Sunday, November 16, 2014

Does latest FBI report of crime's decline provide still more support for lead-exposure-crime link?

Regular readers know I am always drawn to the (often overlooked) social science research suggesting lead exposure levels better account for variations in violent crime rates than any other single variable. Consequently, I am happy and eager to note this new data analysis sent my way by researcher Rick Nevin who has been talking up the lead-exposure-violent-crime link for many years.

This short new piece by Nevin, titled "FBI 2013 Crime Statistics: Record Low USA Murder Rate; More Record Low Juvenile Arrest Rates," discusses the recent FBI report (noted here) that crime continued to decline significantly in 2013. Here are parts of Nevin's interesting and encouraging data discussion (with a recommendation readers click through here to see charts and all the links):

The 2013 USA murder rate was the lowest in the history of FBI reports dating back to 1960. The 2013 property crime rate (burglary and theft) was the lowest since 1966, and the 2013 violent crime rate (murder, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault) was the lowest since 1970. The record low 2013 murder rate indicates that the 2013 vital statistics homicide rate (including justifiable homicides) was close to the lowest levels recorded since 1909.

Nevin (2000) found that trends in preschool lead exposure from 1941-1975 explained over 90% of the substantial year-to-year variation in the USA violent crime rate from 1964 to 1998. That relationship has continued for another 15 years, with a 35% decline in the violent crime rate from 1998-2013. No other criminology theory has a comparable record of accurately predicting ongoing crime trends....

From 1991 (when the overall USA violent crime rate peaked) through 2012, the violent crime arrest rate has fallen by about 60% for ages 10-17, 50% for ages 20-29, 40% for ages 30-39, and 5% for ages 40-44, but increased by 14% for ages 45-49 and 17% for ages 50-54. The violent crime arrest rate is still increasing for age groups born before the early-1970s peak in USA preschool lead exposure.

The 2013 FBI report also shows another large decline in juvenile offending, due to ongoing declines in preschool lead exposure. Following record lows in juvenile arrest rates in 2012, the number of juveniles arrested for property crimes fell by another 15% from 2012 to 2013, and the number arrested for violent crimes fell another 8.6%. The property crime arrest rate for ages 10-17 is now about half of what it was in 1960, and the property crime arrest rate for ages 10-14 is just one third of what it was in 1960.

Some recent related posts:

November 16, 2014 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, National and State Crime Data, Offender Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack (0)

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Examining Crawford after a decade

First Impressions, the online companion to the Michigan Law Review, has this new on-line symposium titled "Crawford v. Washington: A Ten Year Retrospective."  Here is how the editors introduce the pieces and links thereto:

No one disputes the significance of Crawford v. Washington, 541 U.S. 36 (2004), which fundamentally transformed Confrontation Clause jurisprudence. But ten years after the Supreme Court's landmark decision, scholars, practitioners, and judges still debate its logic and its consequences. This Symposium continues that debate, featuring essays written by Professors Richard D. Friedman and Jeffrey L. Fisher, who advocated in Crawford itself for the Supreme Court to adopt the "testimonial" approach to the Confrontation Clause; Professor George Fisher, one of the nation's premier scholars of criminal law and evidence; and Professor Deborah Tuerkheimer, who has written extensively on the Crawford regime's effect on domestic violence prosecutions.

The Symposium consists of five essays. Professors George Fisher and Tuerkheimer both wrote longer essays, while Professors Friedman and Jeff Fisher each wrote a shorter piece and collaborated on a joint response to George Fisher's essay.

We hope this Symposium fosters further debate about the merits of the Crawford regime and inspires the practitioners, scholars, and judges who will shape the contours of the Confrontation Clause over the next ten years. 

November 15, 2014 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Recommended reading | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack (0)

"Does Prison Privatization Distort Justice? Evidence on Time Served and Recidivism"

The title of this post is the title of this notable paper by Anita Mukherjee now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

I contribute new evidence on the impact of private prisons on prisoner time served and recidivism by exploiting the staggered entry and exit of private prisons in Mississippi between 1996 and 2004. Little is known about this topic, even though burgeoning prison populations and an effort to cut costs have caused a substantial level of private contracting since the 1980s. The empirical challenge is that prison assignment may be based on traits unobservable to the researcher, such as body tattoos indicating a proclivity for violent behavior.

My first result is that private prisons increase a prisoner's fraction of sentence served by an average of 4 to 7 percent, which equals 60 to 90 days; this distortion directly erodes the cost savings offered by privatization. My second result is that prisoners in private facilities are 15 percent more likely to receive an infraction (conduct violation) over the course of their sentences, revealing a key mechanism by which private prisons delay release. Conditional on receiving an infraction, prisoners in private prison receive twice as many.

My final result is that there is no reduction in recidivism for prisoners in private prison despite the additional time they serve, suggesting that either the marginal returns to incarceration are low, or private prisons increase recidivism risk. These results are consistent with a model in which the private prison operator chooses whether to distort release policies, i.e., extend prisoner time served beyond the public norm, based on the typical government contract that pays a diem for each occupied bed and is imperfectly enforced.

November 15, 2014 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, November 14, 2014

Over lengthy dissents, en banc Eleventh Circuit shuts 2255 door to claims based on advisory guideline misapplication

The Eleventh Circuit has today provided some special weekend reading for hard-core federal sentencing fans with a special interest in finality issues (which, I realize, might be a small group).  Specifically, the en banc ruling together with dissents in Spencer v. US, No. 10-10676 (11th Cir. Nov. 14, 2014) (available here), runs more than 100 pages. More than three-quarters of those pages come from the dissents to a majority opinion (per Judge William Pryor) that begins this way:

This appeal concerns whether a federal prisoner may relitigate an alleged misapplication of the advisory United States Sentencing Guidelines in a collateral attack on a final sentence.  After he pleaded guilty to distributing cocaine and we affirmed the judgment against him, Kevin Spencer moved to vacate his sentence of imprisonment, 28 U.S.C. § 2255, for an alleged error in the application of the advisory guidelines. Spencer argues that an intervening decision of the Supreme Court, Begay v. United States, 553 U.S. 137, 128 S. Ct. 1581 (2008), makes clear that the district court and this Court erroneously classified him as a “career offender” based on a prior conviction for felony child abuse, which he argues is not a “crime of violence.”  United States Sentencing Guidelines Manual § 4B1.1 (Nov. 2006).  Spencer maintains that this alleged error represents a “fundamental defect which inherently results in a complete miscarriage of justice,” Hill v. United States, 368 U.S. 424, 428, 82 S. Ct. 468, 471 (1962), that can be revisited on collateral review.  We disagree.

Spencer cannot collaterally attack his sentence based on a misapplication of the advisory guidelines.  Spencer’s sentence falls below the statutory maximum, and his prior conviction for felony child abuse has not been vacated. Spencer’s sentence was and remains lawful.  We affirm the denial of Spencer’s motion to vacate his sentence.

At the very end of a very long week, I cannot do justice to the majority opinios or the dissents in this space, so I will close by quoting from the start of one of the dissents (per Judge Jordan) to highlight the human story at the center of the legal debate in Spencer:

At the end of the day, what constitutes a fundamental defect resulting in a complete miscarriage of justice comes down to a matter of considered judgment.  In my judgment, having an individual serve an additional 81 months in prison due to an erroneous career offender designation under the advisory Sentencing Guidelines constitutes such a miscarriage of justice, and for that reason I respectfully dissent.

Kevin Spencer is serving more than 12 years in prison (151 months to be exact) for selling $20 worth of crack cocaine.  The panel found, see Spencer v. United States, 727 F.3d 1076, 1100 (11th Cir. 2013), the government now concedes, see En Banc Brief for the United States at 57-58, and the majority does not dispute, that Mr. Spencer’s mistaken career offender designation more than doubled his advisory sentencing range from 70-87 months to 151-188 months.  For those of us familiar with — and sometimes numbed by — the ranges produced by application of the Sentencing Guidelines, it may be easy to overlook the dramatic increase resulting from the error.  To put it in perspective, the 81-month increase is roughly the time needed to complete both college and law school.

Mr. Spencer timely and consistently objected to the career offender designation, only to be told he was wrong.  As it turns out, he was right.  Unfortunately, the majority now rules that Mr. Spencer cannot use 28 U.S.C. § 2255 to correct the error.

November 14, 2014 in Advisory Sentencing Guidelines, Drug Offense Sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack (0)

Notable new AG Holder comments on reducing crime rates and incarceration levels

Last night Attorney General Eric Holder gave this speech at the Southern Center for Human Rights and had a lot to say about crime and punishment.  Here are some passages that caught my eye (with one particular phrase emphasized):

Over the years, we’ve seen that over-incarceration doesn’t just crush individual opportunity.  At a more fundamental level, it challenges our nation’s commitment to our highest ideals.  And it threatens to undermine our pursuit of equal justice for all.

Fortunately, we come together this evening at a pivotal moment — when sweeping criminal justice reforms, and an emerging national consensus, are bringing about nothing less than a paradigm shift in the way our country addresses issues of crime and incarceration, particularly with respect to low-level, nonviolent drug offenses.

For the first time in many decades, it’s clear that we’re on the right track, and poised to realize dramatic reductions in criminal activity and incarceration.  In fact, the rate of violent crime that was reported to the FBI in 2012 was about half the rate reported in 1993.  This rate has declined by more than 11 percent just since President Obama took office.  And the overall incarceration rate has gone down by more than 8 percent over the same brief period.

This marks the very first time that these two critical markers have declined together in more than 40 years. And the Justice Department’s current projections suggest that the federal prison population will continue to go down in the years ahead.  As a result of the commonsense, evidence-based changes that my colleagues and I have implemented – under the landmark “Smart on Crime” initiative I launched last year — I’m hopeful that we’re witnessing the beginning of a trend that will only accelerate as new policies and initiatives fully take hold.

Our Smart on Crime approach is predicated on the notion that the criminal justice system must be continually improved — and strengthened — by the most effective and efficient strategies available. That’s why we’re increasing our focus on proven diversion and reentry programs – like drug courts, veterans’ courts, and job training initiatives – that can help keep people out of prison in appropriate cases, and enable those who have served their time to rejoin their communities as productive citizens. It’s why we are closely examining the shameful racial and ethnic disparities that too often plague the criminal justice process  — and working to mitigate any unwarranted inequities.  And it’s why I have mandated a significant change to the Justice Department’s charging policies — so that sentences for people convicted of certain federal drug crimes will be determined based on the facts, the law, and the conduct at issue in each individual case and not on a one size fits all mandate from Washington....

Equal justice is not a Democratic value or a Republican value.  It’s an American value — and a solemn pursuit – that speaks to the ideals that have always defined this great country.  It goes to the very heart of who we are, and who we aspire to be, as a people. And it will always drive leaders of principle from across the political spectrum — including those in this room and others throughout the nation — to keep moving us forward along the path to transformative justice.

The phrases I highlighted should be of interest to all SCOTUS followers because the term "emerging national consensus" has great meaning and significance in Eighth Amendment jurisprudence. I think it is quite right to say that there is now a constitutionally significant "emerging national consensus" concerning the use of mandatory long terms of imprisonment "particularly with respect to low-level, nonviolent drug offenses." And it is quite exciting to hear this legally-important phrase coming from the US Attorney General, especially because I think statements like this might lay the foundation for overturning, sooner rather than later, troublesome Eighth Amendment precedents like Harmelin v. Michigan (and maybe even also Ewing v. California).

November 14, 2014 in National and State Crime Data, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)

NY Times debates "Parole When Innocence Is Claimed"

The Room for Debate section of the New York Times has this new set of pieces discussing parole practices and claims of innocence. Here is the section's set up:

With the increasing notoriety of cases in which prisoners have proved their innocence, some parole boards have permitted the release of inmates without the traditional requirement that they admit their guilt, if there is strong evidence of wrongful convictions.

Should prisoners for whom there is substantial evidence of innocence be required to admit guilt to be granted parole?

Here are the contributions, with links via the commentary titles:

November 14, 2014 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, November 13, 2014

"'I Expected It to Happen/I Knew He'd Lost Control': The Impact of PTSD on Criminal Sentencing after the Promulgation of DSM-5"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article by Michael Perlin now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

The adoption by the American Psychiatric Association of DSM-5 significantly changes (and in material ways, expands) the definition of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a change that raises multiple questions that need to be considered carefully by lawyers, mental health professionals, advocates and policy makers.

My thesis is that the expansion of the PTSD criteria in DSM-5 has the potential to make significant changes in legal practice in all aspects of criminal procedure, but none more so than in criminal sentencing.  I believe that if courts treat DSM 5 with the same deference with which they have treated earlier versions of that Manual, it will force them to seriously confront — in a wide variety of cases — the impact of PTSD on sentencing decisions.  And this may lead to more robust debates over the impact of mental disability generally on sentencing outcomes.

My optimism here is tempered by (1) the reality that courts deal teleologically with mental disability evidence in general (subordinating it when it is introduced by the defendant, and privileging it when introduced by the state), and (2) the power of sanism — an irrational prejudice of the same quality and character as other irrational prejudices that cause, and are reflected in, prevailing social attitudes such as racism, sexism, homophobia, and ethnic bigotry — in this entire inquiry.

On the other hand, we must also consider the impact of therapeutic jurisprudence on the question in hand.  Therapeutic jurisprudence (TJ) presents a new model for assessing the impact of case law and legislation, recognizing that, as a therapeutic agent, the law that can have therapeutic or anti-therapeutic consequences.  Although some scholars have considered TJ in the context of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, it remains mostly an “under the radar” topic.”  I believe it is essential we give it a new and urgent focus.

I am convinced that, if courts take seriously the new treatment of PTSD in DSM 5, and couple that with an understanding of sanism and an application of TJ, that will lead to an important sea change in the ways that defendants with that condition — especially those who are Iraqi and Afghanistani war veterans - are sentenced. This paper proceeds in this manner.  First, I briefly review the law of sentencing as it relates to persons with disabilities, focusing on developments that followed the Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Booker (making the Federal Sentencing Guidelines advisory rather than mandatory), the role of sanism, and the significance of therapeutic jurisprudence.  Then, I look at how courts have, until this moment, treated PTSD in sentencing decisions. I will then look at DSM 5 to highlight its definitional changes.  I then try to “connect the dots” to show how DSM 5 demands changes in sentencing practices, and explain how this change can be consonant with the principles of TJ. I will end with some modest conclusions.

November 13, 2014 in Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (12) | TrackBack (0)

Florida finally completes execution 22 years after murderer's horrific crime

As reported in this AP article, a "Florida man who fatally shot his sleeping wife and then raped and killed his young stepdaughter 22 years ago was put to death Thursday for the child's slaying." Here is more: 

Chadwick Banks, 43, was pronounced dead at 7:27 p.m. EST Thursday after a lethal injection at Florida State Prison, the office of Gov. Rick Scott said. Banks was condemned for the September 1992 killing of 10-year-old Melody Cooper. Banks also received a life sentence for the murder of his wife, Cassandra Banks, in the attack in the Florida Panhandle region.

Banks wore the white skullcap of the Muslim Brotherhood before the lethal drugs were administered, looking directly at the family of the victims when he delivered his final statement. "I'm very sorry for the hurt and pain I have caused you all of these years," Banks said. "Year after year I have tried to come up with a reasonable answer for my actions. But how could such acts be reasonable?"

Authorities said Banks was drinking and playing pool at a bar before going home around 3 a.m. the night of the slayings. Banks shot his wife point-blank in the head and then raped and shot his stepdaughter, according to authorities. Banks, who was 21 at the time of the killings, received a life sentence for his wife's murder, and a jury recommended the death penalty for the stepdaughter's slaying....

The execution was the eighth in Florida this year and the 20th since Gov. Rick Scott took office in 2011. That's one fewer than under Gov. Jeb Bush during both of his terms. Bush presided over the most executions since capital punishment was reinstated in the state in 1979, but Scott was just re-elected to a second term.

November 13, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Split South Carolina Supreme Court declares Miller retroactive AND applicable to state's nonmandatory LWOP sentencing scheme

As reported in this local article, "at least 15 South Carolina felons serving life sentences for homicides they committed while they were minors are eligible to return to court to be resentenced for their crimes, a divided S.C. Supreme Court ruled Wednesday." Here are the basics of the ruling: 

The 3-2 decision cites the U.S. Supreme Court's 2012 decision in Miller v. Alabama, which banned mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole in instances where juveniles commit murder....

The [Miller] ruling applied to mandatory sentences and the U.S. Supreme Court justices avoided declaring whether the new standard should be applied retroactively to older cases. South Carolina's high court, however, not only called for a rehearing of older cases but applied the new parameters to all juveniles cases where life sentences were imposed, even when that decision was at a judge's discretion.

Colin Miller, an associate professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law, and who participated in a moot court dry run of the Supreme Court arguments with attorney John Blume, called the high court's ruling "significant" and a victory for juvenile rights.  He said the court went beyond what many observers expected in extending projections to all juveniles facing life without parole.  "That was not a foregone conclusion," he said. "Here we have the Supreme Court of South Carolina saying the state will not impose life without parole on a juvenile without looking at the totality of the person in this situation."

I concur with the view of Professor Miller that this new South Carolina Supreme Court ruling in Aiken v. Byars, No. 27465 (S.C. Nov. 12, 2014) (available here), is a big win for juvenile justice advocates. Here are a few passages from the majority opinion that lead me to this view:

We conclude Miller creates a new, substantive rule and should therefore apply retroactively.  The rule plainly excludes a certain class of defendants — juveniles — from specific punishment — life without parole absent individualized considerations of youth. Failing to apply the Miller rule retroactively risks subjecting defendants to a legally invalid punishment....

