Sunday, February 19, 2017

Front-line advocate's response to interview with former White House Counsel Neil Eggleston about Prez Obama clemency efforts

Regular readers know I am always eager to provide a forum for responses and respectful criticisms of sentencing-related activities and comments by public officials.  In that vein, I am pleased to provide here the sharp commentary sent my way by Beth Curtis, a prisoner advocate who runs the website Life for Pot.  Beth sent an extended commentary my way under the heading "Responding to: The Man Who Ran Obama’s Clemency Machine"; she was inspired to write by the recent Marshall Project interview with former White House Counsel Neil Eggleston about Prez Obama's clemency efforts (noted here).   

Beth's full commentary is available for download below, and here is a snippet to highlight why the full piece is worthy of time and attention:

For the first five years of Obama’s presidency the federal prison population grew by 13,000 incarcerated people. In 2013, the population was 214,149, the highest incarceration rate in history.

Criminal justice organizations, prisoner advocacy groups, criminal defense attorneys, law school clinics, prisoner’s families and various other lobbying groups started the drum beat for sentencing reform and an initiative of Presidential Clemency. Finally in 2013 Eric Holder announced that there would be a clemency initiative that could mean 10,000 or more acts of mercy for incarcerated people who would not be a threat if they were released.

Those of us with incarcerated loved ones who had sentences that would assure that they would die behind bars now had a reason for hope. We felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude to the President and all who were involved in the decision and the process that would lead to our loved ones freedom. We could hope to have our family member in our daily lives again. The hope was an ache, but we knew this President had compassion. It was not to be.

The lack of commitment became apparent almost immediately. I have the web site Life for Pot and the nonviolent marijuana offenders that I advocate for waited patiently for their evaluation by cp-14. Surprisingly some were rejected, and others accepted to the project and were told they would be assigned an attorney. Those fortunate inmates who were assigned an attorney would sometimes just receive a notification that they were represented and hear nothing more. We urged them to submit their own and wait.

This is not just a passing interest for me. I have a 69 year old brother, John Knock, who has two life sentences for a nonviolent marijuana conspiracy. He has been incarcerated for 20 years and never had an infraction. His prison resume is impeccable. He is a first time offender. On January 18, his clemency petition was denied by President Obama.

These are the numbers that tell you about the mercy and compassion of the Clemency Initiative. The promise was 10,000 or more. 1,715 Commutations granted – we could only find 39 for nonviolent marijuana only offenders. The rest were denied or left pending.

Over 18,000 petitions for commutation were denied. Over 4,000 petitions for commutation we closed without action. Over 8,000 petitions for commutation were left pending in the Pardon Attorney’s office for the next administration.

I must reject Mr. Eggleston’s assertion that he had better information and insight than the attorneys, advocates, or families about who was a good candidate for release. He asserts that he and President Obama looked over all the applicants and rejected all but 1,715.

Apparently Mr. Eggleston and President Obama based their denials on secret information. That implies that all the nonviolent marijuana offenders that I know who were denied should remain in prison till they die because Mr. Eggleston and President Obama have special information unknown to anyone else? What are the secrets that gave them confidence to make this Sophie’s Choice? They missed the point of Clemency. It is not a legal process but a Constitutional Power given to the President to be compassionate and merciful. In this endeavor they failed miserably.

These assertions made by Mr. Eggleston have tainted the character and behavior of all they left behind. I can only believe this was done in order to in order to burnish the administrations legacy of compassion at the expense of those they left behind without hope.

There is one secret that most of us know that the White House and the Pardon Attorney did not address. That secret is that most nonviolent offenders who receive sentences of life without parole were charged with conspiracy and went to trial. A conspiracy charge does not require definitive evidence, but only the testimony of those testifying for a plea or for part of the forfeiture. If you exercise your sixth amendment right to trial you receive the trial penalty. This charge allows the Prosecutor to tell the story.

In the spring of 2016 at a White House Briefing, it was obvious to many of us that the promise of clemency was waning and The Administration was pivoting to reentry as the major emphasis for time and money.

The White House would not pay attention to any effort to expedite the clemency project by granting clemency to categories of inmates. Many individuals and groups implored them to take this approach so that they would not fail the thousands who placed their trust in their concept of mercy. The White House and Justice Department did not seem to even understand the concept as it had been used in the past. Heals were dug in, and fates were sealed.

Download FEBRUARY 2017 CLEMENCY FAILURE

UPDATE:  For those unable to get download to work (which may be my fault, as I am working from the road), here is a link to Beth's site with her full commentary.

Prior related post:

February 19, 2017 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

"I sentenced criminals to hundreds more years than I wanted to. I had no choice."

13FRISK-master675The title of this post is the headline of this recent Washington Post commentary authored by former federal judge Shira Scheindlin. Here are excerpts from a lengthy piece that merits a full read:

In my nearly 22 years as a U.S. district judge in New York, I sentenced roughly 1,000 defendants. Thankfully, not all were subject to “mandatory minimum” sentences — in which Congress has imposed a required statutory punishment for a particular crime. But many were; 145 federal crimes still require a minimum sentence, including distribution of narcotics, immigration violations and identity theft, just to name a few.

Every first-year law student learns that sentencing has four goals: retribution, incapacitation, deterrence and rehabilitation. Yet thanks mostly to the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 and the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, I was often prohibited from assessing a defendant’s history, personal characteristics or role in the offense. In sentencing, where judgment should matter most, I could not exercise my judgment. I felt more like a computer than a judge. And I was not alone. Over the years, many of my colleagues on the federal bench felt the same frustrations.

This problem upset me as soon as I was appointed in 1994. Mandatory minimums were almost always excessive, and they made me feel unethical, even dirty. After seven years, my patience had run thin and my conscience was troubled; I began to consider resigning. I sought the advice of a revered mentor, a federal judge with more than 30 years of experience. He pointed out that quitting would serve nobody, as another judge would be required to impose identical sentences anyway. He also said that if I left, the bench would lose a judge who could advocate for criminal justice reform through her decisions. So I remained. But to this day, I am pained by many of the sentences I was required by law to impose. While I bore the title “Honorable Judge,” I felt less than honorable and more like a complicit tool of an unjust system....

Judicial discretion in sentencing matters. Many judges, including me, routinely sentence below the guidelines, particularly for first-time, nonviolent drug offenders. Indeed, in 2015 only 36.5 percent of all drug offenses nationwide resulted in a guideline-compliant sentences. Between 2005 and May 2016, when I retired from the bench, I sentenced more than 200 defendants convicted of narcotics offenses and imposed a lighter-than-advised sentence more than 80 percent of the time. Had I sentenced at the top of the guidelines’ range, these defendants would have served more than a millennium of additional prison time.

After I left the bench, Peter Dubrowski — my last law clerk — and I decided that we would review the sentencing protocols for each of those 200 defendants. As I expected, we found strikingly similar storylines. The overwhelming majority of the defendants were indigent. Seventy-two percent had children to support, and many of the defendants were under the age of 25 — barely adults themselves. More than half had not graduated from high school, most had not obtained a GED, and barely 5 percent had attended college. A majority battled alcohol addiction, drug addiction or both, and had begun abusing substances by age 14. Most were unemployed. Most came from single-parent homes, and most had at least one parent who was, or had been, incarcerated....

Does the length of the sentence deter people outside the courtroom from committing crimes? This is a popular idea in our country. Over time, I came to believe it is fiction. If this effect was real, my fellow judges and I would have seen narcotics arrests and prosecutions decline over the years. They never did. No young man on the street was ever deterred from criminal activity by the sentence given to a buddy. “Contrary to deterrence ideology and ‘get tough’ rhetoric,” says a report from the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit that studies criminal punishment, the evidence “fails to support” deterrence.

February 19, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11)

Saturday, February 18, 2017

BYOD in Az: spotlighting Arizona's (cheeky?) drug acquisition provision in its latest execution protocol

This AP article reports on a notable an unusual provision in Arizona's new execution protocol.  The article is headlined "Arizona to death-row inmates: Bring your own execution drugs," and here are details:

The recent revelation that condemned prisoners in Arizona can now provide the lethal drugs to be used in their executions has received attention around the world and raised questions about the state's rules for the death penalty.

The novel policy has drawn sneers from defense attorneys who were puzzled as to why the state would think that they would assist in killing their clients.  It has inspired wisecracks about Arizona's penchant for taking on envelope-pushing criminal justice policies and left some readers on social media asking whether the bring-your-own-drugs policy was actually the product of a news parody website.

Criminal defense lawyers and death penalty experts say they have never heard of a state suggesting that condemned inmates can line up drugs to be used in their executions.  However unlikely it is that any of Arizona's 119 death-row inmates will take up the offer, the change is a reflection of the difficulties that Arizona, like other states, faces in finding execution drugs now that European pharmaceutical companies have blocked the use of their products for lethal injections.

Executions in Arizona have been on hold since the 2014 death of convicted killer Joseph Rudolph Wood, who was given 15 doses of the sedative midazolam and a painkiller and who took nearly two hours to die.  The state will not be able to carry out executions until the resolution of a lawsuit that alleges Arizona has abused its discretion in the methods and amounts of drugs used in past executions.

The state hasn't publicly explained its aim in taking on the new policy, which surfaced last month in the lawsuit. The Arizona Department of Corrections, which carries out executions, didn't respond to requests for comment. The Arizona Attorney General's Office, which is defending the state in the lawsuit, declined to comment.

Under the policy, the state's top prison official would be required, in one execution drug protocol, to use the barbiturate pentobarbital that's obtained by lawyers for inmates or someone acting on their behalf.  The corrections director also would have the choice of picking one of two drug protocols involving the sodium pentothal if the barbiturate is obtained on behalf of a prisoner....

Dale Baich, an assistant federal public defender who represents the inmates in the lawsuit,... explained that the policy is unfeasible because the Controlled Substances Act prohibits attorneys and inmates from getting the drugs. "As a lawyer, I just can't go to local Walgreens and pick up a couple of vials of pentobarbital," Baich said.

It's the responsibility of the state, not condemned prisoners, to carry out executions, Baich added. The policy would seem to appeal to inmates who have abandoned their appeals and want to speed up their executions. But Baich said the Controlled Substances Act would still prevent those prisoners from getting lethal-injection drugs.

Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, which has been critical of the way executions are carried out in the United States, said the policy also raises ethical concerns. Death-penalty lawyers are supposed to zealously represent their clients and have a duty not to take actions that harm them, Dunham said. "No one has done it before, and the fact that it is impossible, impractical, illegal and unethical may have something to do with that," he said.

Timothy Agan, a longtime criminal defense lawyer in Phoenix who has handled several death penalty cases, said he can't imagine condemned prisoners lining up to seek their own execution drugs and couldn't foresee a situation in which the policy would be used.

Arizona's revised executions protocol is available at this link, and on page 28 one finds this language (with my emphasis added):

The Director shall have the sole discretion as to which drug protocol will be used for the scheduled execution. This decision will be provided to the inmate and their counsel of record in writing at the time the state files a request for Warrant of Execution in the Arizona Supreme Court. If the inmate’s counsel or other third parties acting on behalf of the inmate’s counsel are able to obtain from a certified or licensed pharmacist, pharmacy, compound pharmacy, manufacturer, or supplier and provide to the Department the chemical pentobarbital in sufficient quantity and quality to successfully implement the one-drug protocol with pentobarbital set forth in Chart A, then the Director shall use the one-drug protocol with pentobarbital set forth in Chart A as the drug protocol for execution. If the inmate’s counsel or other third parties acting on behalf of the inmate’s counsel are unable to obtain such pentobarbital, but are able to obtain from a certified or licensed pharmacist, pharmacy, compound pharmacy, manufacturer, or supplier and provide to the Department the chemical sodium pentothal in sufficient quantity and quality to successfully implement the one-drug protocol with sodium pentothal set forth in Chart B or the three-drug protocol with sodium pentothal set forth in Chart C, then the Director shall have the sole discretion as to which drug protocol (Chart B or Chart C) will be used for the scheduled execution.

February 18, 2017 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Friday, February 17, 2017

Hoping for the best from Prez Trump's creation of crime task force

As noted in this prior post, last week Prez Trump signed three crime-fighting executive orders.  In my view, the EO with arguably the most enduring significance and substance was this one creating a “Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety.” Here is the heart of what the EO says about this Task Force:

The Attorney General shall determine the characteristics of the Task Force ... [and the] Task Force shall:

(i) exchange information and ideas among its members that will be useful in developing strategies to reduce crime, including, in particular, illegal immigration, drug trafficking, and violent crime;

(ii) based on that exchange of information and ideas, develop strategies to reduce crime;

(iii) identify deficiencies in existing laws that have made them less effective in reducing crime and propose new legislation that could be enacted to improve public safety and reduce crime;

(iv) evaluate the availability and adequacy of crime-related data and identify measures that could improve data collection in a manner that will aid in the understanding of crime trends and in the reduction of crime; and

(v) conduct any other studies and develop any other recommendations as directed by the Attorney General....

The Task Force shall submit at least one report to the President within 1 year from the date of this order, and a subsequent report at least once per year thereafter while the Task Force remains in existence. The structure of the report is left to the discretion of the Attorney General.  In its first report to the President and in any subsequent reports, the Task Force shall summarize its findings and recommendations under subsections (c)(ii) through (c)(v) of this section.

I find interesting and valuable that this Task Force is tasked with, inter alia, seeking to "improve data collection" and to write a detailed report with a year.  More generally, I think the Task Force is a really good idea and one that is, notably, not all that much of a variation on crime commissions recently urged by folks across the political spectrum.  Specifically, back in 2009, then-Senator Jim Webb introduced legislation to create a National Criminal Justice Commission, and in May 2015 President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing made this notable "overarching recommendation": "The President should support and provide funding for the creation of a National Crime and Justice Task Force to review and evaluate all components of the criminal justice system for the purpose of making recommendations to the country on comprehensive criminal justice reform."

Among the reasons I am eager and hopeful about the work of this Task Force is the fact that crime realities appear quite divergent in different parts of the county.  While some big cities like Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington DC seem to be experiencing worrisome increases in crime in recent years, other big cities like Philadelphia, New York and San Diego seem to be achieving record low crime rates.  I sense there is a similar diversity of experiences in small cities and rural areas nationwide as well.  Ideally, the AG's Task Force can and will advance and deepen our understanding of all the nationwide diverse and distinctive crime and punishment realities throughout the United States circa 2017-18.

February 17, 2017 | Permalink | Comments (7)

"The Progressive Prosecutor's Handbook"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new short piece by David Alan Sklansky now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

A growing number of chief prosecutors are winning office by pledging a more thoughtful and evenhanded approach to criminal justice — an approach more attentive to racial disparities, the risk of wrongful conviction, the problem of police violence, and the harms of mass incarceration.  But there is no roadmap for progressive prosecutors, no consensus set “best practices” for elected prosecutors who want to make criminal justice not just more effective but also fairer and more humane.

This short essay starts to develop such a roadmap.  It offers ten suggestions to reform-oriented chief prosecutors: decide in advance how you want to be judged, evaluate and reward your attorneys for what you care about, collect and share data, build in second looks, have a clear and generous disclosure policy, do not turn a profit, reduce case delays, investigate police shootings independently and transparently, pay attention to office culture, and diversity your staff.

February 17, 2017 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

US Sentencing Commission announces plans and opens registration for two(!) national seminars

I was intrigued this morning to receive an email from the US Sentencing Commission announcing that it will be conducting two "National Seminars on the Federal Sentencing Guidelines." As this USSC webpage reveals, historically the USSC has presented only a single annual seminar, and even that event did not happen in 2013 due to tight budget times thanks to the sequestration that year.  But now, despite a new administration saying two bad old federal regulations are going to be cut for every shiny new one, apparently the mighty Sentencing Commission this year was able to flip this around by offering two shiny new seminars when in the bad old days we only got one.

Jokes aside, I have always found the USSC annual seminars to be terrific and informative events, and the fact that these events are free to participants and fully open to the public truly makes them a very valuable and important form of government public service. This USSC page provides the details of the two upcoming events and links for registering for them:

2017 National Seminar Series on the Federal Sentencing Guidelines

May 31-June 2 in Baltimore

September 6-8 in Denver

The Commission will also hold a seminar in San Diego on June 22-23 for judges only.  Other seminars are open to the public.

Registration opened on Friday, February 17, 2017 for both the Baltimore and Denver seminars.  Registration is on a first come, first served basis.

February 17, 2017 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, February 16, 2017

"Accounting for Violence: How to Increase Safety and Break Our Failed Reliance on Mass Incarceration"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new report from the Vera Institute of Justice authored by Danielle Sered. Here is an overview of the report from Vera:

In the United States, violence and mass incarceration are deeply entwined, though evidence shows that both can decrease at the same time.  A new vision is needed to meaningfully address violence and reduce the use of incarceration — and to promote healing among crime survivors and improve public safety.  This report describes four principles to guide policies and practices that aim to reduce violence: They should be survivor-centered, based on accountability, safety-driven, and racially equitable.

