Wednesday, March 25, 2015
You be the judge: what federal sentence for modern sheriff playing Robin Hood?
In the legend of Robin Hood, the Sheriff of Nottingham is the tale's primary villain. But this sentencing story out of South Carolina raises the question of what federal sentence ought to be given to a local sheriff who was committing fraud as a kind of modern Robin Hood. The press report is headlined "Convicted Williamsburg sheriff asks for sentencing leniency," and here are the details:
The convicted former sheriff of Williamsburg County should be sentenced to less than the three years in prison recommended by federal officials because he succeeded despite a troubled upbringing and is being treated for a painkiller addiction, his lawyer said.
Ex-sheriff Michael Johnson faces a judge Wednesday to learn his fate after a federal jury convicted him in September of mail fraud. Prosecutors said Johnson created hundreds of fake police reports for a friend who ran a credit repair business so people could claim their identities were stolen and get out of credit card debt. The sentencing recommendation for Johnson is 30 months to 37 months in prison, according to court papers filed this week.
Johnson's attorney said that is too harsh for a man with no criminal record who cooperated with authorities. Johnson's request asks for a lesser sentence, but is not specific. Johnson has suffered from depression and anxiety the past four years. He also has migraines, high blood pressure and insomnia, lawyer Deborah Barber said in court papers.
The former sheriff also was raised in a broken home, saw his mother abused by a boyfriend and left at age 17 to relieve her of financial burden, Barber said. "He resided in a poverty-stricken area in Kingstree, South Carolina, with the family not having enough money to adequately survive," Barber wrote....
Johnson joined the Williamsburg County Sheriff's Office in 1997, two years after graduating high school and rose to chief deputy, becoming sheriff in April 2010 when the former sheriff, Kelvin Washington, was named U.S. Marshal for South Carolina.
He is one of nine sheriffs in South Carolina's 46 counties to be charged or investigated while in office since 2010. Seven have pleaded guilty or been convicted, and another died while under investigation. Only two of those sheriffs so far have been sentenced to prison.
Intriguingly, this long earlier article explains some of the details of the fraud, and it suggests that sheriff Johnson may not have made any money from the scheme designed to help people to (falsely) improve their credit rating. I am disinclined to assert that sheriff Johnson is as noble or heroic as Robin Hood, but it does seem like his fraud involved trying to help some folks down on their luck by pulling a fast one on the (big bad monarchy?) credit companies. Given that the federal sentencing guidelines still call for a prison term of at least 2.5 years, I am now wondering what the real Robin Hood might have been facing in a federal fraud guideline range if he were facing sentencing today.
March 25, 2015 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)
Tuesday, March 24, 2015
"The Executioners' Dilemmas"
The title of this post is the title of this timely new article by Eric Berger now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
Despite several prominent recent botched executions, states usually resist external pressure to improve their lethal injection procedures. This symposium contribution explores why states fail to address lethal injection’s systemic risks and, relatedly, why they so vigorously resist requests to disclose execution procedure details.
This analysis is necessarily speculative; it is impossible to know for certain what drives states’ behavior in this area, and motivations likely differ from state to state and from official to official. That said, a constellation of epistemic, structural, strategic, and political factors likely shape much official behavior in this area.
Examining those factors more closely can help us better understand why so many states have acted so irresponsibly in designing and implementing their lethal injection procedures. Of course, these explanations hardly excuse states’ frequent indifference to the risk of pain their execution procedures create. Collectively, however, they help shine important light more generally on why state officials sometimes seem insensitive to constitutional values.
Ohio prison officials decide security drones are not (yet) cost effective
As reported in this local piece, headlined "Prisons no longer testing security drones," Ohio's prison guards do not quite yet have worry excessively about being replaced by technology. Here is why:
The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction has put a stop to drone testing at the Lebanon and Warren prison sites. Late last year, officials announced they were testing drones, an unmanned aerial system equipped with cameras, on the grounds of the two prisons. The drones, state leaders hoped, would be a new security model for the state prisons system.
But that testing stopped in December, shortly after it started, this newspaper has learned. A $170,000 aerostat, a balloon-shaped drone equipped with both day and night cameras, was tested on prison grounds in October but officials quickly learned the cameras were not strong enough for the prisons’ security needs, said Ed Voorhies, the managing director of Ohio’s prisons.
Voorhies said state officials decided buying the aerostat wouldn’t be a good investment of taxpayer dollars. “They’re going to go back to the table and discuss some potential solutions,” he said....
Drones at Ohio’s prisons are still a possibility, Voorhies said, but other security measures will likely be considered, too. “We are looking at technological solutions to augment our existing security,” Voorhies said.
A spokesman for Wright Patterson Air Force Base confirmed researchers are working with state officials but said the work is in “the earliest conceptual stages” and declined to comment further. State prison officials want to step up security cameras placed outside of the prison walls so less contraband — drugs, cellphones and cigarettes, for example — is smuggled into the prison, to prevent inmates from escaping, and to better analyze how fights start between inmates on the grounds, Voorhies said. In 2013, for example, corrections officers caught nearly 500 cellphones smuggled into the prison.
Ohio became the first known prison system to begin testing drones in October. The testing began just a month after notorious Ohio school shooting killer T.J. Lane and two others escaped from the Allen Oakwood Correctional Institution in Lima.
Voorhies said the two prisons — which sit next to one another and are located in Warren County — will continue to be testing grounds for any new security models introduced. That’s because the state is able to test security for two prisons at once and because the prisons are so closely located to the Air Force Research Lab.
Prior related posts:
- Why those who follow sentencing and corrections reform should be following drones
- South Korea rolls out new robot prison guard
Justices Kennedy and Breyer urge Congress to reform "broken" federal criminal justice system
This new ThinkProgress piece, headlined "Supreme Court Justices Implore Congress To Reform The Criminal Justice System — ‘It’s Not Humane’," effectively reports on the notable comments made about criminal justice reform by two Justices who were testifying before Congress on budget issues yesterday. Here are some of the details:
The prisons are one of the most misunderstood institutions of government. Solitary confinement drives individuals insane. And mandatory minimum sentences are a bad idea. These were the assertions of U.S. Supreme Court Justices Anthony Kennedy and Stephen Breyer in testimony before a House Appropriations subcommittee Monday afternoon.
