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August 31, 2011

Who should have the least sentencing power?

In addition to closely reviewing the 1949 Williams v. New York case (which can be read in full here and is worth the time to read in full), we will discuss in class on Thursday which particular institutional players tend to exercise the most formal and informal sentencing power, and whether and how you think these institutional players should have their powers limited and regulated.  Long story short: legislatures, prosecutors, trial judges, and parole/prison officials have historically wielded the most sentencing power, but many modern reforms have given larger roles to sentencing commissions and appellate judges.

Here (and perhaps also in class), I am eager to look at this issue from the other side of the equation: that is, I want to hear whether and why you might think certain institutional players should have little or no formal or informal sentencing power.  Again, history is somewhat instructive: victims, police, juries (except in capital cases) and appellate judges have historically wielded little sentencing power, but many modern reforms have given larger roles to victims and appellate judges.

As we will discuss, every institutional player that actively seeks to be involved in the sentencing process usually can have some input or impact.  But that practical reality should not prevent a sentencing system (or us) from exploring how to limit the authority of those players we believe should have the least power to impact sentencing outcomes.  (There are lots of general reasons why we might want to limit and/or regulate a particular player's sentencing power: e.g., we fear that particular institutional player has a certain problematic/systematic bias, or will too often pursue a disfavored punishment purpose or form, or will be too subject to undue influences by other actors, or will make inconsistent or less-than-thoughtful decisions.)

So, who do you think should have the least sentencing power?  Why?

August 31, 2011 in Who decides | Permalink | Comments (12) | TrackBack

August 28, 2011

If castration was a good idea for Thomas Jefferson, why not for Richard Graves?

We concluded our first week's class discussion with questions about whether and why castration (either physical or chemical) could and would be a fitting punishment for convicted rapist Richard Graves.  As a preview of second week topics, I encouraged considering whether answers to these questions might be changed or significantly influenced if (a) Graves' victim urged this punishment, and/or (b) Graves himself embraced this punishment (perhaps in lieu of additional years in prison).  

For those with a visceral negative reaction to castration as a form of punishment, I suggest reflection on Michel Foucault's astute insight that, in modern times, we seem far more content to "torture the soul" through long terms of imprisonment than to "torture the body" through physical punishment.  In addition, for those with a legalistic negative reaction that the US Constitution would never permit such a punishment, I suggest reflection on the fact that few forms of punishment have ever been the subject of Supreme Court review.

Moreover, for anyone drawn to an originalist approach to constitutional interpretation, a fascinating document authored by Thomas Jefferson suggests at least some Framers approved and endorsed castration as a punishment for some crimes.  This Jeffersonian document, titled "A Bill for Proportioning Crimes and Punishments," includes these notable passages:

Whereas it frequently happens that wicked and dissolute men resigning themselves to the dominion of inordinate passions, commit violations on the lives, liberties and property of others, and, the secure enjoyment of these having principally induced men to enter into society, government would be defective in it's principal purpose were it not to restrain such criminal acts, by inflicting due punishments on those who perpetrate them; but it appears at the same time equally deducible from the purposes of society that a member thereof, committing an inferior injury, does not wholy forfiet the protection of his fellow citizens, but, after suffering a punishment in proportion to his offence is entitled to their protection from all greater pain, so that it becomes a duty in the legislature to arrange in a proper scale the crimes which it may be necessary for them to repress, and to adjust thereto a corresponding gradation of punishments.

And whereas the reformation of offenders, tho' an object worthy the attention of the laws, is not effected at all by capital punishments, which exterminate instead of reforming, and should be the last melancholy resource against those whose existence is become inconsistent with the safety of their fellow citizens, which also weaken the state by cutting off so many who, if reformed, might be restored sound members to society, who, even under a course of correction, might be rendered useful in various labors for the public, and would be living and long continued spectacles to deter others from committing the like offences.

And forasmuch the experience of all ages and countries hath shewn that cruel and sanguinary laws defeat their own purpose by engaging the benevolence of mankind to withold prosecutions, to smother testimony, or to listen to it with bias, when, if the punishment were only proportioned to the injury, men would feel it their inclination as well as their duty to see the laws observed.

For rendering crimes and punishments therefore more proportionate to each other: Be it enacted by the General assembly that no crime shall be henceforth punished by deprivation of life or limb except those hereinafter ordained to be so punished....

Whosoever shall be guilty of Rape, Polygamy, or Sodomy with man or woman shall be punished, if a man, by castration, if a woman, by cutting thro' the cartilage of her nose a hole of one half inch diameter at the least....

