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January 30, 2014

Other than the defendant, which "whos" would you say should be considered most responsible for the death sentences in...





The principal goal of our pre-sentencing conversation about the Williams case on Wednesday was to shake everyone away from the (incomplete) view that a trial judge imposing a sentence is the most responsible (or even most important) decision-maker in the sentencing process.  

A sentencing judge (or, in some cases, a sentencing jury) is often the most visible decision-maker in the sentencing process, but all the formal and informal criminal justice players who act before the official moment of sentencing (as well as many that act later) can often be, both formally and practically, much more responsible for the sentence that is actually imposed and served than the sentencing judge.

So, with these thoughts in mind and our "who" insights and radar now heightened, I would love to start a discussion here about which "whos" you would be inclined to say should be considered most responsible for the death sentences in any or all of the high-profile cases referenced above.

January 30, 2014 in Current Affairs, SCOTUS cases of note, Who decides | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

January 27, 2014

A weekend full of interesting who news

As you may already be discovering, once one starts to focus on current-event stories with a "who sentences" lens, the context and complications of sentencing decision-making can take on a new view.  With that reality in mind, consider these recent posts from my other blogs concerning some notable recent events:

January 27, 2014 in Who decides | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

January 22, 2014

Who should have the least sentencing power in American CJ systems?

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 next week 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.

As suggested in class, I am eager to have everyone consider 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 tend to make less-than-thoughtful or even discriminatory decisions.)

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

January 22, 2014 in Class activities, Who decides | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

January 21, 2014

Low-stress, high-learning opportunities via TV, radio and blogs

I made reference to a lot of current events stories to follow at the start of class, in part because the development of these stories highlight how many distinct and distinctive "who"s play a role in criminal justice reforms and ultimately in the operation of modern sentencing systems.

For example, the NFL can have a huge impact on social and political views and developments throughout the United States, especially this time of year.  Thus, I think folks ought to check out tonight's episode of HBO's Real Sports examining pot use in the NFL.

Similarly, doctors and medical groups have come to play a large role in modern discussions of execution methods, and this fact should be on display during the 10am Wednesday morning segment of All Sides with Ann Fisher on WOSU.

And the role of victims in the criminal justice system generally, and especially at sentencing, will be front-and-center before the U.S. Supreme Court tomorrow morning during the oral argument in the Paroline case.  This SCOTUSblog post provides a lengthy preview of the issues before SCOTUS in the case.

As the title of this post is meant to highlight, I see watching TV and listening to the radio and reading blogs to be great low-stress, high-learning opportunities.  I hope you all agree.

January 21, 2014 in Class activities, Current Affairs, Recent news and developments, SCOTUS cases of note, Television | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

January 20, 2014

Some past (and present) MLK-inspired perspectives on sentencing

As perhaps is already clear from our first full week of discussion, issues of race and class are necessarily important concerns when we consider the law, policy and practices of modern sentencing systems.  In part because of that reality, I have often through the years emphasized a number of MLK-inspired themes on my main sentencing blog, and here are some links to some of my favorite past MLK Day posts (as well as the one I did today):

January 20, 2014 in Current Affairs, Race and gender issues | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

January 16, 2014

Sincere marijuana reform question: exactly what are DEA officials "scared" of?

The question in the title of this post, which I am now posting to all the blogs in which I now participate, is my sincere reaction to this new Washington Post article headlined "DEA operations chief decries legalization of marijuana at state level."  Here is the context:

The chief of operations at the Drug Enforcement Administration on Wednesday called the legalization of marijuana at the state level “reckless and irresponsible,” warning that the movement to decriminalize the sale of pot in the United States will have severe consequences.

“It scares us,” James L. Capra said, responding to a question from a senator during a hearing focused on drug cultivation in Afghanistan.  “Every part of the world where this has been tried, it has failed time and time again.”

Capra’s comments marked the DEA’s most public and pointed criticism of the movement toward decriminalization in several states, where local officials see it as an opportunity to generate tax revenue and boost tourism....

Capra said agents have watched the early days of legal marijuana sales in Colorado with dismay.  “There are more dispensaries in Denver than there are Starbucks,” he said.  “The idea somehow people in our country have that this is somehow good for us as a nation is wrong.  It’s a bad thing.”

Capra said that senior DEA officials have faced uncomfortable questions from law enforcement partners abroad. During a recent global summit on counter-narcotics in Moscow, he said, he and the head of the DEA were at a loss to explain the loosening drug laws. “Almost everyone looked at us and said: Why are you doing this [while] pointing a finger to us as a source state?” he said. “I don’t have an answer for them.”...

Capra said he worries about the long-term consequences of the national mood on marijuana, which law enforcement experts call a gateway to more dangerous drugs. “This is a bad experiment,” he said.  “It’s going to cost us in terms of social costs.”

Let me begin by saying I respect all those who work in the DEA and other law enforcement agencies dealing with illegal drug issues, and I am certain all those who do this work have much more first-hand knowledge of the myriad harmful social costs of drug use and abuse than I ever will.  But it is for that very reason that I ask this question about exactly what has DEA officials "scared": I sincerely want a much better understanding of what "social costs" of reform are being referenced here so that I can better assess for myself how I think these potential "social costs" of state-level marijuana reform stack up to the existing "social costs" I see due to current pot prohibition laws and norms.

That said, I think I might be able to help DEA officials avoid "being at a loss" to explain loosening drug laws in the US to their international friends in Moscow or elsewhere.  Here is what I suggest DEA officials say: "The United States of American is an exceptional nation that, in President Lincoln's words, was "conceived in Liberty" and its citizens recently have become ever more skeptical about the growth of government's coercive powers and ever more concerned about paying high taxes for government programming perceived to be ineffectual.  Thus, just as the people of America were the first to experiment seriously with a constitutional democracy (which has worked out pretty well), now some of the people of America are eager to experiment seriously with a regime of marijuana regulation rather than blanket prohibition."

This account of why polls show ever greater support for marijuana legalization is my sincere understanding of why so much drug reform activity is going on now in the United States.  The current "Obama era" is defined by a period of relatively tight budgets, relatively low crime, and yet still record-high taxing-and-spending in service to criminal justice programming.  These realities, especially in the wake of the Tea Party movement and other notable libertarian responses to the enormous modern growth of state and federal governments, have more and more Americans thinking we should be open to experimenting with a regime of marijuana legalization and regulation rather than blanket prohibition.

It is quite possible, as the DEA official suggests, that "this is a bad experiment."  But even if it is, the experiment does not "scare" me, in part because I have a hard time fully understanding what potential increased social costs should make me or others truly "scared."  More importantly, I have enormous confidence that, if the social costs of marijuana reform prove to be significant, the American people will realize pot reform is "a bad experiment" and will again change its laws accordingly. Indeed, this is precisely the experiences we have seen with our legal experiments with other drugs throughout American history:

I emphasize these historic examples of American drug experimentation because it is certainly possible to lament the harms produced along the way or the enduring "social costs" of having tobacco and/or alcohol still legal.  But it is also possible to conclude, as I do, that what makes America both great and special — dare I say exceptional — is that we persistently maintained our fundamental commitments to freedom, democratic self-rule and the rule of law throughout these experiments.  Consequently, this modern era's new round of American drug experimentation has me excited and intrigued to watch unfold the next chapter of the American experience, and I am not "scared" by the marijuana reform movement because they it strikes me as a further vindication of our people's fundamental commitments to freedom, democratic self-rule and the rule of law.

But maybe I am just way too high on the idea of American exceptionalism to have a sensible and sober understanding off all the potential harms and "social costs" that are apparently scaring DEA officials. And, as I said above, I readily acknowledge that all those who work on the front lines of the drug war have much more first-hand knowledge of the myriad harmful social costs of drug use and abuse than I ever will.  But, again, that it why the question in the title of this post is sincere: I genuinely and really want to have a much better understanding of what has DEA officials "scared" so that I can sensibly temper my excitement and optimism about modern marijuana reforms.

I fear that responses to this post could become snarky or ad hominem real quickly, but I hope all readers will tap into the spirit of my inquiry and really try to help me understand just what potential social costs of modern marijuana reform could lead those in the know to be "scared" as the quote above suggests. And I am posting this query in all five blogs I work on these days because I am eager to get wide input and as many diverse insights on this question as possible.

January 16, 2014 in Offense Conduct, Who decides | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

January 14, 2014

How Thomas Jefferson would have sentenced Richard Graves

I suggested in Tuesday's class that, if incapacitation was a key goal/purpose when sentencing convicted rapist Richard Graves, that castration would seem likely much more effective than any term in prison. (Indeed, given ugly statistics concerning prison rape, a trip to prison might be the worst way to prevent Graves from raping again.) But I surmised that some (many? most?) members of the class have a visceral negative reaction to castration as a form of punishment. But why?

If you had a visceral negative reaction to castration, I urge you to read and reflect on Michel Foucault's astute insight (reprinted in Chapter 1 of the text) 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 very 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 (with my emphasis added):

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 (and then comment upon) 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.

January 14, 2014 in Alternatives to imprisonment, Theories of punishment, Who decides | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

January 13, 2014

Early Class Questionnaire for completion -- and discussion along with pop-culture references

My sincere apologies for failing to bring enough hard copies to today's class of the Class Questionnaire I would like completed (and submitted to me) by everyone ASAP. I have now uploaded a pdf of this document below for anyone who needs or wants this form electronically:

Download 2014 1st Class Survey

As suggested in class and in the title of this post, I welcome discussion in the comments to this post about the questions/issue in the survey.  I also welcome discussion about what pop-culture references I can reasonably make without confusing too many folks about the reference.  (Absent good pop-culture reference material, I will probably end up making too many sports references instead.)

January 13, 2014 in Class activities | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

January 8, 2014

Welcome yet again to another reboot of this blog for another semester of Sentencing Law

Welcome to the FOURTH re-launch of this blogging adventure. This blog started over seven 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 and again back at the Moritz College of Law in Fall 2011, 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 January 2014, I am Sentencing Law again at the Moritz College of Law. Because we have a new revised version of the casebook for the 2014 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 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).





January 8, 2014 in About this blog, Class activities | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack