High Court Sentencing Case Cited Flimsy Evidence

The Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the U.S. Sentencing Commission using flawed studies supposedly proving that federal judges gave wildly different punishments for the same crime, ProPublica reports.

More than 30 years ago, Congress identified what it said was a grave threat to the  promise of equal justice for all: Federal judges were giving wildly different punishments to defendants for the same crimes. Some lawmakers feared lenient judges were giving criminals too little time in prison. Others suspected African Americans were being unfairly sentenced to steeper prison terms than white defendants. In 1984, Congress created the U.S. Sentencing Commission. The panel would set firm punishment rules, called “guidelines,” for every offense. The measure largely stripped federal judges of their sentencing powers; they were now to use a chart to decide penalties for each conviction.

Five years later, a legal challenge to the commission wound up before the U.S. Supreme Court. In Mistretta v. U.S., the court upheld the sentencing commission, saying it was needed to end the widespread and “shameful” sentencing disparities produced by the biases of individual judges. Mistretta was a momentous decision, but it’s now clear the high court relied on evidence that was flimsy and even flat-out wrong, ProPublica reports. The justices cited a single congressional report in concluding that there were disturbing and unacceptable sentencing disparities. That report was based primarily on two flawed studies from the 1970s. One was a survey of federal judges about sentences they might give in hypothetical cases. The survey ignored a basic fact about courts’ real-life workings: Judges acted as the sole arbiter of sentences in a tiny fraction of cases. The vast majority of sentences were the result of plea bargains negotiated by prosecutors and defense lawyers. There was no evidence offered that judges were signing off on vastly different plea bargain terms. Later research would debunk the claim.

from https://thecrimereport.org

AZ Studies Ways to Handle Phony Parole Offers

Prosecutors and defense attorneys in Arizona negotiated plea deals and judges were imposing sentences offering the possibility of eventual parole to murderers even though parole was abolished in 1993. The first problematic cases of inmates given those sentences come due in 2019.

It was an open secret in Arizona’s criminal justice system: Prosecutors and defense attorneys were negotiating plea deals and judges were imposing sentences offering the possibility of eventual parole to murderers even though parole was abolished in 1993. The first problematic cases of inmates given those sentences come due in 2019. After an Arizona Republic series brought the secret to public attention in March, state prosecutors, corrections officials and Arizona Supreme Court staff are talking about solutions, the Republic reports. One proposal would amend state law to allow parole for some murderers.

The Arizona Legislature threw out parole in 1993 while enacting a series of tough-on-crime statutes. It replaced the life-with-parole sentence with one that granted eligibility for “release” after 25 years. Both sentences were usually referred to in courthouse shorthand as “25-to-life,” and the terms “parole” and “release” are still frequently conflated during legal discussions. They are very different. The parole option granted prisoners who had served 25 years an automatic hearing in front of a parole board, which had the authority to grant freedom to those inmates it deemed were no longer a threat to society. Release requires a prisoner to file a formal petition with the Arizona Board of Executive Clemency, which can recommend a pardon or commutation of a sentence to the governor. It became a political decision rather than an evaluation of an inmate’s behavior and rehabilitation. And though the first of the life-with-chance-of-release sentences will not come due until 2019, state and federal appeals courts have already deemed the idea of release as “illusory,” and tantamount to a natural life sentence.

 

from https://thecrimereport.org

Swimmer Turner Appeals Sex-Assault Conviction

The case of former Stanford swimmer Brock Turner got national attention when he was sentenced to six months in custody for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman. Now, he is appealing the conviction in the hope of overturning lifetime registration as a sex offender.

Former Stanford swimmer Brock Turner is appealing his conviction for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman outside a campus fraternity party, the Associated Press reports. His attorneys argue the Ohio native’s initial trial was “a detailed and lengthy set of lies.” Turner hopes that a new trial will help overturn Turner’s mandatory lifetime requirement to register as a sex offender.

The case got national attention when Judge Aaron Persky sentenced Turner to six months in jail. John Tompkins, Turner’s legal adviser, said that what happened wasn’t a crime. Tompkins says the facts don’t reflect the verdict. Turner was convicted of three felony counts of sexual assault. At the time of his case, he was a decorated swimmer at Stanford.

from https://thecrimereport.org

VA Parole Change Could Release 200 From Prison

The Virginia parole board is changing how it interprets the state’s three-strikes law in a way that could free hundreds of inmates – many of them nonviolent – who are serving terms significantly longer than the typical first-degree murderer. The announcement was made after the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot reported that a high percentage of three-strikes inmates have served two to three decades in prison for crimes in which no one was injured.

The Virginia parole board is changing how it interprets the state’s three-strikes law in a way that could free hundreds of inmates – many of them nonviolent – who are serving prison terms significantly longer than the typical first-degree murderer, the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot reports. The announcement was made after the Virginian-Pilot reported that a high percentage of three-strikes inmates have served two to three decades in prison for crimes in which no one was injured. The majority of such inmates interviewed  had never been to prison before and committed their crimes in a single spree. Adrianne Bennett, the parole board’s chairwoman, said the board is making two major changes to its interpretation of the 1982 three-strikes law under which the inmates were deemed ineligible for parole.

The most significant change is that the parole board will only uphold offenders’ classification as three-strikers if their offenses were separated by time “at liberty.” In other words, only offenders who were in and out of prison repeatedly would continue to be ineligible for parole. Inmates who committed their crimes in the same stretch of time – and who had never been to prison before – could be heading home soon. The law states that offenders have to be convicted of three “separate” offenses of murder, rape or robbery. The Virginian-Pilot interviewed more than 40 three-strikes inmates. Most of them committed robberies in the same brief stretch in their late teens or 20s. With the parole board’s shift, all of those inmates would become eligible for parole and could potentially be released in the coming months. The parole board’s shift could affect more than 200 inmates who have been in the Virginia prison system for decades. There are about 260 three-strikers behind bars. The vast majority of them likely were not “at liberty” between their crimes.

from https://thecrimereport.org

High Court More Than Doubles Oscar Pistorius Sentence

In the case of the Olympic athlete’s murder of his girlfriend, South Africa’s Supreme Court of Appeals says “the sentence of six years’ imprisonment is shockingly lenient to a point where it has the effect of trivialising this serious offence.” Pistorius killed Reeva Steenkamp on Valentine’s Day 2013.

Oscar Pistorius’ prison sentence was more than doubled to 13 years and five months, the Associated Press reports. It was a surprisingly dramatic intervention by South Africa’s Supreme Court of Appeals in the Olympic athlete’s fate after the murder of girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp. Justice Willie Seriti said a panel of judges unanimously upheld an appeal by prosecutors against Pistorius’ original six-year sentence for shooting Steenkamp several times in his home in 2013.

Under the initial sentence, which the court called “shockingly lenient,” the double-amputee runner could have been released on parole in mid-2019. Now, the earliest he’ll be eligible for parole is 2023. The ruling could bring an end to the near five-year legal saga surrounding Pistorius, a multiple Paralympic champion and record-breaker who was the first amputee to run at the Olympics and one of the most celebrated sportsmen in the world. Steenkamp’s parents, Barry and June, “feel there has been justice for Reeva. She can now rest in peace,”said their lawyer, Tania Koen. Pistorius killed Steenkamp in the pre-dawn hours of Valentine’s Day 2013 after shooting four times through a closed toilet cubicle door with his 9 mm pistol. He claimed he mistook the 29-year-old model and reality TV star for an intruder. Prosecutors called the six-year sentence much too lenient and the Supreme Court agreed, saying that “the sentence of six years’ imprisonment is shockingly lenient to a point where it has the effect of trivialising this serious offence.”

from https://thecrimereport.org

Trump DOJ Says High Court Should Avoid Long-Term Case

The Justice Department changes sides, urges the Supreme Court to reject an appeal by a Florida man who says he was sentenced to prison for seven more years than the law allowed.

