Archive for the ‘Eighth Amendment’ Category

Deterrence has nothing to do with it.

Thursday, December 20th, 2012

Interesting concurring opinion by Posner the other day in U.S. v. Craig. Basically, the defendant pled to four counts of creating child porn — which he created in an awful and horrifying way. He could have gotten 30 years for each count, but the judge gave him 50 (30 on one count, 20 on the other three). The defendant appealed the sentence. But it was within the Guidelines, and so was presumptively reasonable. And the judge didn’t ignore any mitigating factors. So the appeal was meritless and denied. A shocking sentence for a shocking crime, but hardly a shocking decision.

True to form, however, Posner went out of his way to make an economic evaluation of the sentence. What was it good for? Did tacking on the extra 20 years make any sense? Posner says no, and argues that judges need to take such things into account in the future when imposing sentences.

He engages in a straightforward cost-benefit analysis. The cost to society? $30K a year now, more than double that as the prisoner grows old and requires medical care. Plus the lost productivity of the man being incarcerated. The benefit? For that he looks to the purposes of punishment. But not all of them.

He only considers (more…)

Answering Your Most Burning Questions

Friday, December 14th, 2012

Google analytics is a great tool. Among other things, it shows the search engine queries people use to find this blog. Which is a good way of figuring out who its audience is, and what they need to know.

The queries aren’t as entertaining as they are over at Popehat, but then again neither is this blog.

Nor are they all that varied. In fact, just looking at the top 2000 searches so far this month, almost every single one is a variation on a few basic themes. These are the questions people apparently want answered right now. So I’ll address them briefly — very briefly — here.

1. Should I become a lawyer? / Do I have what it takes to be a lawyer?

To answer questions like these, you first have to understand what lawyers do. Once you know that, it should be (more…)

When Incarceration Shot Up and Crime Plummeted

Tuesday, January 24th, 2012

The January 30 issue of the New Yorker has an intriguing article by Adam Gopnik, “The Caging of America: Why do we lock up so many people?” Perhaps we’ve grown a bit cynical, but we expected yet another inane media whine about increasing rates of imprisonment “despite” fewer crimes being committed. We were surprised to find a thoughtful — at times insightful — look not only at the reality of American incarceration, but also at what causes crime to go up and down. It’s rare enough for a news or magazine writer to do even that much. To his credit, Gopnik goes one further, making a creditable attempt at objectivity — dismissing, debunking and blaming both the right and the left — though his apparent left-ish leanings still come through from time to time.

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Gopnik’s main points are these:

Incarceration is happening on an unprecedented scale in our history. It’s been growing ever faster since the 1970s. Its ubiquity and brutality have become accepted parts of the culture. Northern and Southern thinkers have come up with different explanations and solutions. Northern thinkers like William J. Stuntz see prison as a place for rehabilitation, and the injustices as the result of our system’s reliance on procedural correctness rather than individual justice, from the Bill of Rights through the present day — a problem to be solved by letting common sense and compassion be the focus on a case-by-case basis. Southern thinkers like Michelle Alexander see prison instead as a means of retribution, and the injustices of the system are part of its design to trap and control young black men.

As incarceration rates more than tripled between 1980 and 2010, the crime rate itself went down. “The more bad guys there are in prison, it appears, the less crime there has been in the streets.” The huge growth in imprisonment, and the policies that led to it (such as harsher drug laws, zero-tolerance policies, restricted sentencing discretion, etc.) were a reaction to the big-city crime wave of the 1960s ad 1970s — a crime wave that owed its existence to liberal policies that had crossed the line from mercy to abdication. Meanwhile, research began to reveal that rehabilitation doesn’t work, and bad guys weren’t getting better, and so all you could do was lock them up to keep them off the streets.

Starting in the 1990s, crime rates began to drop — by 40% nationwide, and 80% in New York City. Demographic shifts don’t account for it. Neither do broken-window policing, keeping the really bad guys behind bars, welfare reform, or other right-wing explanations. The left’s insistence that crime comes from poverty, discrimination and social injustice didn’t work, either, as none of those things changed enough to account for the drop in crime. The economy didn’t have an effect.

What did have an effect in New York City, however, was (more…)

Time to Lose the Guidelines?

Wednesday, June 29th, 2011

Bill Otis, a former AUSA and now an adjunct at Georgetown Law, had a piece earlier this month in the Federalist Society’s magazine Engage titled “The Slow, Sad Swoon of the Sentencing Suggestions.”  His article opens with the sentence “The Guidelines are a lost cause.”  We were in total agreement so far.  But by the next sentence, he’d lost us.

It’s a good article, don’t get us wrong, and well worth reading.  But Prof. Otis’ main point is that the Guidelines stopped being useful after Booker made them optional.  He’d prefer to completely do away with them, but only to replace them with more stringent rules that remove most of the discretion judges now have in sentencing.  We cannot agree.

The Guidelines were enacted back in 1987 largely in response to a perception that sentencing was too unpredictable.  For any given crime, Judge A might give three years in prison while Judge B might give only one.  Or Defendant X might get prison while Defendant Y only got probation.  The Guidelines corrected that by removing much of the discretion judges had.  For a given offense, and a given criminal history, there was a range of permissible definite sentences that could be imposed.  Some discretion was allowed for slight downward or upward departures to different ranges.  Less discretion was allowed for variances, sentences that rejected the Guidelines as inappropriate.  Needless to say, judges hated this loss of discretion from day one.  The Guidelines were not mere guidelines, but strict rules.  It stayed that way until the 2005 Booker decision restored them to the general rule-of-thumb they were meant to be.

Now, the Guidelines are still important at sentencing.  Everyone uses them, everyone applies them.  Now, however, once the appropriate Guideline range has been calculated, there is more room for advocacy to seek a different sentence, and judges are able to consider different sentences on a case-by-case basis.

Some, like Otis, decry this as a return to the unpredictable bad old days, where one’s sentence varied based on the “luck of the draw” of which judge one happened to have.  Others praise it as a movement towards greater individual justice.

The division here is deep, a seemingly irreconcilable difference of core principles of what criminal justice is supposed to do.

On the one hand, you have those who want predictability, uniformity and consistency.  If stealing $50,000 is worth five years (or whatever), then it’s worth five years.  What’s important is the crime, not the criminal.  If society knows that a given crime gets you a given sentence, then the law has a more deterrent effect.  The penalty works to prevent more of the same crime, and society benefits.  Taking into account such variables as the thief’s personal circumstances or the judge’s gut feeling that this wasn’t such a big deal — or conversely variables such as the relative harm suffered by the particular victim or the judge’s gut feeling that this was worse than usual — makes for an unpredictable world where nobody knows what a given crime is worth.  Without predictability, the law loses its deterrent effect.  Society suffers.  The purposes of punishment that are most important to this group are retribution — a given crime is worth a given penalty — and general deterrence.