Asked by Rep. Steve Womack (R-AR) about United States “capacity to deal with people with our current prison and jail overcrowding,” each justice gave an impassioned response in turn, calling on Congress to make things better. “In many respects, I think it’s broken,” Kennedy said of the corrections system. He lamented lawyer ignorance on this phase of the justice system:
I think, Mr. Chairman, that the corrections system is one of the most overlooked, misunderstood institutions we have in our entire government. In law school, I never heard about corrections. Lawyers are fascinated with the guilt/innocence adjudication process. Once the adjudication process is over, we have no interest in corrections. doctors know more about the corrections system and psychiatrists than we do. Nobody looks at it. California, my home state, had 187,000 people in jail at a cost of over $30,000 a prisoner. compare the amount they gave to school children, it was about $3,500 a year. Now, this is 24-hour care and so this is apples and oranges in a way. And this idea of total incarceration just isn’t working. and it’s not humane.
Kennedy, traditionally considered the swing vote among the current set of justices, recalled a recent case before the U.S. Supreme Court in which the defendant had been in solitary confinement for 25 years, and “lost his mind.”
“Solitary confinement literally drives men mad,” he said. He pointed out that European countries group difficult prisoners in cells of three or four where they have human contact, which “seems to work much better.” He added that “we haven’t given nearly the study, nearly enough thought, nearly enough investigative resources to looking at our correction system.”
Kennedy’s comments come just weeks after a federal review of U.S. solitary confinement policy also found that the United States holds more inmates in solitary confinement than any other developed nation. Confinement typically involves isolation in an often windowless cell with a steel door for 23 hours a day, with almost no human contact. The treatment has been found to have a psychological impact in as many as a few days, though, as Justice Kennedy pointed out, many are held for decades. In the wake of the new report, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) called upon the Federal Bureau of Prisons to alter its practices.
In his response, Breyer honed in on Womack’s use of the word “priorities” to suggest that prioritizing long prison sentences was not the best use of resources. “Do you want to have mandatory minimums? I’ve said publicly many times that i think that’s a terrible idea,” Breyer said. “And I’ve given reasons, which I’ll spare you.”
“Is it worth your time on earth, or mine, to try to work out ways of prioritizing? I think it is,” Breyer said. “I think it is a big problem for the country. and so I can’t do anything more in the next minute or 30 seconds other than say I like the word prioritize. I hope you follow it up. And I hope do you examine the variety of ways that there of trying to prioritize and then work out one that’s pretty good.”
As far back as 1998, Breyer has called for the abolition of mandatory minimum sentences, which mandate minimum prison terms by law according to the crime, amount of drugs, or other factors, and give judges no discretion to lower those sentences. He has said they “set back the cause of justice” because they don’t allow for exceptions depending on the circumstances of a given case. Particularly for drug crimes, they have sent low-level drug offenders to prison for sentences that start at 5 or 10 years and quickly ratchet up from there.
This Wall Street Journal article, headlined "Two Supreme Court Justices Say Criminal-Justice System Isn’t Working: Justice Breyer says mandatory minimum sentences are 'a terrible idea'," provides some more notable quotes from the Justices.
Should prison terms end once criminals seem "too old" to recidivate?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this intriguing recent New York Times piece headlined "Too Old to Commit Crime?". Here are excerpts:
Dzhokar TsarnaevV is facing the death penalty or life in prison for the Boston Marathon bombing. But what if, instead, the maximum prison sentence were just 21 years? That was the sentence that Anders Behring Breivik received in 2012 after killing 77 people, most of them teenagers attending a summer program, in Norway in 2011. It was the harshest sentence available. That doesn’t mean Mr. Breivik will ever walk free. Judges will be able to sentence him to an unlimited number of fiveyear extensions if he is still deemed a risk to the public in 2033, when he is 53.
The idea of a 21-year sentence for mass murder and terrorism may seem radically lenient in the United States, where life without parole is often presented as a humane alternative to the death penalty. Yet in testimony last week to a congressional task force on reforming the federal prison system, Marc Mauer, the director of the Sentencing Project, an advocacy group, suggested exactly that approach. He made the case for a 20-year cap on federal prison terms with an option for parole boards or judges to add more time if necessary to protect the public. Such a policy would “control costs” in a system that is now 40 percent over capacity, Mr. Mauer told the task force, and would “bring the United States more in line with other industrialized nations.”
This proposal has little chance of becoming law. But a compelling case can be made for it nonetheless. Research by American social scientists shows that all but the most exceptional criminals, even violent ones, mature out of lawbreaking before middle age, meaning that long sentences do little to prevent crime....
Some crimes are simply too physically taxing for an older person to commit. Regardless of why offenders age out of trouble, American sentencing practices are out of whack with the research on criminal careers. Between 1981 and 2010, the average time served for homicide and nonnegligent manslaughter increased threefold, to almost 17 years from five years. Over 10 percent of federal and state inmates, nearly 160,000 people, are serving a life sentence, 10,000 of them convicted of nonviolent offenses. Since 1990, the prison population over the age of 55 has increased by 550 percent, to 144,500 inmates. In part because of this aging population, the state and federal prison systems now spend some $4 billion annually on health care.... [A] sentence that outlasts an offender’s desire or ability to break the law is a drain on taxpayers, with little upside in protecting public safety or improving an inmate’s chances for success after release. Mr. Mauer’s proposal for a 20-year sentence cap, applied retroactively, would free 15 percent of federal prisoners — some 30,000, except for those few whom judges or parole boards might deem unfit to re-enter society.
This is much more aggressive than the Smarter Sentencing Act, a bipartisan proposal in Congress which would lower mandatory minimum sentences only for nonviolent drug crimes. Both the House and Senate versions of the bill keep mandatory minimum sentences of 20 or 25 years for third-time drug offenders, and most of the bill’s provisions would not benefit current inmates. Of course, for many Americans the prison system is not only about preventing crime by getting criminals off the street, but also about punishment. Long sentences send a clear message that certain acts are unacceptable. Some conservatives who support sentencing reform say that Mr. Mauer’s proposal goes too far, offering a one-size-fits-all leniency to even violent offenders.
Mr. Mauer responds that given the immense scale and cost of incarceration, “modest reforms” would be insufficient. “How much punishment is enough?” he asked. “What are we trying to accomplish, and where does redemption come into the picture?”
March 24, 2015 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)
Monday, March 23, 2015
The extra state habeas question (and its answer?) in Montgomery, the new SCOTUS Miller retroactivity case
Notably, the Supreme Court's cert grant in in another Miller retroactivity case from Louisiana (basics here) included some extra homework for the parties:
14-280 MONTGOMERY, HENRY V. LOUISIANA
The petition for a writ of certiorari is granted. In addition to the question presented by the petition, the parties are directed to brief and argue the following question: “Do we have jurisdiction to decide whether the Supreme Court of Louisiana correctly refused to give retroactive effect in this case to our decision in Miller v. Alabama, 567 U. S. __ (2012)?"
This added question in Montgomery echoes an issue that the Justices had sought to consider in the prior Toca case, and I think it reflects the thought of some Justices that state courts on state habeas review may not be constitutionally required to apply the modern Teague jurisprudence that federal courts now use in federal habeas review of final state convictions. If state courts are not required to follow at least the Teague standard, arguably there is not a federal question presented by whether and how a state court applies Teague in a state habeas case.
Notably, in a case from 2008, Danforth v. Minnesota, 552 U.S. 264, 266 (2008), the Supreme Court held that states were permitted to give greater retroactive effect to new federal constitutional procedural rules that did not satisfy a Teague exception. Thus is it already clear that state courts can give state prisoners in state habeas cases more retroactive benefits than Teague requires. The added Montgomery question essentially asks whether a federal issue is presented if state courts decide to give state prisoners in state habeas cases less retroactive benefits than Teague requires.
In some sense from the prisoner's perspective, this second question is kind of an academic exercise: even if the Supreme Court were to decide that it lacks jurisdiction to review whether and how a state court applies Teague in a state habeas case, it is clear that lower federal courts (and the US Supreme Court) have jurisdiction and will apply Teague if and when the state prisoner brings a federal habeas case. But, then again, this is not an entirely academic exercise because there could be cases in which the state prisoner is not able to bring a federal habeas case (perhaps because of statutory or other problems with bringing such a case).
If this discussion already makes your head hurt and leads you to think you need to take a law school Federal Courts class again, join the club. Fortunately for all of us, a very insightful Assistant U.S. Attorney, Steven G. Sanders, published last month a great New Jersey Law Journal article about all this titled "Can US Supreme Court Require States to Apply New Fed Rules Retroactively on State Collateral Attack?". Thanks to Steven and the NJLJ, I can provide this article in full linked below with this disclaimer: “Reprinted with permission from the February 9, 2015 issue of the New Jersey Law Journal. © 2015 ALM Media Properties, LLC. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. All rights reserved.”
March 23, 2015 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack (0)
"WBUR Poll: Most In Boston Think Tsarnaev Should Get Life In Prison Over Death Penalty"
The title of this post is the headline of this intriguing new press report on an intriguing new poll about an on-going federal capital case. Here are the basics:
As the trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev moves ahead, a new WBUR poll (topline, crosstabs) finds most Boston residents believe the admitted Boston Marathon bomber should receive life in prison instead of the death penalty if convicted.
In a survey of 229 registered Boston voters, 62 percent said Tsarnaev should be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, while 27 percent said he should receive the death penalty. That preference held true for the broader Boston area, defined as communities inside and along Route 128 — but the margin is slimmer. Of 504 registered Boston area voters surveyed by telephone March 16-18, 49 percent think Tsarnaev should get life in prison, while 38 percent feel he should be sentenced to death....
Across different demographics, the preference for punishment varied a bit more. Men were more in favor of the death penalty in this case than life in prison, while women more strongly favored life in prison over the death penalty. Across all age groups, more people felt Tsarnaev should be sentenced to life in prison rather than the death penalty — but the widest margin was among young people ages 18 to 29, where 55 percent chose life in prison and 32 percent chose the death penalty.
Among minorities, there was also a wide margin — 64 percent believe Tsarnaev should be sentenced to life in prison, while 25 percent think he should get the death penalty. Among whites, 46 percent chose life in prison and 41 percent chose the death penalty.
Kozcela said the findings across demographics are also in line with partisan views on the death penalty. “The groups that tend to lean more Democrat also tend to be more opposed to the death penalty,” he said.
Ultimately, Tsarnaev’s fate will be decided by a jury. But the demographics of that jury is an issue defense attorneys raised in February, in their second attempt to get the case dismissed. Tsarnaev’s lawyer’s argued that the jury — which is all white and made up of eight men and 10 women — wasn’t diverse enough. (Twelve of those jurors will determine the final verdict.) Defense attorneys took issue with the way potential jurors were reordered when the final jury pool was summoned to fill out questionnaires. The defense argued the renumbering pushed African-Americans, young people and Boston residents — groups our poll shows favor life in prison over the death penalty — down the list of potential jurors, decreasing their chances of being seated on the jury.
Judge George O’Toole Jr. denied the defense’s motion in early March. The defense also tried unsuccessfully four times to get the trial moved out of Boston, arguing they could not get a fair trial here. However, as our poll shows, most Boston residents prefer to give Tsarnaev life in prison — a position the defense hopes the jury will take....
So far in the trial, the prosecution has been laying out its case against Tsarnaev with graphic videos and photos, emotional victim testimony and evidence gathered from Watertown and the Tsarnaevs’ residences. Once the prosecution wraps up its case, the defense will present its case. The defense already admitted Tsarnaev carried out the bombing, but they are trying to save his life by convincing the jury he was influenced by his older brother.
Why passage of Prop 47 ensures California remains a hot topic in sentencing and corrections reform
This terrific new bit of reporting at The Crime Report, headlined "Prop 47: The Stormy Aftermath," details why California remains a kind perfect storm for those interesting in studying hot topics in the debates over modern sentencing reforms and the relationship between incarceration and crime. Here are excerpts from the piece:
California’s Proposition 47, passed in a referendum last November, set in motion a dramatic reversal of the state’s approach to mass incarceration. The law changed six of California’s low-level offenses from felonies to misdemeanors, and made eligible for resentencing hundreds of thousands of individuals convicted of those crimes.
Not surprisingly, it has drawn the attention of policymakers and law enforcement authorities from across the country — some of it controversial.
“This was such a big fix — being able to go from felony to misdemeanor,” said Lenore Anderson, executive director of Californians for Safety and Justice — an advocacy group that spearheaded the referendum campaign. “We’re engaging in a lot of dialogue about how to change practices, how to put a priority on public safety without relying on over-incarceration.”
But how will success or failure be measured? Four months later, the answer is still not clear — but criminal justice practitioners and advocates contacted by The Crime Report suggest that the passionate debate it fueled is only just beginning.
At a session last month at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, Anderson told criminal justice practitioners and advocates that thousands of prisoners have been resentenced and released since Proposition 47 passed with nearly 60 percent of California voters approving the measure. The move should ultimately free up police, court and prison resources to focus on more serious violent crimes, she said....
Critics of the measure, however, warned that letting people out of jail, and removing the threat of felony charges, would lead to an increase in crime and compromise public safety. Their argument appeared to receive some support when the Los Angeles Times reported on February 21 that narcotic arrests in the city declined significantly after voters approved the bill — while property crimes increased. The story also noted: “some criminal justice experts caution against drawing conclusions.”...
One criminologist who isn’t a fan of the early assessments of Proposition 47’s impact on crime is Barry Krisberg, a Senior Fellow of the Earl Warren Institute at the University of California Berkeley Law School — and an occasional contributor to The Crime Report. “This alleged increase in property crimes, I’m not believing it,” he said in an interview. “That information isn’t even officially produced yet; it’s based on police counts, which are often inaccurate.”...
Former San Diego Police Chief Bill Landsowne, who retired in March 2014, says law enforcement organizations — in particular the state’s Police Chiefs, Sheriffs' and District Attorneys associations — are responsible for orchestrating a media push to discredit Proposition 47. “As a sitting chief it would have been very difficult for me to advocate for Prop 47,” Landsowne, a proponent of the referendum, told The Crime Report. “You don’t want to be an outlier in the process, you want to be tough. But police know we need more treatment options in the system."...
To criminologist Eugene O’Donnell a former New York City police officer, the mixed early statistical returns — and the debate surrounding them — is not surprising. “It’s absolutely premature, you can’t just snap your fingers and fix a complicated problem,” O’Donnell, a professor at John Jay College, said. “This is going to be something that has a long-term impact; trying to make a 60-day assessment is impossible.”
Did serial rapist, former NFL star Darren Sharper, benefit from celebrity justice in global plea deal?
The provocative question in the title of this post is prompted by the notable celebrity sentencing news breaking today and reported in this extended USA Today article headlined "Darren Sharper sentenced to nine years in first of plea deals." Here are the details:
Former NFL star Darren Sharper was sentenced to nine years in prison Monday in Arizona after pleading guilty to sexual assault and attempted sexual assault in November 2013, the Maricopa County Attorney's office confirmed to USA TODAY Sports.
Sharper, 39, entered his pleas Monday in Arizona from Los Angeles, where he was expected to appear in court later in the day and enter a guilty plea in connection with two other rape allegations from 2013 and 2014.
The pleas are part of an attempted "global" plea agreement that could resolve all nine rape charges against him in four states. In addition to the charges in California and Arizona, he faces two rape charges in Las Vegas and three in New Orleans, where is expected to enter guilty pleas within the next month.
The sentences will run concurrently in federal prison, said Jerry Cobb of the Maricopa County Attorney's office. Sharper is not eligible for early release in Arizona, but will be credited for time served in Los Angeles, where he has been in jail without bail since Feb. 27, 2014.
By agreeing to the plea deal, Sharper, 39, avoids the risk of receiving an even worse punishment in the future and expensive litigation that could drag on indefinitely in four states. If convicted, he faced life in prison in Louisiana and more than 30 years in Los Angeles. For prosecutors, the plea deal avoids the risk of going to trial, where juries might be influenced by Sharper's fame and celebrity defense attorneys.
His suspected string of serial rapes ended in January 2014, when he was arrested on a suspicion of rape in Los Angeles. At the time of his first arrest, he had 20 zolpidem pills in his possession – a sleep drug known by its brand name Ambien. Sharper obtained a prescription for the drug after suffering sleep problems he attributed to his 14-year career in the NFL with the New Orleans Saints, Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings, according to a workers compensation claim form he filed in 2012.
The drug can be slipped into drinks to knock out women and rape them, and that's what authorities say Sharper did time after time, according to court records. Sharper ultimately was charged with nine rapes in four states, including three in consecutive nights in two different states in January 2014.
None of the cases went to trial or even received an evidentiary hearing except in Arizona, where a judge ruled last April there was "proof evident" Sharper raped a women there in November 2013. DNA found inside the women's body partially matched Sharper's, and a witness reported waking up and seeing Sharper naked and making thrusting movements over the woman, according to a detective's testimony at the hearing.
