Friday, October 28, 2016

No hope for Wisconsin juvenile lifers

Sixty-eight inmates in Wisconsin are serving life sentences for crimes they committed at age 16 or younger, reported the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. In Wisconsin, juveniles as young as 10 are automatically charged as adults when accused of first-degree murder. While judges can move cases to juvenile court where sentences are shorter and resources for rehabilitation are more widely available, they rarely do.
In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court banned mandatory life sentences without parole for juveniles, noting such sentences fail to consider dysfunctional upbringings or peer pressure that may have contributed to the crimes. Earlier this year, the court said its ruling should be applied retroactively, giving 2,000 inmates across the country the chance to be resentenced or get out of prison early.
Since the Supreme Court rulings, 19 states have outlawed life without parole for juveniles.
But there is little chance the rulings will make a difference for the 68 juvenile offenders serving life terms in Wisconsin. Since most will technically be eligible for parole, the Supreme Court decisions won’t trigger a review of their sentences. And because parole is rarely granted in Wisconsin, release is unlikely.
Advocates for reform say treating young offenders as adults and subjecting them to life sentences ignores the growing scientific and judicial consensus: Juvenile brains aren’t fully formed and young people are more capable of rehabilitation than adults.
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Thursday, October 27, 2016

GOP backs away from the death penalty

Ballot campaigns fighting to halt the death penalty are getting unlikely support from some Republicans, who cite a growing concern that it has become a costly and ineffective policy, the Wall Street Journal reports. Voters in Nebraska and California will decide Nov. 8 whether to abolish the death penalty, while Oklahomans will vote on a measure that would give the state more leeway in the methods used to kill death-row inmates.
The Pew Research Center said this year that 72 percent of Republicans favor the death penalty, down from 77 percent in 2015 and 87 percent in 1996. Some 34 percent of Democrats support the death penalty, down from 40 percent last year.
“Republicans are starting to take the lead on this issue, they’re starting to say we’re going to use our conservative principles and get rid of this,” said Colby Coash, a Nebraska Republican state senator. “Here’s a broken government program, if you want to fix broken government programs.” Coash rallied the Republican-majority state Legislature to ban the death penalty last year.
His opponents argue voters won’t be so easily convinced. “They’re out of touch with the views of their constituents,” said Donald Stenberg, Nebraska’s GOP state treasurer who was attorney general in 1997 when the state last executed a death-row inmate. Nationally, support for the death penalty is still far stronger among Republicans than Democrats, but it is waning. 
 In Oklahoma, where executions are on hold after a botched execution and multiple drug mix-ups, independent pollsters were surprised by the amount of Republican support for abolishing the death penalty when there is an alternative punishment for murderers. Nearly half of Republicans said in a survey they would support its abolition if murderers were instead given life without parole and forced to pay restitution. 
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Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Fresno judge sentences father who raped daughter to 1,503 years in prison

Fresno, California prosecutor Nicole Galstan asked a judge to sentence Rene Lopez to 1,503 years in prison for raping his teenage daughter over a four-year period, ending in 2013, reported The Fresno Bee.
Judge Edward Sarkisian Jr. agreed, sentencing the 41-year-old Lopez to the longest-known prison sentence in Fresno Superior Court history. It stands in stark contrast to recent high-profile sentencings in sexual assault cases such as six months for ex-Stanford swimmer Brock Turner and, just this week, 60 days for a Montana man convicted of felony incest for raping his 12-year-old daughter.
In announcing the punishment, Sarkisian told Lopez he violated a position of trust, engaged in violent conduct and is a “serious danger to society.” Sarkisian also noted that Lopez had never shown remorse and has blamed his daughter for his predicament.
Lopez, who sat shackled in the courtroom, sat silently, never acknowledging his daughter, who told Sarkisian that she feared her father. (The Fresno Bee does not name victims of sexual abuse.)
“When my father abused me, I was young. I had no power, no voice. I was defenseless,” said the daughter, who now is 23 years old. She also told the judge that her father never has shown remorse for her pain and suffering.
She then thanked Galstan and senior investigator Stacy Cordero for helping her overcome her ordeal and giving her justice.
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Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Fewer people say justice system 'not tough enough'