We recognize that in holding the Eighth Amendment proscribes a sentencing scheme that mandates life in prison without possibility of parole for juvenile offenders, the Court did not expressly extend its ruling to states such as South Carolina whose sentencing scheme permits a life without parole sentence to be imposed on a juvenile offender but does not mandate it.  Indeed, the Court noted that because its holding was sufficient to decide the cases before it, consideration of the defendants' alternative argument that the Eighth Amendment requires a categorical bar on life without parole for juveniles was unnecessary.  Id. at 2469.  However, we must give effect to the proportionality rationale integral to Miller's holding — youth has constitutional significance. As such, it must be afforded adequate weight in sentencing.

Thus, we profoundly disagree with the position advanced by the respondents and the dissent that the import of the Miller decision has no application in South Carolina. Miller is clear that it is the failure of a sentencing court to consider the hallmark features of youth prior to sentencing that offends the Constitution.  Contrary to the dissent's interpretation, Miller does more than ban mandatory life sentencing schemes for juveniles; it establishes an affirmative requirement that courts fully explore the impact of the defendant's juvenility on the sentence rendered.

As evidenced by the record, although some of the hearings touch on the issues of youth, none of them approach the sort of hearing envisioned by Miller where the factors of youth are carefully and thoughtfully considered.  Many of the attorneys mention age as nothing more than a chronological fact in a vague plea for mercy.  Miller holds the Constitution requires more.

November 12, 2014 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

Federal judge wonders if marijuana sentencing should be impacted by state reforms

As reported in this Oregonian article, a "federal judge in Portland last week delayed the sentencing of a convicted bulk marijuana runner from Texas, saying he needed to get a better read on the U.S. Department of Justice's position on the drug before imposing a sentence." Here are more details:

U.S. District Judge Michael W. Mosman, presiding on Thursday in the case of U.S. v. Bounlith "Bong" Bouasykeo, asked lawyers if the vote in Oregon and a similar vote in Washington, D.C., signal "a shift in the attitude of people generally towards marijuana."

"I guess I'm curious whether I ought to slow this down a little bit," he asked lawyers, according to a transcript of the hearing obtained by The Oregonian. Under federal law, marijuana in any form or amount remains illegal.

Mosman wondered aloud if there was any move afoot to take a different position on marijuana enforcement in Oregon. This was not to suggest – he hastened to add – that he agreed on marijuana legalization. The judge wondered whether his position on sentencing ought to move a notch in the defendant's favor because of the nation's evolving view of pot.

"I'm not suggesting that what's on the table is that the whole case ought to go away or anything like that," the judge said. "But would something like that at the margins have some sort of impact on my sentencing considerations? I think I ought to take into account any evolving or shifting views of the executive branch in determining the seriousness of the crime?

"Should I delay this, in your view, or go ahead today (with sentencing)?" After hearing arguments from the lawyers, Mosman decided to delay Bouasykeo's punishment.

November 12, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Offense Characteristics, Pot Prohibition Issues, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

"A Comprehensive Administrative Solution to the Armed Career Criminal Act Debacle"

The title of this post is the title of this notable and timely new piece authored by Avi Kupfer and available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

For thirty years, the Armed Career Criminal Act (“ACCA”) has imposed a fifteen-year mandatory minimum sentence on those people convicted as felons in possession of a firearm or ammunition who have three prior convictions for a violent felony or serious drug offense.  Debate about the law has existed mainly within a larger discussion on the normative value of mandatory minimums. Assuming that the ACCA endures, however, administering it will continue to be a challenge.  The approach that courts use to determine whether past convictions qualify as ACCA predicate offenses creates ex ante uncertainty and the potential for intercourt disparities.  Furthermore, the Supreme Court's guidance on sentencing ACCA defendants has been unclear.  The resulting ambiguity creates inequity between defendants and fails to give them fair warning of the statute's scope.  This ambiguity also depletes the resources of courts, defendants, and prosecutors and prevents the statute from realizing its full potential of deterring violent crime.

This Note argues that rather than allowing this debacle to continue, Congress should delegate to a federal agency the task of compiling a binding list of state statutes that qualify as predicate offenses.  Under this approach, the states would assist the federal agency by providing initial guidance on their ambiguous statutes.  The U.S. Sentencing Commission has the manpower, subject familiarity, and institutional incentives to build and maintain the appendix, and state sentencing commissions would make ideal partners. In states that do not have sentencing commissions, comparable agencies and even properly incentivized attorneys general may be able to aid the federal Sentencing Commission. Congress should leverage this undertaking to resolve related definitional questions about the meaning of a violent crime in other areas of federal law.

November 12, 2014 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Legislation to get Ohio back on track with lethal injections being fast-tracked

As reported in this local article, headlined "Death-penalty reform bill would protect execution drug makers, physicians who testify," it appears that the state legislative process is moving forward to enact new regulations to help Ohio get back into the business of executions. Here are the details (with my emphasis added at the end):

Makers of Ohio's lethal-injection drugs would be kept anonymous, and physicians who testify about the state's execution method couldn't have their medical license revoked, under House legislation introduced Monday.  Attorney General Mike DeWine has said that lawmakers need to pass the reforms if Ohio is to resume executions next year, once a court-ordered moratorium ends.

Ohio, along with many other states, has been struggling to settle on an execution method, as many large pharmaceutical companies have refused to continue selling drugs used for lethal injection.  The state's current two-drug cocktail is being challenged in court and has been used in controversial executions in Ohio and Arizona.

House Bill 663 would keep secret the identities of compounding pharmacies, small-scale drug manufacturers that create individual doses of lethal-injection drugs on demand.  The proposed change is a sign that state officials could turn to compounding pharmacies for lethal-injection drugs that courts have upheld but that larger companies have stopped selling, such as pentobarbital.  Rep. Jim Buchy, a Greenville Republican co-sponsoring the bill, said the measure would protect compounding pharmacies from lawsuits.