It is one thing for a new administration to switch sides in a legal dispute. It is another to ask the Supreme Court to deny review in a case that would test whether the government’s new position is correct, the New York Times reports. In a brief last month, the Justice Department tried to have it both ways. It told the justices it no longer believed that some federal prisoners serving longer prison terms than the law allowed were entitled to challenge their sentences in court. For the last 16 years, the Justice Department had taken the opposite view in at least 11 Supreme Court briefs.

You might think the Supreme Court should settle things, but DOJ urged the justices to turn down an appeal from Dan McCarthan, a Florida man who said he was sentenced to seven more years than the law allowed. It did so even as it acknowledged that the legal question was significant and that the department’s new position could lead to harsh results, condemning inmates to serve out unlawful sentences. The request that the Supreme Court deny review of McCarthan’s case was “incredibly unseemly” and “not a good look for the Department of Justice,” said Leah Litman, law professor at the University of California Irvine. A McCarthan attorney, Kannon Shanmugam, said in a brief that, “When the government changes position on a concededly important question that has divided the circuits, it should at least have the courage of its convictions and be willing to defend its new position on the merits in this court.”

from https://thecrimereport.org

Sentencing Commission: Race Gap in Prison Terms Persists

African-American male offenders receive sentences averaging 19.1 percent longer than white males—a gap that has largely remained unchanged since the Commission began studying the issue in 2010. In its third report on the demographic factors affecting sentencing outcomes, the USSC also said females received shorter prison terms than males.

Race continues to determine the length of sentences received for offenses of all kinds in the federal system, according to a new analysis by the United States Sentencing Commission.

In its third study of the subject since 2010, the Commission found that African-American male offenders were sentenced to prison terms that were on average 19.1 percent longer than white male offenders between 2012-2016.

That gap was not statistically different from prior periods of study, the Commission added.

During the same period, the sentences of Hispanic male offenders were on average 5.3 percent longer than the sentences received by whites.

The study noted that while an initial analysis of the figures suggested that the difference in sentencing length between African Americans and whites had narrowed from 34 months in 2006 to nine months in 2016, the reduced gap was largely due to reductions in penalties for crack cocaine offenses—in which blacks make up the largest component of offenders.

“When other relevant factors are controlled for,” the study said, “the gap in sentence lengths between black male and white male offenders did not shrink but, in fact, remained relatively stable across these periods.”

The study found that African-American offenders were less likely to be offered plea deals than whites—but even those who accepted such deals still received sentences on average 16 percent longer than their white counterparts.

The Commission analyzed court records in 2016 to investigate whether violence in an offender’s previous history might account for the demographic differences in sentencing—the first time it had done so in its demographic studies—and found that it had no effect.

The racial gaps noted in the study, however, did not apply to gender.

During the same period, the Commission said, female offenders on average received shorter sentences than males, regardless of race.

The Commission cautioned that its analysis “cannot control for all the factors that judges may consider…and should not be taken to suggest discrimination on the part of judges.”

“Multivariate analysis,” it added, “cannot explain why the differences in outcomes exist, but only that they do exist.”

The updated report, “Demographic Differences in Sentencing,” was released Tuesday. It was prepared by Glenn R. Schmitt, Louis Reedt, and Kevin Blackwell, respectively, director, deputy director and senior research associate in the Office of Research and Data of the U.S. Sentencing Commission.

The full report can be downloaded here.

from https://thecrimereport.org

Trump’s Bergdahl Comments to Play Sentencing Role

Judge weighing the penalty for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who left his Afghanistan post and was captured by the Taliban, will consider President Trump’s comment on the camapign trial that Bergdahl is a traitor and that he should be executed or returned to the Taliban.

President Trump’s harsh criticism of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who walked off his Army post in Afghanistan in 2009 and was captured by the Taliban, will weigh in favor of a lighter sentence for the sergeant, the New York Times reports. “I will consider the president’s comments as mitigation evidence as I arrive at an appropriate sentence,” Judge Jeffery  Nance of the Army said during a hearing at Fort Bragg. He is expected to sentence Sergeant Bergdahl in the next few weeks. The judge rejected a request that he dismiss the case or cap the length of the sentence on the grounds the president’s comments had precluded a fair hearing. The judge said he had not been influenced by the remarks and that the public’s confidence in the military justice system had not been undermined.