On the other hand, you have those who want individualized sentencing.  Make the punishment fit the criminal, not the crime.  Justice is not what happens on average, it is what happens to this individual standing right here right now.  And even general deterrence is achieved not by specific sentences, but by the general awareness that some punishment is going to happen.  The uncertainty of what that penalty might be doesn’t lessen the deterrent effect of this awareness.  And the retributive aspect of punishment must be proportional to be just.  A one-year sentence might be devastating to the life of a middle-class college grad whose career will be ended, whose reputation in his relevant community will be destroyed, and who will suffer the consequences deeply for the rest of his life.  That same one-year sentence might be a walk in the park (or as one of our clients once put it, “a nice vacation”) with little or none of the devastation suffered by the other.  Justice demands that individual differences be taken into account.  And that demands that judges be given the discretion to do so.

These two positions — general justice vs. individual justice — are usually irreconcilable because they use the same words to mean different things.  They can’t even begin a discussion because they’re arguing from core principles that don’t correspond.

But beyond that, those who value general consistency over individual appropriateness miss the entire point of our criminal justice system.  The whole point is to ensure (more…)

Prison: A Problem, Not a Paradox. Is It Solvable?

Tuesday, June 14th, 2011

Too many people are in jail.  The rate of incarceration is just going up and up.  Is it doing any good?

If you look at the two graphs above, you’ll see that the prison population in the United States has soared, while the amount of violent crime has plummeted.  The prison population of 1.5 million is about triple what it was in 1980.  Meanwhile, according to the DOJ’s figures, violent crime is about a third of what it was in 1980.  It’s an uncanny correspondence, that incarceration has tripled while violence has thirded (yes, that’s a real word).

Some people look at this and say there’s an inherent absurdity, an inherent injustice, that even though crime is down jailings are up.  Others say it’s obvious that, if you jail the people who commit crimes, they’re not going to be walking around to commit as many crimes.  One sees a paradox, the other sees causation.  (These are not straw men, by the way.  These positions have been taken on the pages of the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, among others.)

There really isn’t any paradox, of course.  It’s not like more people are being imprisoned than there are crimes being committed.  Last we heard, everyone in prison was convicted of something.

What’s going on here is that more and more convictions are resulting in incarceration.  Crime may be down, but the proportion of crimes you’re likely to go to jail for is way up.

Nonviolent crimes, in particular, are far more likely to get you a jail sentence these days.  Since about the start of the Clinton administration, the number of different kinds of nonviolent offenses has skyrocketed.  And drug crimes have been a growing proportion since the Reagan years.

Several factors are involved in this dramatic increase in prison for nonviolent offenses.  One is a dramatic increase in regulatory violations that have been criminalized.  Regulatory agencies have started using criminal law as a tool — a tool that is wrong for the job, and one they are ill-equipped to use.  Voluminous regulations are created to micromanage how people can live their lives and operate their businesses.  Fines, denial of permits, and other civil penalties are the normal and appropriate method for enforcing compliance with all the regulations.  But over the past generation, regulators have become emboldened to impose criminal penalties for violations of their rules.

These regulations are rarely drafted by anyone who has the slightest clue of what criminal law is, why it exists, and how it works.  So they tend to leave out little things like mens rea.  Everything’s a strict-liability crime with them. In the regulatory world, simple mistakes are indistinguishable from deliberate transgressions.  When the penalty is denial of a permit, that’s not a problem.  But when the penalty is prison, it’s a big problem.  And everything’s a federal offense, which almost always means a felony.  Instead of, you know, regulating conduct, the regulators use the criminal law to keep the unruly masses in line.  And more people face prison as a result.

Another factor is the elected politicians’ desire to look “tough on crime.”  Which results in a steady ratcheting-up of sentencing for existing crimes, as we’ve discussed before.

It also results in the creation of new crimes, harsher statutes to deal with the public outcry of the moment, like crack or hate crimes or insider trading or what have you.  These new offenses are rarely necessary, as existing laws tend to already punish the conduct.  But the new ones often carry greater minimum sentences, and that’s the whole point.  So more people are facing prison, and for longer stretches of time, than before.

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The situation is getting out of hand.  It’s gotten to the point where small corrections aren’t going to cut it.  Drastic measures would be needed.  And drastic measures being, you know, drastic and all, they’re not likely to be undertaken any time soon.

But let’s say we’ve got a genie who’s offered to grant us three wishes here.  What would they be?

Wish one would be (more…)

Stop the Presses — Holder Does Something Right

Wednesday, June 1st, 2011

 

We rag on Attorney General Eric Holder from time to time on this blog.  For good reason — he’s been something of an idiot on profiling, miranda, terrorism, etc..  But today he did something praiseworthy, and we’d be out of line if we didn’t say so.

Last August, Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act.  Although it does have some significant drawbacks, such as actually increasing sentencing for some defendants, the main intent was to try to reduce the insane disparity in federal sentencing for crack cocaine and powder cocaine.

The problem was, this reduction in the sentencing guidelines was not retroactive.  It only applied to future cases.  People already in prison for crack — even though everyone now agrees their sentences are too long — would have to suck it up and stick it out.

But today, AG Holder testified before the US Sentencing Commission, and told them the new lower sentences should be applied retroactively.  “As years of experience and study have shown, there is simply no just or logical reason why their punishments should be dramatically more severe than those of other cocaine offenders,” he said.

Yes.  He is, for once, right.

Of course, even when he’s right he can’t help being wrong.  Holder wouldn’t let the lower sentences be retroactive if the inmate happened to have a gun at the time of the crime.  Or if the inmate had a “significant” criminal history.  Apparently, crack really is something that should be sentenced more harshly if you’ve gotten caught possessing or selling it before.  There’s no internal logic here, no principle that supports this.  If crack crimes are not more serious than equivalent powder crimes, then what justifies enhancing crack but not powder sentences if these other factors exist?  Holder’s being disingenuous, trying to appease both the reformers and the “try to look tough on crime” legislators, instead of actually being true to his principles.  If he has any.

Still, although he’d be more correct to seek retroactive application across the board, he’s at least doing something right in seeking some retroactivity at all.  So here’s some polite golf applause for Eric Holder.

Rethinking Recidivism

Friday, April 29th, 2011

 

It’s rare that we agree with a NY Times editorial.  Yesterday, we came close.  In a blurb titled “Recidivism’s High Cost and a Way to Cut It,” the editors said one solution to the high cost of imprisoning repeat offenders would be to adopt what Oregon’s doing, in letting its parole officers use programs and other alternatives to jail for lesser violations.

Ooh, so close.

Two problems: One, most of those who return to prison aren’t coming back on a parole violation, they’re going in because they got convicted of a whole new crime.  Yes, far too many parolees get put back in for non-criminal stuff like failing to abide by arbitrary and asshole-ish conditions imposed by dickhead parole officers.  But this doesn’t account for much of the actual recidivism numbers.  So dealing with this isn’t going to make too big a dent in the repeat prison population.

Two, the people making the decision are still going to be the same parole boards, parole officers, and parole magistrates who are acting like assholes and dickheads in the first place.  (These are obscure legal terms of art, perhaps obscure to those who do not practice criminal law.  To any non-lawyers reading this, we believe the common expression would be something akin to “unthinking, tyrannical bullies.”)  The problem people are the ones who are so jaded by dealing with scumbag after scumbag that they are incapable of recognizing a deserving parolee when they see one; or they are so stupid that they are incapable of reasoned discretion and cling to rote practices like a drowning man clutching a lifeline; or they are such villains that they derive satisfaction from fucking people over; or they are so righteous that they believe they are doing the right thing in fucking people over.  Whichever variety you’re dealing with, they either abuse their discretion or fail to use their discretion in the first place.  So giving them more discretion isn’t going to solve anything.

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So okay, the NYT oversimplified, missed the real point, and offered a useless suggestion.  Who cares, that’s what they always do.  But this is The Criminal Lawyer, you’re saying to yourself.  What do we suggest?

The biggest problem is really out of the hands of the criminal justice system.  It’s people who (more…)

Federal Sentencing: A Long Way to Go

Tuesday, May 25th, 2010

guidelines

Tonight, we attended a panel discussion on federal sentencing that was actually worth commenting on. Usually, these things are either so basic or insubstantial as to be a waste of time. But this one had a few choice moments we’d thought we’d share with our readers.

The panelists included John Conyers (Chairman of the House judiciary committee), William Sessions (Chair of the U.S. Sentencing Commission and Chief Judge of the District of Vermont), Jonathan Wroblewski (policy director for the DOJ, among other things), Alan Vinegrad (former US Atty for the EDNY and now a white-collar partner at Covington), Tony Ricco (mainstay of the federal defense bar), and Rachel Barkow (NYU professor, didn’t speak much). It was moderated by Judge John Gleeson of the EDNY, and we recognized in the standing-room-only audience a number of distinguished jurists and counsel.

Everyone seems to agree that the Guidelines are in need of a major overhaul. As Judge Gleeson put it, “when even the prosecutors are saying that sentences are too severe… the sentences are too severe.”

But not everyone agrees on what changes ought to be made, how drastic the changes ought to be, or even what’s causing the problems in federal sentencing.

Here’s the take-away: Everyone knows what the right thing to do is. Judges want to do the right thing, regardless of what the Guidelines say. The DOJ forces its prosecutors to do what the Guidelines say, regardless of what they think is just. Congress is incapable of doing the right thing, in its efforts to pander and blame rather than solve. And the Sentencing Commission is afraid to be independent of Congress, preferring instead to make baby steps toward eventually maybe doing the right thing.

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“Unnecessary cruelty”

For as long as we’ve been practicing law, everyone has been complaining bitterly about (more…)

“Cruel and Unusual” to Sentence Juveniles to Life without Parole

Monday, May 17th, 2010

 

The Supreme Court today decided Graham v. Florida (opinion here), ruling 6-3 that it violates the Eighth Amendment’s Cruel and Unusual Punishment clause to sentence a juvenile offender to life in prison without parole, for a non-homicide crime. This is a hugely significant decision, creating a new precedent in sentencing law (and also forcing Florida to make some law of its own, as it did away with parole a while back).

(Companion case Sullivan v. Florida was dismissed, as certiorari was improvidently granted in light of the Graham decision.)

The opinions are a stirring read. Chief Justice Roberts, in the majority, was in strong opposition against his fellow conservatives Alito, Thomas and Scalia, who dissented. During oral argument, it was clear to observers that Roberts wanted to bring them into the fold and get a unanimous decision that youth deserves a second chance at some point.

Roberts couldn’t get them to agree, which must have been a disappointment to the Chief, who openly aspires to as much unanimity and consensus as possible on his Court. It moved him enough to write a scathing concurring opinion, taking to task the arguments of his conservative brethren.

Kennedy doesn’t let any of the conflict or disappointment show in his majority opinion, which is a balanced and philosophical treatise of the evolution of Cruel and Unusual Punishment law, and well worth reading.

(Had it been up to us, we’d have preferred for the Chief to write an opinion that stays above the fray, and leave it to others to write the criticisms of the dissents. That would free it of any taint of personal feeling.)

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This was really an unexplored territory in American jurisprudence. The Supreme Court has long carved out exceptional (more…)

Beatings & Batson

Monday, February 22nd, 2010

guard beating prisoner

The Supreme Court is back in session, well rested from a three-week vacation. (We don’t remember the last time we took three weeks off. Wonder what that must be like.) They opened the day this morning with two interesting per curiam decisions.

The first, Wilkins v. Gaddy, is about what counts as “excessive force” against a prisoner. There was some confusion among the circuits here.

This was a case coming out of North Carolina. A prisoner named Wilkins asked a prison guard for a grievance form. The guard, Gaddy, lost his temper. Wilkins claims that Gaddy threw him to the ground and beat him up, until another officer came and pulled him off. At the end of the day, though, his only injury was a bruised heel and some lingering pain.

The Fourth Circuit said that didn’t count as “excessive force,” because there wasn’t much injury. The main case on point was Hudson v. McMillian, 503 U.S. 1 (1992), which the Fourth Circuit had been interpreting to mean that the prisoner’s injuries had to be more than de minimis. And a bruise on your heel is about as de minimis as it gets.

The Supreme Court reversed, saying that’s not at all what Hudson was saying. Calling the Fourth’s reading of that case “strained,” the Supremes clarified the rule in no uncertain terms: the focus is not on what happened to the prisoner, but on what the corrections officer did.

The issue is not how significant the injuries were, but whether the correction officer’s force was “nontrivial,” and “was applied maliciously and sadistically to cause harm,” rather than as part of “a good-faith effort to maintain or restore discipline.”

So, just because a prisoner got hurt, that doesn’t mean he was subjected to cruel and unusual punishment. People can get hurt for other reasons; that makes sense. What matters is whether he was assaulted, subjected to unjustifiable ill treatment. The extent of injury doesn’t have anything to do with whether his rights were violated in the first place — they merely go to “the damages he may recover.”

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The second case decided today, Thaler v. Haynes, is a Batson case out of Texas.

This was a death penalty case, so the stakes were high. There’d be some pressure on everyone involved to do it right. But the criminal law being what it is, things went weird from the get-go.

When the attorneys questioned potential jurors during (more…)

Is Delay in Capital Appeals an 8th Amendment Issue?

Thursday, December 3rd, 2009

holdup

Last week, we argued that capital punishment as practiced in America does not work, because it takes too long.

The appellate process can take decades, during which time the convict remains on death row, the victims get no closure, and any deterrent effect gets completely washed out. In fact, the huge gap between the crime and the punishment, and the uncertainty as to whether execution would even result, adds even more injustice into the system while imposing enormous unnecessary societal costs.

Our point was not that appeals should be limited — on the contrary, they are never more necessary. Our point was simply that the process takes so long that it nullifies the whole reason for capital punishment in the first place.