Another proposed change in the bill would prevent the Ohio State Medical Association from revoking or suspending the license of any physician who provides expert testimony on the state's death penalty.  Such immunity is needed, supporters say, because the state is worried that doctors will refuse to testify in defense of Ohio's lethal-injection protocol for fear that they'll run afoul of medical ethics....

House Speaker Bill Batchelder, a Medina Republican, and Senate President Keith Faber, a Celina Republican, each said last week they plan to pass the legislation.   "That is something that we cannot leave in abeyance, otherwise we're going to have people who pass away prior to execution," Batchelder said.

I have a inkling that Speaker Batchelder's comments emphasized above may have been taken a little out of context, as the quote makes it seem he considers it is essential to fix quickly Ohio's machinery of death so that prisoners do not die on their own before being able to be killed by the state.

November 11, 2014 in Baze lethal injection case, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack (0)

Notable past remarks by AG-nominee Lynch on criminal justice reform to the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination

DownloadI just came across these remarks delivered by Attorney General nominee Loretta Lynch in August 2014 to the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in Switzerland as part of the US delegation. These remarks were intended to share with the Convention "some of the highlights of the Department of Justice’s efforts to eliminate racial discrimination and uphold human rights in the area of criminal justice."

The remarks are largely just a summary of many of the criminal justice reforms championed by Attorney General Eric Holder, but it will be interesting to see if the remarks garner special scrutiny as part of the Senate's confirmation process. Here are excerpts:

[T]he department has made great progress in reforming America’s criminal justice system. Our focus is not just on the prosecution of crime, but on eradicating its root causes as well as providing support for those re-entering society after having paid their debt to it.

There is, of course, much work still to be done. Currently our country imprisons approximately 2.2 million people, disproportionately people of color. This situation is a drain on both precious resources and human capital. The Attorney General is committed to reform of this aspect of our criminal justice system.

Last August the Attorney General announced the “Smart on Crime” initiative. Under this initiative, we’re ensuring that stringent mandatory minimum sentences for certain federal drug crimes will now be reserved for the most serious criminals. This is not an abandonment of prison as a means to reduce crime, but rather a recognition that, quite often, less prison can also work to reduce crime. We’re advancing alternative programs in place of incarceration in appropriate cases. And we’re committed to providing formerly incarcerated people with fair opportunities to rejoin their communities and become productive, law-abiding citizens.

As part of this effort, the Attorney General has directed every component of the Justice Department to review proposed rules, regulations or guidance with an eye to whether they may impose collateral consequences that may prevent reintegration into society. He has called upon state leaders to do the same, with a particular focus on enacting reforms to restore voting rights to those who have served their debt to society, thus ending the chain of permanent disenfranchisement that visits many of them.

To further ensure that the elimination of discrimination is an ongoing priority, the Attorney General has created a Racial Disparities Working Group, led by the U.S. Attorney community, to identify policies that result in unwarranted disparities within criminal justice and to eliminate those disparities as quickly as possible.

From the reduction of the use of solitary confinement, to the expansion of the federal clemency program, to our support for the retroactive reduction of penalties for non-violent drug offenders to the reduction in the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine, we have worked to improve our criminal justice system in furtherance of our human rights treaty obligations. We look forward to the future and the opportunity to do even more.

Obviously, if Loretta Lynch become the next US Attorney General, she will be in a great position to seize "the opportunity to do even more" with respect to criminal justice reform. I wonder what she might have in mind.

A few recent related posts:

November 11, 2014 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)

New York City mayor announces new policy concerning marijuana enforcement

ImagesAs reported in this New York Times article, headlined "Concerns in Criminal Justice System as New York City Eases Marijuana Policy," the NYC's new mayor and old sherrif are bringing a new approach to marijuana enforcement to the Big Apple. Here are the basics:

Mayor Bill de Blasio, who took office promising to reform the Police Department and repair relations with black and Latino communities, on Monday unveiled his plan to change the way the police enforce the law on marijuana possession.

Arrests for low-level marijuana possession have had an especially harsh impact on minority communities, and under the change announced on Monday, people found with small amounts of marijuana will typically be given a ticket and cited for a violation instead of being arrested and charged with a crime.

The news, outlined by the mayor and his police commissioner, William J. Bratton, at Police Headquarters, marked the most significant criminal justice policy initiative by Mr. de Blasio since he was sworn in as mayor in January. While he stressed that he was not advocating the decriminalization of marijuana, Mr. de Blasio said the impact of enforcement on the people arrested and on the Police Department compelled him to rethink how the police handle low-level marijuana arrests.

“When an individual is arrested,” he said, “even for the smallest possession of marijuana, it hurts their chances to get a good job; it hurts their chances to get housing; it hurts their chances to qualify for a student loan. It can literally follow them for the rest of their lives and saddle young people with challenges that, for many, are very difficult to overcome.”

For a Police Department that has devoted enormous resources to tens of thousands of marijuana arrests a year, the shift in strategy should, the mayor said, allow officers to focus on more serious types of crime by freeing up people who would otherwise be occupied by the administrative tasks lashed to minor marijuana arrests.

But the change, detailed in a five-page Police Department “operations order” that is set to go into effect on Nov. 19, immediately raised questions and concerns in many corners of the criminal justice system. It directs officers who encounter people with 25 grams or less of marijuana, in public view, to issue a noncriminal violation in most instances, rather than arrest them for a misdemeanor....

As they headed into a meeting with departmental leaders to hear about the new policy, some police union leaders said the changes seemed to run counter to the “broken windows” strategy of policing, long championed by Mr. Bratton as a way to prevent serious crime by cracking down on low-level offenses. “I just see it as another step in giving the streets back to the criminals,” said Michael J. Palladino, the head of the city’s Detectives’ Endowment Association, the union representing police detectives. “And we keep inching closer and closer to that.”...