The detective said the woman hadn't known Sharper before that night and didn't remember what happened to her after consuming a drink Sharper made her. Zolpidem was found in the cup in subsequent tests. Though Sharper's attorney noted that none of Sharper's sperm was found on the alleged victims in Arizona, the detective said he was told that Sharper had a vasectomy, which could explain the lack of sperm. The revelation caused a stir that day in Arizona, where Sharper was charged with drugging three women and raping two of them.
In Los Angeles, he was charged with drugging and raping two women – one in October 2013 and one in January 2014. In the first one, Sharper met two women at a club in West Hollywood and later invited them to his hotel room, where he offered them a drink, according to a police report of the incident filed in court....
In New Orleans, Sharper was accused of drugging and raping two women in September 2013. He also faced federal drug charges and another rape charge from Aug. 31, 2013, all of it happening just a few years after he helped the Saints win a Super Bowl in 2010.
Though the evidence against Sharper has not, obviously, been proven in court, this press account and his global plea leads me to think he truly is guilty of nine rapes. And assuming that is true, a year in prison for each of nine rapes is a pretty sweet plea deal. Ergo the question in the title of this post.
Three Justices lament SCOTUS failure to do death-penalty error correction in Texas case
Though the big Supreme Court sentencing news today is the cert grant in another Miller retroactivity case from Louisiana (basics here), also notable for sentencing fans is this dissent from the denial of certiorari in a Texas capital case authored by Justice Breyer (joined by Justices Ginsburg and Justice Sotomayor). Here are snippets from the start and end of the opinion:
On April 28, 1984, petitioner Lester Leroy Bower was convicted in a Texas court of murdering four men. Each of the four men had been shot multiple times. Their bodies were left in an airplane hangar, and an ultralight aircraft was missing.
The State sought the death penalty. Bower introduced evidence that was, in his view, mitigating. He noted that he was 36 years old, married, employed full-time, and a father of two. He had no prior criminal record. Through the testimony of Bower’s family members and friends, the jury also heard about Bower’s religious devotion, his commitment to his family, his community service, his concern for others, his even temperament, and his lack of any previous violent (or criminal) behavior.
At the time of Bower’s sentencing, Texas law permitted the jury to consider this mitigating evidence only insofar as it was relevant to three “special issues”...
[The] Texas Court of Criminal Appeals believed that the use of the special issues proceeding in Bower’s sentencing proceeding did not constitutionally entitle him to resentencing.
Bower now asks us to grant certiorari and to reverse the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. In my view, we should do so. Penry’s holding rested on the fact that Texas’ former special issues did not tell the jury “what ‘to do if it decided that [the defendant] . . . should not be executed’” because of his mitigating evidence. Abdul-Kabir v. Quarterman, 550 U.S. 233, 256 (2007) (quoting Penry, supra, at 324). Bower’s sentencing procedure suffered from this defect just as Penry’s did. The distinction that the Texas court drew between Penry’s and Bower’s evidence is irrelevant. Indeed, we have expressly made “clear that Penry . . . applies in cases involving evidence that is neither double edged nor purely aggravating, because in some cases a defendant’s evidence may have mitigating effect beyond its ability to negate the special issues.” 550 U.S., at 255, n. 16. The trial court and the Fifth Circuit both recognized that Bower’s Penry claim was improperly rejected on that basis.
The Constitution accordingly entitles Bower to a new sentencing proceeding. I recognize that we do not often intervene only to correct a case-specific legal error. But the error here is glaring, and its consequence may well be death. After all, because Bower already filed an application for federal habeas relief raising his Penry claim, the law may bar him from filing another application raising this same issue. See 28 U.S.C. §2254(b)(1). In these circumstances, I believe we should act and act now. I would grant the petition and summarily reverse the judgment below. I dissent from the Court’s decision not to do so.
"A Commentary on Statistical Assessment of Violence Recidivism Risk"
The title of this post is the title of this timely paper by Peter Imrey and A. Philip Dawid now available via SSRN. The piece, as evidenced simply by the abstract, seems quite technical. But it seems that the piece is making an especially important technical point. Here is the abstract:
Increasing integration and availability of data on large groups of persons has been accompanied by proliferation of statistical and other algorithmic prediction tools in banking, insurance, marketing, medicine, and other fields (see e.g., Steyerberg (2009a;b)). Controversy may ensue when such tools are introduced to fields traditionally reliant on individual clinical evaluations. Such controversy has arisen about "actuarial" assessments of violence recidivism risk, i.e., the probability that someone found to have committed a violent act will commit another during a specified period.
Recently Hart et al. (2007a) and subsequent papers from these authors in several reputable journals have claimed to demonstrate that statistical assessments of such risks are inherently too imprecise to be useful, using arguments that would seem to apply to statistical risk prediction quite broadly. This commentary examines these arguments from a technical statistical perspective, and finds them seriously mistaken in many particulars. They should play no role in reasoned discussions of violence recidivism risk assessment.
March 23, 2015 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
Supreme Court takes up a replacement juve LWOP retroactivity case from Louisiana
As reported in this AP piece, the US Supreme Court this morning found a replacement for the prior resolved case (Toca) dealing with the retroactivity of its 2012 Miller decision. Here are the basics:
The Supreme Court is adding a new case to decide whether its 3-year-old ruling throwing out mandatory life in prison without parole for juveniles should apply to older cases. The court was scheduled to hear arguments in a case from Louisiana in late March, but the state released inmate George Toca after 30 years in prison.
The justices on Monday said they would consider a new Louisiana case involving a man who has been held since 1963 for killing a sheriff's deputy in Baton Rouge. Henry Montgomery was a 17-year-old 10th grader who was playing hooky from school when he shot Deputy Charles Hurt at a park near the city's airport. The officer and his partner were looking to round up truants.
The case will be argued in the fall.... The case is Montgomery v. Louisiana, 14-280.