All attempts to delude the people, or to abuse their understanding by exercise of the pretended arts of witchcraft, conjuration, inchantment, or sorcery or by pretended prophecies, shall be punished by ducking and whipping at the discretion of a jury, not exceeding 15, stripes....

I highly encourage everyone to read the entire Jefferson punishments bill: it provides not only a perspective on crime and sentencing at the time of the Founding, but it also spotlights the array of punishments used before the birth of modern prisons.

August 28, 2011 in Alternatives to imprisonment, Who decides | Permalink | Comments (14) | TrackBack

August 24, 2011

Racial and gender disparities in death sentencing and federal kiddie porn prosecutions

Issues of race and gender arise throughout the criminal justice system and their impact on sentencing outcomes is often a subject of great debate and controversy.  In addition to encouraging you to consider the linkages between theories of punishment and race/gender issues, over the next few classes we will explore in various ways the relationships between sentencing discretion, disparity and discrimination.

Though there is (too) much to say on all these matters, I thought it useful in this forum to encourage focused consideration of these matter in two distinct contexts: the imposition of the death penalty for murder and the federal prosecution and sentencing of child pornography offenses.  

Death Sentencing: As you may know, the death penalty is often criticized for having a racial skew, and pages here and here from the Death Penalty Information Center provide lots of data and reports on this front.  One of many statistics on these pages I find notable is that out of roughly 1250 persons executed in the US in the modern era, more than 250 black defendants have been executed for killing white victims, but only 16 white defendants have been executed for killing back victims.  

Far less frequently discussed are the apparent gender disparities in the application of the death penalty in the United States, though this page from the Death Penalty Information Center and this report from Professor Victor Streib provides coverage of this issue.  The data from these sources reveals that women account for about 10% of all murder arrests, but that women make up less than 2% of death rows (55 / 3,261) and less than 1% of those executed (12 / 1,250+). Indeed, in the last 8 years, nearly 450 men have been executed, while only 2 women have been executed (0.45%).

Federal Child Porn Prosecutions: Federal sentencing for child pornography offense is a hot topic, in part because the number of prosecutions and the length of sentences imposed for these offenses has increased dramatically over the past decade.  What is rarely discussed, however, is the disproportionate involvement of white men in these cases, especially relative to the the general federal offender population.  The latest federal data from the US Sentencing Commission is in this report which provides a detailed racial and gender breakdown for offenders in each primary federal offense category (Tables 23 and 24 at pp. 44 and 45 of the pdf).  

Roughly speaking, when immigration offenses are excluded (because 90% involve hispanic offenders), the general population of federal defendants sentenced is about 1/3 white, 1/3 black and 1/3 hispanic.  But for child porn offenses, the sentenced defendants are almost 90% white and only 3% black and 6% hispanic.  Similarly, the general population of federal defendants sentenced is about 85% male and 15% female.  But for child porn offenses, the sentenced defendants are over 99% male and less than 1% female.

Do you find these data surprising?  disturbing?  What additional information would you like to have in order to make a judgment concerning these data?

August 24, 2011 in Data on sentencing, Race and gender issues | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

August 18, 2011

Welcome yet again to another reboot of this blog for another semester of Criminal Punishment & Sentencing

Welcome to the THIRD re-launch of this blogging adventure.  This blog started over four years ago (with the uninspired title of Death Penalty Course @ Moritz College of Law) to facilitate student engagement in the Spring 2007 course on the death penalty that I taught at OSU's Moritz College of Law. 

Though I closed this blog down not long after that course ended, I was pleased to see all the students' hard work as reflected in the archives still generating significant traffic and much of the posts remain timely.  Consequently, as when I geared up for teaching Criminal Punishment & Sentencing in Spring 2009 at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law and again when visiting in Spring 2010 at Fordham School of Law, I decided to reboot this blog to allow the new course to build indirectly in this space on some of the materials covered before.  In all of these classes, I was generally pleased with how this blog helped promote a new type of student engagement with on-line media and materials.  (For the record, OSU students engaged with the blog much more and better with Fordham students.)

Now, circa August 2011, I am gearing up for teaching Criminal Punishment & Sentencing again.  Because we have a traditional text for our 2011 class, I am not yet sure how much of a role this blog will play in course activities.  But, especially because a lot of new exciting sentencing developments seem likely in in the weeks and months ahead, I suspect this space will stay active just by trying to keep up with current events (as well as as a place to post information about class activities and plans and assignments).





UPDATE:  The on-line supplement referenced in the course description is available at this link.


August 18, 2011 in About this blog, Class activities | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack