Archive for the ‘Sentencing’ Category

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…)

Is it a victory if you have to fight the battle all over again?

Tuesday, April 26th, 2011

 

Let this be a lesson to any young appellate lawyers who might be reading this:  Focus on the result, not on the argument.

We’re wading through the various slip opinions and decisions that came down during March and April while we were on trial, and the Supreme Court decision in Pepper v. United States just floored us.  In a nutshell, Pepper got a huge downward departure at sentencing, for providing substantial assistance, getting 24 months plus five years of supervised release.  After Pepper had served his time and was now out on supervised release, the Eighth Circuit said his sentence was improper, and remanded for new sentencing.  The original departure was about 75% off the guideline.  At resentencing, the judge took 40% off, but then dropped it down to 24 months again based on extensive evidence that Pepper had gotten his life back on track in major ways.  The government appealed again.

On the second appeal, the Eighth Circuit reversed again, saying that post-sentencing facts could not be considered in resentencing.  Only facts known at the time of the original sentence could be applied.  After a Supreme Court sojourn on Gall issues, the Circuit remanded for re-resentencing before a new judge.  At this new resentencing, the new judge gave him only 20% off, or 65 months plus 12 months of supervised release.

Pepper appealed, of course, trying to get that original 40% departure.  So it went to the Supreme Court again.

The Supremes held, quite correctly, that of course post-sentencing facts may be considered at a resentencing.  It is absurd to argue otherwise.  The prosecution would be allowed to present evidence of subsequent failings by the defendant, so why shouldn’t the defendant be allowed to present evidence of his rehabilitation?

So far, so good.  But did that mean that Pepper was entitled to that original 40% reduction?  No.  Because “in his merits briefs to this Court, Pepper does not challenge the scope or validity of the Court of Appeals’ mandate ordering de novo resentencing, and thus has abandoned any argument that the mandate itself restricted the District Court from imposing a different substantial assistance departure.”  And the “law of the case” doctrine doesn’t apply in a de novo proceeding when the entire sentence had been set aside, which is what happened here.

This is such a forehead-smacking moment.

The Supremes are all but saying that Pepper should have said the Eighth Circuit didn’t have the authority to set aside the entire sentence and order a de novo resentencing.  Had the argument been made, the Court might have held that the Circuit could only have remanded for resentencing applying specific rules, but couldn’t order a complete do-over in front of a new judge.

But Pepper didn’t ask for that.

So Pepper didn’t get it.

Instead, all he gets now is a re-resentencing that is permitted to take into account his post-sentencing rehabilitation.  Which may or may not get him the lighter sentence he originally sought.  If appellate counsel had kept their eyes on the goal of canceling the Circuit’s de novo order, they would have argued for it.  And they might have gotten it.  Instead, they focused on making a “law of the case” argument that, while clever, made little sense if the de novo thing was still there.

Ergh.

(PS — The concurring opinions are worthwhile reading, as they lay out some of the ongoing problems in the post-Booker world.  Thomas’s dissent, however, goes too far.  He would abandon the individual justice of sentencing where judges have discretion, and would return to the one-size-fits-all injustice of the Guidelines as Mandates.  Thank goodness he’s a minority of one in this case.)

Registering the Wrong People

Monday, January 3rd, 2011

 

Sex offender registries aren’t necessarily a bad idea.

For whatever reason, there are certain people who get off on molesting little kids or raping people, and who are not likely to be rehabilitated by a stint behind bars.  It’s how their sex drive is wired. If they get caught and go to prison, they’re not any less likely to stop doing it when they get out.  That’s not how sex drives work.  So they often reoffend.  To minimize this, we put their names on a list, make them register with the local police department, impose restrictions on where they can live and what they can do.  They’re basically on extremely limited parole for the rest of their lives.

Their lives are basically over.  The stigma is the worst our society can dish out.  There’s a fat chance of pursuing any meaningful employment or making something useful of one’s life.  The best that can be said for such an existence is that it’s not prison.

Of course, with people who have demonstrated a clear and present danger, for whom there is a real and realistic concern that they will victimize another child if given half a chance… well, their interests don’t weigh so much any more.

But are these people really the ones who get registered?

Here in New York, a 17-year-old kid can wind up on the registry for having sex with his 16-year-old girlfriend.  A jerk can be registered for grabbing someone’s ass.  Stuff that has nothing to do with sex, like even the mildest forms of unlawful imprisonment, gets you marked a sex offender.  A harmless loser will find himself on the registry for calling up a call girl.  There really isn’t any rhyme or reason to it any more.

These are not things that have anything to do with the policy underlying sex offender registries.  There is zero concern that the people who commit such offenses pose a present threat of molesting kids or committing rape.  It’s an (more…)

Prison Begets Prison… and the point is?