This two-page fact sheet sets out the "four principles" referenced above:

Principle 1: Responses to violence should be survivor-centered.

Principle 2: Responses to violence should be based on accountability.

Principle 3: Responses to violence should be safety‑driven.

Principle 4: Responses to violence should be racially equitable.

February 16, 2017 in Offense Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (16)

Notable accounting of what Mayor Emanuel sought from AG Sessions to deal with Chicago's gun violence

This local article, headlined "Emanuel used meeting with Sessions to get specific on fed help," reports on the requests Chicago's mayor made to the new Attorney General to help combat violence in a city that has been a frequent talking point about violent crime for Prez Trump.  Here is how the article starts:

Attempting to turn President Donald Trump’s talk into federal action, Mayor Rahm Emanuel said Tuesday he used his first meeting with U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions to present a list of ways the federal government can help stop the bloodbath on Chicago streets. “On the FBI, DEA, ATF, send more agents [who] are permanently placed here in Chicago to cooperate and work with our Chicago Police Department. They do it in a number of areas today. But, we don’t have the full expanse of what we need to do the job and we have a good relationship with those three federal entities,” the mayor said.

“Second is invest in the technology that you saw in Englewood in the 7th District and the 11th District — the strategic predictive analytic rooms — help us take that to other police districts in the city.”

The mayor’s wish list goes beyond policing to expansion of mentoring, summer jobs and after-school programs from which both the state and federal government have been AWOL, as he put it. “I talked about making sure that our kids have an alternative consistent with what I’ve said about BAM [Becoming A Man] as a mentoring program,” Emanuel said. “There’s an account that deals with ex-offenders. We would like to see that because we have the largest ex-offender program. . . . And help us with summer jobs and after school where the federal government has actually been cutting those resources.”

Emanuel said he also renewed his call for the U.S. Justice Department to step up federal prosecution of gun crimes. A Chicago Sun-Times story last year found that federal weapons charges in Chicago have fallen slightly over the past five years — despite the local rise in firearm offenses. Federal prosecutors in some other major urban areas — Manhattan, Brooklyn, Milwaukee, Detroit and Baltimore — have charged far more people with weapons offenses than the U.S. attorney’s office in Chicago has.

Sources said the meeting with Sessions focused exclusively on ways the Justice Department can assist Chicago in stopping the unrelenting gang violence on city streets.

February 16, 2017 in Gun policy and sentencing, National and State Crime Data, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

"Emotional Judges and Unlucky Juveniles"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper on SSRN authored by two economists, Naci Mocan and Ozkan Eren. Here is the abstract:

Employing the universe of juvenile court decisions in a U.S. state between 1996 and 2012, we analyze the effects of emotional shocks associated with unexpected outcomes of football games played by a prominent college team in the state. We investigate the behavior of judges, the conduct of whom should, by law, be free of personal biases and emotions. We find that unexpected losses increase disposition (sentence) lengths assigned by judges during the week following the game. Unexpected wins, or losses that were expected to be close contests ex-ante, have no impact.

The effects of these emotional shocks are asymmetrically borne by black defendants. We present evidence that the results are not influenced by defendant or attorney behavior or by defendants’ economic background. Importantly, the results are driven by judges who have received their bachelor’s degrees from the university with which the football team is affiliated. Different falsification tests and a number of auxiliary analyses demonstrate the robustness of the findings.

These results provide evidence for the impact of emotions in one domain on a behavior in a completely unrelated domain among a uniformly highly-educated group of individuals (judges), with decisions involving high stakes (sentence lengths). They also point to the existence of a subtle and previously-unnoticed capricious application of sentencing.

February 15, 2017 in Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Repeat rape and murder for sex offender subject to monitoring shows limits of GPS as incapacitation tool

This article in my local paper about a local murder that has received a lot of attention provides a cold reminder that GPS monitoring typically cannot and will not alone serves as fool-proof crime prevention tool.  The article is headlined "Ex-convict charged in slaying of Ohio State student was on GPS monitoring," and here are the details:

A sex offender who is accused of abducting, raping and killing an Ohio State University student was on GPS monitoring. Brian L. Golsby, 29, who was released from state prison on Nov. 13 after serving six years for robbery and attempted rape, had special conditions of supervision under his post-release control for five years.

"I can confirm that he was on GPS monitoring, which is not uncommon due to the fact that he did not have a permanent residence upon his release," said JoEllen Smith, a spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. Golsby was living in a state-contracted residential housing program that granted him a temporary residence.

Grove City police arrested Golsby after 21-year-old Reagan Tokes' body was found on Feb. 9 near the entrance of Scioto Grove Metro Park. Detectives say Golsby abducted Tokes after she left work Feb. 8 in the Short North.  He forced her to withdraw $60 from an ATM, raped her and fatally shot her twice in the head before dumping her body. Investigators already had Golsby's DNA from prior offenses and matched it to a cigarette butt left in Tokes' car. Tokes was set to graduate from OSU in May with a degree in psychology.

Smith said state law prevents her from going into details of the conditions Golsby had to follow.  All offenders are prohibited from carrying guns, but it's unclear whether travel restrictions were placed on Golsby in addition to what sex offenders have to abide by.  "DRC contracts with community providers for electronic monitoring and GPS services. The level of monitoring depends on the offender and circumstances for which the service is requested," Smith said.

She would not specify which vendors are used or describe the level of monitoring that offenders like Golsby could have. It's unclear whether he triggered an alert while wearing the bracelet, or, if he had discarded the monitor, how parole officers would have been notified. It's also unknown how often parole officers check the movements of offenders assigned to them, or how far back the monitor records travel. "DRC is not providing specifics relative to this case due to the ongoing criminal investigation," Smith said.

Columbus police have been looking at Golsby as a possible suspect in a series of attacks on women in German Village and near Nationwide Children's Hospital.

February 15, 2017 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (28)

Interesting Q&A about Prez Obama's clemency efforts with former White House counsel Neil Eggleston

DownloadThe Marshall Project has this notable new piece that reviews Prez Obama's clemency work via an interview with former White House counsel Neil Eggleston. The piece is headlined "The Man Who Ran Obama's Clemency Machine: 'He felt strongly that this was a gift, and the gift had to be earned.'" Here are excerpts:

From one angle, former President Barack Obama was the most merciful president in U.S. history, granting commutations to more than 1,700 federal prisoners.... But his final tally was also far below earlier expectations, given that former Attorney General Eric Holder once speculated that the final number of clemency grants could reach 10,000 — one of every 19 federal prisoners. Obama also received more petitions for clemency than any recent president.

Blame has been passed around, much of it centering on the bureaucracy that emerged to handle the deluge of potential cases, as well as the role federal prosecutors played in the process. In the end, attorneys who felt they had submitted strong cases to the president often wondered why they lost. “In granting so many fewer petitions than originally projected, the administration may have done more to exacerbate the arbitrariness of the sentencing regime writ large than to remedy it,” one of those attorneys, Sean Nuttall, wrote recently at The Marshall Project.

One key figure in the process was Neil Eggleston, who served as White House counsel from April 2014 through the end of Obama’s term. We asked him to discuss the process from the inside....

How closely did President Obama look at each of the applications for clemency he received? And what did you learn about him based on how he handled them?

I would give him memos on the cases, and he would spend a long time on each one. For a significant number, he was fine with my recommendation. For others, he would say: “Why are you recommending this person to me? Look at his conduct in prison, look at his prior convictions. I’m uncomfortable that this guy is going to take advantage of a second chance.”

Or the alternative: There were times when the deputy attorney general may have recommended in favor of a commutation, and I recommended against it, and [Obama] would call me in and ask: “Why don’t you agree with this one?” Or he’d say: “Look there’s this prior conviction, I’m troubled by it, can you get me more information?”

He was really into the details. There were two parts to the way he thought. The first was he just thought a lot of these sentences from the 90’s and 2000’s were excessive. But he also felt very strongly about the idea of rehabilitation and second chances. It wasn’t enough that the person had just gotten too lengthy a sentence. He also wanted make sure these were people who would benefit from a second chance. So if someone didn’t do any programming, got into fights, had a lot of infractions, etc., I think the president was concerned they would be unlikely to do anything but go back to their life of crime when they got out. He felt strongly that this was a gift, and the gift had to be earned.

One common criticism of the process was that there were arbitrary outcomes, that two people with similar cases could be granted and denied clemency.

I think the thing the outside commentators didn’t really understand was that I had more information about these people than others did, including, frankly, their lawyers. I had records of how they performed in prison, and information about their prior crimes. And when people say there was arbitrariness it’s because they didn’t know factors that I knew. All 1,700 went through me and the small group of lawyers underneath me. And ultimately I didn’t want people in jail thinking to themselves, “How can this be?” So is there some arbitrariness? Humans making decisions will not always be perfect. But I reject the notion that there was arbitrariness....

Were you afraid that a single heinous crime by one of these released men or women would derail the whole program?

We never mentioned the words “Willie Horton.” But the answer is yes — very much so. The president wanted to make sure these were people who would take advantage of their second chances, but part of that was making sure they wouldn’t go back to jail. In the letter the president sent to released prisoners, he wrote to them that their choices “will also influence...the possibility that others in your circumstances get their own second chance in the future.” He was saying: “If you mess up, I may not be able to give clemency to other people.” It’s pretty explicit....

One criticism was that it was strange to have prosecutors — from the same department who got these sentences in the first place — weigh in on clemency decisions. Did you think about this?

I think that criticism was completely misguided and based on some sort of theoretical, potential problem. The fact is that Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, a 27-year Department of Justice prosecutor out of Atlanta, was a very strong supporter of this initiative. Loretta Lynch, too. The people who criticized their involvement did so on a theoretical conflict — not an actual conflict. It’s just not true.

That suggests the Department of Justice under incoming Attorney General Jeff Sessions could rapidly go in another direction and oppose the use of clemency.

I know Sessions publicly opposed our initiative. I hope that I’m wrong, but I worry that given his comments, this will not be pursued by the new administration. It’s going to require them to decide this is something they want to continue. I hope they do.

February 15, 2017 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (16)

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Hard-to-believe harshness in prosecution of Virginia teen receiving underage pics

This new Reason piece by Lenore Skenazy tell a tale about a teenager in Virginia prosecuted for a sex offense that seem truly hard to believe. The piece is fully headlined "Teen Girl Sent Teen Boy 5 Inappropriate Pictures. He Faced Lifetime Registry as a 'Violent Sex Offender' or 350 Years in Jail. Welcome to the world of teens, computers, and prosecutors who want to look tough on sex offenders." And here is the story:

Zachary, now 19, is in jail awaiting sentencing for five pictures his teenage girlfriend sent him of herself in her underwear.  He faced a choice between a possible (though unlikely) maximum sentence of 350 years in prison, or lifetime on the sex offender registry as a "sexually violent offender" — even though he never met the girl in person. Here's what happened.

About two years ago, when Zachary was a 17-year-old high school senior in Stafford County, Virginia, a girl in his computer club invited him over to visit.  She introduced him to her younger sister, age 13.  This younger sister told Zachary he reminded her of a friend: this friend, also a 13-year-old girl, shared Zachary's love of dragons and videogames.

The two 13-year-olds started skyping Zachary together.  Eventually Zachary and the dragon-lover struck up a online friendship, which developed into a online romance.  By the summer, a month after Zachary turned 18, the girl sent him five pictures of herself in her underwear.  Her face was not visible, nor were her private parts.

That's according to information provided by Zachary's parents, as well as an evaluation with Zachary conducted by a psychologist.  Zachary is incredibly smart, according to the psychologist, though socially awkward and emotionally immature.  Importantly, he does not possess "distorted" ideas about sex, according to the psychologist.

Even so, Zachary was arrested and charged with 20 felonies, including indecent liberties with a minor, using a computer to propose sex, and "child porn reproduce/transmit/sell," even though he did not send or sell the pictures to anyone.  All this, from five underwear pictures.  If convicted, Zachary's father told me, he faced a theoretically possible maximum sentence of 350 years.

Instead, he took a plea bargain.  This is what prosecutors do: scare defendants into a deal.  Zachary agreed to plead guilty to two counts of "indecent liberties with a minor." For this, he will be registered as a violent sex offender for the rest of his life. Yes, "violent" — even though he never met the girl in person.

Zachary's dad wrote to the authorities asking about this, and got a letter back from the Virginia State Police reiterating that, "This conviction requires Zachary to register as a sexually violent offender."  The letter, which was obtained by Reason, added that in three years, "a violent sex offender or murderer" can petition to register less frequently than every three months.  "How do you like that?" said the dad in a phone conversation with me. "Same category as a murderer."

As part of the plea, Zachary also agreed never to appeal. He will be sentenced on March 9. Until then, he remains in jail. If this sounds like a punishment wildly out of whack with the crime, welcome to the world of teens, computers, and prosecutors who want to look tough on sex offenders. The girl did not wish to prosecute Zachary, according to his dad. He told me the pictures came to light because she had been having emotional issues, possibly due to her parents' impending divorce.  Eventually she was admitted to a mental health facility for treatment, and while there she revealed the relationship to a counselor.  The counselor reported this to her mother, the police, or both (this part is unclear), leading the cops to execute a search warrant of Zachary's electronic devices where they found the five photos and the chat logs....

Outraged readers should root for two things. First, that this case prompts the Virginia legislature to review the laws that enable draconian persecutions like the one against Zachary.

Second, that Zachary be given a punishment that truly fits the crime. If you recall the case of another Zach — Zach Anderson, a 19-year-old who had sex with a girl he honestly believed was 17 (because she said so) but was actually 14 — he was originally sentenced to 25 years on the sex offender registry.  But after public outcry, he got two years' probation instead, on a "diversion program." A program like this is sometimes available for first-time offenders. It sounds far more reasonable. Or maybe Zachary could do some community service — like speaking at high school assemblies to warn students that what seems like consensual teenage shenanigans could land them on the registry for the rest of their lives.

I have no basis to question the basic account of this case, but I cannot help but think there is more to this story given that the defendant he was charged with 20 felonies. I do not know Virginia law well, but really wonder just how five texted pics alone could provide the foundation for charging 20 felonies.

UPDATE:  A helpful reader alerted me to this local article from last month with suggests that part of the crimes of the defendant here included trying to arranging a meeting for sex with the underage girl discussed above.  This addition aspect of the story makes it a little easier to believe and understand, though it does not undercut the apparent reality that prosecutors here took a remarkably aggressive posture in a case involving essentially teen sexting.

February 14, 2017 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (19)

"The American Death Penalty Decline"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper recently posted to SSRN and authored by Brandon Garrett, Alexander Jakubow and Ankur Desai. Here is the abstract:

American death sentences have both declined and become concentrated in a small group of counties. In his dissenting opinion in Glossip v. Gross in 2014, Justice Stephen Breyer argued today’s death penalty is unconstitutional, noting that from 2004 to 2006, “just 29 counties (fewer than 1% of counties in the country) accounted for approximately half of all death sentences imposed nationwide.”  That decline has become more dramatic.  Just fifty-one defendants were sentenced to death in 2015 in thirty-eight counties.  In 2016, just thirty defendants were sentenced to death in twenty-seven counties. In the mid-1990s, by way of contrast, over three hundred people were sentenced to death in as many as two hundred counties per year.

While scholars and journalists have increasingly commented on this decline and speculated as to what might be causing it, empirical research has not examined it.  This Article reports the results of statistical analysis of data hand-collected on all death sentencing, by county, for the entire modern era of capital punishment, from 1990 to 2016.  This analysis of death sentencing data from 1990 to 2016, seeks to answer the question why a few counties, but not the vast bulk of the others, still impose death sentences.  We examine state and county-level changes in murder rates, population, victim race, demography, and other characteristics that might explain shifting death sentencing patterns.

We find that death sentences are strongly associated with urban, densely populous counties.  Second, we find that death sentences are strongly associated with counties that have large black populations.  Third, we find homicide rates are related to death sentencing in three ways: contemporaneously within and between death sentencing counties, lagged within and between death sentencing counties. and that counties with more white victims of homicide have more death sentencing.  Fourth, we find that death sentencing is associated with inertia or the number of prior death sentences within a county.  These results suggest what remains of the American death penalty is quite fragile and reflects a legacy of racial bias and idiosyncratic local preferences.  We conclude by discussing the practical and legal implications of these trends for the much-diminished death penalty and for criminal justice more broadly.

February 14, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Detailed sentencing data | Permalink | Comments (2)

"Maryland prosecutor sentenced for hotel sex acts in front of glass door in Ocean City"

The title of this post is the headline of this Washington Post article, which sort of has a Valentine's Day theme.  I recommend the article if full in order to get the "full monty" details, but here are highlights from the start of the article and its update:

It’s Valentine’s Day, and the top prosecutor in Cecil County, Md., having already celebrated his love with his wife in full view of numerous others, will stand before a judge today and receive a criminal sentence for such public displays of affection.