At the news conference, Mr. Bratton said officers would still have to use discretion. If marijuana was being burned or smoked, an arrest would be made, he said. If offenders had an “active warrant,” or were wanted, or could not produce proper identification, they would be taken to the station house, he said. Officials said violations would not constitute a criminal record. They said court appearances, within weeks of the violation, could lead to a fine of up to $100 for a first offense....

Critics have said the police and prosecutors have been improperly charging people with possession of marijuana in public view, often after officers ask them to empty their pockets during street stops.

In 2011, Raymond W. Kelly, then the police commissioner, issued an order reminding officers to refrain from such arrest practices. Mr. Bratton said such practices were not now in use and the problem had been fixed. By now, the number of marijuana arrests has decreased, roughly mirroring the drastic reduction in the frequency of police stop, question and frisk encounters.

Of the 394,539 arrests made last year, marijuana arrests totaled slightly more than 28,000, or a little less than 10 percent of all arrests made in the city. That is down from 50,000 a few years ago.

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform

November 11, 2014 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Pot Prohibition Issues, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, November 10, 2014

Highlighting that George Soros and the Koch Brothers agree on the need for criminal justice reform

Tina Brown has this notable new commentary at The Daily Beast headlined "Here’s a Reform Even the Koch Brothers and George Soros Can Agree On." Here is how it gets started:

Do you like lists? Of course you do! It’s the Internet! So try this one:

1. Koch Brothers

2. National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers

3. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ)

4. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY)

5. George Soros

6. Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT)

7. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL)

8. Newt Gingrich

9. American Civil Liberties Union

10. Grover Norquist

Apart from a passionate certainty that either liberal Democrats or conservative Republicans (pick one) are a danger to the republic, what does this motley crew have in common?

Here’s what: They all agree that America’s practice of mass incarceration—unique in the world—is at worst a moral and practical failure or at best an outdated policy badly in need of adjustment.

That’s why they have busted out of their party and ideological boxes to try to do something about a dilemma that has become the ugliest face of America’s social, economic, and racial divisions. That’s why, for example, Gingrich and some prominent Christian conservatives joined hands this fall with the Soros-affiliated Open Society Foundation and the ACLU to back Proposition 47, a California ballot measure that redefines many lower-level felonies as misdemeanors. (Prop 47 passed comfortably last Tuesday.) It’s why the Kochs and the defense lawyers’ group just teamed up to train public defenders and help indigent defendants get counsel. It’s why Democratic and Republican senators are daring to co-sponsor bipartisan legislation like the Redeem Act—which, among other changes, would curb solitary confinement for youths and make it easier for nonviolent ex-offenders to survive without returning to crime.

There are 2.3 million Americans in prison right now. And the support of prisons and prisoners is costing taxpayers as much as $74 billion a year. No wonder criminal-justice reform is no longer the sole concern of balladeers and bleeding hearts. The United States of America locks up more of its population than any nation in human history.

Between mandatory sentencing, the war on drugs, the profiteering of private prisons, and the political glee of being “tough on crime,” the land of opportunity has become a vast empire of imprisonment. And the insane cost of keeping so many nonviolent people locked up is an investment in failure. It breaks up families, burns hope, and perpetuates cycles of misery. If you are poor and black and can’t afford the right lawyer, you’re likely to vanish into the system and enter a forever world of forgotten pain.

Our criminal justice system isn’t simply bloated and cruel. It’s also, on the face of it, unjust.

November 10, 2014 in Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

"Why Are There Up to 120,000 Innocent People in US Prisons?"

The provocative question in the title of this post is the provocative headline of this lengthy article from VICE News.  Here are excerpts: 

Guilty pleas and false confessions by the innocent are counterintuitive phenomena, says Rebecca Brown, director of state policy at the non-profit Innocence Project.  But of the 321 DNA exonerations that have occurred in the United States, 30 have involved people who originally pled guilty to crimes they didn't commit.  It's hard to accept that people who are innocent would knowingly incriminate themselves, but it happens frequently.

"Our cases are almost exclusively rapes and murders — very, very serious crimes — and even then, innocent people are pleading guilty," Brown says.  "Now spread that out across the entire system to include lower-level offenses, the vast majority of which are pled out, and the implications are clear."

According to the Innocence Project's estimates, between 2.3 percent and 5 percent of all US prisoners are innocent.  The American prison population numbers about 2.4 million. Using those numbers, as many as 120,000 innocent people could currently be in prison...

"The system isn't geared to discover innocence or guilt — it's geared to get people through the system as quickly and efficiently as possible," says John Pollok, a defense lawyer who has defended clients ranging from the mayor of Waterbury, Connecticut to members of the Gambino crime family.  "What it comes down to for a defense lawyer is really to try and minimize harm."

Overwhelmingly, minimizing harm means taking a deal instead of taking your chances at trial. And just as false confessions lead to false convictions, coercive plea bargains are also responsible for sending thousands of innocent people to prison. "Everybody swallows the lie because they want to believe that the system works," Pollok says. "The short of it is, each component of the system, from lawyers to judges to the way we charge people, is broken."

As federal judge Jed Rakoff wrote recently in the New York Review of Books, "The Supreme Court's suggestion that a plea bargain is a fair and voluntary contractual arrangement between two relatively equal parties is a total myth: It is much more like a 'contract of adhesion' in which one party can effectively force its will on the other party."

Rakoff tells me there are too many variables involved to pin down precisely how many innocent people are in prison, but he says criminologists peg the rate at which innocent people confess to crimes during plea bargains between 2 percent and 8 percent.  A spread that wide rightfully raises suspicions, and so Rakoff chooses to instead use an extremely conservative estimate of 1 percent. Even then, that puts up to 20,000 people behind bars for crimes they did not commit due to pressure to accept pleas.  "We know for a fact that there are innocent people taking pleas and going to prison," Rakoff says. "That's not conjecture."

