penalty. Here are excerpts from the article:
A western Maryland woman whose parents were killed by a man on death row urged Gov. Martin O'Malley in a phone conversation Monday not to commute the man's sentence. The conversation came days after The Baltimore Sun reported that O'Malley had reached out to two relatives of people killed by men on death row — moves that fueled speculation that, with two months left in office, the governor may be poised to take action on the death penalty cases.
"I said, 'Don't touch this [case], let it go back to court, let the judges decide,'" said Mary Francis Moore, 71, whose father and his wife were killed in 1995 by Heath William Burch. Moore said that in their roughly 15-minute phone conversation, O'Malley did not say what his plans were. But they discussed what might happen to Burch in light of another inmate's appeal. Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler has joined the appeal, arguing that the state no longer has the authority to execute anyone.
O'Malley "talked about the possibility that if it did go back to court, that these guys would get out, that they would only get life," not life without possibility of parole, Moore said. Moore said she concluded the conversation by asking O'Malley "to pray about it." The governor told her, she said, "I hope we meet some day."...
O'Malley has largely refused to discuss the fate of the men who were already sentenced to death when he and the General Assembly repealed the death penalty last year. The repeal did not apply to them.
Maryland's governor has broad power to pardon or reduce an inmate's sentence, but the authors of the death penalty repeal law included language spelling out that he could change a death sentence to life without parole — even if that sentence did not exist when the inmate committed his crime. Two men on death row commited their crimes before 1987, when Maryland lawmakers established the sentence of life without parole.
Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a proponent of repeal and the attorney general-elect, said Monday that a court would not be able to resentence an inmate to a penalty that did not exist at the time he was convicted, but the governor can.
Advocates on both sides of the issue have been watching to see whether O'Malley might commute the sentences of the four men remaining on death row....
Moore said she "begged" O'Malley not to grant Burch clemency, though he never clearly said he was considering that. She thinks Burch should be put to death. "I asked him, 'What are you going to do, governor?' I asked him two or three times, 'What are your plans?'"...
"The last thing I said to him was, 'I want you to really think about this, and I want you to pray about it, because I want you to do the right thing,'" she said. "The right thing to me is leave it alone."
Even before the death penalty repeal, the status of Maryland's death row inmates had been up in the air since 2006 when the state's regulations for executions were thrown out by a court. They were never replaced. Lawyers from the attorney general's office are scheduled to argue Dec. 8 before a state appellate court that Maryland can't issue new regulations now that capital punishment has been abolished.
An appeal by another death row inmate, Jody Lee Miles, faces an uncertain outcome in the courts. But Gansler has noted O'Malley's authority to commute death sentences to life without parole. Governors in Illinois and New Jersey commuted the existing death sentences in their states after the repeal of capital punishment....
Dorothy Atkinson, whose son was killed by Miles in 1997, said she, too, was contacted by the governor's office about a meeting.... Though Atkinson believes Miles deserves to be executed, she submitted a letter to O'Malley two weeks ago, asking him to commute Miles' sentence to spare her family from the ordeal of further legal wrangling.
I believe that, at least in some jurisdictions, convicted defendants are able to formally refuse to except a grant of clemency. Consequently, I am not entirely sure Gov O'Malley can ensure through a commutation decision that some of the death row prisoners get an LWOP sentence nor that a commutation decision will ensure there is no further legal wrangling over these cases. That said, the procedural and practical issues arising in this setting perhaps provide a strong reason for the out-going Gov to do exactly what the victims' families now request in each case whether that involves a request for commutation or a request to leave this matter to the state courts.
Rounding up some blogsphere reactions to events in Ferguson
In part because it is not a sentencing story, I have not had much to say about all the high-profile events in Ferguson, Missouri in recent months. But, not surprisingly, a number of other notable criminal law bloggers have shared some thoughts on the no-indictment news and reactions thereto last night. Here are some of the posts I have seen from bloggers I check out regularly (listed in alphabetical order):
From Paul Cassell, "The Michael Brown grand jury process was fair
From Jeff Gamso, "Close Your Eyes and Pretend Really Hard"
From Scott Greenfield, "The Ferguson Lie"
From Richard Kopf, "Two questions for Jeff Gamso, Scott Greenfield and others with like experience
From Jeralyn Merritt, "Ferguson G. J. Decision : No Indictment, Violence Erupts"
From Bill Otis, "No Indictment in Ferguson, and the Reaction
From Kent Scheidegger, "Perceptions and Realities of Injustice
Monday, November 24, 2014
USSC Chair's discussion of "A Generational Shift for Drug Sentences" now in print
I noticed via the US Sentencing Commission's official website that Chief Judge Patti Saris, Chair of United States Sentencing Commission and federal district judge, has now in print this law review article titled “A Generational Shift For Drug Sentences.” The article is based on a like-titled speech given by Judge Saris noted here earlier this year, and here is a snippet from the article's introduction:
It has been a generation since the laws governing federal drug sentences were put into place. Since the 1980s, our society, our attitudes, and our criminal justice system have evolved. The Supreme Court case law, the statutes and United States Sentencing Guidelines (“Guidelines”), and the realities on the ground have changed significantly. With the benefit of experience and new thought, many are considering whether a change — a generational shift — in our approach to federal drug sentences is appropriate....