Edward “Ellis” Rollins III (R) was arrested in June for indecent exposure and disorderly conduct, for having sex, standing naked and other related acts at the sliding glass door of his tenth-floor Ocean City, Md., hotel room, while four tourists, a security officer and two Ocean City police officers watched.  He was convicted by a Worcester County, Md., jury after a two-day trial in December. Rollins, 61, likely will not face jail time for the two misdemeanor convictions.... He did remove himself from consideration for a circuit court judgeship, which he was scheduled to interview for with the governor shortly after his arrest, on a bench where both his father and grandfather served.

Rollins did not return phone and email messages Monday, and his attorney, Cullen Burke, also did not return a call.  At trial, Rollins did not testify, but his lawyer did not deny that Rollins and his wife enjoyed various carnal relations next to the sliding glass door of their hotel room.  Burke described Rollins and his wife, Holly Rollins, as “still newlyweds” after six years of marriage, according to the Cecil Whig, and Holly Rollins testified she had no idea anyone was watching from the adjacent condominiums. Burke said there was 172 feet between the two buildings and that the Rollins’ hotel room “was a speck” in the vision of the tourists’ apartment.

But the four Pennsylvania women who spotted the activity, on two different days, felt it was much more visible than a speck. They returned to Ocean City and testified in detail about Rollins’ actions. It really wasn’t the sex so much as Rollins’ naked dancing and posing at the sliding glass door that truly offended the visitors, according to the media reports of their testimony. “You’re just sickening,” one woman turned and said to Rollins during her testimony. “I have nightmares because of you. I argue with my husband because it’s all I can talk about.”

UPDATE, 2:02 p.m.: Worcester County Circuit Judge Brian Shockley imposed a $1,000 fine and a 90-day jail sentence with all time suspended for Ellis Rollins, along with 100 hours of community service, 18 months of supervised probation and mental health treatment.  Worcester County State’s Attorney said he asked for a two-year sentence with 18 months suspended, which would have meant Rollins would have spent six months in the Worcester jail, but Shockley did not take that recommendation.

February 14, 2017 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (5)

Noting central place of Texas in (incomplete) consensus disfavoring increased use of incarceration

Today's New York Times has this extended commentary about incarceration authored by Tina Rosenberg running under the headline "Even in Texas, Mass Imprisonment Is Going Out of Style."  Here are excerpts:

It promises to be a bleak four years for liberals, who will spend it trying — and, most likely, failing — to defend health care, women’s rights, climate change action and other good things.  But on one serious problem, continued progress is not only possible, it’s probable. That is reducing incarceration.  In an era of what seems like unprecedented polarization and rancor, this idea has bipartisan support. The Koch brothers and Black Lives Matter agree.  The American Civil Liberties Union and the American Conservative Union Foundation agree.  Bernie Sanders and Newt Gingrich agree.

Here’s what they agree on:

• The United States went overboard on mass incarceration in the 1980s and 1990s.

• This has ruined a lot of lives — of those incarcerated, yes, but also others among their families and communities.

• The evidence says that harsher sentences don’t prevent crime and may even lead to more crime.

• Jailing people is really, really expensive.

• Prison brings no help and much harm to the 80 percent of prisoners who are addicted to drugs or mentally ill.

• There are alternatives to imprisonment that keep Americans safe.

(There are also crime and justice issues that these liberals and conservatives do not agree on, such as the death penalty, the merits of private prisons and, of course, guns.)

Even all this agreement is no guarantee of progress in Washington.  President Trump’s policies on crime are whatever slogans get the crowd roaring. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has a D-plus record on this issue as a senator.  He supported reducing the disparity in sentencing for cocaine and crack possession. He did vote for the Prison Rape Elimination Act — kudos for that, I suppose.  But last year, Mr. Sessions, along with a few other Republican senators, blocked the major bill on this issue, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, from coming to a vote.  So the administration can be expected to be unhelpful, with Congress a question mark.

While Washington’s actions are important, however, federal prisons hold only one in eight imprisoned Americans.  So mass incarceration is really a state issue. And in the states, momentum is heartening. After quintupling between 1974 and 2007, the imprisonment rate is now dropping in a majority of states.  Overall, it fell by 8.4 percent from 2010 to 2015, while crime dropped by 14.6 percent, according to research by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

California slashed its incarceration rate by 27 percent between 2006 and 2014 after a court order. New York cut its rate by 18 percent, largely because of reform of the Rockefeller drug laws that mandated long sentences for possession. New Jersey’s rate dropped by 24 percent.

More remarkable — and probably more persuasive to other states and to Congress now — is the shift in red states, where incarceration rates have been the highest. In the last decade, they have dropped substantially in South Carolina, Mississippi, Georgia and, notably, in lock-’em-up Texas....

The cost of prisons was a huge issue.  In 2007, the Texas Legislative Budget Board projected that the state would need more than 17,000 new prison beds over five years, a building project that would cost $530 million, never mind the operating costs. That pushed the ultraconservative House speaker, Tom Craddick, to a breaking point. Jerry Madden, the Republican chairman of the House Corrections Committee, said in an interview that Craddick took him aside. “Don’t build new prisons,” Craddick told him. “They cost too much.”

Madden was an engineer and took that approach, asking: What is proven to work to keep people out of prison? How much of that do we need to buy in order to not build more of them? For ideas, he and his staff talked to research and advocacy groups, including the liberal coalition and the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation, which gave birth to and houses Right on Crime.

That there was a conservative research group to consult was in itself remarkable. “No one in conservative think tanks worked on criminal justice, other than to advocate for more prisons and more incarceration,” said the foundation’s director, Brooke Rollins, who had been Gov. Rick Perry’s policy director. But in 2004, Rollins got a call from Tim Dunn, an oilman who helps fund the foundation and serves on its board. Dunn has put millions of his own money into pushing the Texas legislature further to the right. Texas Monthly called him “probably the most influential person many Texans have never heard of.”

“Conservatives are wrong on crime,” he told a startled Rollins. “Scripture would not call us to build prisons and forget people.” Dunn believes that crime victims want restitution and repentance, while the prison system merely incapacitates. On his personal website, he wrote that “nonviolent crimes should be recompensed in a way that gets people back into the work force and adding to communities as quickly as possible,” and that Texas should “focus on restoring victims and communities damaged by crime.”

At Dunn’s urging, Rollins hired Levin part time to work on a conservative approach to criminal justice reform. “We found the conservative and liberal think tanks agreed on 70, 80 percent of the stuff,” said Madden.  And it’s those areas of agreement that were put in the bill. The reforms passed nearly unanimously — and although Perry had previously vetoed narrower reforms, this time he signed them. (He now endorses the Right on Crime agenda.)  Reforms continue today: 16 bills passed in the last legislative session, including one allowing people to erase their criminal records in some circumstances....

The state now has drug courts, veterans’ courts and mental health courts. “They are there to provide help, but at the same time, structure,” said Madden, who is retired from the legislature.  “You have a problem and we’re going to help you with your problem.”  Many inmates were in prison for technical violations of their probation or parole. Now those violations often bring rapid sanctions and supervision instead of a return to prison.

The rate of incarceration in Texas state prisons fell by 17 percent from 2007 to 2015, according to the coalition, and the juvenile incarceration rate fell by nearly three-quarters. Recidivism is dropping steadily. At the same time, the crime rate has dropped by 27 percent.

Texas still has much to do. It ranks sixth or seventh in the nation in imprisonment rates. Some 8,900 people are in the state jail system for crimes that are neither violent nor sexual. Many are there for drug charges, but they often can’t get treatment in jail.  Thousands of people are sent back to prison each year for technical revocation of parole or probation.  As for juveniles, 22,000 are in the adult system, where they are at high risk of sexual assault and suicide....

The fall in crime rates — itself a reason incarceration has dropped — has made reform politically possible. Conservative leadership in states like Texas gives everybody cover. And Americans support criminal justice reform by large majorities.  One telling example: in his re-election campaign in 2014, Gov. Nathan Deal of Georgia, a Republican, highlighted his reforms that lowered the rate of incarceration among African-Americans by 20 percent.  Twenty years ago, a Republican in Georgia would have boasted about the opposite.

If crime rates begin rising again, could hard-line thinking once more prevail? Yañez-Correa doesn’t think so. “Many legislators want to work on these issues jointly because other issues are so polarized,” she said. “People on both sides are genuinely interested and devoted.”

This story is important and encouraging, but it fails I think it connect fully with the import and impact of Prez Trump campaigning on a "law and order" platform and his eagerness to make much of the uptick in murder and other violent crimes in some big cities in recent years.  The folks over at Crime & Consequences and many others are quick and keen to link any and every increase in crime to recent decreased use of incarceration, and that perspective is certainly some element of how Prez Trump and AG Sessions think about crime and punishment issues.

I remain hopeful that, especially at the state level, there is continued interest in, and bipartisan support for, an array of "smart on crime" alternatives to incarceration for a range of less serious and less dangerous offenders.  But I do not think that Prez Trump and AG Sessions, arguably the two most important criminal justice policy-makers for the next few years, subscribe to all or even most of what is listed above in the commentary as points of agreement.  And that is a very big deal that must always be front and center as one considers the future of criminal justice reform at both the federal and state level.

February 14, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Poll shows strong commitment to rehabilitation and prison alternatives for youth

A new poll sponsored by the Youth First Initiative reveals notable support for a rehabilitative approach to juvenile justice.  This webpage from Youth First reports on the essentials:

A new poll released today by Youth First shows that 78 percent of Americans favor keeping young people out of prisons and instead prefer community-based alternatives that are proven to lead to better outcomes.

At a time when partisan polarization is dominating the political landscape, the poll finds that Americans from a wide range of backgrounds and all political stripes support shifting the youth justice system’s focus from incarceration and punishment to prevention and rehabilitation.  Youth First, a national advocacy organization working to end the unconscionable practice of youth incarceration and reform the youth justice system, commissioned the poll which was conducted by GBA Strategies.

“Youth prisons are notoriously dangerous, ineffective, and outdated – and there is a clear consensus that it’s time to change the system,” said Liz Ryan, President of Youth First. “We know that kids can be rehabilitated without being locked up, if given the opportunity. States across the nation should unify behind this growing movement to close youth prison facilities and focus on solutions that actually work.”

The survey of over 1,000 adults found that:

· 89 percent support design treatment and rehabilitation plans that include a youth’s family in planning and services.

· 83 support providing financial incentives for states and municipalities to invest in alternatives to youth incarceration, such as intensive rehabilitation, education, job training, community services, and programs that provide youth the opportunity to repair harm to victims and communities.

· 69 percent support increasing funding to provide more public defenders to represent children in court.

· 70 percent support requiring states to reduce racial and ethnic disparities in the youth justice system.

Respondents cut across partisan affiliations, with 81% of Democrats, 83% of Independents, and 68% of Republicans supporting reform efforts.

February 14, 2017 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (4)

Monday, February 13, 2017

Is due process violated when a plea is taken and sentence imposed on a nearly dead-drunk defendant?

I am always eager to find funny sentencing stories, but the sentencing stories that might seem funny are really never that funny.  This Omaha World-Herald article, which prompts the question in the title of this post, is one of those not-really-funny stories.  The article is headlined "Court accepts guilty plea from Omaha woman too drunk to stand, sparking concerns due process was violated," and here are the particulars:

Douglas County Judge Lawrence Barrett convened court on a Thursday morning in early February, 15 cases on his docket. The first: A 32-year-old Omaha woman accused of violating the probation term she had been given for reckless driving.

A month after Barrett had placed her on probation, Sarah E. Carr was arrested in Lincoln on suspicion of driving drunk.  Officers said her blood-alcohol content was over .15. Hence the probation violation.  Hence the Feb. 2 hearing.  Barrett called out Carr’s name.  Her aunt approached. “Your Honor, Sarah is here, but she’s passed out in the car.” Barrett: “She’s passed out in her car?”

After some discussion, the aunt and a court official went to the vehicle, pulled out a drunken Carr and loaded her into a wheelchair. What happened next shocked longtime legal observers.  Judge Barrett allowed the woman, plopped in her wheelchair, to plead guilty to a probation violation. He then found her guilty and sentenced her to 90 days in jail.  And no one protested.

After Carr received her sentence, deputies administered a breath test. Her blood-alcohol content measured .44 — 5½ times the legal limit for driving, and a level so high that it could lead to death, according to toxicology experts.

Her barely conscious plea has caused a stir in the courthouse, prompting concerns about what was done to preserve the woman’s constitutional rights to due process. Under the Fifth Amendment, a defendant must “knowingly, willingly, intelligently and voluntarily” enter a plea.  Carr has since told others she has little to no memory of being in court.  (Attempts to interview Carr at the jail last week were unsuccessful.)

After The World-Herald inquired about the case, Deborah Lee, a 16-year Douglas County public defender who represented Carr, resigned.  Douglas County Public Defender Tom Riley confirmed that Lee resigned but declined to detail reasons.  Carr is far from the first defendant to show up drunk at court — especially in county courtrooms where DUIs and other drunken offenses are heard.

But courthouse veterans say this is the first case they could recall in which the typical protocol wasn’t followed when someone suspects a defendant is drunk.  In other cases, judges have had deputies or probation officers administer a breath test. T ypically, a defense attorney then asks for the case to be delayed.  The judge increases bail or revokes it.  And the defendant sobers up in jail until his or her next court date.

Riley said someone should have put a stop to the Carr hearing. “This certainly isn’t the first person who has appeared in court under the influence,” Riley said. “It was incumbent upon someone in the courtroom — whether it was our lawyer or the prosecutor or the (judge) on their own observation — to at least make further inquiry into her condition.”

Judge Barrett, a 23-year veteran of the bench and a former assistant public defender, said he hopes the woman gets help before she further harms herself. He encouraged a World-Herald reporter to listen to a digital recording of the hearing.  When the reporter asked if Carr was drunk, the judge said: “Not that I know of.” “I questioned her,” Barrett said. “She listened to everything I asked — and responded.”

Barrett’s statement that he didn’t know the woman was drunk raised eyebrows among those who observed the hearing.... An Omaha man, who was among about 30 people gathered in the courtroom, later said he was appalled at the scene, calling it a “miscarriage of justice.” An attorney in the courtroom recalled that the woman appeared “dazed and confused.”...

[Kevin] Slimp, the assistant city prosecutor, could not be reached for comment.  However, Omaha City Prosecutor Matt Kuhse said Slimp has told him that he did not know Carr was drunk. In fact, Kuhse said, Slimp had little recall of anything about the case, other than the woman being in a wheelchair.  Kuhse said city prosecutors often are balancing multiple cases — and often are having side conversations with defense attorneys while another case is being heard.

“When you notice that someone is just not getting what’s going on, we do have an obligation to step in,” Kuhse said. “That being said, I’m not convinced there’s enough evidence to show that the prosecutor should have stepped in in this case. We now know that it was a .44 (blood-alcohol level), but that’s the benefit of hindsight. My understanding is that she answered appropriately to the judge’s questions. It wasn’t like she blurted out ‘banana’ to a yes-no question.”...

Riley said he was “distressed” by the case. “Do I think the result would have been different? Probably not,” he said. “But there’s a right way to do things, and there’s a wrong way to do things. “Shame on us for not doing it the right way.” Riley said he assigned another public defender to visit Carr in jail last week. The new attorney explained to Carr that she probably would succeed if she attempted to withdraw her plea. One reason to try: Riley said his office could have argued for a lesser jail term. Barrett gave Carr the maximum term for that misdemeanor.

Carr was not interested — instead opting to focus on getting better, Riley said. “Mercifully, there would have been options to undo this,” Riley said. “I’m glad that this person wasn’t irreparably harmed. “But there were enough problems with all of this to share blame all around. I’m hopeful this will open people’s eyes up to how we should be doing things.”

February 13, 2017 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Major Ponzi schemer gets major break from guidelines ... but still subject to major prison time

This local article, headlined "Lexington Ponzi scheme founder, 70, gets nearly 15-year prison term for ZeekRewards," reports on a notable white-collar sentence handed down this morning in a North Carolina federal courthouse.  Here are some details:

A federal judge Monday handed Paul Burks, founder of ZeekRewards.com, a prison sentence of 14 years and eight months for his lead role in the Lexington Ponzi scheme. Judge Max Cogburn Jr. agreed with U.S. attorneys' "fair and generous" sentencing recommendation, a minimum 15 years and eight months and a maximum 19 years and seven months for the 70-year-old Burks.  Burks could have been sentenced to up to 59 years under federal sentencing guidelines.

ZeekRewards.com, founded in 2010, was one of the largest Ponzi schemes in U.S. history at $939 million, according to federal regulatory officials and prosecutors.  The Lexington companies, which debuted in January 2011, were shut down and their assets frozen in August 2012. There were more than 800,000 victims worldwide.

Cogburn dropped Burks' sentencing by a year so that it would be about double the 90-month prison term handed to Dawn Wright-Olivares. Wright-Olivares and her stepson, Daniel Olivares, pleaded guilty in February 2014 to fraud charges after reaching agreements in December 2013 with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of N.C. Wright-Olivares cooperated with the federal government in its case against Burks.  Wright-Olivares served as ZeekRewards' chief operating officer, while Olivares was senior technology officer. Olivares received a two-year prison term.

On July 21, a federal jury found Burks, of Lexington, guilty of wire and mail-fraud conspiracy, wire fraud, mail fraud and tax-fraud conspiracy. Burks has been free on bond for the past 4 ½ years.  The wire and mail-fraud conspiracy charge, the mail-fraud charge and the wire-fraud charge each carry a maximum prison term of 20 years and a $250,000 fine.  The tax-fraud conspiracy charge carries a maximum prison term of five years and a $250,000 fine.

Burks opted not to speak on his behalf except to say he approved of the case being presented by his attorney, Noell Tin.... U.S. attorneys, citing Burks’ health and his role as caregiver to his wife, Susan, who has breast cancer, recommended 15.5 years to just short of 20 years. Tin asked Cogburn to set a sentence of no more than 11.5 years, also in consideration for the Burks’ health.

Cogburn and Kenneth Bell, the receiver for ZeekRewards, responded to Tin’s request by saying the U.S. attorneys’ sentencing recommendation was “fair and generous” given the level of crime involved in the Ponzi scheme. “This is a huge amount of money, which is why the sentencing guidelines run to such a large extent,” Cogburn said. “He is essentially facing a life sentencing given his health conditions.”

Tin said that among the health issues affecting Burks are hypertension, diabetes, heart illness, chronic renal failure, prostate cancer, the removal of his esophagus and mild dementia. Burks appeared in good health at the sentencing, though he walked with a slight limp.... The likely [prison] facility [for Burks] could be Butner, where fellow Ponzi scheme felony Bernie Madoff resides....

Cogburn and Bell cited the enormity of the Ponzi scheme and how Burks and other ZeekRewards officials misled and mispresented how the company generated money and how it paid “winners.” Cogburn compared Burks’ marketing strategy of capturing hundreds of millions of dollars to the Biblical story of Jesus of turning loaves and fishes into enough food to feed at least 5,000 individuals. “The scheme got out of hand, more than Mr. Burks may have thought was going to happen,” Cogburn said. “But anyone could have seen what was going to occur outside himself and his (marketing) cheerleaders.”

February 13, 2017 in Booker in district courts, Offense Characteristics, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2)

Will Prez Trump and AG Sessions listen to law enforcement leaders with diverse views on crime and punishment?

LEL_report_cover-209x300The question in the title of this post is prompted by this New York Times article, headlined "Police Chiefs Say Trump’s Law Enforcement Priorities Are Out of Step," discussing a new report issued by organization Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration. The NY Times piece provides this accounting of the report along with some diverse perspectives on how diverse law enforcement leaders look at and toward the Trump Administration:

Not surprisingly, President Trump’s approach to crime, which began to take shape in a series of moves last week, generated swift criticism from liberals and civil rights groups. But it also stirred dissent from another quarter: prominent police chiefs and prosecutors who fear that the new administration is out of step with evidence that public safety depends on building trust, increasing mental health and drug addiction treatment, and using alternatives to prosecution and incarceration.

“We need not use arrest, conviction and prison as the default response for every broken law,” Ronal W. Serpas, a former police chief in Nashville and New Orleans, and David O. Brown, a former Dallas chief, wrote in a report released last week by a leading law enforcement group. “For many nonviolent and first-time offenders, prison is not only unnecessary from a public safety standpoint, it also endangers our communities.”

The organization, the Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration, is made up of more than 175 police officials and prosecutors, including Charlie Beck, Los Angeles’s police chief; Cyrus R. Vance Jr., Manhattan’s district attorney; and William J. Bratton, the former police chief in New York and Los Angeles. Other leading law enforcement groups have also called for an increase in mental health and drug treatment, a focus on the small number of violent offenders who commit the most crimes, training officers on the appropriate use of force, and retooling practices to reflect a growing body of evidence that common practices, such as jailing people before trial on minor offenses, can actually lead to an increase in crime. The group warned that “failing to direct these resources toward our most immediate and dangerous threats risks wasting taxpayer dollars,” singling out using federal money on “dragnet enforcement of lower-level offenses.”

Mr. Trump has shifted the focus from civil rights to law and order, from reducing incarceration to increasing sentences, from goading the police to improve to protecting them from harm. Last week, he swore in a new attorney general, Jeff Sessions, who has said that the government has grown “soft on crime,” and helped block a bipartisan bill to reduce sentences. Mr. Sessions said that a recent uptick in crime in some major cities is a “dangerous, permanent trend,” a view that is not supported by federal crime data, which shows crime remains near historical lows. The president signed executive orders that repeatedly connected public safety to immigration violations, vowing to fight international crime cartels; to set up a task force to “comprehensively address illegal immigration, drug trafficking, and violent crime”; and to focus on preventing violence to peace officers.

Some police chiefs and sheriffs have complained that immigration enforcement is not consistent with their priorities and could undermine hard-earned trust. “I would rather have my officers focused on going after violent criminals and people breaking into homes than going after nannies and cooks,” Chief Art Acevedo of Houston said. Kim Ogg, the new district attorney in Houston, won office promising to make changes like dropping prosecution of low-level drug offenses, reducing the use of money bail and releasing videos of police shootings. Those priorities were much more aligned with the Obama administration than Trump’s, in whose pronouncements Obama-era buzzwords like deincarceration, constitutional policing and de-escalation — reducing the use of force during police encounters — have all but disappeared. Mr. Trump did tell a gathering of police chiefs this week: “As part of our commitment to safe communities, we will also work to address the mental health crisis. Prison should not be a substitute for treatment.”...

Some police chiefs said they are reserving judgment until there is more meat on the bones of the administration’s plans. “Hopefully, they are going to seek our practical advice,” said Edward A. Flynn, Milwaukee’s police chief, who also heads the legislative committee of the Major Cities Chiefs Association. “That to us is key. We don’t want any more policy bromides grounded in campaign promises. We want ideas grounded in practical wisdom about how to protect our cities.”

Still, a number of chiefs — and perhaps the vast majority of lower-ranking officers — say they are basking in the glow of Mr. Trump’s positive attention after feeling under siege during the Obama administration. “Law enforcement in general was painted with a very broad brush,” said Michael J. Bouchard, the sheriff of Oakland County, Mich. “The idea was that policing was broke, and I think that was a false dialogue.”

Unions agreed. “I can promise that if we have a president who is speaking about protecting the lives of police officers, that the membership is going to be supportive of him,” said Chuck Canterbury, the president of the Fraternal Order of Police. “No police officer took an oath that said, ‘I agree to support and defend the Constitution and to get my butt whipped.’” Michael A. Ramos, the president of the National District Attorneys Association and the chief prosecutor in San Bernardino County, Calif., hailed the shift in emphasis, saying the pendulum had swung “way too far” toward being “soft on crime.”

Law enforcement leaders responded more positively to Mr. Trump’s order to ratchet up the fight against organized crime cartels, which operate through intermediaries in even the smallest American cities through the sale of heroin, methamphetamine, and other drugs. But Darrel W. Stephens, the executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, said the nation also needed to address its appetite for drugs: “We must do everything we can to stop the flow of drugs into our country, but doing so would not solve our substance abuse problem.”

The full 28-page report referenced here is titled "Fighting Crime and Strengthening Criminal Justice: An Agenda for the New Administration," and it is available at this link. An executive summary and press release provides these five bullet points describing the report's suggested priorities:

• Prioritizing fighting violent crime.

• Enact federal sentencing reform.

• Increasing mental health and drug treatment.

• Bolstering community policing.

• Expanding recidivism reduction programs.

February 13, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (19)

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Is big data "reinforcing racial bias in the criminal justice system"?

The question in this post is prompted by this Washington Post commentary headlined "Big data may be reinforcing racial bias in the criminal justice system." The piece is authored by Laurel Eckhouse, a researcher with the Human Rights Data Analysis Group’s Policing Project at UC Berkeley, and here are excerpts:

Big data has expanded to the criminal justice system. In Los Angeles, police use computerized “predictive policing” to anticipate crimes and allocate officers. In Fort Lauderdale, Fla., machine-learning algorithms are used to set bond amounts. In states across the country, data-driven estimates of the risk of recidivism are being used to set jail sentences.

Advocates say these data-driven tools remove human bias from the system, making it more fair as well as more effective. But even as they have become widespread, we have little information about exactly how they work. Few of the organizations producing them have released the data and algorithms they use to determine risk.

We need to know more, because it’s clear that such systems face a fundamental problem: The data they rely on are collected by a criminal justice system in which race makes a big difference in the probability of arrest — even for people who behave identically. Inputs derived from biased policing will inevitably make black and Latino defendants look riskier than white defendants to a computer. As a result, data-driven decision-making risks exacerbating, rather than eliminating, racial bias in criminal justice....

We know that a black person and a white person are not equally likely to be stopped by police: Evidence on New York’s stop-and-frisk policy, investigatory stops, vehicle searches and drug arrests show that black and Latino civilians are more likely to be stopped, searched and arrested than whites. In 2012, a white attorney spent days trying to get himself arrested in Brooklyn for carrying graffiti stencils and spray paint, a Class B misdemeanor. Even when police saw him tagging the City Hall gateposts, they sped past him, ignoring a crime for which 3,598 people were arrested by the New York Police Department the following year.

Before adopting risk-assessment tools in the judicial decision-making process, jurisdictions should demand that any tool being implemented undergo a thorough and independent peer-review process. We need more transparency and better data to learn whether these risk assessments have disparate impacts on defendants of different races. Foundations and organizations developing risk-assessment tools should be willing to release the data used to build these tools to researchers to evaluate their techniques for internal racial bias and problems of statistical interpretation. Even better, with multiple sources of data, researchers could identify biases in data generated by the criminal justice system before the data is used to make decisions about liberty. Unfortunately, producers of risk-assessment tools — even nonprofit organizations — have not voluntarily released anonymized data and computational details to other researchers, as is now standard in quantitative social science research.

For these tools to make racially unbiased predictions, they must use racially unbiased data. We cannot trust the current risk-assessment tools to make important decisions about our neighbors’ liberty unless we believe — contrary to social science research — that data on arrests offer an accurate and unbiased representation of behavior. Rather than telling us something new, these tools risk laundering bias: using biased history to predict a biased future.

February 12, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Looking at Ohio Gov Kasich's clemency record and those of his predecessors

This local article, headlined "Kasich stays conservative with pardons," discusses how my Governor has recently used his clemency powers. Here are the details:

Gov. John Kasich used his executive clemency power a little more in 2016 than in previous years, but remains the most conservative governor in 30 years in granting commutations, pardons and reprieves for criminal sentences.

Kasich, a Republican now in his seventh year as governor, approved 18 of 526 requests for clemency last year, slightly more than 3 percent. He approved just two of 244 requests in 2014. The 18 cases approved last year included one in which the Florida man seeking clemency for a 41-year-old Ohio crime died after filing the application; Kasich approved the pardon posthumously.

Statistics obtained by The Dispatch from a public-records request made annually to the governor's office do not include death-penalty cases, such as those granted on Friday when Kasich granted reprieves to move back eight scheduled executions in response to a court order.

In six years in office, Kasich approved 86 of 2,291 requests to reach his desk, about one in 26.

Ohio governors have nearly unlimited clemency power in criminal cases after the Ohio Adult Parole Authority has made a recommendation in a case. The governor does not have to agree with the parole board's decision, but he did in all 13 cases he approved last year.

The clemencies approved by Kasich were all for old, mostly non-violent crimes. All were pardons, which is "an act of grace or forgiveness that relieves the person pardoned from some or all of the ramifications of lawful punishment," according to the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction....

Kasich agreed with the parole board in all but eight of 526 cases last year. In the eight cases, he denied clemency where the parole board recommended it.

In the three decades that Ohio has tracked gubernatorial clemency, governors have used the power in different ways, sometimes reflecting personal, political or ideological persuasions.  Ted Strickland, a Democrat who preceded Kasich as governor, approved 20 percent of 1,615 clemency requests that he handled between 2007 and 2011.  Most cases involved low-level, nonviolent offenses, but he commuted five death-penalty sentences to life in prison without parole....

Republicans George V. Voinovich, governor from 1991 to '98, and Bob Taft (1999-2007) each approved less than 10 percent of the clemency requests received.  James A. Rhodes, a Republican, approved 17.5 percent of clemencies in 1982, his last year in office.

Democrat Richard F. Celeste, governor from 1983 to 1991, touched off a legal battle in the final days of his second term when he commuted the death sentences of eight men and granted clemency to 25 female prisoners who were victims of battered-woman syndrome.  As a result of Celeste's actions, the General Assembly changed the law to require governors to have a recommendation from the parole board before making a clemency decision.

February 12, 2017 in Clemency and Pardons, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, February 11, 2017

A (crazy) harsh sentence for a voter fraud conviction in Texas

According to Prez Trump, voter fraud may be one of the most prevalent federal crimes in the United States (perhaps second only to marijuana use).  In light of the President's claims in this regard, I have to think the crazy harsh sentence imposed by a state court in Texas reported in this New York Times article is intended to try to deter this rampant crime.  The lengthy front-page NYT article is headlined "Illegal Voting Gets Texas Woman 8 Years in Prison, and Certain Deportation," and here are the interesting details:

Despite repeated statements by Republican political leaders that American elections are rife with illegal voting, credible reports of fraud have been hard to find and convictions rarer still.

That may help explain the unusually heavy penalty imposed on Rosa Maria Ortega, 37, a permanent resident and a mother of four who lives outside Dallas. On Thursday, a Fort Worth judge sentenced her to eight years in prison — and almost certainly deportation later — after she voted illegally in elections in 2012 and 2014.

The sentence for Ms. Ortega, who was brought to this country by her mother as an infant, “shows how serious Texas is about keeping its elections secure,” Ken Paxton, the Texas attorney general, said in a statement. Her lawyer called it an egregious overreaction, made to score political points, against someone who wrongly believed she was eligible to vote.

“She has a sixth-grade education. She didn’t know she wasn’t legal,” said Ms. Ortega’s lawyer, Clark Birdsall, who once oversaw voter fraud prosecutions in neighboring Dallas County. “She can own property; she can serve in the military; she can get a job; she can pay taxes. But she can’t vote, and she didn’t know that.”

The punishment was strikingly harsh for an offense that usually merits far less jail time, if any. A second fraudulent ballot case in metropolitan Fort Worth ended in 2015 with probation. Ms. Ortega insisted in court that she had been unaware that she was ineligible to vote and was confused by registration forms and explanations by election officials.

Prosecutors for Mr. Paxton and Tarrant County said that she had lied and that the same forms and conversations proved it. A jury convicted her Wednesday of two felony charges. Mr. Birdsall said Mr. Paxton’s office had been prepared to dismiss all charges against Ms. Ortega if she agreed to testify on voting procedures before the Texas Legislature. But the Tarrant County criminal district attorney, Sharen Wilson, vetoed that deal, he said, insisting on a trial that would showcase her office’s efforts to crack down on election fraud.

Both the attorney general’s office and the county prosecutor declined to comment on the specifics of Mr. Birdsall’s statement, citing privacy rules for plea-bargain negotiations. A spokeswoman for Ms. Wilson, Sam Jordan, said any negotiations were only “discussions,” a description Mr. Birdsall disputed....

Ms. Ortega’s case is unusual not just for its harshness but for its circumstances. Many fraud convictions that draw prison sentences — and some that do not — involve clear efforts to influence election results. Texas prosecutors won prison sentences for four men who moved into a hotel in 2010 to claim residency so they could sway a local election. A woman in Brownsville, Tex., was placed on five years’ probation for casting five absentee ballots under different names in elections in 2012.

Lawyers offered no clear motive for Ms. Ortega’s decision to cast ballots beyond her desire to participate in elections. Ms. Ortega, a native of Monterrey, Mexico, came to Texas with her mother when she was an infant. More than a decade later, the family was scattered after the mother was arrested and deported. Two brothers born in Dallas automatically gained citizenship; Ms. Ortega became a permanent resident and gained a green card, her brother Tony Ortega, 35, said in an interview.

As a Dallas County resident, she registered to vote and later cast ballots in elections in 2012 and 2014, her lawyer, Mr. Birdsall, said. While that was illegal, there was no attempt to break the law, he maintained: Some government forms allow applicants to declare that they are permanent residents, but the voting registration form asks only whether an applicant is a citizen. Lacking the permanent resident option, he said, she ticked the “citizen” box. When the county later mailed her a registration card, he said, she believed she “was good to go.”

Ms. Ortega moved to neighboring Tarrant County and again registered, but this time checked a box affirming that she was not a citizen. When her application was rejected in March 2015, the trial showed, she called election officials and told them that she had previously voted in Dallas County without difficulty. Told that she could not vote unless she was a citizen, she asked for another application, and returned it with a check in the box affirming citizenship. That raised questions, and law enforcement officials arrested her on fraud charges.

Jonathan White, an assistant attorney general who helped prosecute the Ortega case with Tarrant County officials, said the evidence of fraud was unambiguous. “She told the elections office she was a citizen,” he said. “She told everyone else she wasn’t,” including a recorded statement to prosecutors in which she said she was a citizen of Mexico.

Mr. Birdsall said the arrest and prosecution are punishing a woman for her own confusion over whether residency and citizenship confer the same rights. “She wasn’t trying to topple the country,” he said. “She was trying to make more serious decisions about our country than the 50 percent of the people who didn’t bother to vote in the last election.”...

Ms. Ortega is now in a Fort Worth jail awaiting transfer to a state prison. Her four children, ages 13 to 16, are being cared for by siblings and her fiancé, Oscar Sherman, 27, a trucker who said her arrest had scotched their plans to marry. The children’s fate is unclear. Mr. Sherman lacks legal custody; her siblings are still debating their options.

Ms. Ortega’s future is bleak. The federal government frowns on giving green cards to felons. “She’ll do eight years in a Texas prison,” Mr. Birdsall said. “And then she’ll be deported, and wake up blinking and scratching in a country she doesn’t know.”

Far-right websites have seized on Ms. Ortega’s conviction as proof that Mr. Trump is right about rampant fraud and efforts by Democrats to steal the November election. There is, however, at least one flaw in that story: Ms. Ortega was a registered Republican. “She voted for Mitt Romney over Barack Obama in the 2012 election. In 2014 she voted for our current attorney general, Ken Paxton,” Mr. Birdsall said. “And guess what? He’s the one responsible for prosecuting her.”

February 11, 2017 in Examples of "over-punishment", Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (30)

Ohio Gov forced to delay scheduled executions yet again due to lethal injection ltigation

As this local article reports, "Gov. John Kasich has delayed eight scheduled executions because of continuing litigation over lethal injection drugs." Here are the details:

The governor used his executive clemency authority to reschedule the executions, beginning with Ronald Phillips who was to be put to death on Wednesday for the 1993 rape and murder of three-year-old Sheila Marie Evans. Phillips will now be executed on May 10, under the revised schedule.

The delays follow the Jan. 26 decision by U.S. District Court Magistrate Judge Craig Merz barred the state's use of a three-drug protocol, declaring it unconstitutional, and blocked the pending execution of Phillips and two other inmates. The state has appealed the ruling to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

"While Ohio is confident its appeal will ultimately be successful ... the appellate court's scheduling will not allow the matter to be resolved in time to allow the state to move forward with its current execution dates," Kasich's office said in a statement this morning. "Accordingly, these delays are necessary to allow the judicial process to come to a full resolution, and ensure that the state can move forward with the executions."

Merz's lengthy order cited problems with executions in other states with the use of midazolam, one of the three drugs in Ohio's protocol, along with rocuronium bromide and potassium chloride.

Ohio hasn't had an execution since Jan. 16, 2014, when Dennis McGuire choked, gasped and struggled against his restraints for much of the 26 minutes it took for him to die. Midazolam was one of the drugs used to execute McGuire.

The revised schedule after Phillips [includes] Gary Otte, moved to June 13 from March 15 [and] Raymond Tibbetts, moved to July 26 from April 12.

Ever since Ohio announced it had acquired execution drugs and had a new execution protocol in early Fall 2016, I have been expecting and sort-of predicting that Ohio would finally find a way to get its machinery of death back up and running again in 2017. Given some prior Sixth Circuit and Supreme Court rulings, I continue to think Ohio will be able to complete some executions this year. But, of course, lethal injection litigation can be like Forrest Gump's box of chocolates: you never quite know what you are gonna get.

February 11, 2017 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Friday, February 10, 2017

Mississippi taking steps to have firing squad, electric chair and gas chamber as execution methods again

As reported in this new Fox News piece, "Mississippi lawmakers want to bring back the firing squad, electric chair and gas chamber as execution methods, a step three other states have taken recently, but for a different reason." Here is more:

Oklahoma reintroduced the gas chamber, Utah the firing squad and Tennessee the electric chair in response to a nationwide scarcity of lethal injection drugs for death row inmates.

Mississippi legislator Andy Gipson said he introduced House Bill 638 in response to lawsuits filed by “liberal, left-wing radicals” challenging the use of lethal injection drugs as cruel and unusual punishment. "I have a constituent whose daughter was raped and killed by a serial killer over 25 years ago, and that person's still waiting for the death penalty. The family is still waiting for justice," Gipson told the Associated Press.

Gipson’s bill passed the House Wednesday, 74-43, and moves to the Senate for more debate.

Mississippi hasn't been able to acquire the execution drugs it once used, and it last carried out an execution in 2012. The state has 47 people on death row, and some have been there for decades.

The 33 states with the death penalty all have lethal injection as the primary method of execution, according to the Death Penalty Information Center and its executive director, Robert Dunham. The center says only Oklahoma and Utah have firing squads as an option; eight states have electrocution, five have the gas chamber, and three have hanging.

The firing squad became an option in Utah in 2015. That same year, Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin signed legislation to use nitrogen gas as an option. Tennessee enacted a law bringing back the electric chair in 2014.

“It’s interesting that what we anticipated would happen is happening,” Dunham told FoxNews.com Friday. “As states are having difficulty obtaining drugs for lethal injections, they’re looking at different options.” He expects legal challenges in states that reintroduce old execution methods. “What you will see is when states change their method of execution, there are invariably legal challenges that arise,” Dunham said.

Jim Craig, an attorney who is suing Mississippi over lethal injection drugs, told The Associated Press on Wednesday that each of the proposed new methods of executions would be challenged in court. "Every single one, in essence, just injects a whole new series of issues in the existing case," said Craig, who is with the New Orleans-based Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center. He said with the firing squad, for example, the state would have to set protocols and procedures to reduce the risk of torture, and he doubts the Department of Corrections has prepared to do that....

Oklahoma officials told Fox 25 in November they haven’t established protocols to use nitrogen gas as a backup execution method but have heard from a company offering pain-free and mistake-free gas chamber executions. The company sent a letter to Oklahoma Department of Corrections guaranteeing the “demise of any mammalian life within four minutes,” according to the station.

February 10, 2017 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (15)

Third Circuit finds death row inmates granted resentencing stuck in solitary confinement have protected liberty interests

A unanimous panel ruling by the Third Circuit yesterday in Williams v. Secretary of PA Dep't of Corrections, No. 14-1469 (3d Cir. Feb. 9, 2017) (available here) spotlights an interesting connection between death row and solitary confinement.  Here is the start of the opinion and a key paragraph from its heart:

We are asked to decide whether there is a constitutionally protected liberty interest that prohibits the State from continuing to house inmates in solitary confinement on death row after they have been granted resentencing hearings, without meaningful review of the continuing placement.  For the reasons set forth below, we conclude that there is and that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment therefore limits the State’s ability to subject an inmate to the deprivations of death row once the death sentence initially relied upon to justify such extreme restrictions is no longer operative.  However, we also hold that, because this principle was not clearly established before today, the prison officials (“Defendants”) in this consolidated appeal are entitled to qualified immunity.

Accordingly, we will affirm the district courts’ grants of summary judgment in favor of Defendants based on qualified immunity. In reaching this conclusion, we stress that this liberty interest, as explained more fully below, is now clearly established....

In our ruling today, we now explicitly add our jurisprudential voice to this growing chorus [of concerns about the use of solitary confinement]. In doing so, we rely, in part, upon the scientific consensus and the recent precedent involving non-death row solitary confinement. Those decisions advance our inquiry into the unique, yet analogous, scenario presented here. Inmates in solitary confinement on death row without active death sentences face the perils of extreme isolation and are at risk of erroneous deprivation of their liberty.  Accordingly, they have a clearly established due process right under the Fourteenth Amendment to avoid unnecessary and unexamined solitary confinement on death row.  The State must therefore afford these inmates procedural protections that ensure that continuing this level of deprivation is required for penological purposes, and is not reflexively imposed without individualized justification.

February 10, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Prez Trump signs three crime-fighting executive orders, including one to create a “Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety”

As reported and summarized in this CBS News report, this morning "President Trump signed three executive actions Thursday aimed at bolstering law enforcement and targeting violent crime and criminal drug cartels." Here is more:

The first executive order, according to what Mr. Trump outlined during the signing ceremony in the Oval Office, is meant to direct the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security to “undertake all necessary and lawful action to break the back of the criminal cartels that have spread across our nation and are destroying the blood of our youth and many other people.” The president signed the action Thursday after swearing in Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Among other powers, the action gives broad authority to increase intelligence and lawn enforcement information sharing with foreign powers in order to crack down on “transnational criminal organizations” and their subsidiaries. It also instructs an interagency panel to compile a report on crime syndicates within four months.

“These groups are drivers of crime, corruption, violence, and misery,” the order reads. “In particular, the trafficking by cartels of controlled substances has triggered a resurgence in deadly drug abuse and a corresponding rise in violent crime related to drugs.”...

The president signed two other actions Thursday, including one that creates a task force within the Justice Department dedicated to “reducing violent crime in America.” The “Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety” will have administrative and financial support from the Attorney General’s office, according to the text of the order.

The last action directs the DOJ to implement a plan to “stop crime and crimes of violence against law enforcement officers.” The order itself instructs the department to “pursue appropriate legislation...that will define new Federal crimes, and increase penalties for existing Federal crimes, in order to prevent violence against Federal, State, tribal, and local law enforcement officers.” That recommended legislation could include “defining new crimes of violence and establishing new mandatory minimum sentences for existing crimes of violence.” The order also directs a thorough evaluation of all grant funding programs currently administered by the Justice Department.

I am intrigued by all three of these orders, but I want to read the full orders before I comment on these.  Helpfully, the White House now has them available via these links:

Presidential Executive Order on a Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety

Presidential Executive Order on Enforcing Federal Law with Respect to Transnational Criminal Organizations and Preventing International Trafficking

Presidential Executive Order on Preventing Violence Against Federal, State, Tribal, and Local Law Enforcement Officers

February 9, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Noting the concerns prompted by aging sex offenders

This short local Ohio article, headlined "States look for solutions to growing number of aging sex offenders," provides yet another example of how the sex offender label has echoes throughout so many aspects of society. Here are excerpts from the piece:

As states like Ohio deal with a growing number of aging registered sex offenders, another state is examining what to do with elderly sex offenders when they are in need of nursing home care.  In Iowa, lawmakers are studying whether to establish a separate facility for sex offenders to keep them away from other nursing home residents.

A Dayton Daily News examination found numerous examples of lax oversight of sex offenders in nursing homes in Ohio.  This newspaper’s investigation found 136 sex offenders were living in 43 nursing homes in Ohio in October. It also identified potential problems with the safety net, from under-staffing at homes with offenders to a lack of information on the public registry used by facilities to make admission decisions.

The Iowa Senate Human Resources Committee this week approved a resolution which asks the state’s legislature to create a committee to study the establishment of a facility to care specifically for those who are sex offenders or are sexually aggressive.

Iowa, like Ohio, has no dedicated facility for housing sex offenders in need of long-term care.  “The lack of such a facility places other geriatric patients, residents, and tenants at risk for being sexually abused,” the Iowa resolution says.

The proposal suggests studying either establishing a new facility, or expanding an existing one to keep sex offenders or sexually aggressive individuals separate from the general nursing home population.

February 9, 2017 in Offender Characteristics, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (9)

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Jeff Sessions confirmed as Attorney General ... now what for federal sentencing policies and practices?

Jeff_Sessions_official_portraitAs Fox News reports here, "Sen. Jeff Sessions won confirmation Wednesday evening to become the next attorney general of the United States," and here's more of the basic backstory:

The Senate narrowly approved the Alabama Republican’s nomination on a 52-47 vote, the latest in a series of confirmation votes that have been dragged out amid Democratic protests. One Democrat, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, joined Republicans in voting to confirm Sessions. Sessions himself voted present.

In his farewell address Wednesday evening, Sessions urged his erstwhile colleagues to get along better following days of bruising debate. "We need latitude in our relationships," Sessions said. "Denigrating people who disagree with us is not a healthy trend for our body."...

Wednesday’s vote came after a rowdy overnight session during which Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., was formally chastised for allegedly impugning Sessions’ integrity on the floor. Warren had read a letter authored in 1986 by Coretta Scott King, who was against Sessions’ nomination at the time to the federal bench, arguing he used the power of his office to “chill” black voting rights. Warren also quoted the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., who originally had entered King’s letter into the record, describing Sessions as “disgraceful.”

GOP Senate leaders said Warren had violated Senate rules and should lose her speaking privileges. In a remarkable scene, the Senate then voted 49-43 to suspend Warren’s speaking privileges for the rest of the nomination process – the first time the Senate has imposed such a punishment in decades.

Democrats had repeatedly contended that Sessions is too close to Trump, too harsh on immigrants, and weak on civil rights for minorities, immigrants, gay people and women. Sessions was a prominent early backer of Trump, a supporter of his hard line on illegal immigration and joined Trump's advocacy of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border....

Republicans argued Sessions has demonstrated over a long career in public service, including two decades in the Senate, that he possesses integrity, honesty, and is committed to justice and the rule of law.

Everyone interested in federal sentencing law, policy and reform as well as all federal sentencing practitioners now must wonder what exactly an Attorney General Sessions will mean for federal sentencing policies and practices emerging from the U.S. Department of Justice.  (Over at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform, I made the same point with respect to federal marijuana policies.)  

I am expecting and somewhat fearing the possibility that AG Sessions will be eager, though new memoranda to US Attorneys, to ramp up application of mandatory minimums in a variety of settings.  AG Sessions can formally and informally push for "tough and tougher" sentencing policies in lots of other ways as well, and it will be interesting to see whether and how he does in the weeks and months ahead. 

February 8, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Prez Trump talks crime and support for law enforcement with police chiefs . . . and says some interesting things

Prez Donald Trump gave this lengthy speech to a gathering of major city police chiefs, and he had a lot to say about crime and law enforcement toward its conclusion (after an extended Trumpian discussion of the litigation surrounding his travel executive order).  Here is some of what the Prez has to say on the crime front (with a few points of emphasis added based on what struck me as especially interesting):

Right now, many communities in America are facing a public safety crisis.  Murders in 2015 experienced their largest single-year increase in nearly half a century. In 2016, murders in large cities continued to climb by double digits. In many of our biggest cities, 2016 brought an increase in the number of homicides, rapes, assaults and shootings. In Chicago, more than 4,000 people were shot last year alone, and the rate so far this year has been even higher. What is going on in Chicago?

We cannot allow this to continue. We’ve allowed too many young lives to be claimed -- and you see that, you see that all over -- claimed by gangs, and too many neighborhoods to be crippled by violence and fear.  Sixty percent of murder victims under the age of 22 are African American. This is a national tragedy, and it requires national action. This violence must end, and we must all work together to end it.

Whether a child lives in Detroit, Chicago, Baltimore, or anywhere in our country, he or she has the right to grow up in safety and in peace. No one in America should be punished because of the city where he or she is born. Every child in America should be able to play outside without fear, walk home without danger, and attend a school without being worried about drugs or gangs or violence.

So many lives and so many people have been cut short.  Their potential, their life has been cut short. So much potential has been sidelined. And so many dreams have been shattered and broken, totally broken. It’s time to stop the drugs from pouring into our country. And, by the way, we will do that. And I will say this: General, now Secretary, Kelly will be the man to do it, and we will give him a wall.  And it will be a real wall. (Applause.) And a lot of things will happen very positively for your cities, your states, believe me. The wall is getting designed right now....

It’s time to dismantle the gangs terrorizing our citizens, and it’s time to ensure that every young American can be raised in an environment of decency, dignity, love and support. You have asked for the resources, tools and support you need to get the job done. We will do whatever we can to help you meet those demands. That includes a zero tolerance policy for acts of violence against law enforcement. (Applause.)  We all see what happens. We all see what happens and what’s been happening to you. It’s not fair.

We must protect those who protect us. The number of officers shot and killed in the line of duty last year increased by 56 percent from the year before. Last year, in Dallas, police officers were targeted for execution –- think of this. Who ever heard of this? They were targeted for execution. Twelve were shot and five were killed. These heroic officers died as they lived -– protecting the innocent, rushing into danger, risking their lives for people they did not even know, but for people that they were determined to save. Hats off to you people....

[I]nstead of division and disunity -- and which is so much disunity -- we must build bridges of partnership and of trust. Those who demonize law enforcement or who use the actions of a few to discredit the service of many are hurting the very people they say that they want to help. When policing is reduced, crime is increased, and our poorest citizens suffer the most. And I see it all the time. When the number of police goes down, crime goes up.

To build needed trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve, it is not enough for us to merely talk to each other. We must listen to each other. All of us share the view that those in uniform must be held to the highest possible standard of conduct -- so important. ...

That is why our commitment to law and law enforcement also includes ensuring that we are giving departments the resources they need to train, recruit and retain talent. As part of our commitment to safe communities, we will also work to address the mental health crisis.  Prisons should not be a substitute for treatment. We will fight to increase access to life-saving treatment to battle the addiction to drugs, which is afflicting our nation like never ever before -- ever. (Applause.)

I've been here two weeks. I've met a lot of law enforcement officials. Yesterday, I brought them into the Oval Office. I asked a group, what impact do drugs have in terms of a percentage on crime? They said, 75 to 80 percent. That's pretty sad. We're going to stop the drugs from pouring in. We're going to stop those drugs from poisoning our youth, from poisoning our people. We're going to be ruthless in that fight. We have no choice. (Applause.)

And we're going to take that fight to the drug cartels and work to liberate our communities from their terrible grip of violence. You have the power and knowledge to tell General Kelly -- now Secretary Kelly -- who the illegal immigrant gang members are. Now, you have that power because you know them, you're there, you're local. You know the illegals, you know them by their first name, you know them by their nicknames. You have that power. The federal government can never be that precise. But you're in the neighborhoods -- you know the bad ones, you know the good ones.

I want you to turn in the bad ones. Call Secretary Kelly's representatives and we'll get them out of our country and bring them back where they came from, and we'll do it fast. You have to call up the federal government, Homeland Security, because so much of the problems -- you look at Chicago and you look at other places. So many of the problems are caused by gang members, many of whom are not even legally in our country.

I saw a few folks tweeting concerns this morning about Prez Trump's statement that we are "going to be ruthless in that fight" against "drugs from poisoning our youth, from poisoning our people."  And, with coming likely confirmation of AG Jeff Sessions, there is a very reasonable basis for fearing that the Trump Administration is going to seek to double-down on old tough-and-tougher approaches to the drug war.  But given some of the other Trump comments highlighted here (particular the comment that "prisons should not be a substitute for treatment"), I am holding out at least some hope that some nuance will be a part of the particulars of any new Trumpian drug war offensive.

February 8, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11)

New report details stability of California crime rates during period of huge sentencing reform

UntitledThis new Fact Sheet produced by the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice tells and interesting and important story about crime in California.  The main prose of the report provides the data highlights:

Newly released Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) statistics for the first six months of 2016 show California’s reported urban crime rate remained stable from 2010 through 2016, despite the implementation of large-scale criminal justice reforms during that period.

Total urban crime fell in the first half of 2016 compared to the first half of 2015.

The first six months of 2016 saw a decline in California’s urban crime rate compared to the first six months of 2015, though trends in specific crime categories were wide-ranging. During this period, reported crime declined 3 percent overall, driven by a 4 percent reduction in property offenses.  Burglary, arson, and theft decreased, while vehicle theft increased, resulting in approximately 7,400 fewer property offenses in early 2016.  At the same time, violent crime rose 4 percent, with total violent offenses increasing by approximately 2,800 from early 2015 to early 2016.1

The statewide urban crime rate stabilized from 2010 to 2016, after decades of decline.

Urban crime rates in California declined precipitously through the 1990s and 2000s (See Appendix A).  Since 2010, crime in California has stabilized, hovering near historically low levels. Comparing the first six months of 2016 to the first six months of 2010, total crime rates experienced no net change, while property crime declined by 1 percent and violent crime increased by 3 percent (see Table 1).

• Historically low urban crime rates have persisted through an era of justice reform.

Crime rates have remained low and stable through several major criminal justice reforms, particularly Public Safety Realignment and Proposition 47.  Realignment, which was enacted in 2011 through Assembly Bill 109, shifted responsibility for those with nonviolent, non-sexual, and non-serious convictions from the state to the county in an attempt to reduce prison populations.  In 2014, California voters passed Prop 47, which reduced six minor drug and property felonies to misdemeanors, prompting the resentencing and release of thousands from jails and prisons across the state. Though each policy was met with some initial concerns over public safety, a seven-year view of the data suggests that no visible change in crime resulted from Realignment (CJCJ, 2015). More data are needed before drawing conclusions about Prop 47’s effect on crime (CJCJ, 2016).

February 8, 2017 in Data on sentencing, National and State Crime Data, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

"How States Can Take a Stand Against Prison Profiteers"

The title of this post is the title of this paper newly posted to SSRN and authored by Catherine Elizabeth Akenhead. Here is the abstract:

In recent years, state corrections departments have faced pressure to provide better prison conditions, while simultaneously cutting costs.  Many critics have touted the emergence of privatized prison services as a cost-effective resolution.  However, those services shift the costs on to some of the poorest and most vulnerable consumers, prisoners and their families.  This Note explores how private companies providing prison banking services to state correctional facilities use unfair practices to increase profits.  The umbrella of prison banking services includes deposits into inmate trust accounts, which allow prisoners to purchase necessities, as well as prepaid debit release cards, which are used to return money to prisoners upon release.  This Note describes how certain private companies retain a monopoly on these services, and are awarded contracts based on the amount of commission paid to state correctional facilities.

As a result of paying those commissions and having no incentive to cut costs, private companies drive up their prices and charge consumers exorbitant rates to make deposits or to utilize prepaid cards.  These practices are disproportionately affecting prisoners’ families who provide their incarcerated loved ones with monetary support, as well as released inmates struggling to get back on their feet post-incarceration. Statistically speaking, both of these groups are more likely to be low-income and least able to manage additional financial strain.  This Note proposes state-level legislation to better protect consumers from these abuses and outlines five key provisions that, if adopted, will serve to prevent private companies from increasing their profit margins at the expense of vulnerable consumers.

February 7, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Prez Trump in sheriffs meeting expresses support for broad civil forfeiture police powers

This Washington Post report details the notable joke Prez Trump made regarding a state legislator who apparently wants to limit police civil forfeiture powers, and highlights the broader issues raised by the surrounding discussion.  Here are the details:

At a meeting on Tuesday with sheriffs from across the country, President Trump joked about destroying the career of an unnamed Texas state senator who supported curtailing a controversial police practice for seizing people's property....

Sheriff Harold Eavenson of Rockwall County, Tex., brought up the issue of civil asset forfeiture, which allows authorities to seize cash and property from people suspected, but in some cases never convicted or even charged, with a crime. Eavenson told Trump of a “state senator in Texas that was talking about legislation to require conviction before we could receive that forfeiture money.”

“Can you believe that?” Trump interjected. “And,” Eavenson went on, “I told him that the cartel would build a monument to him in Mexico if he could get that legislation passed.”

“Who's the state senator?” Trump asked. “Do you want to give his name? We'll destroy his career,” he joked, to laughter from the law enforcement officials in the room....

While many people are unfamiliar with the practice, asset forfeiture is widespread. In 2014, federal authorities alone seized over $5 billion from suspected criminals, more than the total losses to burglary that year. That number doesn't even count seizures conducted by state and local law enforcement. Critics of asset forfeiture policies say the broad leeway afforded to law enforcement officers in most states creates a system ripe for abuse....

A 2015 ACLU investigation found that Philadelphia police routinely seized what amounted to “pocket change” from some of the city's poorest residents. A 2014 Washington Post investigation found that police seized $2.5 billion in cash from motorists not charged with crimes as part of a federal program.

When told of the practice, a large majority of Americans are opposed to it. A December 2016 survey by YouGov and the libertarian Cato Institute found that 84 percent of Americans oppose taking “a person’s money or property that is suspected to have been involved in a drug crime before the person is convicted of a crime.”...

But law enforcement groups have been resolute in their support for the practice. They say seizing money from people not charged with crimes is sometimes necessary to protect public safety, particularly in cases where it may be hard to obtain a criminal conviction against a suspect.

Law enforcement groups often cast asset forfeiture as a tool for fighting drug kingpins and foreign drug cartels, as Sheriff Eavenson implied at the White House meeting. But reports of asset forfeiture abuse suffered by American citizens have become more common. Nonetheless, police have had great success in convincing state and federal lawmakers to uphold the practice.

President Trump has not spoken much about the practice, and the White House did not immediately return a request for comment. But Trump's nominee to lead the Justice Department, Sen. Jeff Sessions, has been an enthusiastic proponent of civil asset forfeiture. In a 2015 Senate hearing, Sessions said that “95 percent” of forfeitures involve suspects who have “done nothing in their lives but sell dope.”

February 7, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

"The Death Penalty & the Dignity Clauses"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article by Kevin Barry, and here is its abstract:

“The question now to be faced is whether American society has reached a point where abolition is not dependent on a successful grass roots movement in particular jurisdictions, but is demanded by the Eighth Amendment.” Justice Thurgood Marshall posed this question in 1972, in his concurring opinion in the landmark case of Furman v. Georgia, which halted executions nationwide.  Four years later, in Gregg v. Georgia, a majority of the Supreme Court answered this question in the negative.

Now, 40 years after Gregg, the question is being asked once more.  But this time seems different. That is because, for the first time in our Nation’s history, the answer is likely to be yes.  The Supreme Court, with Justice Kennedy at its helm, is poised to declare the death penalty unconstitutional.  No matter what the Court’s answer, one thing is certain: dignity will figure prominently in its decision.

Dignity’s doctrinal significance has been much discussed in recent years, thanks in large part to the Supreme Court’s watershed decisions in United States v. Windsor and Obergefell v. Hodges, which struck down laws prohibiting same-sex marriage as a deprivation of same-sex couples’ dignity under the Fourteenth Amendment. Few, however, have examined dignity as a unifying principle under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments — which have long shared a commitment to dignity — and under the Court’s LGBT rights and death penalty jurisprudence, in particular, which give substance to this commitment. That is the aim of this Article.

This Article suggests that dignity embodies three primary concerns — liberty, equality, and life.  The triumph of LGBT rights under the Fourteenth Amendment and the persistence of the death penalty under the Eighth Amendment expose a tension in dignity doctrine: the most basic aspect of dignity (life) receives the least protection under the law.  Because dignity doctrine demands liberty and equality for LGBT people, it must also demand an end to the death penalty.  If dignity means anything, it must mean this.

In anticipation of the Court’s invalidation of the death penalty on dignity grounds, this Article offers a framework to guide the Court, drawn from federal and state supreme court death penalty decisions new and old, statistics detailing the death penalty’s record decline in recent years, and the Court’s recent LGBT rights jurisprudence.  It also responds to several likely counterarguments and considers abolition’s important implications for dignity doctrine under the Eighth Amendment and beyond.

February 7, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11)

Might marijuana legalization "be inducing a crime drop" in US states?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable new empirical article on SSRN titled "Crime and the Legalization of Recreational Marijuana" and authored by quartet of economists from the University of Bologna.  Here is the abstract:

We provide first-pass evidence that the legalization of the cannabis market across US states may be inducing a crime drop.  Exploiting the recent staggered legalization enacted by the adjacent states of Washington (end of 2012) and Oregon (end of 2014) we find, combining county-level difference-in-differences and spatial regression discontinuity designs, that the legalization of recreational marijuana caused a significant reduction of rapes and thefts on the Washington side of the border in 2013-2014 relative to the Oregon side and relative to the pre-legalization years 2010-2012.  We also find evidence that the legalization increased consumption of marijuana and reduced consumption of other drugs and both ordinary and binge alcohol.

Regular readers will not be surprised that I view the posting of this article as an excuse to provide a round-up of recent posts from my other blog, Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform:

February 7, 2017 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, National and State Crime Data, Pot Prohibition Issues | Permalink | Comments (3)

Florida legislature finally moving toward really fixing its capital procedures after Hurst

As reported in this AP article, "with death penalty cases grinding to a halt across the state, the Florida Legislature is finally taking its first — and probably only steps — to fix the law so prosecutors can resume cases once again." Here is more:

Legislators are moving ahead with a measure that would require a unanimous jury verdict in cases where the death penalty is being sought. Just a year ago legislators rejected the idea, but the state Supreme Court last October struck down a 2016 law that said the death penalty could be imposed after a 10-2 jury vote.

A Senate panel on Monday approved a bill requiring a unanimous jury verdict and a similar measure is being considered in the state House. The legislation could be among the first bills passed and sent to Gov. Rick Scott when the session officially kicks off in March.

"It is important that we have an orderly system of justice in place for both families of victims and individuals charged with serious crimes," said Sen. Randolph Bracy, an Ocoee Democrat who sponsored the bill. "This legislation removes ambiguity from our death penalty statute, which will help reduce delays in due process for all parties involved in death penalty cases."

Bracy's bill, however, doesn't address other questions raised by recent court decisions, including whether or not the state's nearly 400 current death row inmates deserve a new sentencing hearing if a jury did not unanimously recommend the death penalty. Katie Betta, a spokeswoman for Senate President Joe Negron, said he wants to keep the legislation narrow to get it passed quickly....

Bracy wanted to amend his bill so all current death row inmates would be treated the same but said he didn't have the votes to get the proposal adopted. Sen. Jeff Clemens, a Lake Worth Democrat, complained that legislators should be taking a comprehensive look at the death penalty to avoid having to deal with the issue year after year. But he said that some legislators are concerned they would look "weak" on the death penalty.

The Senate Criminal Justice Committee reported that there are more than 300 death penalty cases pending across the state, including 66 that are now ready for trial. Prosecutors have put some of these trials on hold while they wait for the Legislature to act.

February 7, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Monday, February 6, 2017

"A Theory of Differential Punishment"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by John Boeglin and Zachary Shapiro now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

A puzzle pervades the criminal law: Why is it that two offenders who behave identically are sentenced differently when one of them, due to circumstances beyond her control, causes a harmful result? Through first proposing a novel deconstruction of this question by separating theories of punishment into two broad categories (namely, offender-facing and victim-facing justifications for punishment), the Article demonstrates that results-based “differential punishment” in the criminal law can only be justified, if at all, by victim-facing theories.

The Article then makes its central claim: while victim-facing theories may be capable of justifying results-based punishment in respect to many types of offenses, there are three distinct classes of offenses for which everyone should agree that differential punishment is unjustified.  We conclude by showing how applying our framework would reduce the unnecessary incarceration of a significant class of criminal offenders, without sacrificing any legitimate goals of the criminal justice system.

February 6, 2017 in Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Recommended reading | Permalink | Comments (5)

Idaho judge includes celibacy for teen sex offender on intensive probation

As reported in this local article, after "sentencing a 19-year-old Twin Falls man to a year-long therapeutic prison program on a rape charge last week, a judge added an unusual caveat should the teen successfully complete the program and be placed on probation." Specifically:

“If you’re ever on probation with this court, a condition of that will be you will not have sexual relations with anyone except who you’re married to, if you’re married,” 5th District Judge Randy Stoker said.

The judge’s unusual proclamation was made during the sentencing of Cody Duane Scott Herrera, who pleaded guilty to the statutory rape of a 14-year-old girl in March 2015. Now, legal scholars are questioning whether the judge could hold Herrara to his warning.

Stoker said the condition would be put in place in part because Herrera told presentence investigators he’s had 34 sexual partners. “I have never seen that level of sexual activity by a 19-year-old,” Stoker said. Prosecutors also revealed Herrera, who could face more sex-related charges involving an underage girl, has had fantasies about a 13-year-old girl and watches pornography depicting rape.

The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare “did not designate Mr. Herrera as a sexual predator,” Stoker said during his sentencing, “though there seems to be an argument that could be made for that.”

The victim’s mother, making a victim-impact statement, certainly believed Herrera was a predator. “It was his intent from the beginning to take what he wanted from my 14-year-old child — her virginity,” the victim’s mother told the court. “And he stayed around until he got it from her. Cody will never understand what he has done to our family. Cody robbed her of her innocence. He destroyed the child left in her. This can never be returned.”

Stoker sentenced Herrera to an underlying prison sentence of five to 15 years, but suspended the sentence in favor of the year-long rider program. If Herrera successfully completes the program, he’ll be released to probation, and, according to Stoker, a life of celibacy unless he weds.

But that probation condition might be illegal or unenforceable, according to Shaakirrah R. Sanders, an associate professor at the University of Idaho College of Law. “I would suspect (a judge can’t do that),” Sanders said. “I think it infringes on his constitutional rights.” While judges “have quite a bit of discretion” in creating special probation terms, Sanders said, they can’t violate the federal or state constitution. “I think if he appealed, he would win,” Sanders said.

Twin Falls County Prosecutor Grant Loebs said he did think Stoker would be able to impose the probation condition.  “The judge has the ability to tell people to do or not do all sorts of things that are (otherwise) legal and constitutional,” Loebs said, pointing out that abstaining from alcohol is a condition of most probations.

“A judge’s purpose is to keep them from committing another offense,” Loebs said. “A judge has right to order things to keep him from doing that … I don’t think this goes beyond what a judge is allowed to do.”

I have personally always viewed probationary conditions that prohibit alcohol more than a bit suspect, but I know that they are regularly imposed and have often been upheld when sufficiently linked to the offense of conviction. With that background, I think the prosecutor here has a reasonable basis for arguing that this celibacy condition could be upheld if challenged. Then again, even though sex and alcohol often are linked, some significant distinctions might be made in this context were there to be legal appeals by the defendant here.

February 6, 2017 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

The hardest of cases for death penalty abolitionists: convicted murderer who keeps murdering while in prison

This local news report of an apparent murder by an Ohio inmate already convicted in two other murders serves as a reminder that there are limits on how much you can incapacitate some persons who seem intent on being violent.  The article is headlined "Two-time murderer suspected of killing another inmate, " and here are the ugly details:

A two-time murderer is suspected of killing another inmate, a Franklin County man, aboard a prison transport bus while it traveled south on Rt. 23 from Columbus on Wednesday evening.  The body of David L. Johnson, 61, was found in the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction bus on Thursday evening when it stopped to deliver him to the Ross Correctional Institution, said Ross County Prosecutor Matthew Schmidt.

Johnson, who was serving an eight-year sentence for sexual battery, apparently was strangled; Casey Pigge, 28, is "absolutely the suspect" in the death, Schmidt said. Other inmates also were locked into a caged section of the bus with Johnson and Pigge, but apparently did not alert the guards and driver at the front of the bus of the assault, Schmidt said. The guards apparently cannot see back into all sections of the bus, he said.  The inmates were wearing handcuffs, and perhaps belly chains, but could move around, the prosecutor said.

Inmates, including from the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility near Lucasville and the Ross Correctional Institution near Chillicothe, were taken aboard the bus to Columbus for medical treatment on Thursday and were on the return leg of the trip south when the apparent slaying occurred.

Pigge is serving a 30-year to life sentence at the Lucasville prison for the 2008 murder of Rhonda Sommers, 52, the mother of his then-girlfriend. Pigge was convicted of stabbing the woman and then setting her apartment on fire.  Last week, Pigge pleaded guilty to using a cement block last year to repeatedly strike to kill his cellmate, Luther Wade, 26, of Springfield, at the Lebanon Correctional Institution in Warren County. Wade, serving a 10-year sentence for aggravated burglary, was repeatedly struck in the head. Pigge faces another life sentence in the slaying.

Schmidt... questioned Pigge having access to other inmates aboard the bus given his history of violence. Investigators are working to determine if Johnson died in Franklin County, Pickaway County or Ross Country as the bus traveled south, Schmidt said. "He crushed his cellmate's head with a cinder block. You would think the sensible thing to do would be to make sure he doesn't have free access to other inmates at any time.  Apparently that is not an issue for the folks at DRC," Schmidt said.

Given that Pigge is seemingly due to get an LWOP sentence for previously having "crushed his cellmate's head with a cinder block," he would be essentially getting a "free" murder if he were not at least potentially subject to something worse than LWOP for his latest murder.  Moreover, given than Pigge has now slaughtered two fellow inmates during his first decade of incarceration, the only real public safety options for him would seem to be long-term solitary confinement or the death penalty. 

I am not asserting that folks like Pigge make the death penalty a must, but I am saying that it seems quite difficult to figure out what a just and effective punishment is for a murderer who seems keen and able to keep killing even while incarcerated.

February 6, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (8)

"Why we should free violent criminals"

The title of this post is the headline of this Boston Globe commentary authored by By David Scharfenberg. Here are excerpts:

The drug war, [some experts] say, is not the major force behind America’s huge prison growth over the last several decades. In fact, less than 20 percent of the country’s 1.5 million prisoners are serving time for such offenses. Free them all tomorrow, and the United States would still have the largest prison population in the world — larger than Russia, Mexico, and Iran combined.

Violent crime is a much more important driver, with almost half of prisoners doing time for offenses like murder and robbery. To make a real dent in mass incarceration, experts say, the country will have to do the difficult work of freeing more of these criminals sooner. “We put all of our attention — almost all of our attention — on things that aren’t nearly as important as the things we ignore,” says Fordham Law School professor John Pfaff, author of the forthcoming book “Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration and How to Achieve Real Reform.”

Pfaff says the criminal justice reform movement had to start with talk of greater leniency for nonviolent offenders.  It couldn’t leap right to a discussion of, say, cutting murderers’ sentences down to a European-style 10 years. But now, he says, it’s time for something more. Not all “violent crime” is as serious as the phrase would imply. In some states, burglarizing a house when no one is home is considered a violent offense. And what about the 18-year-old robber who was carrying a gun but didn’t actually use it?

As for long sentences, it’s true that they play a role in driving prison growth.  “Three strikes” laws, mandatory minimums, and other tough-on-crime measures have increased time served for all kinds of offenders — pot dealers and violent criminals alike.  A Pew analysis of state prison data showed that prisoners released in 2009 served 36 percent longer than those who were released in 1990.

But at three years, the average prison term is shorter than the conventional wisdom would suggest. Pfaff argues that the real concern is not sentence length, but serving any time in prison at all. Whether you serve 12 or 16 months, he says, the impact is the same. Upon release, convicted felons have a hard time getting decent jobs or good housing. And with the odds heavily stacked against them, they’re more likely to reoffend.

The criminal justice reform movement, Pfaff argues, needs a reorientation — and a willingness to show mercy for prisoners beyond the proverbial nonviolent drug offender.  That means diverting more people — whatever their offenses — away from the system, thereby sparing them from a criminal record. And there’s only one way to do that, he says: Change the behavior of the most powerful actor in the criminal justice system, the prosecutor....

Over the last couple of decades, Pfaff’s research shows, they’ve become ever-more aggressive about seeking jail time. In the mid-’90s, prosecutors filed felony charges against about one in three arrestees.  By 2008, it was more like two in three. Why are prosecutors getting more aggressive? Maybe because they’re more politically ambitious, Pfaff theorizes. They may think a tough-on-crime record can be parlayed into a run for higher office. Or maybe the police are developing stronger cases, using more surveillance-camera footage, for example.

Whatever the cause, the impact has been enormous.  The push to file more felony charges, Pfaff writes in his forthcoming book, is the single most important factor in the growth in prison admissions since crime started dropping in the early-’90s.  One solution: legislate a reduction in prosecutorial power.  Pfaff suggests creating detailed charging guidelines that would force prosecutors to steer more offenders away from the prison system.

Getting that sort of thing on the books will be difficult though; prosecutors have substantial clout in state legislatures and don’t want to see their power diminished . Which is why advocates may have better luck urging district and state attorneys’ offices to change from within and produce more flexible prosecutors.

February 6, 2017 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

Setting my DVR for "Solitary: Inside Red Onion State Prison"

HBO is premiering a notable new documentary tonight, "Solitary: Inside Red Onion State Prison." Here is how HBO describes the movie:

Located on an Appalachian mountaintop in Wise County, Va., Red Onion State Prison is a “supermax” facility built to house individual inmates in 8’x10’ solitary-confinement cells, 23 hours a day, for months, years and sometimes decades.  Directed by Kristi Jacobson, Solitary: Inside Red Onion State Prison explores life on both sides of the bars, raising provocative questions about punishment in America today.

Drawing on unprecedented, unrestricted access, Solitary: Inside Red Onion State Prison was filmed over the course of one year, chronicling a new reform program intended to reduce the number of solitary-confinement inmates.  The recently initiated “Step-Down Program” has allowed more than 350 inmates a chance to return to the general population.  But all too often, after months of solitary isolation, prisoners are ill-equipped to deal with the stresses of being a part of the regular prison population – let alone life on the outside.

This unflinching, immersive documentary features intimate interviews with several inmates who reflect on their violent childhoods, open up about the dangers of prison life and articulate their struggles to maintain sanity in the unrelenting monotony and isolation of confinement.  Interwoven with these stories are observations of corrections officers, who describe the toll their stressful jobs can take in a community with few employment opportunities.

Solitary: Inside Red Onion State Prison captures the chilling sounds and haunting atmosphere of daily life at Red Onion, focusing on the effect of loneliness and isolation on the prisoners’ mental health. 

The filmmaker website has this little blurb to describe the movie:

SOLITARY is a daring exploration of the lives of inmates and corrections officers in one of America's most notorious supermax prisons, built to hold inmates in 8x10 cells, 23-hours-a-day, for months, years and sometimes decades.  With unprecedented access, the film captures a complex, unexpected and deeply moving portrait of life inside.

February 6, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Questions raised about Judge Gorsuch's law school work for Harvard Defenders and PLAP

The night Prez Trump nominated Judge Neil Gorsuch to be on the Supreme Court, I noted in this post that I found it notable that Prez Trump stated that "[w]hile in law school, he demonstrated a commitment to helping the less fortunate [by having] worked in both Harvard Prison Legal Assistance Projects and Harvard Defenders Program."  But this Wall Street Journal article, headlined "Few Recall Gorsuch’s Volunteer Work at Harvard: Questions arise over Trump Supreme Court pick’s level of participation in programs to help less fortunate while in law school," raises questions about the scope and significance of Judge Gorsuch's work in these organizations:

When President Donald Trump introduced his Supreme Court pick on live television last week, he said Neil Gorsuch had “demonstrated a commitment to helping the less fortunate” by working in the Harvard Prison Legal Assistance Project and the Harvard Defenders.  His affiliation with these volunteer programs — which offer law school students real-life legal experience representing prison inmates and the poor — helped give Mr. Gorsuch’s deeply conservative résumé a personal touch, and the groups were highlighted in news reports about his nomination.

But roughly three dozen students who participated in the two programs while Mr. Gorsuch was at Harvard Law School from 1988 to 1991 said they have no recollection of his involvement. “If he was active in PLAP I am sure I would remember him,” said Elizabeth Buckley Lewis, who attended Harvard at the same time as Mr. Gorsuch. Now a New York City tax lawyer who advises nonprofits, she said PLAP was her “most meaningful experience” at Harvard.

The White House gave The Wall Street Journal the name of one Harvard Law School graduate who said he could corroborate that Judge Gorsuch was in the Defenders, but declined to give any details of the judge’s participation.  The White House also provided copies of a 2008 email exchange between the Defenders’ alumni director and Judge Gorsuch.

Two people who broadly oversaw the students during this period said they had no memory of Judge Gorsuch’s involvement, a third one declined to say, and a fourth died in 1998. Other Harvard classmates and friends of Mr. Gorsuch say they have no recollection of him discussing either program. Memories can fade over 25 years, and the programs demanded no specific time commitment. Mr. Gorsuch didn’t respond to emailed questions.

The White House referred The Wall Street Journal to Chris Edel, a New York County prosecutor who said he attended a few weeks of training for the Defenders program with Judge Gorsuch in either 1990 or 1991.  They also lived together and were members of the Lincoln’s Inn Society, a social club. “What I am prepared to do is corroborate that Neil Gorsuch was in the Harvard Defenders,” said Mr. Edel. “I have a specific recollection of talking to him about one case, but I don’t want to go into the details…I’d like to leave it there.” Mr. Edel recalled one other classmate in the program. David E. Nahmias, now a Georgia Supreme Court justice. Mr. Nahmias said he didn’t remember whether Mr. Gorsuch was involved in the Defenders.

In PLAP, students represent inmates at disciplinary and parole hearings.  Defenders provide representation to indigent defendants.  In both cases, students are guided by more experienced students and by supervising attorneys. PLAP and Defenders are volunteer programs and students don’t earn credit, so participation isn’t reflected on Harvard’s transcripts....

Not every official bio of Mr. Gorsuch names his involvement with the groups. But they are included in a biography posted online by President George W. Bush’s White House after the judge’s 2006 confirmation to a federal appeals court, as well as a White House press release at the time.

On a Senate questionnaire in connection with the 2006 judicial appointment, Mr. Gorsuch answered a question about “serving the disadvantaged” in part by saying he had done pro bono work beginning in law school, citing the two programs. He said he helped Massachusetts inmates “with respect to, among other things, hearings on disciplinary actions taken against them” and represented “defendants in criminal proceedings in Massachusetts state courts.” Mr. Gorsuch didn’t go further, despite the questionnaire’s request that nominees “describe specific instances and the amount of time devoted to each.”

Mr. Gorsuch was among the recipients of a Nov. 2, 2008, email sent to 124 alumni of the Defender program by Alicia Reed, then the alumni director of the Defenders, who was seeking volunteers to mentor Harvard students. Mr. Gorsuch, by then serving as an appeals court judge in Denver, responded the following day: “I don’t know if I can be of much help this far away from Cambridge, but if I can please do let me know. I found Defenders to be a very rewarding experience.” 

Upon seeing the headline of the Wall Street Journal article, I was tempted to accuse Prez Trump of peddling "fake news" when he stressed Judge Gorsuch's involvement with these programs. But it seems that Prez Trump was only repeating a claim that Prez Bush made that it seems was reasonable based on reports by Judge Gorsuch himself. And my guess based on this WSJ reporting is that the Judge was involved in a few cases with both of these groups, but never made work with the groups a centerpiece of his Harvard Law experience the way that some other students did.  My experiences a few years later with a could volunteer activities at Harvard Law was similar — e.g., for one journal and the newspaper, I was only involving in a few editing assignments  — and I am sure that those who were most involved in those particular activities would not recall my limited involvement.  

Prior related post:

February 6, 2017 in Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Saturday, February 4, 2017

"The Death Penalty as Torture From the Dark Ages to Abolition"

9781611639261The title of this post is the title of this new book authored by John Bessler about to be published by Carolina Academic Press.  Here is the blurb from the Press webpage:

During the Dark Ages and the Renaissance, Europe’s monarchs often resorted to torture and executions. The pain inflicted by instruments of torture — from the thumbscrew and the rack to the Inquisition’s tools of torment — was eclipsed only by horrific methods of execution, from breaking on the wheel and crucifixion to drawing and quartering and burning at the stake. The English “Bloody Code” made more than 200 crimes punishable by death, and judicial torture—expressly authorized by law and used to extract confessions—permeated continental European legal systems. Judges regularly imposed death sentences and other harsh corporal punishments, from the stocks and the pillory, to branding and ear cropping, to lashes at public whipping posts.

In the Enlightenment, jurists and writers questioned the efficacy of torture and capital punishment. In 1764, the Italian philosopher Cesare Beccaria — the father of the world’s anti–death penalty movement — condemned both practices. And Montesquieu, like Beccaria and others, concluded that any punishment that goes beyond absolute necessity is tyrannical. Traditionally, torture and executions have been viewed in separate legal silos, with countries renouncing acts of torture while simultaneously using capital punishment. The UN Convention Against Torture strictly prohibits physical or psychological torture; not even war or threat of war can be invoked to justify it. But under the guise of “lawful sanctions,” some countries continue to carry out executions even though they bear the indicia of torture.

In The Death Penalty as Torture, Prof. John Bessler argues that death sentences and executions are medieval relics. In a world in which “mock” or simulated executions, as well as a host of other non-lethal acts, are already considered to be torturous, he contends that death sentences and executions should be classified under the rubric of torture. Unlike in the Middle Ages, penitentiaries—one of the products of the Enlightenment—now exist throughout the globe to house violent offenders. With the rise of life without parole sentences, and with more than four of five nations no longer using executions, The Death Penalty as Torture calls for the recognition of a peremptory, international law norm against the death penalty’s use.

February 4, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Recommended reading | Permalink | Comments (6)

Friday, February 3, 2017

Oklahoma Governor's task force urging significant sentencing reform to deal with surging prison population

As reported in this lengthy local article, "faced with a rapidly growing prison population in a state with the second-highest incarceration rate in the nation, a task force created by Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin issued a report Thursday calling for dramatic decreases in sentences for nonviolent drug dealers and manufacturers." Here is more:

Without reform, Oklahoma is on pace to add 7,218 inmates over the next 10 years, requiring three new prisons and costing the state an additional $1.9 billion in capital expenditures and operating costs, the report said. But task members said those costs can be averted and the prison population can be reduced 7 percent over the next decade through a combination of sentence reductions and other reforms, including increased funding for alternative mental health and substance abuse treatment programs.

Oklahoma currently has 61,385 individuals in its overcrowded prison system. That includes 26,581 incarcerated in state facilities and private prisons, 1,643 awaiting transfer from county jails and 33,161 on some form of probation, parole, community sentencing or GPS monitoring, said Terri Watkins, spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections.

Oklahoma's prison population, which is at 109 percent of capacity, has grown 9 percent in the past five years and is now 78 percent higher than the national average. Only Louisiana has a higher rate, the report said.

Oklahoma's female incarceration rate remains the highest in the nation, a distinction the state has held for 25 years, task members said. The state's female population grew 30 percent between 2011 and 2016 and Oklahoma now incarcerates women at a rate more than 2 1/2 times the national average.

In a 38-page report that contains 27 recommendations, the governor's task force on justice reform recommends a number of dramatic changes to stave off a looming state financial crisis, including sharply reducing sentences for nonviolent drug dealers and manufacturers. The report also calls for sweeping changes in the parole system, including allowing many inmates to become eligible for parole after serving a fourth of their sentences. Currently, inmates typically serve about a third of their sentences before becoming eligible for parole for most nonviolent crimes.

Many of the task force's recommendations would require legislative action. The task force is recommending that the penalty for possession of methamphetamine, heroin or crack cocaine with intent to distribute be lowered to zero to five years for nonviolent first-time felony drug offenders, said Jennifer Chance, the governor's general counsel and a member of the task force. It is recommending that the penalty for manufacturing be lowered to zero to eight years.

Possession of methamphetamine with intent to distribute currently carries a sentence of two years to life in prison for a first-time felony drug conviction, while possession of crack cocaine with intent to distribute carries a term of five years to life and heroin seven years to life.