Friday, November 5th, 2010

 

Those of us who work in the criminal justice system — whether lawyers, judges, social workers or whatever — are fairly cognizant of the fact that the vast majority of people who get arrested aren’t really a problem for society.  Depending on the stats you’re looking at, for something like 83% of the people who get arrested, that first contact with the criminal justice system is their last.  They don’t re-offend, period.  Maybe they’re good folks who just made a mistake.  Maybe they got scared straight.  Maybe their crime was the result of a circumstance that will never occur again.  Whatever the reason, we never see them again.

As we all pretty much recognize this, we tend to give first-timers (well, not murderers, obviously) some benefit of the doubt.  We give the first-arrest guy a chance to prove that, though he may have committed this crime, he’s not really a criminal.  Maybe he gets a consent decree/adjournment in contemplation of dismissal.  Or a conditional discharge, or some period of probation.  Community service.  Something, anything, other than jail.  Some kind of penance, whereupon we can confidently give our blessing and say “go forth and sin no more.”

But what about those who come back?  What about that 17% who re-offend?

They keep coming back, that’s what.  They may have gotten probation last time, but they’re soon going to find themselves in prison.  And once they get out, they tend to re-offend and get sent right back.  Usually within three years, but often within a single year.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation just released a thorough statistical analysis of these re-offenders.  You can check it out here.  It doesn’t really have much to say about why people re-offend, but it has some useful data on who re-offends.  Good breakdowns by various demographic categories such as age, race, sex, nature of offense, and mental illness.  Also some eye-opening stats on how soon they re-offend, how often, and how long they stay in prison.

A lot of conclusions can be drawn from these stats.  The wrong conclusions can be the most tempting — to (more…)

Just Around the Corner

Friday, October 1st, 2010

The Supreme Court is back in session on Monday, and we’re not ashamed to admit that we’re excited.  As always.  And they’re starting off the argument season with a bang — a critical issue on federal sentencing of gun crimes.  Can’t wait.

The case is actually two cases, Abbott v. U.S. and Gould v. U.S.  The issue is just what the heck 18 U.S.C. § 924(c) means.

§ 924(c) says, if you’re convicted of possessing a gun during a narcotics crime, you get a 5-year minimum sentence, to be served consecutively.  Unless, that is, “a greater minimum sentence is otherwise provided by this subsection or any other law.”

Such straightforward language, and yet capable of so many different interpretations.  Is it written to make sure that you get at least 5 years if you carried a gun during a drug crime?  Or is the point to make sure that you get at least an extra 5 years, added to the original sentence?

Does it mean that, if you’re already facing a mandatory minimum greater than 5 years for the gun, then § 924(c) doesn’t even apply?

Does it mean that, if you’re (more…)

What Nobody’s Mentioning about the New Crack Sentencing Law

Wednesday, August 4th, 2010

 

Yesterday, President Obama signed S.1789, the long-awaited sentencing fairness act that reduced the appalling 100-to-1 sentencing disparity between crack cocaine and powder cocaine.  It still doesn’t go all the way to undo the hysteria of the crack epidemic, however.  For powder cocaine there’s a 10-year minimum for selling or possessing with intent to sell 5,000 grams — for crack cocaine the figure was just 50 grams, but that just went up to 280 grams.  There’s a 5-year minimum for selling/possessing with intent 500 grams of powder — for crack that just went up from 5 grams to 28 grams.  So there’s still a roughly 18-to-1 sentencing disparity.  And the 5-year mandatory minimum for mere possession of crack — personal use here — was eliminated entirely (it had applied to possession of 5 grams for first offenders, 3 grams for second offenders, and 1 gram for third offenders).

That’s all good news.  Getting rid of the mandatory minimum for mere possession is the best part, because throwing people in jail for mere possession is stupid, wrong, unjust, and doesn’t solve the problem.  Drug court and treatment diversion programs work very well.  (The new law also requires a federal report one year from now on just how well the federally-funded drug court programs are doing.)  Reducing the sentencing disparity from the appalling (and racist) 100-to-1, to the merely shocking (and still racist) 18-to-1… well, it’s better than nothing.  Powder and crack are equally bad, there is no disparity in their effects, their addictiveness, or anything meaningful.  There shouldn’t be any disparity at all.  But reducing it is a step in the right direction, and the new law is rightly praised for so doing.

But in all the hoopla, the press (and the defense bar) seem to have overlooked the other provisions of the new law — provisions which can dramatically increase some drug sentences.

There are now 2+ level enhancements for drug crimes involving violence or the threat of violence (not unheard of).  There are now 2+ level enhancements if premises were used for the manufacture or distribution (very common).  There will be 2+ level enhancements if the defendant was using his girlfriend to mule the drugs, or an addict to sell the drugs on the street in exchange for a freebie, or any other typical buffering relationship.  There will be 2+ enhancements if they sold to, or involved, someone under 18, someone over 64, or someone who was pregnant (common).  There are 2+ enhancements if the defendant made his living by selling drugs (a majority of cases, no?).