No one can be forced to accept a plea bargain; the right to a trial is guaranteed by the US Constitution.  However, a pernicious phenomenon called the "trial penalty" dissuades many defendants from exercising it.  The federal conviction rate is an astonishing 97 percent, and studies have shown that defendants who refuse plea bargains are put behind bars for roughly nine times as long as those who take deals.  (Twelve of the inmates exonerated by the Innocence Project were threatened with the death penalty before deciding to plead guilty.)  As one former US Attorney told Human Rights Watch (HRW) last year, "If you reject the plea, we'll throw everything at you. We won't think about what is a 'just' sentence."

When Sandra Avery was caught with 50 grams of crack cocaine, prosecutors offered her a 10-year sentence if she agreed to plead guilty.  Avery decided to take her chances at trial, and was promptly convicted, after which prosecutors "threw everything" at her by invoking Avery's three previous convictions for possession.  The total value of the drugs Avery had been caught with in the previous three cases amounted to less than $100, but because Avery had three priors, she was sentenced to life in prison. There is no parole in the federal system. Avery will die behind bars.

Darlene Eckles, a nursing assistant with a clean record, agreed to let her brother stay with her after he got out of prison. She protested when he began dealing crack from her home, and finally kicked him out six months later. When the brother was later arrested on federal drug trafficking charges, Eckles got picked up too. Like Avery, Eckles refused to plead guilty, and went to trial. Although the jury convicted her on lesser charges that did not carry a mandatory minimum, prosecutors argued Eckles was every bit as responsible as her brother. The judge sentenced her to 19 years and seven months in prison. Her brother, who pled guilty, got 11 years and eight months.

Weldon Angelos sold $350 worth of marijuana to a confidential informant, who claimed that the 22-year-old Angelos was armed with a gun during two of the transactions. After Angelos was arrested, police found 3 pounds of pot and three guns during a search of his apartment. There was no evidence the guns had ever been fired or used to threaten someone else. Prosecutors offered Angelos 10 years for the weed, and five years for the guns. Angelos declined, opting for a trial. Prosecutors responded by filing a superseding indictment that stacked five new charges on top of the existing ones. Angelos was convicted and sentenced to 55 years in federal prison. He will be nearly 80 years old when he is released.

November 10, 2014 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack (0)

Huzzah, Huzzah... all crime goes down again in 2013 according to new FBI data

As reported in this official press release, the "estimated number of violent crimes in the nation decreased 4.4 percent in 2013 when compared with 2012 data, according to FBI figures released today." What great news, and here is more:

Property crimes decreased 4.1 percent, marking the 11th straight year the collective estimates for these offenses declined.

The 2013 statistics show the estimated rate of violent crime was 367.9 offenses per 100,000 inhabitants, and the property crime rate was 2,730.7 offenses per 100,000 inhabitants.  The violent crime rate declined 5.1 percent compared to the 2012 rate, while the property crime rate declined 4.8 percent.

I will have a lot more to say about these data later today, but for now I just want to celebrate the latest great news on crime rates.

November 10, 2014 in National and State Crime Data, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Federal prosecutors righteously undo convictions based on FBI agent's misdeeds

Regularly readers know I am quick to criticize federal prosecutors in this space when I am troubled by decision that seem driven more by a desire to win convictions and secure long sentences than by a commitment to do justice.  Given that reality, I nw want to be among the first to praise federal prosecutors for their response to evidence than an FBI agent in the DC area tampered with evidence in a number of serious prosecutions.  This Washington Post piece, headlined "More drug defendants cleared of charges because of investigation into FBI agent," provides details on a story that showcases the virtuousness of federal prosecutors:

Thirteen defendants charged with or convicted of distributing large amounts of heroin in the District had their cases dismissed Friday because prosecution had been tainted by an FBI agent who is accused of tampering with evidence linked to the cases, including drugs and guns.

Seven of the defendants had pleaded guilty in the drug conspiracy and four of them were serving prison sentences of between two and seven years.  But in one instant, all were unburdened by criminal charges or convictions, and those serving time had their sentences vacated. As soon as the hearing in federal court adjourned, the former defendants rushed from the box normally reserved for jurors, with one jubilantly saying, “Let me get out of here before [the judge] changes his mind.”

Friday’s ruling in U.S. District Court follows similar action Thursday, when another judge threw out charges involving 10 people convicted in a separate drug conspiracy involving the sale of heroin and cocaine.  Charges in other cases could be dropped in the near future.

Prosecutors had recommended dropping the charges amid the investigation of Matthew Lowry, 33, an FBI agent assigned to the Washington field office who worked with police on crime that spilled over from the District into Maryland and Virginia.  Lowry has been suspended but not charged. The investigation is being led by the Justice Department’s inspector general, and court documents link the dismissals to the probe involving Lowry.

Authorities have said little about the investigation, but court documents filed as part of the release of suspects say that Lowery is accused of tampering with drug and gun evidence. Officials with knowledge of the investigation have said the agent allegedly took heroin and used it himself.  Other officials said Lowry was found in the last week of September slumped over the wheel of an unmarked FBI car near the Navy Yard, along with two drug evidence bags, heroin and two guns.

The fallout has been swift.  Within days, prosecutors identified at least three drug cases and started to send defendants home from jail and prison to await further action. Prosecutors began dismissing cases outright Thursday.  In all, 23 of 28 defendants in two drug cases have had their charges dismissed.

“We do not lightly dismiss these cases, particularly when the defendants face the serious drug charges at issue here,” U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr. said in a statement.  But, he added, “The credibility of the system is paramount and more important than any individual prosecution. That’s why we are carrying out a case-by-case, defendant-by-defendant review to determine which cases should go forward.

"We are carefully examining the role that the FBI agent played in each investigation to assess whether the case can proceed.  And moving forward, be assured we will not be dissuaded from aggressively investigating and prosecuting narcotics cases to protect the residents of the District of Columbia,” the prosecutor said....

