Saturday, May 27, 2017

GateHouse Media: Ratcheting up the ‘war on drugs’

Matthew T. Mangino
GateHouse Media
May 26, 2017
The Trump administration’s first budget is big on public safety. The budget includes $27.7 billion for the Justice Department, including what the White House calls “critical law enforcement, public safety and immigration enforcement programs and activities.”
President Trump is asking Congress for an increase of $175 million for the Justice Department “to target the worst of the worst criminal organizations and drug traffickers in order to address violent crime, gun-related deaths, and the opioid epidemic.”
Trump’s “tough on crime” rhetoric has resulted in a budget proposal that leaves most criminal justice agencies and programs intact -- the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms are stable or rising -- while spending reductions are proposed for a number of other federal agencies.
These increases come as both the FBI and Federal Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) show a substantial decline in the violent crime rate since its peak in the early 1990s. Using the FBI numbers, according to Salon, the rate fell 50 percent between 1993 and 2015, the most recent full year available. Using the BJS data, the rate fell by 77 percent during that span.
In addition, the administration says it will save nearly $1 billion in federal prison construction because of a 14 percent decrease in the prison population since 2013, wrote Ted Gest at the The Crime Report.
Wait ... the proposed budget provides more resources for crime fighting and the attorney general pledges to lock-up more drug offenders for longer periods of time and the administration is counting on savings from prisoner reductions?
Counting on continued savings in federal prison spending due to declining inmate population seems a bit disingenuous. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has announced that he wants federal prosecutors to take a tougher stance on drug cases, a move that will inevitably increase the number of federal prisoners.
Sessions wants federal prosecutors to reinitiate the “war on drugs” by charging suspects with the most serious offense that can be proved and imposing more mandatory minimum sentences.
“We know that drugs and crime go hand-in-hand,” Sessions said in a speech on May 12. “Drug trafficking is an inherently violent business. If you want to collect a drug debt, you can’t file a lawsuit in court. You collect it by the barrel of a gun.”
Sessions’ edict reverses a policy implemented by former Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. in August 2013, one that ordered prosecutors to refrain from pursuing drug charges if doing so would trigger lengthy mandatory minimum sentences -- and the defendant was not part of a gang, cartel, or other large-scale drug trafficking organization.
Sessions has always been on the draconian end of illegal drug policy. When he was Alabama’s attorney general, he pushed for a bill that would have provided for the death penalty for individuals convicted of a second drug trafficking offense.
Being tough on crime means filling prisons. According to the Washington Post, in the 1980s, the U.S. began incarcerating people at a higher rate than any other country -- jailing 25 percent of the world’s prisoners at a cost of $80 billion a year. The nation’s prison and jail population more than quadrupled from 500,000 in 1980 to 2.2 million in 2015.
Former President Barack Obama began a clemency initiative late in his second term. He focused on the release of certain drug offenders from prison. He worked to address some obvious racial disparities in sentencing with progressive forward thinking initiatives. Obama and his attorney general were looking to the future.
Compare that with a recent speech by Sessions where he suggested, “Psychologically, politically, morally, we need to say -- as Nancy Reagan said -- ‘Just say no.’”
That’s a general fighting the last war.

-- Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book “The Executioner’s Toll, 2010” was released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewTMangino.
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Friday, May 26, 2017