This article focuses on policies regarding drug offenders and drug penalties as one means to effect change in the federal prison populations and costs. Drug offenders make up about a third of the offenders sentenced federally every year and a majority of the prisoners serving in the federal Bureau of Prisons, so they are in many ways the key to the size and nature of the federal prison population. This article has four parts: Part I explores the history of the current mandatory minimum drug penalties, the Sentencing Commission, and the federal drug sentencing guidelines; Part II examines criminal justice system shifts over the past thirty years; Part III identifies what changes can be made by Congress and elsewhere to address the burgeoning federal prison population; and Part IV explains the Commission’s significant amendments in 2014 to reduce drug guideline sentences.
Pleased to see Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform make the ABA's Blawg 100
I am pleased and intrigued to see that the ABA Journal's annnual Blawg 100, which once gave lots of love to this blog (see here and here and here and here), has now decided to give some love to my other main blog, Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform. All the details of the ABA's latest Blawg 100 can be found here, and MLP&R appears under the Profs category with this description:
With all due respect to the revered Sentencing Law and Policy blog, this year we wanted to showcase Ohio State law professor Douglas Berman's latest. Now that marijuana is legal for recreational purposes in Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, Washington state and Washington, D.C, new legal issues are sprouting up. Berman points readers to news coverage and podcasts discussing the mainstreaming of marijuana and its legal ramifications.
As I have noted in the past, it is an honor just to be nominated. I am especially hopeful that the ABA Journal's recognition serves as yet another marker of the importance and legitimacy of serious discussion of the many law and policy issues surrounding modern marijuana reform movements. Also, my occasional co-bloggers Professor Alex Kreit and Professor Rob Mikos deserve credit and thanks for helping to elevate the substance and style of MLP&R.
"Will Texas Kill an Insane Man?"
The question in the title of this post is the headline of this lengthy New York Times editorial. Here are excerpts:
On Dec. 3, Texas plans to execute an inmate named Scott Panetti, who was convicted in 1995 for murdering his in-laws with a hunting rifle. There is no question that Mr. Panetti committed the murders. There is also no question that he is severely mentally ill, and has been for decades.
During his capital murder trial, at which he was inexplicably allowed to represent himself, Mr. Panetti dressed in a cowboy suit and attempted to subpoena, among others, John F. Kennedy and Jesus Christ. A standby lawyer said his behavior was “scary” and “trance-like,” and called the trial “a judicial farce.”
It was not an act. Mr. Panetti, now 56, was first diagnosed with schizophrenia when he was 20, and in the years before the murders he was hospitalized several times for delusions and psychotic episodes.
In this respect, he is no different from the estimated 350,000 inmates around the country with mental illness — 10 times the number of people in state psychiatric hospitals. But Mr. Panetti is not just another insane prisoner; his name is synonymous with the Supreme Court’s modern jurisprudence about mental illness on death row. In Panetti v. Quarterman, decided in 2007, the justices held that it is not enough for a defendant simply to be aware that he is going to be executed and why — the previous standard the court had used in permitting the execution of the mentally ill....
But the justices refused to set precise guidelines for determining whether someone is competent enough to be executed, and they did not overturn Mr. Panetti’s sentence. Instead, they sent the case back to the lower courts for a fuller reconsideration of his current mental state.
By any reasonable standard — not to mention the findings of multiple mental-health experts over the years — Mr. Panetti is mentally incompetent. But Texas, along with several other stubborn states, has a long history of finding the loopholes in Supreme Court rulings restricting the death penalty. The state has continued to argue that Mr. Panetti is exaggerating the extent of his illness, and that he understands enough to be put to death — a position a federal appeals court accepted last year, even though it agreed that he was “seriously mentally ill.”
Mr. Panetti has not had a mental-health evaluation since 2007. In a motion hastily filed this month, his volunteer lawyers requested that his execution be stayed, that a lawyer be appointed for him, and that he receive funding for a new mental-health assessment, saying his functioning has only gotten worse. For instance, he now claims that a prison dentist implanted a transmitter in his tooth.
The lawyers would have made this motion weeks earlier, immediately after a Texas judge set Mr. Panetti’s execution date. But since no one — not the judge, not the district attorney, not the attorney general — notified them (or even Mr. Panetti himself), they had no idea their client was scheduled to be killed until they read about it in a newspaper. State officials explained that the law did not require them to provide notification.
On Nov. 19, a Texas court denied the lawyers’ motion. A civilized society should not be in the business of executing anybody. But it certainly cannot pretend to be adhering to any morally acceptable standard of culpability if it kills someone like Scott Panetti.
November 24, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)
Sunday, November 23, 2014
Reviewing the potential and pitfalls in a notable problem-solving court in NYC
Today's New York Times has this terrific lengthy account of the work of a unique "problem-solving court" in New York. The piece is headlined "In a Queens Court, Women in Prostitution Cases Are Seen as Victims," and here are small excerpts from an article that merits a read in full:
The Human Trafficking Intervention Court in Queens, which is marking its 10th anniversary next month, ... serves as a model for a statewide 11-court program that began last year. The intention is to change the legal conversation around the multibillion-dollar sex trade by redefining the women in it as victims instead of criminals. Most are offered a deal: Take part in a set number of counseling sessions, usually five or six, and the charges will be dismissed and the record sealed.
After 13 months, the five New York City courts are still a work in progress, their success tracked more in individual stories than statistics. “This court is not devised to solve the problems of trafficking,” Judge Serita said of the program, “but to address one of the unfortunate byproducts, which is the arrest of these defendants on prostitution charges.”
All defendants in the specialized courts are presumed to be victims at risk, the first of many assumptions made, in part, because of the silence surrounding sex trafficking. That silence also makes it tougher to shift social mores. Not only do the police and the justice system still treat prostitution as a crime, but the women themselves, most undocumented, often don’t define themselves as having been trafficked — whether out of fear, shame or choice....
At no point in the proceedings does the judge, the prosecutor or the defense lawyer ask if the defendants have been trafficked; nor is there a quid pro quo to give up a trafficker. It is rare, but the hope is that the women, perhaps after working with counselors, will feel comfortable describing the conditions that led them to prostitution....
On Fridays, Judge Serita usually hears more than 40 cases in three hours. “How are you today?” she asks each of the women, inquiring whether they take English classes and praising their progress. Several defendants said they noticed less that she was an Asian woman and more that she had a warm demeanor. On other days, she presides over the drug treatment and mental health courts in Queens.
The trafficking court, she acknowledged, is a Catch-22: For people to feel less like criminals, they must first go through the criminal justice system. Leigh Latimer, the Legal Aid Society lawyer assigned to Judge Serita’s court, agreed. “There is a somewhat more recent view that clients are potentially victims, but we’re still arresting them at a very rapid pace,” she said. “We’re trying to solve their problems through being arrested, which is not an affirming process.”...
On several Fridays, nearly a dozen women said during interviews in Mandarin that they did not feel like trafficking victims, but victims of the police. The women all spoke on the condition of anonymity because their cases were still pending. “My name has been tarnished,” said one woman, who was upset that her case was “lumped with all those others.” She denied performing a sex act, but the police report contradicted that, Ms. Affronti said.
Another woman explained that she was arrested at 4 a.m. on her sixth day of work. She and her sister, who quit after the second day because she sensed “something was not right,” owed more than $80,000 to friends and family members who raised the money for them to come to the United States from Fuzhou. That type of pressure to pay back smuggling agents — often with interest as high as 12 percent — is considered “debt bondage.” It is a more subtle condition of human trafficking, but is pervasive in New York’s Asian communities, lawyers say.
November 23, 2014 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)
"On Life Support: Public Health in the Age of Mass Incarceration"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new report from the Vera Institute of Justice as part of a new initiative called Justice Reform for Healthy Communities. A helpful report overview starts this way:
Each year, millions of incarcerated people — who experience chronic health conditions, infectious diseases, substance use, and mental illness at much higher rates than the general population — return home from correctional institutions to communities that are already rife with health disparities, violence, and poverty, among other structural inequities.
For several generations, high rates of incarceration among residents in these communities has further contributed to diminished educational opportunities, fractured family structures, stagnated economic mobility, limited housing options, and restricted access to essential social entitlements.
Several factors in today’s policy climate indicate that the political discourse on crime and punishment is swinging away from the punitive, tough-on-crime values that dominated for decades, and that the time is ripe to fundamentally rethink the function of the criminal justice system in ways that can start to address the human toll that mass incarceration has had on communities.
At the same time, the nation’s healthcare system is undergoing a historic overhaul due to the passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Many provisions of the ACA provide tools needed to address long-standing health disparities. Among these are:
> Bolstering community capacity by expanding Medicaid eligiblity, expanding coverage and parity for behavioral health treatment, and reducing health disparities.
> Strengthening front-end alternatives to arrest, prosecution, and incarceration.
> Bridging health and justice systems by coordinating outreach and care, enrolling people in Medicaid and subsidized health plans across the criminal justice continuum, using Medicaid waivers and innovation funding to extend coverage to new groups, and advancing health information technology.
Saturday, November 22, 2014
Interesting look at California's Proposition 47 and undoing collateral consequences
I just noticed, over at the Collateral Consequences Resource Center, that California Federal Public Defender Jeffrey Aaron has this new posting exploring the impact of his state's approval of Proposition 47 which downgraded various felonies to misdemeanors. Here are excerpts:
Significantly, Proposition 47 applies not only to persons who are currently “serving a sentence,” but also to those who have already fully served their sentences. This means that thousands of people with California felony convictions can under certain circumstances petition to have their case recalled, the crime re-designated a misdemeanor, and be resentenced. Once reduced to misdemeanors, qualifying crimes can be set aside under California Penal Code § 1203.4 (felony or misdemeanor cases sentenced to probation) or 1203.4a (misdemeanor cases sentenced to prison). These provisions allow a defendant to withdraw his plea of guilty, enter a not guilty plea, and have the judge dismiss the case. The record can then be expunged.
The importance of this retroactive effect of the new law cannot be over-estimated. While Proposition 47 gained popular support as a way of reducing California’s prison population, its broadest and most significant long-term effect may be to reduce the impact of collateral consequences on people in the community. For criminal defense lawyers, Proposition 47 offers a significant way to reduce a client’s exposure in subsequent prosecutions.
It is amazing that just a few months ago, a defendant with two prior felony drug possessions in state court, and currently charged with drug distribution in federal court, faced a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment. Now he can have those California priors reduced to misdemeanors, and then dismissed, so that, under certain circumstances, they can no longer be used to enhance the federal sentence. Generally, convictions that are set-aside for reasons not involving innocence or errors of law will still result in criminal history points. Counsel might argue in resentencing that the reduction from felony to misdemeanor supports a finding that the conviction over-represents the defendant’s criminal history....
The Proposition provides relief to anyone convicted in the past of a wide range of property and drug crimes, as long as the person does not have a “disqualifying prior.” Disqualifying priors include offenses requiring sex offender registration, and specified violent offenses....
Simply by going to court to have their felony charges converted to misdemeanors, people can end up with a criminal record that looks very different, and has a very different effect.
Notable comments from AAG about Justice Reinvestment
Earlier this week, Assistant Attorney General Karol Mason delivered these interesting remarks for DOJ's Office of Justice Programs at a big Justice Reinvestment Summit. The full speech is worth review, and here are a few excerpts I found noteworthy:
I think it can legitimately be said that justice reinvestment has transformed the way we approach public safety in this country. It is no exaggeration to say that it has helped to redefine the missions of our criminal and juvenile justice agencies. Thanks in great part to the focus that your work has given to justice policies, corrections leaders, law enforcement officials and prosecutors have begun to measure their performance, not just by the narrow metrics of arrests, convictions and confinement, but by actual improvements to public safety.
And this shift in attitude and approach is paying off. Many states that have engaged in Justice Reinvestment have seen drops in crime rates and imprisonment — and substantial taxpayer savings.
Having just emerged from the recent mid-term elections, it’s worth remarking on another important aspect of justice reinvestment: it’s an approach to justice policy that resonates on both sides of the aisle. We’ve seen lawmakers who disagree on just about every other policy matter rally around data-driven analysis focused on investing increasingly scarce public resources in programs and policies that work.
State and local governments, representing all political persuasions, have taken on major reforms designed to reduce prison-building costs and redirect precious public funds to programs aimed at reducing crime. It can honestly be said that, in a climate of intense partisanship, we are witnessing the growth of a broad, bipartisan consensus in city halls, state capitals and Congress around crime and justice policy, thanks in great measure to justice reinvestment....
This progress is reflected in a general downward trend in both crime and incarceration rates throughout the country. Before the FBI released its most recent data last week, crime had declined nationally by more than 11 percent since President Obama took office. The new FBI data show additional drops in 2013. On top of that, the rate of incarceration has gone down by more than eight percent since 2009. It’s the first time these two measures have fallen together in more than 40 years. This is truly historic! We’re experiencing a moment of public safety unprecedented in most of our lifetimes.