One of the defendants freed, 59-year-old Brandon Beale, went straight from the courtroom to the Pretrial Services Agency so he could turn in his ankle bracelet and shed the restrictions of home detention, said his attorney, Greg English.  English said Beale, who was jailed for nearly a year, planned to fight the charges on the grounds that he was merely a drug user, not a dealer.  Now, English said, there will be no reason to do that.

“This turn of events is absolutely extraordinary for an agent to commit misconduct like this. It goes to the basic integrity of the system,” English said. “But having said that, I think the U.S. Attorney’s Office did the right thing today and dismissed it. . . . They were completely ethical and upfront in their conduct in this case.”  English said it was technically possible for prosecutors to bring the charges against Beale and others again, but he doubted they would do so.

In addition to being eager to praise federal prosecutors for their swift and aggressive response to learning that an FBI agent has gone rogue, I am also eager to know if anyone (e.g., Bill Otis) might be incline to criticize the federal prosecutors for moving to vacate a bunch of convictions rather than to seeking to contend that any evidence problems created by the rogue agent produced on harmless errors.

November 10, 2014 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Minnesota judges say we must admit "we have a problem with race" in the criminal justice system

Kevin Burke, a Minnesota county district judge, has authored this provocative new commentary which was signed on to by a number of fellow judges. The piece is headlined "On race and justice system, we're still in denial," and here are excerpts:

Repeatedly, we have been confronted with compelling evidence that our community has a serious problem with racial disparity in its justice system.  Repeatedly, we have either said, “We can stop,” or we get defensive and attack the messenger.  The time has come for us to change our response.

The recent report by the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota (ACLU) on the racial disparities of arrests comes as no particular surprise (“ACLU: Blacks arrested more for minor crimes,” Oct. 29).  Sure, you could write off the ACLU as some leftist organization — except that its report is based on hard data.  The ACLU’s data and its analysis replicate numerous studies dating back decades about the problem of racial disparity in the justice system in our community....

[I]n 2007, the Minneapolis-based Council on Crime on Justice issued a report that found that “[t]he racial disparity in Minnesota’s justice system is exceptionally high compared to other states. From arrest to imprisonment, the disparity is over twice the national average.”  Since 2000, the report said, the Council on Crime and Justice “has undertaken seventeen separate studies in a comprehensive effort to understand ‘why’ such a large disparity exists here, in Minnesota.”...

We need to accept we have a problem.  All of us have a right to be safe, but protecting the public and being racially fair are not mutually exclusive.  The ACLU report is interesting, in part, because it is not focused on “serious” or “violent” crime.  There is no legitimate reason why there is a vastly disproportionate arrest rate for young black people for possession of small amounts of marijuana or for loitering.

The justice system desperately needs the trust of the public.  Community policing is premised upon community support.  But before you conclude that this is a problem with the Minneapolis police — stop.  All of the police, prosecutors, defenders, corrections officials and the community at large own a piece of the mess.  And yes, so do the elected officials — including judges.  Every one of us in the justice system bears responsibility for this problem....

There is a connection between racial disparity in the justice system and what is happening in our community.  Child protection failures, racial disparity in low-level offenses, achievement gaps in school, and yes, even violent crime and gang problems are all related. The beginning of an end to these issues starts with a collective admission that we have a problem with race.

The solutions to our problem of racial disparity in the justice system may be as intractable as our failure to acknowledge the existence of the problem, but we have no choice other than to act.  At a minimum, we need to acknowledge the cumulative nature of racial disparities. Racial disparity often builds at each stage of the justice continuum, from arrest through release from prison.  And even then it does not stop.  Employment opportunities for ex-offenders are limited.  Hennepin County has a history of very good dialogue among the justice system participants, but in order to combat racial disparity, everyone needs to commit to a systematic approach.  Without a systemic approach to the problem, gains in one area may be offset by reversals in another....

Given the persistence of the problem of racial disparity in the justice system, however, a very good case can be made that reasoned experiments to find solutions are a better alternative than continually repeating what we are presently doing — and hoping for a different result.

November 9, 2014 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

"Aging Prisoners Shackle State Budgets"

The title of this post is the headline of this article from the November 2014 issue of Governing magazine.  Here are excerpts:

Nearly 10 percent of inmates housed in California state prisons were age 50 or older in 2003.  About a decade later, that percentage has doubled.  Thanks to an aging prison population and a 2011 prison realignment bill that sent lower-level and typically younger offenders to county jails, about 21 percent of the total state prison population today is over age 50.

While the circumstances in California are unique, the predicament is not.  As baby boomers age nationally, America’s prison population is graying.  What’s less understood, though, is the full extent of the demands an older prison population will place on corrections systems and just how much it will end up costing.

A recent Urban Institute analysis suggests that it could carry significant fiscal consequences for states in the years to come.  Compared to the general population, older prisoners experience accelerated aging due to substance abuse or other unhealthy lifestyle choices. Older prisoners also require, according to the report, more time from guards for their daily routines and chores.  “Despite being a small percentage of the total inmate population, the implications are quite large,” says Bryce Peterson, an Urban Institute research associate. He adds that “policies and different intervention strategies should focus on a larger group of older inmates and not just those close to death or severely ill.”...

Efforts specifically aimed at reducing aging prison populations remain fairly limited. One common approach they've taken, Peterson says, is to study compassionate release programs.  In 2011, California implemented a parole program for individuals permanently medically incapacitated to the point where they required 24-hour care.  Until that program, there had been a few extreme cases of aging California prisoners in comas being guarded and kept alive through breathing and feeding tubes at acute care facilities at a cost of nearly $1 million a year.

At least 15 states provide some form of early release for geriatric inmates.  But a Vera Institute of Justice report found those provisions were rarely used, in part attributable to restrictive eligibility criteria, political considerations, and long referral and review processes.

It’s hard to say just how much older prisoners will end up costing states. At least 16 states mandate the use of specialized corrections impact statements to help lawmakers understand how various criminal justice proposals affect prison populations and associated costs, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

November 9, 2014 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)