Americans' views of how the criminal justice system is handling crime have shifted considerably over the past decade, according to  Gallup. Currently, 45% say the justice system is "not tough enough" -- down from 65% in 2003 and even higher majorities before then. Americans are now more likely than they have been in three prior polls to describe the justice system's approach as "about right" (35%) or "too tough" (14%).
Americans' views of how the criminal justice system is handling crime have shifted considerably over the past decade. Currently, 45% say the justice system is "not tough enough" -- down from 65% in 2003 and even higher majorities before then. Americans are now more likely than they have been in three prior polls to describe the justice system's approach as "about right" (35%) or "too tough" (14%).
Incarceration rates in the U.S. have soared over the past few decades, and political leaders, justice officials and reform advocates have sought criminal justice reform as a result. With this, Americans' views of the criminal justice system have shifted with the national conversation, with less than a majority now saying the system is "not tough enough." Although considerably higher than in the past, relatively few believe the system is "too tough."
Views of the justice system's toughness vary across racial and political party lines. The majority of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents say it is "not tough enough" (65%), with most of the rest describing it as "about right" (30%). Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents, on the other hand, are most likely to say the system is "about right" (42%), with the rest dividing about evenly between saying it is "too tough" (22%) or "not tough enough" (29%).
A majority of whites (53%) say the system's handling of crime is "not tough enough," while a third (32%) say it is "about right." One in 10 whites say the system is "too tough." Nonwhites -- who as a group make up a disproportionate percentage of the U.S. incarcerated population -- are more than twice as likely as whites to say the system is "too tough" (23%). They are also more likely than whites to say it is "about right" (40%). Meanwhile, 30% of nonwhites say the system's handling of crime is "not tough enough."
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Monday, October 24, 2016

Elected prosecutors vulnerable in push for reform

In the last two years, from Chicago to St. Louis to Santa Fe, N.M., voters have unseated district attorneys, or beaten an incumbent’s chosen successor, in more than a dozen counties, reported The Marshall Project. Those are small numbers compared with the roughly 2,500 elected prosecutors in the U.S., but they still signal a shift. “It’d be hard to find a set of a dozen races like this in the early 2000s or 1990s,” says Stanford law professor David Sklansky.
These contests — which have centered around race, sentencing, the treatment of juveniles, and the death penalty — reflect a growing awareness among reformers that with bipartisan efforts to reduce prison populations stalled in Congress (and inconsistent in state legislatures), local elections are a place to push for change. “People are scrutinizing their local criminal justice systems, and people are realizing how much power state attorneys have, and they are seeing elections as a way to change those results,” says Deborrah Brodsky, director of the Project on Accountable Justice at Florida State University. In other words, criminal justice reform is targeting the system’s entry point.
Many of the upsets came in primaries, but a few counties are in the midst of general election battles. In Harris County, Texas, Republican incumbent Devon Anderson is sparring with Democratic challenger Kim Ogg, who has the backing of the Houston Chronicle and the local Black Lives Matter movement, over bail and the handling of marijuana cases. In the Denver suburbs, Republican incumbent Pete Weir is talking up his record of promoting mental health and veterans courts, while his Democratic challenger, Jake Lilly, tries to tag him as “old-fashioned.”
Ogg and Lilly's campaigns received support from political action committees linked to billionaire George Soros, who in the past two years has added to his broad support of justice reform by financing prosecutor candidates who promise treatment for drug offenders and the reduction of racial disparities in sentencing. (A Soros representative declined to comment; the donations were first reported by Politico.)
In Tampa, the county seat of Hillsborough County, District Attorney Mark Ober’s opponent is Andrew Warren, a Democrat who focused on white collar crimes at the Department of Justice and moved to the area several years ago. He says he decided to run against Ober, a Republican, after hearing about gang violencein the city. He argues that Ober’s aggressive prosecution of low-level drug crimes has taken resources away from attacking violent crime. “We have been so focused on the one goal, retribution and punishment,” he says, “that we have lost sight of the other goals: reducing recidivism, rehabilitation, and victims’ rights.” He wants to establish a unit to uncover wrongful convictions.
When they debated at a civic club luncheon last month, Warren spun Ober’s long tenure into a liability, calling his approach overly punitive and outdated — “the rotary phone of criminal justice.” He said Ober has sent too many youth — and too many African-Americans — to prison with long sentences, and utilizes the death penalty too often. Ober fired back that he makes appropriate decisions in individual cases, and that Warren, who has only lived in the area for several years, is an “outsider” without an understanding of what the community wants.
Warren has brought up a case in which a 27-year-old man in Washington, D.C., had sexually assaulted a 15-year-old girl from the county after meeting her online. Ober had initially declined to charge the man, but then later did so after a Tampa news station aired a segment on the case. At the debate, Ober said the case was more complex than his challenger had made it out to be, and that the victim “was with [the defendant] voluntarily...She flew to see him.”
How much voters have been swayed by Ober’s comments on the rape victim will not be clear until Election Day, but it illustrates the tendency of individual, controversial cases to dominate such races. This can lead to accusations that prosecutors are putting political interests above the just result in a case. In Baltimore, after the death of Freddie Gray in the back of a police van led to street protests, the state’s attorney, Marilyn Mosby, wasaccused of obtaining indictments against the police officers involved only to assuage protesters. Months later, her office’s failure to convict those officers was described by the Baltimore Sun as a vulnerability should she run for reelection in 2018.
This tension is unique to the U.S., the only country in the world that elects prosecutors. At the lunch debate in Tampa, and in ensuing news coverage, both Ober and Warren promised to be apolitical in their decision-making, while at the same time defending against political attacks on how they had handled individual cases.
Sklansky, the Stanford professor, agrees that there is “something uncomfortable” about how individual cases can drive an election campaign, and that this underscores the need to find better ways to measure how prosecutors do their jobs, including more data on charging and convictions. But overall he sees the current competitiveness as a sign that people are paying attention to how the criminal justice system works. “There was a long period where it seemed like there was a rigid logic to the politics of criminal justice, which led to ever-harsher sentences,” he says. “That logic no longer holds.”

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Sunday, October 23, 2016

The death penalty for selling heroin with fentanyl?

A bill introduced recently in Congress, would make the death penalty a possibility for those who sell heroin with fentanyl in it, reported The Star-Gazette. The bill is a draconian response to a complicated issue, and will serve only to make the current crisis worse.
The irony of the bill’s name, the HELP Act, is that those in need of help because of overdoses will be less likely to receive it if such legislation is passed. Currently, 37 states and Washington, D.C., have Good Samaritan laws. These laws give immunity from arrest to those who call 911 when a fellow drug user has overdosed. Replacing immunity with the prospect of the death penalty will mean drug users will no longer call emergency services when there is an overdose, thus increasing the number of fatalities. Only drug users will be hurt by this legislation.
Many involved in selling drugs at the street level are also users who have no involvement in actually making the drug; they’re simply the middleman. Fentanyl is introduced into the U.S. supply long before street-level sellers touch it. Giving the death penalty to street-level sellers for fentanyl is severely misguided, and will have no impact on the drug trade.
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Saturday, October 22, 2016

GateHouse: The end of the inevitability of the death penalty

Matthew T. Mangino
GateHouse Media
October 21, 2016
Recently, Georgia executed Gregory Lawler. When he was pronounced dead at 11:49 p.m. on Oct. 19, he was the 17th person executed in the United States this year. Texas and Georgia are responsible for 14 of those executions.
By year’s end, 2016 will have the fewest number of executions in a quarter century. Public support for the death penalty is at its lowest point since the U.S. Supreme Court suspended capital punishment in 1972. A Pew Research poll published last month revealed that only 49 percent of Americans now favor execution as an appropriate form of punishment.
The death penalty is largely symbolic. Most states that have the death penalty don’t execute those condemned. A handful of states carry out executions and a very small minority do so on a regular basis.
Lincoln Caplan recently wrote about the decline of the death penalty in Harvard Magazine. Citing the various works of professors Jordan and Carol Steiker, including the siblings’ recent book “Courting Death: The Supreme Court and Capital Punishment,” Caplan explains the difference between symbolic states and executing states.
Pennsylvania is a symbolic state: It has executed only three people since 1976, and each was a volunteer — they chose not to continue their appeals. On the other hand, Texas is an executing state. Officials there have executed 537 people since 1976.
But, ironically, the rate of death-sentencing in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, is higher than in Harris County, Texas, which has had more defendants executed than any other county in the country.
Caplan further writes that 8,124 people had been sentenced to death between 1977 and 2013. Only 17 percent of those condemned were executed. Six percent died by causes other than execution and 40 percent received other dispositions, including reversals of their convictions. The rest — 37 percent — were in prison. In California in 2014, a federal judge found that, of the 748 inmates then on death row, more than 40 percent had been there for more than 20 years.
In fact, Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer wrote a 2015 dissent — joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg — in Glossip v. Gross that it was “highly likely that the death penalty violates the 
Eighth Amendment,” the constitutional ban against cruel and unusual punishment.
The stage has been set for a dramatic confrontation with state-sponsored death. Capital punishment will be tested on Election Day in three states. The outcomes of those ballot measures will no doubt have an impact on the future of the death penalty.
In Nebraska, the issue pits the Republican governor against a bipartisan majority in the legislature. A coalition of lawmakers last year repealed the death penalty with the rallying cry of cost and the claim that the death penalty is not a deterrent. The governor is now strongly supporting a ballot measure where voters will be asked to reinstate capital punishment.
In Oklahoma, ardent supporters of the death penalty hope to protect it through a ballot initiative. The state has a long history of capital punishment and not all of it positive. The state has had several highly publicized botched executions and Justice Breyer’s stunning dissent came in an Oklahoma case.
Oklahoma has not carried out an execution in 2016, and last fall 52 percent of Oklahomans said in a News 9 poll that they support life-without-parole as an alternative to execution. State Ballot Question 776 appears to be the effort of legislators to prevent what happened in Nebraska from happening in Oklahoma.
Finally, California voters will face two competing initiatives on Election Day. Proponents of Proposition 62 say the state has spent $5 billion maintaining the legal and physical apparatus of capital punishment while executing only 13 people in 38 years.
Advocates for Proposition 66 want to “mend, not end” capital punishment by changing appellate rules to expedite capital cases, reduce the costs of the death penalty and the size of death row.
To paraphrase a famous English statesman, this may not be the end of the death penalty — may be the beginning of the end — but surely the end of the inevitability of the death penalty.

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