Monthly Archives: August 2016

An End To Juvenile Solitary?

Senator Leno’s bill to end solitary confinement as punishment for juvenile offenders, SB 1143, passed the Assembly last week, and should now be headed to Governor Brown’s desk. As the LA Times points out:

“The bill caps an extraordinary evolution in the way troubled youths are treated while held at juvenile halls, probation camps and prisons. Solitary confinement for hours, days or even weeks was until recently a standard way to punish wards for misbehavior, and attempts to stop it were blocked by lawmakers in 2011 and every year since.”

Expanding expungement

The Harvard Law and Policy Review argues that jurisdictions should consider expanding the types of criminal record information that are eligible for expungement, and provide incentives to stop discrimination based on criminal records.

Although several states have enacted laws to expand “the range of expungement remedies” available to people with criminal records, the laws have not provided sufficient relief for people who face discrimination, writes Brian M. Murray, Abraham Freedman Fellow at Temple University’s Beasley School of Law in a paper entitled “A New Era for Expungement Law Reform? Recent Developments at the State and Federal Levels.”

An estimated 25-30 percent of the adult population of Americans have criminal records—a “staggering” number which continues to increase, as the FBI adds some 10,000 names to its database every day, the study says.

That makes it a priority to address the barriers faced by individuals with criminal records, which include difficultly finding employment or enrolling in educational programs, the author writes. They may also be disqualified from receiving unemployment benefits, cash assistance and medical benefits.

“Perhaps the best way to limit the effect of criminal record history information is to prevent its systematic creation in the first place, even after an individual encounters the system,” Murray writes. “Arrest and conviction records attach scarlet letters to individuals.”

5.85 Million

The Sentencing Project reports that 5,850,000 Americans are disenfranchised by restrictive voting rights laws that prevent people with felony convictions from voting. The report found that:

-Approximately 2.5 percent of the total U.S. voting age population – 1 of every 40 adults – is disenfranchised due to a current or previous felony conviction.
-Ex-felons in the eleven states that disenfranchise people after they have completed their sentences make up about 45 percent of the entire disenfranchised population, totaling over 2.6 million people.
-The number of people disenfranchised due to a felony conviction has escalated dramatically in recent decades as the population under criminal justice supervision has increased. There were an estimated 1.17 million people disenfranchised in 1976, 3.34 million in 1996, and over 5.85 million in 2010.
-Rates of disenfranchisement vary dramatically by state due to broad variations in voting prohibitions. In six states – Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Virginia – more than 7 percent of the adult population is disenfranchised.
-1 of every 13 African Americans of voting age is disenfranchised, a rate more than four times greater than non-African Americans. Nearly 7.7 percent of the adult African American population is disenfranchised, compared to 1.8 percent of the non-African American population.
-African American disenfranchisement rates also vary significantly by state. In three states – Florida (23 percent), Kentucky (22 percent), and Virginia (20 percent) – more than one in five African Americans is disenfranchised.

Crime victims support criminal justice reform

A survey of victims of violent crime by the Alliance for Safety and Justice found that the overwhelming majority of crime victims believe that the criminal justice system relies too heavily on incarceration, and strongly prefer investments in treatment and prevention to more spending on prisons and jails. By two-to-one, victims said the criminal justice system should focus more on rehabilitating people who commit crimes, as opposed to punishing them. By similar margins, the victims preferred shorter prison sentences over keeping criminals incarcerated “as long as possible.”

Felony misconduct?

A bill that would make certain types of prosecutorial misconduct a felony passed out of committee yesterday. The bill, AB1909, is in significant part a response to recent events in Orange County, where accusations by defense attorneys that Orange County prosecutors and police illegally use jailhouse snitches and regularly withhold information favorable to the defense resulted in the removal of the  Orange County District Attorney’s Office from the penalty phase trial of Scott Dekraai, who murdered eight people at a Seal Beach salon in 2011. That decision is being appealed by the state Attorney General’s Office, which inherited the case.

You can follow the bill’s progress here.

Eric Holder on mandatory minimum sentencing

Former Attorney General Eric Holder speaks out on the issue of mandatory minimum sentencing in today’s NY Times. The gist:

“The nation’s lawmakers must stiffen their spines, ignore divisive language and schedule votes in this congressional session on reform legislation. An opportunity like this comes once in a generation. We must not miss it.”