But this is no time to relax. Those of you who’ve been in this business for a while know that the winds of justice and sentencing policies have always blown hot and cold. If we don’t take advantage of the momentum we’ve built through Justice Reinvestment and embed this data-driven mindset into mainstream practice, we risk a return to the counterproductive practices of the past.
In fact, truth be told, we are still two nations when it comes to prison trends. The extraordinary success in reducing incarceration that we’ve been able to realize in many states has been offset by continued increases in others. Now, to be sure, these figures don’t reflect that some of the states with increases are now working through justice reinvestment to change course. And I’m confident that now we have the wind at our back. But we will have to remain vigilant.
Friday, November 21, 2014
"'Power and Greed and the Corruptible Seed': Mental Disability, Prosecutorial Misconduct, and the Death Penalty"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper by Michael Perlin available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
The Supreme Court’s death penalty jurisprudence is based in large part on the assumption that jurors can be counted on to apply the law in this area conscientiously and fairly. All our criminal procedure jurisprudence is based in large part on the assumption that prosecutors and judges will act fairly. I believe that these assumptions are based on nothing more than wishful thinking, and that the record of death penalty litigation in the thirty-eight years since the “modern” penalty was approved in Gregg v. Georgia gives the lie to them.
This article focuses solely on the role of prosecutors in this process, and the extent to which prosecutorial misconduct has contaminated the entire death penalty process, especially in cases involving defendants with mental disabilities. This is an issue known well to all those who represent such defendants in death penalty cases but, again, there is startlingly little literature on the topic. It is misconduct that is largely hidden and ignored. The article begins with some brief background on issues that relate to the treatment of persons with mental disabilities in the criminal justice system in general. It then discusses prosecutorial misconduct and the outcomes of that misconduct, with special attention to a cohort of appellate decisions in unheralded and rarely (if ever) discussed published cases that, in almost every instance, sanction such misconduct. Next, it demonstrates how some prosecutors purposely flaunt the canons of ethics in the prosecution of defendants with mental disabilities in death penalty cases, and then will discuss some solutions raised by scholars to (at least, partially) cure this problems, and concludes with some modest suggestions of my own.
Ohio and Utah moving forward with distinct fixes for lethal injection drug problems
As reported in this two article, legislatures in Ohio and Utah are taking quite different approaches to the problems poised by the unavailability of some drugs historically used for lethal injection executions. The headlined of these stories highlight the basics:
From the Wall Street Journal here, "Ohio House Passes Bill Shielding Execution Drugmakers: Measure Would Add Layers of Secrecy to Death-Penalty Procedures."
From the Salt Lake Tribune here, "Firing squad executions back on the table in Utah Legislature"
Unpacking why DOJ is so concerned about federal prison populations and its costs
As highlighted in this effective piece by Andrew Cohen published by The Marshall Project, earlier this month Michael Horowitz, the Justice Department’s Inspector General (and a former member of the US Sentencing Commission), authored this memorandum describing DOJ's concerns with federal prison overcrowding and costs. These excerpts from Cohen's piece highlight some of the Horowitz memo's most notable messages:
The Bureau of Prison’s budget now ($6.9 billion) is nearly twice what it was ($3.8 billion) in 2000, Horowitz tells us, an increase at “almost twice the rate of growth of the rest of the Department.” Worse, he writes, even though federal prison officials have been warned that their part of the budget is draining funding away from other Justice Department programs (like those that support victims groups) they asked for more money this past budget cycle....
Horowitz didn’t mince words, either, about what is costing so much. The federal prison population is aging at a fast pace. “From FY 2009 to FY 2013, the population of sentenced inmates age 50 and over in BOP-managed facilities increased 25 percent, while the population of sentenced inmates under the age of 30 decreased by 16 percent,” he notes. As a result, “the cost for providing healthcare services to inmates increased 55 percent from FY 2006 to FY 2013.”...
If you think the facts and figures above are disconcerting, the numbers Horowitz offers about conditions within our federal prisons are even more dire. Prison overcrowding, he asserts, is “the most significant threat to the safety and security of Bureau of Prisons staff and inmates”.... When it comes to easing overcrowding it’s clear that Horowitz believes we are headed in the wrong direction, which is another reason why he keeps calling current conditions at the Bureau of Prisons “a crisis.”
To bring the ratio of inmate to space available to appropriate levels, to eliminate the overcrowding “without expending additional funds to build more federal prison space or to contract for additional non-federal bed space,” Horowitz says that the Justice Department “would have to achieve a net reduction of about 23,400 federal prisoners from the June 2014 prison population...” That’s more than ten percent of the current population. Can you imagine? I can’t.