That’s just a partial list of enhancements.  But you can see how a typical drug defendant can now wind up facing significantly more time now than before Obama signed “the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010. ”

We can think of a number of ways to describe the new law.  “Fair Sentencing” is not one of them.

Another reason to hate NY’s “Hate Crimes” law

Tuesday, June 22nd, 2010

snake_oil_hate_criminal

“Hate” is not an element of New York’s “hate crime” law.  You don’t have to hate to commit a hate crime.  Instead, the law merely requires that you have “a belief or perception” regarding a person’s race, color, national origin, ancestry, gender, religion, religious practice, age, disability or sexual orientation.  (The legislature could have saved a lot of bother by simply saying “a characteristic of a person over which that person has no control.”  That’s the policy they’re pursuing, even if they don’t realize it.)

There’s a list of eligible crimes at PL §485.05(3).  If you commit one of those crimes, and if you either chose your victim or committed the crime because of such “a belief or perception,” then you are guilty of a hate crime in New York, and now face harsher punishment.

This is a pretty vague statute.  You don’t need to have any specific belief or perception about someone, just “a” belief or perception.

The Queens DA’s office — already known more for its zeal than for its sense of justice — has now taken that vagueness to its logical extreme.  They’ve taken the reductio ad absurdum and made it office policy.

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The New York Times reports today that the Queens DA has been going after people who defraud old people, not because of any animus towards old people, but because of a belief about old people.  Namely, that old people are easy to defraud. 

Ordinarily, such frauds do not carry any mandatory jail time.  But if charged as a hate crime, they carry mandatory upstate prison time.  Can it be that the legislature really intended this outcome?

By the Queens DA’s logic, every scam targeted at the elderly is a hate crime, because the scam rests on a belief that old folks are easy to scam. 

By this same logic, any (more…)

Dammit, Dillon!

Thursday, June 17th, 2010

Just a quick update.  The Supreme Court decided Dillon v. U.S. today (read the opinion here), and the decision totally sucks.  Here’s what we said about it a couple of weeks ago:

There are a lot of federal inmates serving unfairly long sentences, due to the bizarre discrepancy in sentencing for crack vs. powder cocaine.  (See our latest piece on this here.)  In 2007, the Guidelines were amended a teeny bit, permitting a 2-level reduction for crack cases.  In 2008, that was made retroactive, so prisoners could get resentenced.  Dillon wanted to get resentenced.  But he wanted more than the 2-level reduction.  He wanted a departure from the Guidelines recommendation itself, as permitted by Booker.  But the feds say Booker only applies to full sentencing proceedings, not to resentencings like this — this is just an adjustment of the guideline range that should have been applied to a pre-Booker sentence.  As Scalia pointed out at oral argument, that would require the courts to essentially disregard Booker.  And given the universal loathing of the crack/powder disparity, we think a finding for Dillon would give the courts the ability to take the injustice into account and impose variance sentences more proportional to those for powder.

But noooo.

Writing for a 7-1 majority (Stevens dissented, and Alito recused himself), Justice Sotomayor said that Booker doesn’t apply here — the Guidelines are not advisory, and have to be applied as they were back in the bad old days.

This is just infuriating.  The 100-1 disparity in sentencing for crack vs. powder cocaine is fundamentally unjust.  One would think that the judiciary would just wipe it out as simply unconstitutional.  But instead, we get the Supremes saying §3582(c)(2) — the whole point of which is lenity for those sentenced under the disparate Guidelines — doesn’t allow for any lenity beyond what the Guidelines themselves permit.

Sotomayor’s legal reasoning isn’t bad.  It’s actually pretty good.  But her result is appalling.

Is Dolan a Clue to the Upcoming “Honest Services” Decisions?

Tuesday, June 15th, 2010
tammany_tiger
We’re still waiting to hear how the Supreme Court decides the trio of cases on “honest services” fraud.  In the meantime, we’re wondering if yesterday’s Dolan decision might be a harbinger of what’s to come.

In Dolan, the Court was dealing with a vague statute.  It left out a crucial statement of what ought to happen if the court missed a deadline.  They could have sent it back to Congress to specify what ought to happen.  After oral arguments, during which both the progressive Stevens and the formalist Scalia seemed inclined to do just that, we figured it was probably going to happen.  But we figured wrong. 

Instead, the Court split 5-4, not on ideological lines, but on seniority.  The five most junior justices agreed to craft their own remedy language for the statute, based on what they felt the general purpose was supposed to be.  The four more senior justices wanted Congress to amend the statute itself, and pointed out that the juniors’ interpretation actually undermined the existing language already in the statute.