We did not explore, however, whether this delay ought to count as “cruel and unusual punishment” in violation of the Eighth Amendment. We figured we’d leave that one for another day.

Well, today’s the day. In dueling opinions yesterday, Justices Stevens and Thomas went head-to-head over just that issue. We think they’re both right, and they’re both wrong.

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The case is Cecil C. Johnson v. Phil Bredesen, Governor of Tennessee, et al., No. 09-7839. Stevens’ opinion can be found here, and Thomas’ can be found here.

Cecil Johnson was executed yesterday, after the Supreme Court denied cert.

In July 1980, a man robbed a convenience store in Nashville. During the robbery, the thief brutally murdered the store owner’s 12-year-old son, and two other men who were sitting in a taxi.

A couple of days later, Cecil Johnson’s father turned him in. There was no physical evidence that tied him to the crime. He was convicted and sentenced to death in 1981.

For the next 29 years, Johnson plodded through the capital appeals process, persistently maintaining his innocence.

In 1992, Tennessee for the first time gave him access to evidence that might have undermined key testimony against him.

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Justice Stevens argues that this 11-year delay, before Tennessee finally made that disclosure, is a state-caused delay that counts as “unacceptably cruel.”

Thomas replies that it is pure chutzpah for a convict to file appeal after endless appeal, and then claim that the resulting delay violated his rights. He caused the delay, not the government.

But they’re both wrong. The delay wasn’t caused by the government in the way Stevens says, and that only covered the first of three decades anyway. It doesn’t affect the other two decades that this case meandered through the courts. And the delay wasn’t caused by Johnson in the way Thomas says. It’s not Johnson’s fault that the courts took so damned long.

So if the government wasn’t to blame as Stevens argued, and Johnson wasn’t to blame as Thomas argued, then who is to blame?

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It is the procedural setup itself that is to blame. We cannot blame a convict for seeking review, to ensure that he was properly convicted and sentenced, and to ensure that the government did not abuse its power and violate his rights. Far from it — we insist on it. Ensuring that the government did it right for this defendant helps protect all of us, and Americans want it that way.

But we can blame the delays that are built into the system’s procedural rules. There is no reason why it should take years to get from a challenged ruling to an appellate decision on that ruling. The only reason why it does take years is because the procedural rules allow it. And human nature being what it is, it is hardly surprising that lawyers and judges will take all the time they are permitted to argue and decide matters of life and death.

Some amount of delay is reasonable, of course — it would be equally unjust to impose time limits that are too short to permit thoughtful argument and careful analysis. But even with longer than usual time limits, there is no reason why state appeals couldn’t be exhausted within a year of sentencing, and federal challenges exhausted within another year. Two years, not twenty or thirty.

(Think this way: Give the defendant 30 days after sentence to file a notice of appeal, then another 60 to file his brief. 90 days is more than enough time to do the work. Give the prosecution a generous 60 days to reply. Take 30 days to prepare for oral argument, and then give the judges another 30 days to noodle it through and make a decision. That’s 210 days, and the first appeal is over. Subsequent appeals are going to go over the same ground, so time limits can be shorter now. Say another 30 days for the defendant to announce he’s taking it to the state’s supreme court. Then 30 days to brief it, 30 days for the prosecution to brief it, 30 days to prepare for oral argument, and 30 days to reach a decision. That’s 360 days. One year. Federal appeals and habeas shouldn’t take more than one more year. And we’re done.)

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Okay, so the delay is preventable. It’s caused by government rule-making. And the rules can be changed to protect the defendant’s interest in speedy resolution while continuing to protect his interest in thorough vetting of his conviction.

But does that make this delay “cruel and unusual punishment” for Eighth Amendment purposes? Probably not.

Think about it. All that’s happening to the defendant during this delay is that he’s being incarcerated. In a world without capital punishment, he’d be in the same position. He’d still be incarcerated, while going through the same appellate process that every other inmate goes through. The same process, and the same incarceration, that clearly does not violate ordinary convicts’ Eighth Amendment rights.

So no, the appellate delay is not cruel and unusual. But it still totally defeats the purpose of capital punishment in the first place, and for that simple policy reason the death penalty should be banned until such time as the system works out a way to complete the appellate process soon enough and consistently enough to make it worthwhile.

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There are other problems with Stevens’ and Thomas’ arguments. Stevens, for example, is about to retire after a long tenure on the bench, and recent years have seen him going all-out to make a legacy for himself. He is adamantly opposed to the death penalty, and will make any argument against it. As a result, he winds up trying to have it both ways, as Thomas unkindly points out — decrying both the length of the appellate process, as well as the perversity of carrying out executions before every appeal has been exhausted.

Thomas, meanwhile, flatly ignores the interests of justice, and gets hung up on whether the technical procedural requirements were satisfied. He forgets that the procedures are there to serve the interests of justice, and not the other way around. The rules are there to help ensure that defendants’ rights are protected, but the rules are not the only safeguard. The mere fact that the rules were satisfied does not necessarily mean that the system worked properly. Judges — particularly Supreme Court justices — need to be able to step back and determine whether this individual’s rights really were protected, and whether society’s policy interests were advanced.

More Harm Than Good: Why Capital Punishment Doesn’t Work

Monday, November 23rd, 2009

Capital Punishment Sentence Length

Without much media fanfare, the Supreme Court has already decided two capital-punishment cases this month.

The first, Bobby v. Van Hook, came down on the 9th, and dealt with a case from early 1985. Nearly 25 years ago, Van Hook went looking for someone to rob, trolled a Cincinnati gay bar, and seduced a guy he met there. The victim invited Van Hook to his apartment, where Van Hook got him into “a vulnerable position.” Then Van Hook strangled his victim till he was unconscious, killed him with a kitchen knife, and mutilated his body, before taking off with his victim’s valuables. Van Hook later confessed, and was sentenced to death.

His appeals lasted for nine years, all of which were denied. He then spent the next 14 years litigating a single federal habeas petition. First, he unsuccessfully challenged the constitutionality of his confession, losing those arguments all the way up to a denial of certiorari by the Supremes in 2007. Then he tried a new argument, that he’d gotten ineffective assistance of counsel at sentencing, because all the work they had done wasn’t enough. The Sixth Circuit said his sentence should be reconsidered under new standards that had arisen 18 years after the fact. Ohio appealed, and the Supreme Court said you can’t apply these new standards retroactively like that. Van Hook argued that his counsel was ineffective under the standards at the time, anyway, to which the Supremes replied: “He is wrong.”

The Sixth Circuit being reversed, Robert Van Hook is now once again back in the queue for execution, nearly a quarter of a century later.

The second case decided was Wong v. Belmontes, which came out on the 16th. This case started way back in 1981, when Fernando Belmontes bludgeoned Steacy McConnell about 20 times with a steel weightlifting bar. She fought back desperately, to try to save herself, but ultimately Belmontes succeeded in killing her, so he could steal her stereo. He sold it for $100, which he spent on beer and drugs for that evening. He was convicted in California and sentenced to death.