Jail Staff Perspectives on Mental Illness

The Treatment Advocacy Center has published a report on the perspective of county jail staff members on inmates with serious mental illness in their charge. The findings:

  •  Overall, the vast majority (95.7%) of the jails reported having some inmates with serious mental illnesses from September 1, 2010, to August 31, 2011. While 49 (21.3%) of all jails reported that 16% or more of their inmate population were seriously mentally ill, more large jails reported having such large proportions of these inmates. Specifically, 31.3% of large, 13.2% of medium and only 4.2% of small jails reported that 16% or more of their inmates were seriously mentally ill.
  •  Per our adopted definition of a large seriously mentally ill inmate population (where seriously mentally ill inmates made up 6% or more of the population), more than a third (40.4%) of the jails reported having a large seriously mentally ill population. In contrast, more than half (58.3%) of the jails reported having a small seriously mentally ill population (i.e., seriously mentally ill inmates made up 5% or fewer of the population).
  •  Three-quarters of the jails reported seeing more or far more numbers of seriously mentally ill inmates, compared to five to 10 years ago.
  •  A third of the jails described the recidivism rate for these inmates as higher or much higher than that of the general inmate population.
  •  Segregation of inmates with serious mental illnesses was reported in 68.7% of the jails, particularly in those with smaller percentages of inmates who were seriously mentally ill.
  •  Most jails reported major problems with the seriously mentally ill inmates, including the necessity of watching them more closely for suicide, their need for additional attention, their disruption of normal jail activities, and their being abusive of, or abused by, other inmates.
  •  Caring for the seriously mentally ill in county jails was particularly challenging for law enforcement staff, who have limited training in dealing with these inmates. Almost half of the jails reported that only 2% or less of the initial training they provide to their staff and sheriff’s deputies was allotted to issues specifically dealing with seriously mentally ill inmates, and 60.4% reported that only two hours or less of annual training were allotted to such issues. Despite the limited training, about a third of the jails reported that 11% or more of their staff and sheriff’s deputies’ time involved handling seriously mentally ill inmates.

Criminal Defendants “Left Behind” at the Supreme Court

Adam Liptak of the NY Times analyzes the weakness of representation for criminal defendants whose cases reach the US Supreme Court. The primary factor, according to Liptak, is vanity: lawyers in those very rare cases that make it to the Court don’t want to pass the once-in-a-lifetime chance to argue there, and so most are by definition inexperienced.

Lipton cites another difficulty facing criminal defendants in the Supreme Court: Six of the eight members of the current court have worked in prosecutors’ offices. Four of them served in the Justice Department; Justice Clarence Thomas was an assistant attorney general of Missouri; and Justice Sotomayor was an assistant district attorney in Manhattan. Should the Senate confirm President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Judge Merrick B. Garland, the court would gain a former Justice Department official who supervised the prosecutions of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and of Theodore J. Kaczynski, the Unabomber.With Judge Garland on the court, the justices would have a total of 36 years of prosecutorial experience, the most in at least four decades.

The Vanishing Jury Trial

The NY Times examines the disappearance of jury trials in the Southern District of NY – where there were only 50 in 2015. Nationally, 97% of cases are resolved by plea, compared to 81% in 1980. Legal experts attribute the decline primarily to the increased power of prosecutors, resulting largely from sentencing guidelines and the increased use of mandatory minimum sentences, as well as overcriminalization – the result of which is to  discourage defendants from going to trial, where, if convicted, they might face incredibly harsh sentences.

Exonerated LA Man Looks for Justice

John Thompson, a Louisiana man who spent 18 years in prison after the prosecutor in his case withheld exonerating evidence, has filed a complaint with the Justice Department seeking a federal investigation of that prosecutor, John Williams. The complaint alleges “a pervasive and unapologetic pattern of unethical improper conduct” perpetrated by Williams and his colleagues at the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s office.

Thompson served 18 years, most of them in the notoriously violent Angola Penitentiary after being found guilty of a murder he did not commit. He spent 14 of those years on death row until — weeks before one of his seven proposed execution dates — a team of pro bono lawyers discovered that prosecutors led by Williams had failed to disclose blood samples from the scene of the crime at Thompson’s original trial. Those samples showed that the perpetrator had type B blood. Thompson has type O blood. Eventually Thompson was granted a retrial and, in 2003, a jury took 30 minutes to find him not guilty.

Thompson went on to sue the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s office for failure to train its prosecutors and won a jury award of $14 million — one for each year he spent on death row — only to have that verdict overturned by a controversial 5–4 U.S. Supreme Court decision. While prosecutors conceded they had withheld evidence supporting Thompson’s likely innocence, the court held that the district attorney’s office could not be found civilly liable because the mistake by prosecutors did not stem from a deficiency in training.