We wonder if we’re going to see a similar split (and similar strange bedfellows) in the “honest services” cases of Black, Weyrach, and (more…)

Deadlines, Schmedlines

Monday, June 14th, 2010

supreme court fountain

It was a case of very strange bedfellows today at the Supreme Court.  The 5-4 decision in Dolan v. U.S. (opinion here) wasn’t split on ideological lines, but on lines of seniority.  The majority consisted of the five most junior Justices, while the senior Justices were joined in a solid dissent.  So Thomas and Alito sided with Breyer, Ginsburg and Sotomayor.  And Roberts and Scalia were united with Stevens and Kennedy.

What gives?  We suggest that it reflects a changing approach to statutory interpretation. 

The case is about how to interpret 18 U.S.C. § 3664(d)(5), which says a sentencing court has to order restitution within 90 days of sentencing, but fails to specify what happens if the deadline is missed.  Specifically, it says that, if losses aren’t calculated 10 days before sentencing, the court “shall set a date for the final determination of the victim’s losses, not to exceed 90 days after sentencing.”  That word “shall” is pretty strong, and its accepted meaning is “must.”  In other words, a court has no choice here, no discretion, but “must” set a restitution amount within 90 days.  But there is no provision for remedies if that doesn’t happen.  So the Court had to fill in the blanks.

The majority reasoned that, given that the whole point of the statute is to ensure speedy restitution to victims, Congress couldn’t possibly have intended for restitution to be forfeited if a court takes too long.  And Congress wasn’t particularly concerned with giving finality to defendants, but anyway so long as the defendant is on notice that restitution is in fact going to be ordered, the defendant isn’t harmed if the deadline is missed. 

The dissenting Justices pointed out that this interpretation makes a nullity of 18 U.S.C. § 3664(d)(5).  The 90-day deadline is no deadline at all.  The majority allows restitution to be ordered at any time after sentencing, thereby gutting the plain language of the (more…)

The Suspense is Killing Us

Wednesday, June 2nd, 2010

300 supreme court

There are four Mondays left in June.  Four more days in which the Supreme Court is expected to announce its decisions in the 27 or so cases still out there this term.  That’s about one case per day from now till then.  We’re picturing the Justices pulling all-nighters, stacks of empty pizza boxes in the halls at 2 a.m. next to the burn bags (do they still use burn bags there?), and sleepy zombie-like clerks dropping in their tracks every now and then.

Some of those cases have to do with boring old civ pro or shipping or labor law.  But a whole bunch are about the cool stuff, criminal law.  Here are a few of the criminal cases we’re watching particularly closely:

Black v. United States
Weyrauch v. United States
Skilling v. United States

This trio of cases attack the “honest services” fraud law.  18 U.S.C. § 1346 was supposed to prevent political corruption, but Congress wrote it so sloppily that it’s become a catch-all crime for federal prosecutors.  Anyone can get charged with it, and nobody knows what it means.  The Court telegraphed its dislike of the statute during oral arguments of all (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…)

What Not to Say at Sentencing

Wednesday, March 10th, 2010
Monica Conyers arriving at court for sentencing

Monica Conyers arriving at court for sentencing

Former Detroit councilwoman Monica Conyers, the wife of U.S. Representative John Conyers, was sentenced today in federal court on her guilty plea to charges of bribery. The 45-year-old was given 37 months in prison, the top end of the agreed-upon Guidelines range.

Having read the sentencing minutes, we can’t help but think she might have done better if she’d kept her mouth shut. There are some things one does not say during one’s sentencing. She seems not to have gotten the memo, and it may be that others out there don’t know either. So here are some tips:

First, do not imply that the judge is acting improperly, before the judge has even sentenced you. Don’t even hint that the judge is taking things into account that he should not be. For example, it is not a good idea to say “the newspapers have put pressure on you to try to make an example out of me.” Judges do not like to be told they’re committing an impropriety. You do not want to piss off the person who is about to decide your fate.

Seriously, people need to be told this?

Second, do not say it’s unfair that you’re going to jail, when the other people committing crimes with you got less time. If you’ve pled to taking bribes (Conyers admitted taking multiple payments in return for awarding a contract), it doesn’t matter what happened to anybody else. The only consideration is what you did, and what you deserve. So saying “all of the people who were bribing and giving the money, they got zero months, eleven months, and now they want me to go to jail for five years?” — that’s not really going to help you out. All you’re doing is calling the judge unfair to his face. And it’s irrelevant at best.

That leads right to point 3: If you’ve just got done saying you should get the same time as your fellow conspirators, it’s not a good idea to then insist that you’re innocent and your plea was involuntary. Arguing in the alternative, at least in criminal cases, only means both alternatives are wrong. Pick a story and stick with it.

Point 3-A is that you don’t react to sentencing by demanding your (more…)

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.

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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.