Oklahoma's criminal justice system has exacerbated the state's prison crowding crisis by repeatedly sentencing more nonviolent offenders — particularly drug offenders — to longer terms than neighboring states like Texas and Missouri, the report says. Many states have been far ahead of Oklahoma in reforming their justice systems, the task force found. "Since 2010, 31 states across the country have decreased imprisonment rates while reducing crime rates," the report states.

Reducing Oklahoma prison sentences for nonviolent drug crimes is critical to reversing those trends because nearly a third of all Oklahoma prison admissions are for drug crimes and those prison sentences are often lengthy, the task force said.

Chance said most of the 21 task force members were in agreement with the group's findings, but acknowledged that the two district attorneys on the panel, David Prater and Mike Fields, have strong disagreements with some of the report's recommendations. Prater is the chief prosecutor for Oklahoma County, while Fields is the chief prosecutor for Canadian, Garfield, Blaine, Grant and Kingfisher counties and president of the Oklahoma District Attorneys Association....

If the state cuts prison sentences for drug manufacturing, distributing and trafficking without dramatically increasing funding for drug addiction treatment programs, Prater predicted it will lead to more home and auto break-ins and other crimes. "This is such a dishonest report," Prater said. "It's going to make Oklahoma a much more dangerous place."

Prater said the report's backers like to point to Texas as a state that has simultaneously reduced its incarceration and crime rates through similar justice reforms, but he noted that Texas appropriated $241 million up front in 2007 to pay for a package of prison alternatives that included more intermediate sanctions and substance abuse treatment beds, drug courts and mental illness treatment slots. Unless Oklahoma dramatically increases upfront funding for substance abuse treatment and parole supervision programs, the state's experience is more likely to parallel that of Utah, Prater said.

That state drastically cut sentences without providing sufficient funding for community programs and police officers and judges there have complained about offenders repeatedly being released out on the street with little or no supervision, he said.  Critics of Utah's reform efforts have cited the January 2016 slaying of Unified police officer Doug Barney as a reason for re-evaluating changes that were made. Barney's shooter, Corey Henderson, went through the revolving door of prison and many have argued he shouldn't have been out of jail when Barney was killed....

The Oklahoma Attorney General's Office was noncommittal about the report.  “The Attorney General's Office was invited to take part in the Oklahoma Justice Reform Task Force, and members of our team were in attendance," Lincoln Ferguson, spokesman for Atty. Gen. Scott Pruitt, said in a prepared statement.  "The AG's office takes no position on the merits or demerits of the proposal.”

The full report is an interesting read and is available here at this link.

February 3, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Lamenting that Henry Montgomery (and many other juve LWOPers) may not much or any benefit from Montgomery

Jody Kent Lavy, who is executive director of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Children, has this notable new commentary headlined "Supreme Court's will on juvenile offenders thwarted." Here are excerpts:

A little more than a year ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in Montgomery vs. Louisiana that Henry Montgomery — and anyone else who received mandatory life without parole for a crime committed when they were younger than 18 — was serving an unconstitutional sentence and deserved relief.

The sweeping opinion augmented three earlier decisions that had scaled back the ability to impose harsh adult penalties on youth, recognizing children’s unique characteristics made such penalties cruel and unusual. The Montgomery case made clear that the Eighth Amendment bars the imposition of life without parole on youth in virtually every instance.

But, in violation of the decision, prosecutors are seeking to re-impose life without parole in hundreds of cases, and judges are imposing the sentence anew. Hundreds of people serving these unconstitutional sentences — primarily in Louisiana, Pennsylvania and Michigan — are still awaiting their opportunities for resentencing. Henry Montgomery is among them.

I recently met Montgomery, now 70, at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, notorious as a place where most of its thousands of prisoners are destined to die. Montgomery, who is African-American, was convicted of killing a white police officer as a teenager. At the time, John F. Kennedy was president. Though his resentencing has yet to be scheduled, prosecutors say they plan to again seek life without parole.

Given last year’s ruling from the nation’s highest court, it might seem surprising that Montgomery, remorseful for the crime he committed more than five decades ago, is still languishing in prison. This is indeed outrageous, and it highlights the failings of our justice system, especially as it pertains to juveniles....

Henry Montgomery is living on borrowed time. He is a frail, soft-spoken, generous man. When it was lunchtime at the prison, I noticed that he wasn’t eating. When I asked why, he said he wasn’t sure there was enough food to go around. On the anniversary of the ruling that was supposed to bring him a chance of release, we owe it to Montgomery, as well as the thousands of others sentenced as youth to die in prison, to seek mercy on his behalf. We cannot give up until the day comes when children are never sentenced to life — and death — in prison.

February 3, 2017 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (4)

"Will Gorsuch Be Another Scalia on Criminal Justice Issues? Not Likely"

The title of this post is the headline of this terrific extended commentary at The Crime Report authored by Caleb Mason.  The piece does a wonderful job of reviewing many of the criminal jurisprudence highlights of Justice Scalia's three decades on the Supreme Court.  And the start and end of the commentary explains why the author does not expect a Justice Gorsuch to be able to fully fill the shoes of Justice Scalia:

What’s the outlook for criminal-justice jurisprudence from the new Supreme Court, if Neil Gorsuch fills the late Justice Antonin Scalia’s seat?

It’s an interesting question, because, as I’ve written here before, Justice Scalia was genuinely idiosyncratic when it came to criminal cases.  And the short answer is that Gorsuch won’t be another Scalia on criminal law, because no one can be.  Scalia’s influence on criminal jurisprudence was powerful and multifaceted, and cut across the usual left-right voting divide on the Court.

Whether your perspective is defense or prosecution, you can say with conviction that Scalia was the driving force behind some of the best case law and some of the worst case law.

Here are some areas in which Scalia moved the law dramatically. On each of these issues, he argued vehemently for years before lining up the votes to shift doctrine....

In sum, Scalia was unique in his criminal-law jurisprudence.  The weird mix of judicial impulses that led to the dramatic shifts in the law listed above is his and his alone.  His criminal-law views didn’t predictably track right or left — though his hostility to court-created enforcement mechanisms was terrible for criminal defendants.

So now the question on everybody’s lips is whether Gorsuch is going to be Scalia-esque.

When it comes to criminal procedure and criminal law, I don’t think anyone is. If Judge Gorsuch is confirmed, he’ll have 30 years to forge his own judicial identity.  And whoever he becomes on the Court, he won’t be another Scalia.

Some prior related posts:

February 3, 2017 in Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thursday, February 2, 2017

House Judiciary Chair Goodlatte says sentencing reform is part of his agenda

As detailed in this press release, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte yesterday discussed his agenda for the 115th Congress in a speech given to the Federalist Society at the National Press Club. Only a small section of the prepared remarks addressed criminal justice and sentencing reform, but what was said was still somewhat encouraging:

The Judiciary Committee also has the solemn responsibility to ensure our laws are fair, efficient, and enforced. Under my leadership, the Committee will continue to advance an agenda that ensures our federal criminal laws are designed to appropriately punish wrongdoers, are effectively and appropriately enforced, safeguard civil liberties, increase public safety, and work as efficiently as possible.

Both Ranking Member Conyers and I remain committed to passing bipartisan criminal justice reform. We must rein in the explosion of federal criminal laws, protect innocent citizens’ property from unlawful seizures, and enact forensics reforms to identify the guilty and quickly exonerate the innocent. We must also reform sentencing laws in a responsible way and improve the prison system and reentry programs to reduce recidivism.

Additionally, it’s imperative that we continually examine federal criminal laws to ensure they protect civil liberties while also providing law enforcement with the tools needed to fight crime and keep us safe.

February 2, 2017 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

One corrections officer dead as Delaware prison riot comes to end

As reported here, the "day-long hostage standoff inside Delaware’s largest state prison for men ended early Thursday after state police stormed the building, finding one corrections official dead and rescuing another who was being held hostage." Here is more:

The standoff began Wednesday at around 10:30 a.m. when inmates at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center in Smyrna, about 40 miles south of Wilmington, took four corrections department workers — and possibly some fellow prisoners — hostage inside one of the facility’s buildings.

Prisons across the state were locked down due to the standoff there. Dozens of inmates were released in Smyrna as the situation progressed, along with two corrections officials who were being held, the Department of Correction said in a statement overnight. It was not immediately clear how many of the inmates held in the seized prison block were hostages as opposed to hostage-takers.

The Delaware State Police entered the building shortly after 5 a.m. Thursday, according to the corrections department. A Department of Correction employee who was being held was “safely rescued and is being examined at a local hospital,” where she is alert and talking, the agency said in a statement.

Police found the remaining hostage, a corrections officer who was not immediately identified, unresponsive when they entered, and he was pronounced dead at 5:29 a.m. Authorities said they would release more information later Thursday at a news conference.

Gov. John Carney (D), in a statement Thursday, said “I’m praying hard for the fallen officer’s family.”

“This serves as a tragic reminder that members of law enforcement risk their lives every day on behalf of the people of Delaware,” he said. “We will stand by the fallen officer’s family and fellow law enforcement officers during what is an extremely difficult time.” Carney said officials were now focusing on trying to learn “what happened and how this happened,” and vowed to “make whatever changes are necessary to ensure nothing like it ever happens again.”

The hostage-takers had said their rebellion was a direct response to President Trump’s policies. “Everything that he did. All the things that he’s doing now,” they said during the second of two manifesto-like phone calls to a local newspaper. “We know that the institution is going to change for the worse.”

The inmates demanded education “first and foremost,” a “rehabilitation program that works for everybody” and a comprehensive look at the prison’s budget and spending, according to audio of the calls posted online by the News Journal in Wilmington, Del.

The Vaughn prison is the largest adult male correctional facility in the state, housing about 2,500 minimum, medium and maximum security inmates, according to the Department of Correction website. It is the landing place for people who have not yet been convicted of a crime and those who have been sentenced to death. Executions are carried out there, according to the website, although the death penalty in Delaware has been struck down by the state’s Supreme Court.

Inmate complaints about treatment within the prison, substandard medical care and poor record-keeping have increased in the past year, Stephen Hampton, an attorney from Dover who has represented prisoners in civil rights cases, told the Associated Press.

February 2, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (12)

"The Predictable Disarray: Ignoring the Jury in Florida Death Penalty Cases"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper now available via SSRN authored by Michael Radelet and G. Ben Cohen. Here is the abstract:

Both the United States Supreme Court, and the Florida Supreme Court have now made it clear that the Florida death penalty statutes that have been in use over the past 45 years are unconstitutional.  This result has been predicted since the original adoption of the statutes, and made clear by the Supreme Court's decisions in Sullivan v. Louisiana, Apprendi v. New Jersey, and Ring v. Arizona.

How the courts address the 393 prisoners currently on Florida's death row, sentenced to death under an unconstitutional statute, is yet to be determined. This paper reviews the history of the Florida death penalty statutes and provides a census of cases in Florida.

February 2, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Highlighting the basis for hoping Judge Gorsuch will prove to be like Justice Scalia on some criminal justice issues

Leon Neyfakh has this piece at Slate of note headlined "Unlike Trump, Neil Gorsuch Has Shown Flickers of Humanity on Criminal Justice Issues." Here are excerpts:

Donald Trump got himself elected in part by acting not just tough on crime but merciless. The guy loves the police and hates anyone who’s even been accused of breaking the law—thinks they’re disgusting and dangerous and don’t deserve an inch of sympathy no matter the circumstances of their offense. This is what it means to be strong in Donald Trump’s mind—a reflection, it has been persuasively argued by historian Rick Perlstein, of the formative years he spent fearing for his life in New York during the bad old 1970s and ’80s.

So it comes as something of a surprise that his pick for the Supreme Court, Neil Gorsuch, has a judicial track record dotted with flashes of humanity when it comes to issues of criminal justice. There’s the time he dissented from his colleagues about whether it was right for a school police officer to handcuff and arrest a seventh-grader for burping in class. (“My colleagues suggest the law permits exactly this option and they offer ninety-four pages explaining why they think that’s so. Respectfully, I remain unpersuaded.”)

There’s the time he argued it was unfair to hold a guy responsible for failing to follow a law he didn’t know he was breaking, a dissenting opinion that began: "People sit in prison because our circuit’s case law allows the government to put them there without proving a statutorily specified element of the charged crime. Today, this court votes narrowly, 6 to 4, against revisiting this state of affairs. So Mr. Games-Perez will remain behind bars, without the opportunity to present to a jury his argument that he committed no crime at all under the law of the land."

Maybe my expectations have sunk too low since Inauguration Day, but even just the premise of those sentences — that putting someone in prison is undesirable and that putting someone in prison who doesn’t deserve to be there is more likely unfair than fine — feels somewhat reassuring.

Also reassuring: a speech Gorsuch gave in 2006 that was being highlighted Tuesday night by the folks at Right on Crime, an organization of conservatives who support criminal justice reform. In that speech, Gorsuch mostly applied his soon-to-be-famous verve to the conservative parlor game of mocking silly federal statutes (“Businessmen who import lobster tails in plastic bags rather than cardboard boxes can be brought up on charges. Mattress sellers who remove that little tag? Yes, they’re probably federal criminals too”). But he also said something that betrays an awareness of just how dangerous it is for prosecutors — federal and otherwise — to enjoy so much discretion that they can pretty much punish anyone they want: “What happens to individual freedom and equality,” Gorsuch asked, “when the criminal law comes to cover so many facets of daily life that prosecutors can almost choose their targets with impunity?”...

But lest you think Mr. American Carnage has chosen a nominee who is some kind of soft-hearted criminal-coddler, consider the Gorsuch decisions flagged Tuesday by Igor Volsky from the Center for American Progress. One of them has Gorsuch declining to provide relief to a defendant who got life in prison without parole because his lawyer threatened to quit his case if he took a plea bargain instead of going to trial. Several others suggest a tendency to side with police officers who have been accused of excessive force—including one who killed a man by shocking him with a Taser to the head during a chase and another who put a 9-year-old who’d stolen an iPad from his school in a “twist-lock.”

February 1, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

"Say no to restorative justice for sex offenders"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable commentary published in The Hill authored by Michael Dolce.  Here are some of the details:

The debate around the Senate’s possible confirmation of Betsy DeVos, President-elect Trump’s nominee for Education Secretary, should kick start a national discussion on how colleges and universities handle sexual assault.  Recently, much of that conversation has revolved around “restorative justice,” programs that aim to respond to misconduct or crime by redressing the harm inflicted on victims and the community, rather than simply punishing offenders.

As a victim of childhood sexual abuse myself and an attorney who now represents sexual assault survivors every day, I can say without doubt that restorative justice is not only horribly insufficient for handling sexual abuse but, in many cases, actually serves to leave an offender free to offend again.

Whether as an alternative or a supplement to traditional discipline, restorative justice programs require offenders to make amends with victims — often with apologies and mediation — and participate in reformative programs like anger management or cultural sensitivity training, measures rarely imposed by the criminal justice system.  In an education setting, employing these programs for offenses like racial harassment and alcohol misuse have had some success, leading to understandable calls from some criminal justice reform advocates and college administrators to expand their use to college sexual misconduct cases.

It’s true that our colleges and universities routinely fail victims of sexual assault, as last year’s abhorrent handling of the Brock Turner case at Stanford University reminded us.  It’s also true, as the Chicago Tribune reported late last month, that the future of campus sex assault investigations under President Trump are “uncertain,” particularly since GOP convention platform calls for a reduced federal government role in investigations of campus sexual assault.

But, for several important reasons, restorative justice is not the answer for handling sex offenders. First, this method only works if offenders feel empathy when confronted with the impact of their misconduct.

According to prominent forensic psychology researchers Drs. Daryl Kroner and Adelle Forth, about half of convicted sex offenders exhibit psychopathology, meaning they are incapable of feeling remorse or empathizing with their victims. Sex offenders are often skilled at manipulating others into believing they are safe, which helps them gain their victims’ trust before attacking....

Second, advocates for restorative justice programs in this context often make the flawed assumption that sex offenders are similar to repeat offenders of other habitual offenses like drunk driving. But while underage drinking and alcohol abuse are certainly a common problem on university campuses, alcohol does not turn a college student into a sex offender. In fact, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, some offenders actually drink alcohol before committing sexual assault specifically to later justify their behavior. Relying on restorative justice to ‘treat’ this group would be a dangerous validation of their criminal deceit.

The third common argument – that schools might be safe relying on restorative justice methods in cases of sexual harassment that don’t involve physical assault – is risky at best. Those who sexually harass others are objectifying and dehumanizing their victims, behavior that is often a prelude to assaults....

The reality is that I believe the majority of sex offenders are largely incapable of empathy. Two-thirds of male sex offenders will re-offend if they are not treated and restrained as criminals. The consensus among mental health and criminal justice professionals is that most sex criminals cannot be reformed; they can only be monitored, controlled and contained.

These are people who look at the tears and agony on victims’ faces, show no mercy and then quickly move on to their next victim. Restorative justice can be a wonderful tool for certain types of offenses, but let’s not ask victims of sexual assault to suffer an even greater burden by making them take part in their attackers’ so-called “reformation.”

February 1, 2017 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (19)