Alabama executes man on eighth try, convicted when George Wallace was governor

The 12th Execution of 2017
Convicted murderer Thomas Arthur, 75, of Alabama narrowly dodged execution seven times. Dubbed the “Houdini of death row” he was put to death on May 25, 2017. He was strapped to a gurney at the Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, Ala., and injected with a cocktail of lethal drugs about 11:45 p.m. local time. according to the Los Angeles Times.
With his final words, Arthur apologized to his children. “I’m sorry for failing you as a father,” he said. “I love you more than anything on Earth.”
Arthur had initially been scheduled to be executed at 6 p.m., but the U.S. Supreme Court issued a temporary stay, signed by Justice Clarence Thomas. The nation’s highest court then went on to lift the stay an hour and 15 minutes before Arthur’s death warrant expired at midnight.
In a dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor criticized the court’s decision, arguing that she continued to doubt that one of the state’s execution drugs, midazolam, was capable of rendering prisoners unable to feel the “excruciating pain” of lethal injection. Alabama officials, she argued, had only compounded the risks by denying Arthur’s attorneys access to a phone in the witness room to contact the courts if any aspect of the execution went wrong.
“When Thomas Arthur enters the execution chamber tonight, he will leave his constitutional rights at the door,” she wrote.
Arthur, who was first sentenced to death in 1983 when George Wallace was governor of Alabama, has spent more than 34 years on death row. In that time, 58 other Alabama inmates have been executed.
Arthur was convicted of the contract killing of Troy Wicker of Muscle Shoals, Ala. Wicker's wife had claimed she hired Arthur, who at the time was serving at a Decatur work release center for a conviction in the 1977 murder of his sister-in-law in Marion County.
Arthur has been on death row since March 1983, making him the third longest serving inmate on Alabama's Death Row. He's also the second oldest inmate there.
Arthur's original conviction in Wicker's death and a second conviction were overturned. He was convicted a third time in 1991, and that conviction was upheld. Arthur admits he killed his sister-in-law, but maintains he did not kill Wicker.
When the Alabama Supreme Court set this latest execution date for Arthur, it was the eighth time he's been scheduled to be put to death. The Alabama Attorney General's Office stated in its request to the court that it be done "as soon as possible." Arthur's previous execution dates were in: 2001, twice in 2007, 2008, 2012, 2015 and 2016. Several were stayed within one to two days of being carried out.
The Attorney General's office had sought Arthur's execution soon after he lost his federal court challenge on method of execution. Arthur, who claims the lethal injection method could be painful because of his health condition, appealed to the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.
The Attorney General stated that Arthur's 2011 lawsuit over the execution method, as well as his current appeal, is an attempt to delay an execution. "His sentence is long overdue," the Attorney General's Office stated in 2016.
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Thursday, May 25, 2017

Sentencing Project: Growing trend toward decarceration

A new analysis by The Sentencing Project reveals a growing trend toward decarceration across jurisdictions.

While 38 states and the federal government have at least modestly reduced their prison populations in recent years, our comparative analysis of U.S. Prison Population Trends 1999-2015 reveals that a growing number of jurisdictions have made dramatic progress. The total number of people held in state and federal prisons has declined by a modest 4.9% since reaching its peak in 2009. Yet 16 states have achieved double-digit rates of decline and the federal system has downsized at almost twice the national rate. Notably:

*Six states have reduced their prison populations by over 20% since reaching their peak levels: New Jersey, New York, Alaska, California, Vermont, and Connecticut.
*Several southern states that have exceptionally high rates of incarceration—including Mississippi, South Carolina, and Louisiana—have also begun to significantly downsize their prison populations.

Given that nationwide violent and property crime rates have fallen by half since 1991, the pace of decarceration has been very modest in most states and a quarter of the states continue to increase their prison populations. In particular:

*Fifteen states had less than a 5% decline since their peak-year prison populations.
*Twelve states have continued to expand their prison populations, with four producing double-digit increases since 2010: North Dakota, Wyoming, Oklahoma, and Minnesota.

These findings reinforce the conclusion that just as mass incarceration has developed primarily as a result of changes in policy, not crime rates, it will require ongoing changes in both policy and practice to produce substantial population reductions.
To read the analysis CLICK HERE

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Former CIA director: Russian collusion investigation warranted

The former head of the CIA said he has seen intelligence about interactions between President Donald Trump’s campaign associates and Russian officials that made him believe there was a need for the ongoing FBI investigation into possible collusion, reported The Huffington Post.
“I encountered and am aware of information and intelligence that revealed contacts and interactions between Russian officials and U.S. persons involved in the Trump campaign,” former CIA chief John Brennan told lawmakers on Tuesday during a House Intelligence Committee hearing. By the time he left the CIA on Jan. 20, Brennan continued, he had “unresolved questions” as to whether the Russians were successful in getting Americans “to work on their behalf, again, either in a witting or unwitting fashion.”

To read more CLICK HERE

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The sinister origins of non-unanimous verdicts in felony cases

Only two U.S. states still allow juries to convict defendants in non-capital cases without a unanimous decision—but Louisiana reformers are hoping to drop that number to one, wrote Katti Gray at The Crime Report.
Legal reform advocates in that state have joined the local bar association in pushing legislators to require unanimous jury verdicts for most felony convictions.  A victory in their campaign will leave Oregon as the only holdout allowing non-unanimous verdicts in felony cases, except those in which the convicted person could face the death penalty.
Even though the outcome remains uncertain, the debate over non-unanimous juries in Louisiana has thrown new light on long-ignored issues relating to race and criminal justice.
The reformers, including the Louisiana branches of the American Civil Liberties Union and the Innocence Project,  argue that state lawmakers must act because the state’s courts have refused to consider changing a practice that was instituted in 1898, when the largely white legislature voted to amend the state constitution to allow 9-to-3 jury votes for felony convictions.
In the 1970s, the allowed majority was changed to 10.
Today’s critics of that constitutional amendment, including Angela Bell, a Southern University Law Center professor whose research on non-unanimous juries was published last year in the Mercer Law Review, say those white legislators mainly were aiming to re-subjugate formerly enslaved blacks., and to supply assorted white-run industries with free labor from a prison population that long has been overwhelmingly black. 
After the Civil War, Louisiana was among southern states relying on “convict leasing,” paying state prisons for convicted persons to labor on plantations and for privately owned business.
“These plantation owners thought to themselves, ‘now that we can lease convicts, we need to get the convicts,’” Bell said.  “Things that were minor infractions became major sentences …
“That’s the scandal, systemically. All of this was born from bad intention. If you understand this law, then you understand why Louisiana is the forerunner in mass incarceration.”
Sir William Blackstone called the jury a sacred bulwark of liberty,” he told The Crime Report. “This was such a precious thing. Unanimity is the core of it … It’s the unanimity of the jury that serves the rights of mankind.”
That Louisiana and Oregon are outliers on that front owes to racial and religious bias, author Thomas Aiello wrote in “Jim Crow’s Last Stand: Nonunanimous Criminal Jury Verdicts in Louisiana,” published in 2015.
In Louisiana, blacks were targets of non-unanimous jury proponents. In Oregon—where felony defendants can be convicted by a vote of 11-to-1—Jews were the targets, contends Aiello, a history and African American studies professor at Valdosta State University in Georgia.
In Oregon, the Office of Public Defenders has publicly voiced its opposition to non-unanimous juries. But no campaign as widespread as Louisiana’s exists in that state.
To read more CLICK HERE

Monday, May 22, 2017

Cosby set to select Pittsburgh jury for Montgomery County trial

A Pennsylvania judge  will begin questioning potential jurors for the rape trial of Bill Cosby, the comedian best known as America's favorite TV dad before dozens of women came forward to accuse him of sex abuse, reported Reuters.
Cosby built a long career with a family-friendly style of comedy that peaked when he played father Heathcliff Huxtable in the 1980's hit "The Cosby Show." His reputation began to crumble as he was hit by a series of lawsuits and allegations charging him with drugging and sexually assaulting women in incidents dating back a half-century.
All but one of the cases is too old to be the subject of criminal prosecution, leaving Montgomery County Judge Steven O'Neill with the task of picking the 12 jurors who will determine whether Cosby, now 79, is guilty of sexually assaulting a former Temple University basketball coach at his home in the Philadelphia suburbs in 2004.
Cosby has steadfastly denied any wrongdoing, portraying all the encounters as consensual and contending that some accusers aimed to prey on his celebrity to secure large cash settlements in lawsuits.
He said in a radio interview last week that he does not plan to take the stand, meaning that the trial will likely focus on the testimony of accuser Andrea Constand.
Her accusation led to Cosby's arrest in December 2014, days before the statute of limitations on the alleged crime was to expire.
The case has drawn massive media coverage, leading O'Neill to agree to select jurors in Pittsburgh, rather than Montgomery County, where Cosby will be tried starting on June 5.
In making his picks, O'Neill will likely not attempt to find people who have not heard of the case, but simply push for jurors who vow to base their verdict solely on the evidence presented at trial.
"You have the right to a fair trial and an impartial jury," said Douglas Sughrue, a Pittsburgh defense attorney. "A fair trial doesn't mean that people aren't going to know anything about the defendant."
Prosecutors plan to call another accuser, whose name has not yet been made public, to testify about her own allegations of sexual assault, as they strive to bolster Constand's account by showing that Cosby engaged in a pattern of criminal behavior.
To read more CLICK HERE

Sunday, May 21, 2017