Sgt. Bergdahl faces up to life imprisonment. He pleaded guilty on Oct. 16 to desertion and endangering the troops who were sent to search for him. He testified on Monday that he deeply regretted that people “suffered because of my bad choices.” “I’m admitting I made a horrible mistake,” the sergeant said. “It was never my intention for anyone to be hurt, and I never expected that to happen.” As a candidate, Trump repeatedly called Sergeant Bergdahl a traitor and suggested that he should be executed or returned to the Taliban. On Oct. 16, Trump seemed to endorse those earlier sentiments, saying, “I think people have heard my comments in the past.”

from https://thecrimereport.org

LA Sheriff Complains About Release of ‘Good’ Inmates

Caddo Parish, La., Sheriff Steve Prator is angry about the new Louisiana sentencing and parole laws going into effect on Nov. 1. Prator appears worried about their effect on the bottom line of his office. “In addition to the bad ones … they are releasing some good ones that we use every day to wash cars, to change the oil in our cars, to cook in the kitchen — to do all that where we save money,” he said.

Caddo Parish, La., Sheriff Steve Prator is angry about the new Louisiana sentencing and parole laws going into effect on November 1. The sheriff complained loudly that the new laws pose a threat to public safety and weren’t well vetted before the Louisiana legislature approved them last fall, reports the New Orleans Times-Picayune. Prator isn’t just concerned about the impact on public safety. He also appears worried about their effect on the bottom line of his office. During a press conference last week, the sheriff complained about the so-called “bad” prisoners he thought might commit other crimes once free. He also objected to the release of the “good ones” from prison as well.

“In addition to the bad ones — they are releasing some good ones that we use every day to wash cars, to change the oil in our cars, to cook in the kitchen — to do all that where we save money,” Prator said. He described these good prisoners as “the ones you can work.” That’s the one that you can have pick up trash or work the police programs. But guess what? Those are the ones that they are releasing.” Criminal justice advocates and the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana were appalled by the sheriff’s remarks. “Jails are not supposed to incarcerate people just because they need work done – that is slavery,” said the ACLU’s Marjorie Esman. Many of the state’s 64 sheriffs help pay for their regular law enforcement staff and operations by housing and working state prisoners originally from other parts of the state. They directly benefit from Louisiana’s highest-in-the-world incarceration rate. Some sheriffs have grown so dependent on the revenue that the state prisoners produce, they would have budget troubles without them. Some sheriffs have even borrowed money to build larger jails so they could house more state inmates.

from https://thecrimereport.org

Grassley, Durbin Reintroduce Sentencing Reform

Senators reintroduce proposal to “recalibrate” prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenders and target violent and career criminals.  The legislation would allow more judicial discretion at sentencing for offenders with minimal criminal histories and help inmates successfully reenter society, while tightening penalties for violent criminals and preserving key prosecutorial tools.

A bipartisan group of senators has reintroduced the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017 to “recalibrate” prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenders and target violent and career criminals.  The legislation would allow  more judicial discretion at sentencing for offenders with minimal criminal histories and help inmates successfully reenter society, while tightening penalties for violent criminals and preserving key prosecutorial tools. Key sponsors include Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (D-Il.)

The proposal, a similar version of which failed to pass Congress last year, narrows the scope of mandatory minimum prison sentences to focus on the most serious drug offenders and violent criminals, while broadening and establishing new outlets for individuals with minimal non-violent criminal histories that may trigger mandatory minimum sentences under current law, says the sponsors. It also reduces certain mandatory minimums and provides judges with greater discretion when determining appropriate sentences.  Under the bill, courts must review eligible inmates’ cases, including criminal histories and conduct while incarcerated, before determining whether a sentence reduction is appropriate. The bill preserves cooperation incentives to aid law enforcement in tracking down kingpins and stiffens penalties for individuals convicted of serious violent felonies. It also establishes recidivism reduction programs to help prepare low-risk inmates to successfully re-enter society.

from https://thecrimereport.org