Some SCOTUS-related posts on the prior Toca case and Miller retroactivity:
- Supreme Court grants cert to (finally!?!) resolve whether Miller applies retroactively
- George Toca now a free man ... and SCOTUS now lacks a live Miller retroactivity case
- The back-story of George Toca's case (and its impact on other juve LWOPers)
- "Elevating Substance Over Procedure: The Retroactivity of Miller v. Alabama Under Teague v. Lane"
- Examining "sentence finality" at length in new article and series of posts
Sunday, March 22, 2015
Might a President Ted Cruz champion "common sense" mandatory minimum sentencing reform?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this political news from Houston: "Ted Cruz to announce presidential bid Monday." Here are highlights about Senator Cruz's plans:
Senior advisers say Cruz will run as an unabashed conservative eager to mobilize like-minded voters who cannot stomach the choice of the "mushy middle" that he has ridiculed on the stump over the past two months in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. "Ted is exactly where most Republican voters are," said Mike Needham, who heads the conservative advocacy group Heritage Action for America. "Most people go to Washington and get co-opted. And Ted clearly is somebody that hasn't been."
For various reasons, I am pleased that Senator Cruz is the first GOP candidate to officially throw his hat into the ring and that he will be running as a "unabashed conservative." As explained in this prior post, this unabashed conservative has stated that he believes a commitment to "fairness" and "justice" and "common sense" calls for passage of the Smarter Sentencing Act and other federal reforms which would help avoid "a world of Le Miserables, where a young man finds his entire future taken away by excessive mandatory minimums.
A few recent and older posts on the modern "conservative politics" of federal sentencing reform:
- Can Senator Ted Cruz, who says "Smarter Sentencing Act Is Common Sense," get SSA through Congress?
- A positive perspective on possible prison reform emerging from Congress
- "Hey, Grandpa: End Mandatory Minimums!"
- Is major federal sentencing reform possible now that Republicans have full control of Congress?
- Shouldn't true fiscal conservatives question a federal program with 600% recent spending growth?
- "Criminal Sentencing Reform: A Conversation among Conservatives"
- Spotlighting that nearly all GOP Prez hopefuls are talking up sentencing reform
Pope Francis categorically condemns death penalty as "inadmissible" in today's world
As reported in this piece from Vatican Radio, which describes itself the "voice of the Pope and the Church in dialogue with the World," Pope Francis spoke about capital punishment during a meeting with members of an international anti-death penalty group. Here are details:
Capital punishment is cruel, inhuman and an offense to the dignity of human life. In today's world, the death penalty is "inadmissible, however serious the crime" that has been committed. That was Pope Francis’ unequivocal message to members of the International Commission against the death penalty who met with him on Friday morning in the Vatican.
In a lengthy letter written in Spanish and addressed to the president of the International Commission against the death penalty, Pope Francis thanks those who work tirelessly for a universal moratorium, with the goal of abolishing the use of capital punishment in countries right across the globe.
Pope Francis makes clear that justice can never be done by killing another human being and he stresses there can be no humane way of carrying out a death sentence. For Christians, he says, all life is sacred because every one of us is created by God, who does not want to punish one murder with another, but rather wishes to see the murderer repent. Even murderers, he went on, do not lose their human dignity and God himself is the guarantor.
Capital punishment, Pope Francis says, is the opposite of divine mercy, which should be the model for our man-made legal systems. Death sentences, he insists, imply cruel and degrading treatment, as well as the torturous anguish of a lengthy waiting period before the execution, which often leads to sickness or insanity.
The Pope ... makes quite clear that the use of capital punishment signifies “a failure” on the part of any State. However serious the crime, he says, an execution “does not bring justice to the victims, but rather encourages revenge” and denies any hope of repentence or reparation for the crime that has been committed.
Saturday, March 21, 2015
"Sentencing Enhancement and the Crime Victim's Brain"
The title of this post is the title of this interesting new article now available via SSRN authored by Francis X. Shen. Here is the abstract:
Criminal offenders who inflict serious bodily injury to another in the course of criminal conduct are typically sentenced more harshly than those who do not cause such injuries. But what if the harm caused is “mental” or “psychological” and not “physical”? Should the sentencing enhancement still apply? Federal and state courts are already wrestling with this issue, and modern neuroscience offers new challenges to courts’ analyses. This Article thus tackles the question: In light of current neuroscientific knowledge, when and how should sentencing enhancements for bodily injury include mental injuries?
The Article argues that classification of “mental” as wholly distinct from “physical” is problematic in light of modern neuroscientific understanding of the relationship between mind and brain. There is no successful justification for treating mental injuries as categorically distinct from other physical injuries. There is, however, good reason for law to treat mental injuries as a unique type of physical injury. Enhancement of criminal penalties for mental injuries must pay special care to the causal connection between the offender’s act and the victim’s injury. Moreover, it is law, not science, that must be the ultimate arbiter of what constitutes a sufficiently bad mental harm to justify a harsher criminal sentence, and of what evidence is sufficient to prove the mental injury.
Prez Obama promising to exercise "pardon power and clemency power more aggressively"
This new Huffington Post article reports on an interview with President Barack Obama in which his clemency efforts past and present were discussed. Here are highlights:
President Barack Obama plans to grant clemency to federal offenders "more aggressively" during the remainder of his presidency, he said in a sit-down interview with The Huffington Post on Friday.
Obama has faced criticism for rarely using his power to grant pardons and commutations. In December, he commuted the sentences of eight federal drug offenders, including four who had been sentenced to life. That brought his total number of commutations to 18.
Obama said he had granted clemency so infrequently because of problems in the Justice Department's Office of the Pardon Attorney. The former head of that office, who was appointed during the George W. Bush administration, resigned in April amid criticism from criminal justice advocates. "I noticed that what I was getting was mostly small-time crimes from very long ago," Obama said. "It'd be a 65-year-old who wanted a pardon to get his gun rights back. Most of them were legitimate, but they didn't address the broader issues that we face, particularly around nonviolent drug offenses. So we've revamped now the DOJ office. We're now getting much more representative applicants."