His appeals went back and forth, and he lost. He tried to get federal habeas relief, but the District Court wouldn’t go for it. He appealed that, and the nothing-if-not-consistent Ninth Circuit bent over backwards to find instructional error, but the Supreme Court slapped that down in 2006. The Ninth Circuit tried again, this time finding ineffective assistance of counsel at sentencing. In its ruling this month, the Supreme Court pointed out not only how much work went into the defense case at sentencing, but also how wise and skillful it had been. “If this counsel couldn’t make it work,” the Court seems to say, “then nobody could.” You just can’t mitigate away a case where the victim had obviously suffered so needlessly and brutally.

So now, the Ninth Circuit is reversed, and Fernando Belmontes is back on the capital-punishment track 28 years after the crime.

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It being close to Thanksgiving, these decisions remind us of one of the first cases we ever worked on, back when we labored at all hours over Thanksgiving 1995 with the famed Carter Phillips, trying to prevent the execution of a retarded man, Walter Correll. Especially in light of the Supreme Court’s turnaround in the 2002 Atkins v. Virginia decision, ruling that executing the mentally retarded is a violation of the Eighth Amendment, we always get a little gloomy when we think back on that case.

But these decisions also remind us that, Republican though we may be, we remain firmly opposed to the death penalty. Not because it’s inherently cruel or inappropriate, but because it takes so damn long to carry out. The way the death penalty works in this country results in real injustice, harms society, and just makes things worse.

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Look at the graph we stuck up there at the top of this post. We made that graph based on data freely available from the United States Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics. You can see the raw data here.

That chart shows the average elapsed time, from sentence to execution, for each year. This is the average, and as the recent cases attest, actual times can be much much longer. But on average, the wait has gone from 51 months (4-1/4 years), to 153 months (12-3/4 years). That is an insane delay!

Elsewhere in the statistics, we see that the average inmate on death row right now has been waiting for 141 months, or about 11-3/4 years.

That’s a long time, in anyone’s book.

Now don’t get us wrong — we’re glad of the opportunity this affords us to find evidence of actual innocence, DNA evidence, or other means to exonerate the truly innocent. We’re not advocating for speedier executions, here. It takes this long because that’s just how long it takes. Our system is set up to give a lot of opportunity to review death sentences before they’re carried out. There is no appeal after execution, so society wants to make sure that everything was done right, that the convict has been afforded every procedural and constitutional protection that our jurisprudence has devised. And it just takes a long time to do that.

Our point is that the death penalty is improper (among perhaps other reasons) because this necessary delay makes it counterproductive.

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Why do we punish people in the first place? Punishment is when the awesome might of the government is brought to bear on an individual, taking away rights, liberties, property, and even his life. Why do we do that?

We do that because we’ve deemed some actions so harmful to society that, to protect itself, society has to impose this harm. But that begs the question. It’s more of a definition of “what is a crime” than “why do we punish, to begin with.”

We punish because, over history, societies have discovered that it works. At some instinctive level, you get retaliation. Someone hits you, so you hit them back without thinking. It’s a primal urge, not a civilized one, but it would be foolish to pretend that society does not have its own primal urges. We don’t punish strictly to hit back at those who would hurt us, not consciously perhaps, but it is part of the reason why.

A more civilized reason is deterrence. It’s like spanking a child — the criminal associates the punishment with the crime, and decides not to do that any more. And if the spanking is public and seen by others, then others will also realize that this could happen to them, and they won’t do it either.

Deterrence only works, of course, if the punishment is close enough in time to the offense to have a psychological effect. If you spank a kid for something he did three weeks ago, the only psychological message you’re sending is that you’re unfair and cruel, and thereby weakening your own authority.

Deterrence only works if the punishment is connected to the crime. If you spank a kid and he has no idea why you’re spanking him, you’re not deterring anything. All you’re doing is demonstrating that you are arbitrary and unjust. The kid doesn’t know what to expect from you, and will grow to fear and despise you.

General deterrence of other potential criminals only works if the punishment is known, in addition to being close in time and tied to the offense. If people don’t know that it happened, then there is zero deterrent effect from any particular offense.

Perception then, as in so much of life, is everything. You want the system set up in such a way as to create the impression that sentences are just and fair, but you also want the perception that sentences are also going to be imposed. That, if you commit this offense, that punishment is actually going to happen.

Ideally, a utilitarian and a social idealist might even agree that the best way to do this would be to create the perception that sentences are speedily and fairly meted out, without going to all the expense and social harm of actually imposing them.

The flip side of that would be the opposite of ideal, then. And the flip side is exactly what we’ve got.

In our present system, capital punishment is not imposed close in time to the offense. It takes a decade or two before it is carried out. That’s like spanking a kid three weeks later. Far from having any deterrent effect, it undermines faith in justice and weakens the law’s authority.

As practiced, capital punishment is not connected to the crime. It’s almost random. Some horrific murders get the death penalty, others don’t. The reasons for the variety are not obvious or predictable. Unpredictability = no deterrent effect.

And public perception? After all the randomness and delay, there may be a perception that you could get the chair for a given crime, but nobody really thinks you will get the chair. Folks just don’t have an experience of the death penalty as being imposed consistently enough that we simply understand, deep down at a visceral level, that a given crime is likely to result in one’s own death. At best, public perception is a vague theoretical possibility. At worst, and what is more likely, is the perception that the death penalty is so rarely imposed, and only after such an interminable (ha) delay, that it’s really not a factor worth considering in the first place.

(Of course it goes without saying that no punishment can have a deterrent effect on crimes of passion, where no thought went into the crime. But those kinds of crimes tend not to be death-penalty cases, so that argument isn’t really applicable here.)

Another purpose of punishment is rehabilitation, but it’s hard to get one’s act together after one is dead, so that one is out the window.

The only remaining purpose of punishment is removal — getting this threat to public safety off the streets.

Now this one has some promise. Execution certainly removes the offender from our midst. So does exile, though, without all the mess and expense (though dumping our worst threats on someone else could create bigger problems). Life without parole does the same job, though at theoretically great cost — 75% of all death-penalty inmates were under 35 years old when they went in (see more statistics), so they’ve got lots of decades of feeding, sheltering, guarding, clothing, counseling, treating, educating, etc. to pay for.

Unfortunately, as practiced, capital punishment is just a more expensive form of life without parole. At some point, an ordinary prisoner is going to run out of appeals, but the capital inmate doesn’t. And the capital appeals take priority over other judicial needs, while costing the system and everyone involved a lot more in time and resources. By the time someone actually gets executed, all the various costs involved more than cover the costs of a life sentence.

So if removal is the only concern, then life without parole would be the way to go. You don’t get any extra removal from execution. All you get is increased tax burdens, significant extra burdens on the judicial system, loss of enormous amounts of time and money all around, and the intangible losses from harm to the system’s perception and reputation and authority.

-=-=-=-=-

So, speaking as a fairly conservative Republican here, we just don’t see how capital punishment as practiced in America today makes the least bit of sense. It accomplishes little, at enormous unnecessary societal cost.

That’s not the message the Supreme Court probably intended to send with these two cases this month, but that’s the message we heard loud and clear.

Why Conservatives and Defense Lawyers Should LOVE the New Hate Crimes Law

Friday, October 30th, 2009

hate crime

On Wednesday, President Barack Obama signed into law the 2010 National Defense Authorization Act. As usual, the Act included provisions that had nothing whatsoever to do with National Defense Authorization. And one of the tacked-on provisions was the much-debated Hate Crimes Prevention Act.

We wrote about this back on May 1. It was one of our longer analyses, but our closing paragraphs sum it up fairly succinctly:

In short, we don’t have a legal or constitutional problem with hate crime laws. They actually seem to be a natural extension of our criminal jurisprudence. But [the House version of the bill] seems to have been passed without anyone actually reading it (not surprising, as it hardly spend any time in committee).

An administration and the same-party majority in Congress just want to push a law through, and so they will. And they will wind up passing a law that probably doesn’t mean what they wanted it to mean, and which might not stand up under scrutiny.
So what’s new?

Well, now we have a final version (read it here or in relevant part at the end of this post), codified at 18 U.S.C. §249. So let’s see what the law as passed actually says, whether it means what they wanted it to mean, and whether it might stand up under scrutiny, shall we?

As passed, the Hate Crimes Prevention Act amends the existing Hate Crimes law so that:

1. If you went after your victim because of the (actual or perceived) race, color, religion, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, “gender identity” or disability of any person (not just that of the victim)…

2. And you either hurt them on purpose, or you tried to hurt them with a weapon of some kind…

3. Then your maximum prison sentence gets increased to 10 years.

4. And you can get life if anyone died, if anyone was kidnapped, if there was aggravated sexual abuse, or you even tried to kill/kidnap/sexually abuse.

-=-=-=-=-

This is slightly — but only slightly — different from the version originally passed by the House back in the Spring.

To get federal jurisdiction, they need a federal hook. Only race, color, religion and national origin seem to be automatically federal. So the statute has a “crossing state lines” and “interstate commerce” hook for offenses caused by religion, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity and disability. (Why religion and national origin are included in both sections is beyond us.)

That’s not a huge hurdle, frankly. Interstate travel and interstate commerce are so broadly defined — and have been for generations now — that most crimes are going to fit the bill. If a weapon was used, for example, it had to have been made somewhere, and even if you made it yourself it affected interstate commerce as you didn’t buy one at Wal-Mart.

The Office of Legal Counsel has issued a memorandum saying the Act’s language passes constitutional muster. With respect to the Commerce Clause, we’re inclined to agree. The Commerce Clause may be an absolute mockery as interpreted throughout living memory, but it is what it is, and that’s that.

-=-=-=-=-

But isn’t this a thought crime, you ask?

Isn’t this just a second bite at the apple for the government?

Isn’t it already against the law to hurt, kill, shoot, blow up, kidnap, rape, etc.?

Doesn’t it put a greater value on the life of selected victims, as opposed to the rest of us?

Isn’t this the opposite of equal protection of the laws?

How is this just, you ask?

You’re not alone. It seems like this is the one common ground where conservative commentators and criminal defense attorneys seem to agree — they generally hate this law.

We happen to be both conservative and a criminal defense attorney. And yet we can’t help but think this law isn’t such a big deal. It’s really not that objectionable.

In fact, it seems to fit into our jurisprudence quite naturally.

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Is this a thought crime? Yes, absolutely. Just like almost every other crime out there.

Crime is something so harmful to society that we restrain the offender’s liberty, take his property, or even take his life. Not every harmful act counts, therefore. We don’t kill people for accidents.

So how do we tell which harmful acts get punished, and which ones don’t?

We look at what the heck you were thinking. For any given act, your punishment will depend entirely on what was going through your mind at the time.

If it was just an accident, then it’s not your fault, and we’re not going to punish you. If you were just a little kid, or severely retarded, or insane, or otherwise can’t be accountable for your actions, then we’re not going to punish you. There’s no point in punishing you.

We’ll punish you a little bit if you should have known better, or you should have been careful. You weren’t trying to do anything wrong, but you should have paid more attention. Your mental state is the key. Your mental state was a little bit culpable, so you get punished a little bit.

We’ll punish you more if you were just being reckless. You weren’t trying to hurt someone, but you knew it could have happened, and you went ahead and did it anyway. Your mental state was more culpable, so you get punished more.

We’ll punish you a lot if you knew it was going to happen. It might not have been your purpose, you weren’t out to hurt someone, you were trying to do something else, but you knew that someone was probably going to get hurt in the process. Your mental state was a lot culpable, so you get punished a lot.

And of course, if you were really trying to hurt someone, and sure enough they got hurt, well then of course you get punished the most.

So all crimes (with limited exceptions for strict liability crimes) are thought crimes.

This hate-crime legislation is nothing more than a new twist on this very old concept. Just like with any other crime, it looks at what you, the perpetrator, thought you were doing. You had a belief about your victim, and because of that belief, you tried to hurt him.

It’s not your mental state about the risk of harm — as all the others are — it is different. It’s your mental state about the nature of your victim.

But that also makes perfect sense, in our jurisprudence.

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Throughout our country’s history — from the fights against religious persecution, to the war against slavery, to women’s rights and the civil rights battles of the 1950s — we have come to accept a basic policy: IT IS BAD FOR SOCIETY WHEN PEOPLE ARE MISTREATED BASED ON ATTRIBUTES BEYOND THEIR CONTROL.

That is simply a no-brainer for anyone who loves freedom, individual rights, and equal justice. Americans cannot stand a bully, and will not tolerate those who hurt people for reasons their victims couldn’t help.

Nobody can help what race they happen to be. Nobody can help what religion they happen to have been born into. Nobody gets to choose whether to be born a boy or a girl. Nobody gets to choose what country they happen to have been born in.

Hurting someone because of uncontrollable attributes like these is a clear affront to society. Something we’d typically classify as a crime. It makes perfect sense to define a particular crime of hurting people because of personal attributes beyond their control.

And in recent years, our society has come to accept the fact that other attributes are also beyond our control. Nobody can help how their brains are wired with respect to sexual attraction, it’s inborn. Nobody can help the fact that they’re missing limbs, or are mentally retarded, or otherwise disabled — wouldn’t they if they could?

For our entire lifetime, there has been federal hate-crime legislation. The 1969 law covered race, color, religion, ethnicity and national origin. In later years, we added sex and disability. It makes perfect sense to now expand the already-existing law to include crimes committed against people who happen to be gay, or who were born with a girl’s brain in a boy’s body.

This is not giving extra protections to these people. It is giving extra punishment to those who would hurt someone simply for having been born. Those offenders cause extra harm to society, more than the already grievous harm caused by “ordinary” murders, rapes and assaults. Extra harm to society means extra punishment.

It’s as simple as that.

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Here is the relevant text of the bill.

Sec. 249. Hate crime acts

(a) In General-

““`(1) OFFENSES INVOLVING ACTUAL OR PERCEIVED RACE, COLOR, RELIGION, OR NATIONAL ORIGIN- Whoever, whether or not acting under color of law, willfully causes bodily injury to any person or, through the use of fire, a firearm, a dangerous weapon, or an explosive or incendiary device, attempts to cause bodily injury to any person, because of the actual or perceived race, color, religion, or national origin of any person–

“““““(A) shall be imprisoned not more than 10 years, fined in accordance with this title, or both; and

“““““(B) shall be imprisoned for any term of years or for life, fined in accordance with this title, or both, if–

“““““““`(i) death results from the offense; or
“““““““`(ii) the offense includes kidnapping or an attempt to kidnap, aggravated sexual abuse or an attempt to commit aggravated sexual abuse, or an attempt to kill.

““`(2) OFFENSES INVOLVING ACTUAL OR PERCEIVED RELIGION, NATIONAL ORIGIN, GENDER, SEXUAL ORIENTATION, GENDER IDENTITY, OR DISABILITY-

“““““(A) IN GENERAL- Whoever, whether or not acting under color of law, in any circumstance described in subparagraph (B) or paragraph (3), willfully causes bodily injury to any person or, through the use of fire, a firearm, a dangerous weapon, or an explosive or incendiary device, attempts to cause bodily injury to any person, because of the actual or perceived religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability of any person–

“““““““`(i) shall be imprisoned not more than 10 years, fined in accordance with this title, or both; and

“““““““`(ii) shall be imprisoned for any term of years or for life, fined in accordance with this title, or both, if–

“““““““““(I) death results from the offense; or

“““““““““(II) the offense includes kidnapping or an attempt to kidnap, aggravated sexual abuse or an attempt to commit aggravated sexual abuse, or an attempt to kill.

“““““(B) CIRCUMSTANCES DESCRIBED- For purposes of subparagraph (A), the circumstances described in this subparagraph are that–

“““““““`(i) the conduct described in subparagraph (A) occurs during the course of, or as the result of, the travel of the defendant or the victim–

“““““““““(I) across a State line or national border; or

“““““““““(II) using a channel, facility, or instrumentality of interstate or foreign commerce;

“““““““`(ii) the defendant uses a channel, facility, or instrumentality of interstate or foreign commerce in connection with the conduct described in subparagraph (A);

“““““““`(iii) in connection with the conduct described in subparagraph (A), the defendant employs a firearm, dangerous weapon, explosive or incendiary device, or other weapon that has traveled in interstate or foreign commerce; or

“““““““`(iv) the conduct described in subparagraph (A)–

“““““““““ (I) interferes with commercial or other economic activity in which the victim is engaged at the time of the conduct; or

“““““““““(II) otherwise affects interstate or foreign commerce.

““`(3) OFFENSES OCCURRING IN THE SPECIAL MARITIME OR TERRITORIAL JURISDICTION OF THE UNITED STATES- Whoever, within the special maritime or territorial jurisdiction of the United States, engages in conduct described in paragraph (1) or in paragraph (2)(A) (without regard to whether that conduct occurred in a circumstance described in paragraph (2)(B)) shall be subject to the same penalties as prescribed in those paragraphs.

(b) Certification Requirement-

““`(1) IN GENERAL- No prosecution of any offense described in this subsection may be undertaken by the United States, except under the certification in writing of the Attorney General, or a designee, that–

“““““(A) the State does not have jurisdiction;

“““““(B) the State has requested that the Federal Government assume jurisdiction;

“““““(C) the verdict or sentence obtained pursuant to State charges left demonstratively unvindicated the Federal interest in eradicating bias-motivated violence; or

“““““(D) a prosecution by the United States is in the public interest and necessary to secure substantial justice.

““`(2) RULE OF CONSTRUCTION- Nothing in this subsection shall be construed to limit the authority of Federal officers, or a Federal grand jury, to investigate possible violations of this section.

(c) Definitions- In this section–

““`(1) the term `bodily injury’ has the meaning given such term in section 1365(h)(4) of this title, but does not include solely emotional or psychological harm to the victim;

““`(2) the term `explosive or incendiary device’ has the meaning given such term in section 232 of this title;

““`(3) the term `firearm’ has the meaning given such term in section 921(a) of this title;

““`(4) the term `gender identity’ means actual or perceived gender-related characteristics; and

““`(5) the term `State’ includes the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and any other territory or possession of the United States.

(d) Statute of Limitations-

““`(1) OFFENSES NOT RESULTING IN DEATH- Except as provided in paragraph (2), no person shall be prosecuted, tried, or punished for any offense under this section unless the indictment for such offense is found, or the information for such offense is instituted, not later than 7 years after the date on which the offense was committed.

““`(2) DEATH RESULTING OFFENSES- An indictment or information alleging that an offense under this section resulted in death may be found or instituted at any time without limitation.’.

D.C. Circuit: No Extra Prison Time for Rehabilitation

Tuesday, July 28th, 2009

prisoner-group.png

The D.C. Circuit weighed in today on an important issue that has split the circuits evenly: whether a sentencing court can give extra time in prison, to increase the opportunity for rehabilitation of the prisoner. Some circuits say it’s fine, some say it’s prohibited by law.

-=-=-=-

18 U.S.C. § 3553 says there are four purposes of criminal punishment:
(1) “to reflect the seriousness of the offense, to promote respect for the law, and to provide just punishment for the offense;” [retribution]
(2) “to afford adequate deterrence to criminal conduct;” [deterrence]
(3) “to protect the public from further crimes of the defendant;” [removal]
(4) “to provide the defendant with needed educational or vocational training, medical care, or other correctional treatment in the most effective manner.” [rehabilitation]

18 U.S.C. § 3582 says that a sentencing court has to consider those four purposes of punishment in deciding whether to impose a prison sentence, and in deciding how long a prison sentence should be. However, it adds that the court must recognize “that imprisonment is not an appropriate means of promoting correction and rehabilitation.”

In other words, the law implicitly recognizes that prison, in and of itself, doesn’t rehabilitate people. Departments of “Corrections” have nothing to do with correcting people’s behavior. (It’s Orwellian, isn’t it? And so is the concept of incarcerating people for the purpose of re-education.)

This comes as no surprise to anyone with any experience with the criminal justice system. Imprisonment does not make people stop committing crimes. Studies have shown that roughly 83% of people who get arrested will never get in trouble again after that one single encounter with the system. Either they’re scared straight, or their behavior was a one-off exception to an otherwise blameless life. This is why we have consent decrees, adjournments in contemplation of dismissal, and the like. Most people, if given a second chance, will never get in trouble again. Incarceration is completely unnecessary to “rehabilitate” these people.

The other 17% or so? They keep coming back. Incarceration does not stop them from getting in trouble again once they get out. It is stupidly obvious that prison does not rehabilitate repeat offenders.

Rehabilitation is not so much an aspect of punishment, so much as it is an opportunity incidental to it. There certainly are life-altering programs, typically long-term programs, that can get people out of drug dependencies or ways of life conducive to criminal behavior. But these are exceptions, not the rule. They change circumstances, not behavior. And they can sometimes be best administered in an incarcerated setting — but often they are just as effective in a non-jail setting.

Meanwhile, the circuits are split on just what § 3582 means when it says “the court, in determining whether to impose a term of imprisonment, and, if a term of imprisonment is to be imposed, in determining the length of the term, shall . . . [recognize] that imprisonment is not an appropriate means of promoting correction and rehabilitation.”

Some circuits — like the Fifth, Sixth, Eighth and Ninth Circuits — say that the court should not decide whether to impose prison based on considerations of rehabilitation, but it is okay to increase a prison sentence for the purposes of rehabilitation. Other circuits — like the Second, Third, Tenth and Eleventh Circuits — say that courts shouldn’t increase prison sentences, either.

-=-=-=-

Today, the D.C. Circuit joined the Second and Third Circuits in saying that § 3582 prohibits courts from increasing a prison sentence for the purpose of rehabilitation.

In re: Sealed Case*http://pacer.cadc.uscourts.gov/common/opinions/200907/08-3029-1198396.pdf*, No. 08-3029 (July 28, 2009) dealt with an older defendant with a long rap sheet and a drug addiction. His name is sealed because at one time he had tried to cooperate with the feds, albeit unsuccessfully. The defendant pled guilty to selling less than five grams of heroin. Ordinarily, with his criminal history category and acceptance of responsibility, this would have given him a sentencing range of 24 to 30 months. However, what with his felony record and all, his Guidelines range wound up being 151 to 188 months (12.5 – 15.5 years).

This is only advisory, of course, and the court then weighed the various § 3553 factors to figure out what sentence to actually impose. The judge said his recidivism was due to his drug addiction, and the case only involved a small amount of drugs. The judge added that the defendant could benefit from some of the programs available in prison, and that these “would actually be more available and more useful for the defendant over a somewhat longer period of time than it would over a very short period of time.”

In the end, the judge went down to a sentence of 132 months (11 years), along with a recommendation that the defendant be admitted to the prison’s “500-hour” drug treatment program.

The defendant appealed, saying that the judge would have given him a shorter sentence, but increased the sentence for the purposes of rehabilitation, and that was improper. It urged the Circuit to adopt the rule of the Second and Third Circuits.

The government, on the other hand, said they should adopt the Ninth Circuit’s rule instead, permitting increases in sentencing for the purpose of rehabilitation.

In its 2-1 ruling today, the D.C. Circuit said that the plain language of the statute bars courts from seeking to achieve rehabilitation through imprisonment. A defendant can be imprisoned for other purposes, and then take advantage of rehabilitative programs while in jail, but those programs cannot be the reason for incarceration.

The government argued that this only prohibits choosing jail over a non-jail sentence based on such considerations. Once the sentencing court has decided to incarcerate, § 3553 requires courts to consider rehabilitation, so it must be a reason for determining the length of the sentence.

The Circuit said this made no sense. “If, as the government concedes, imprisonment is not an appropriate means of promoting rehabilitation, how can more imprisonment serve as an appropriate means of promoting rehabilitation?”

The court went on to find that the sentencing judge’s comments indicate that the defendant probably got extra time so as to give him more opportunities for rehabilitation. It was reasonably likely that his sentence would have been shorter, otherwise.

Maybe not a dramatically shorter sentence — after all, the judge did say that selling heroin is serious, and that the defendant had a lifelong pattern of recidivism. But that’s not the point. The point is that the defendant might have gotten a shorter sentence.

Any unwarranted extra time in prison is unfair. It’s not what our system is supposed to permit. So the Circuit vacated the sentence, and remanded for new sentencing.

The defendant might wind up getting the same sentence at the end of the day. But the sentencing court is going to have to explain that the reasons for the length of the sentence do not include the extra opportunity for rehabilitation from extra months in jail.

-=-=-=-

This exacerbates the split among the circuits. And the issue is an important one, involving the deprivation of liberty and freedoms for the purposes of social engineering.

We wouldn’t be surprised to see the Supreme Court take up this issue in the near future. Perhaps even with this case.

20 Years Sounds About Right for Dreier

Monday, July 13th, 2009

corporate-crime.png

So Marc Dreier was sentenced today to 20 years in prison, plus forfeiture of $746 million and restitution of nearly $388 million (that’s more than a billion dollars, with a “b”). That’s his punishment for his guilty plea to conspiracy, securities fraud, money laundering and wire fraud. The feds had asked for 145 years in prison, and Dreier’s counsel Gerald Shargel had asked for a sentence in the 10-12.5 year range.

We have to say, we’re not offended by this sentence. It’s high enough to be meaningful, but not so high that it will scare away future plea bargains in white collar cases.

It’s important to have a meaningful sentence, if the justice system is to function properly. If justice is not perceived to be done, then law and order lose their authority. For many years, white collar crimes were seen to be treated unjustly, with sentences too low for the harm done. A massive financial fraud could have many more victims than a violent street crime, and can do far more damage to each victim by taking not just their wallet, but the savings representing a lifetime of labor. But until recently, such frauds were punished far more lightly.

In recent years, however, the pendulum began to swing the other way. From Tyco to Enron to MCI to Madoff, we saw white-collar sentences lurch upward and upward. Madoff’s 150-year sentence earlier this summer was just amazing, and not at all proportionate to the harm done. The pendulum had swung too far.

If that was to be the new par for the course, white collar sentencing would be just as unjust as it was in the days of the old slap-on-the-wrist. In addition to the very real problems of perception, in a world where perception equals reality, there is the separate problem of efficiency.

If people think they’re going to get slammed at sentencing whether they plead guilty or not, as Madoff did, then there is no point to pleading guilty. One might as well take one’s chances with a jury and shoot for the off chance of an acquittal. It happens.

(As an aside, there’s an old story of a band of soldiers in medieval China, who had become lost in a swamp en route to a muster. The penalty for being late was death. The penalty for rebellion was death. So they rebelled. And eventually toppled the government. Extreme punishments have had extreme public reactions throughout history. *Cough*drug laws*cough*)

Here, the government wanted 145 years for Dreier, to punish him for putting one over… not on mom and pop investors, but on sophisticated hedge funds who really ought to have done their homework. That would be just five years less than what Madoff got, for essentially doing the same thing. But it would have been a horrible outcome for our criminal justice system if they actually got their way.

Fortunately, Dreier drew Judge Jed Rakoff, who has been vocal in opposing the recent trend towards ever-higher sentences in white collar cases (in addition to his criticism of the severity of the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines). Rakoff is making him give back the money he filched, and forfeit his ill-gotten gains, and serve a prison sentence equal in severity to his crimes.

Nobody can reasonably say Dreier got off light, and nobody should complain that his sentence was unjustly harsh. We think Judge Rakoff nailed this one.