Many of those new applications came from what's known as the Clemency Project 2014, announced when the Office of the Pardon Attorney head resigned. That project, which operates independently of the government, is intended to help DOJ sort through a huge number of applicants to figure out who meets specific criteria laid out by the administration. But the process has been slow, and some criminal justice advocates are growing frustrated. Since the project was announced, more than 35,000 inmates -- roughly 16 percent of the total federal prison population -- have submitted applications....
Obama said Friday that the public could see the results of the project soon. "I think what you'll see is not only me exercising that pardon power and clemency power more aggressively for people who meet the criteria -- nonviolent crimes, have served already a long period of time, have shown that they're rehabilitated -- but also we're working with Democrats and Republicans around criminal justice reform issues," Obama said.
The president said it was "encouraging" to see criminal justice reform and support for the elimination of some mandatory minimum sentences as a "rare area where we're actually seeing significant bipartisan interest," with some libertarians and conservatives concerned about costs joining with Democrats. "If we can get some action done at the federal level, that will make a difference in terms of how, I think, more and more states recognize it doesn't make sense for us to treat nonviolent drug offenses the way we do," Obama said.
As I have said many times before, the Obama Administration has generally be much better at talking the talk than at walking the walk on these sorts of sentencing matters. Nevertheless, I view these comments as additional reason to believe there will be many more clemency grants by President Obama in the coming year or two than in the previous five or six.
Effective discussion of nitrogen gas as execution method alternative
This new Atlantic article, headlined "Can Executions Be More Humane?: A law professor suggests an untested procedure as an alternative to lethal injection," provides an interesting account of the person and story behind a novel execution method proposal. Here are excerpts:
Michael Copeland has a unique resume: former Assistant Attorney General of the tiny Pacific island nation of Palau, professor of criminal justice at East Central University in Ada, Oklahoma — and now, the proponent of a new execution method he claims would be more humane than lethal injection.
Copeland is one of the brains behind House Bill 1879 proposed by Oklahoma State Representative Mike Christian. The bill, passed by the Oklahoma House last week, would make “nitrogen hypoxia” a secondary method to lethal injection. Oklahoma State Senator Anthony Sykes will be introducing it to the senate shortly.
Copeland explained the execution method last September to the Oklahoma House Judiciary Committee at Christian’s invitation. Copeland says that Christian had been suggesting the firing squad, but Copeland thought there might be a better way. Along with two other professors from East Central University, Christine C. Pappas and Thomas M. Parr, he is drafting a white paper about the benefits of nitrogen-induced hypoxia over lethal injection....
Hypoxia occurs when a person lacks an adequate supply of oxygen. “Normally, the air we breathe is 79 percent nitrogen and 21 percent oxygen,” Copeland explains. Nitrogen hypoxia during an execution “would be induced by having the offender breathing a gas mixture of pure nitrogen.” Copeland points out that “nitrogen is an inert gas, and therefore doesn’t actually cause the death. It is the lack of oxygen that causes death.”
According to Copeland, death from nitrogen hypoxia is painless. “In industrial accidents, it often happens because the victim does not know they are in a hypoxic environment,” he said. “That suffocating feeling of anxiety and discomfort is not associated with hypoxic deaths.” He says nitrogen-induced hypoxia is well-researched, although the ideal delivery system for an execution has not yet been established. Two ideas include a medical-grade oxygen tent around the head or a facemask similar to those used by firefighters.
The condemned person might not even know when the “the switch to pure nitrogen occurs, instead he would simply lose consciousness about fifteen seconds after the switch was made,” he added. “Approximately thirty seconds later, he would stop producing brain waves, and the heart would stop beating about two to three minutes after that.”...
Copeland says that conditions for lethal-injection executions will only get worse. States are scrambling to find the drugs and the health professionals to use them, and both are required for lethal injection to take place. “You have anti-death penalty zealots around the globe that protest, that bring attention to the manufacturers of these drugs,” Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt told a local chamber of commerce last summer. Pruitt said that as long as activists pressure manufacturers, there will be supply issues....
From its first use in the execution of Gee Jon in Nevada in 1924 to its link to Nazi gas chambers, lethal gas as method of execution has a problematic history. American lethal-gas executions typically used hydrogen cyanide as the mechanism of death. Inmates were strapped to chairs in gas chambers and the ensuing chemical reaction would cause visible signs of pain and discomfort: skin discoloration, drooling, and writhing.
But nitrogen hypoxia would likely not produce the gruesome deaths that resulted from cyanide gas executions. Copeland says that “you don’t have to worry about someone reacting differently.” The condemned person would feel slightly intoxicated before losing consciousness and ultimately dying.
Other death-penalty experts are more skeptical. “It’s only been partially vetted, superficially researched, and has never been tried,” said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. “Using it would be an experiment on human subjects.” State death rows would be strapping someone down without any idea what would happen next, he feared. “We’d need testimony from the best experts on this,” Dieter says. “Right now, this is sailing through a legislature and not a peer-review process. I’m no doctor, but let’s hear from them. I don’t completely dismiss the idea that this could become approved or that it’s as good as they say because lethal injection is in a bind.”
If the bill becomes law and Oklahoma successfully executes someone using this method, it could spread from to state very quickly, Dieter says. Older methods like firing squads are a little too brutal for the American public, but something new could be accepted. If so, he says, “it could lead to an awkward spurt of executions.” Copeland says he is not a death penalty absolutist. “I think the state has a unique obligation for justice — it’s the state’s obligation,” he explains. “But I don’t think the death penalty is a deterrent compared to life without parole.” If we must have the death penalty, he argues, it should be humane.
Copeland thinks that it is death penalty abolitionists who have made executions inhumane by restricting access to drugs. It will only get worse. Some corrections officials at the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections agree. On February 18, they submitted a report to the state House of Representatives proposing the use of nitrogen-induced hypoxia and cited Copeland’s forthcoming paper.
Copeland says that it’s a logical and humane next step. “Nitrogen is ubiquitous. The process is humane, it doesn’t require expertise, and it’s cheap,” he explained. “I think of it as a harm-reduction thing — like you’d rather people not use heroin, but if they do, you want them to use clean needles.”
A few recent and older related posts:
- Is nitrogen gas the best modern execution alternative to lethal injection?
- Serious talk about a serious alternative (nitrogen) to lethal injection in Oklahoma
- As SCOTUS considers Oklahoma lethal injections, Oklahoma considers a gas chamber
- Shouldn't Congress be holding hearings to explore federal and state execution methods?
- Poll after ugly execution highlights enduring death penalty support and openness to various execution methods
- A worldly perspective on different execution methods
- Should problems with lethal injection prompt return of other execution methods?
Friday, March 20, 2015
Should SCOTUS Justices (and lots of other federal and state judges) regularly visit prisons?
The question of the title of this post is prompted by this interesting local article from Michigan, headlined "Justice goes to prison to weigh Mich. sentencing system." Here are excerpts from this lengthy story:
On an early March tour of Michigan's prison intake center, new Supreme Court Justice Richard Bernstein learned that corrections officials want more guidance from judges about their expectations for the lawbreakers sent here.
New prisoners and rearrested parole absconders are processed at the three-building complex before being assigned to correctional facilities around the state. Inmates arrive with sentencing orders and other paperwork but nothing to indicate why a judge prescribed a certain prison term or what the goal of it is, Michigan Corrections Director Dan Heyns said.
"It would be helpful for judges to tell us the intent of their sentences," Heyns told Bernstein, the nation's first blind state Supreme Court justice. "If it's strictly to provide public safety, we know how to do that. But if the intent is to get at the root cause of their criminality, tell us that."
Bernstein's unusual visit — prison officials couldn't recall a previous visit from a sitting Supreme Court justice — came as lawmakers attempt to revive failed 2014 legislation calling for reforms of 1998 sentencing guidelines and parole policies. The changes were recommended last May by the Council of State Governments Justice Center, which noted 1 in 5 state dollars is spent on corrections....
Bernstein's visit lasted four hours. He was keen to get a feel for what prison is like and learn how he and the state's highest court might improve coordination between judges who dispense justice and incarceration officials who administer it. Corrections chief Heyns provided examples of the way judges' decisions and state sentencing policies impact costs. For the crime of burglary, for example, the recidivism rate — chance of a repeat offense — is no lower after a five-year sentence than a three-year sentence, Heyns said. "There's no return on our investment for the other two years," he added.
The 41-year-old justice was elected last year to an eight-year term after working at his family's well-known Farmington Hills law firm, which specializes in personal injury litigation, not criminal law. He handled a number of disability rights cases the firm litigated. "They said I have no experience with the criminal justice system," he said referring to critics of his November campaign for the Supreme Court. "That's a legitimate criticism."
Bernstein said the legal briefs for criminal cases that come before the Supreme Court are "academic" in nature and don't convey the harsh realities of prison life and rehabilitation. At the Charles Egeler Reception and Guidance Center, Bernstein encountered stark facilities where 9,000 men are processed annually. They live for two weeks to a month in barred cells stacked in tiers with yellow-railed gangways....
"I wanted to know what it feels like to come here, I want to know the consequences of our decisions," Bernstein said in the midst of it. "You learn about how every facet of your life is controlled. A free person does not think about that."...
At the end, the justice pressed for feedback about how to make the system work better. Half of the job of Supreme Court justices, he said, is to administer Michigan's court system through rules governing their proceedings. Heyns suggested perhaps something as simple as a statement outlining the expectations in each judge's sentencing order would be a great help to prison officials. Bernstein said he wants to work at it but said any change "won't happen overnight."
Nearly two-thirds of the inmates now feeding into the system through Egeler are first-timers and half of them will be released within two years, according to Heyns. "We don't have a whole lot of time to do a lot of correction," Heyns told Bernstein. "It calls into question, what are we really accomplishing with these people? It's a huge cost."
I think it is fantastic that this new Michigan Supreme Court Justice took the time to check out one part of his state's prison system. I think all judges with a significant part of their dockets comprised of criminal justice cases ought to consider doing the same. (I would guess that only a very small percentage of federal or state appellate judges have spent any real time inside a prison facility.)
"Victim's wife: Keep me out of death penalty fight"
The title of this post is the headline of this notable new article out of Philadelphia which highlights how victims often can and will get victimized again by the political debates over the death penalty. Here is how the piece starts:
Since Gov. Wolf declared his moratorium on the death penalty last month, proponents of capital punishment have rallied around one case to push their cause - the scuttled execution of Terrance Williams, a Philadelphia man sentenced to die in 1986 for the beating death of a Germantown church volunteer.
But on Thursday, the widow of Williams' victim had a message for critics of the governor's action: Leave me out of it. In a publicly circulated letter, Mamie Norwood, whose husband, Amos, was killed by Williams in 1984, accused State Rep. Mike Vereb (R., Montgomery) and Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams of using her husband's slaying for political gain.
"You have never spoken to me and do not speak for me," Norwood wrote, adding that she had forgiven Terrance Williams long ago and did not want to see him put to death. She added: "Please don't use me . . . to get your name in the news. You should be truly ashamed of yourselves."
Norwood's letter was distributed by a group of Terrance Williams' supporters who run the website www.terrywilliamsclemency.com.
Norwood's letter is available at this link.
March 20, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack (0)
Thursday, March 19, 2015
Sentencing judgment days this week in federal court for two pols behaving very badly
Two prominent politician faced federal sentencing for two distinct crimes this week. Here are headlines reflecting the outcome for each on judgment day along with links to stories providing the details: