Violent Crime Versus Property Crime: Law School Poll Reveals Notable Differences in Public Opinion

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Public opinion polls typically find a preference for tougher treatment of defendants in the criminal-justice system. However, few polls attempt to disaggregate types of crime. When laypeople are asked what they think should be done with “criminals,” their responses are likely based on the relatively unusual violent and sexual offenses that dominate media coverage of crime. However, punitive attitudes toward such offenses may not necessarily indicate that similar attitudes prevail more generally.

In order to develop a better understanding of the extent to which public attitudes differ based on crime type, I collaborated with Professor Darren Wheelock of the Marquette Social and Cultural Sciences Department on a set of questions in the most recent Marquette Law School Poll. Rather than asking respondents about crime in general, we posed questions regarding violent crime and property crime. Our results were consistent with the expectation that members of the public see these two types of crime in a rather different light.

Continue reading “Violent Crime Versus Property Crime: Law School Poll Reveals Notable Differences in Public Opinion”

Marquette Law Review Article Featured in Prescription Painkiller Exposé

Posted on Categories Congress & Congressional Power, Health Care, Marquette Law School, President & Executive Branch, Public2 Comments on Marquette Law Review Article Featured in Prescription Painkiller Exposé

In cooperation with 60 Minutes, the Washington Post has published a fascinating new story about the behind-the-scenes efforts of actors in the pharmaceuticals business to soften regulatory enforcement at the just the time that the nation’s opioid problems were reaching epidemic proportions. The story would be an engaging read for anyone, but Marquette folks may note a particular point of interest: the Post prominently quotes a forthcoming article in the Marquette Law Review.

According to the Post story, the federal Drug Enforcement Administration has long had authority to block suspiciously large shipments of prescription painkillers that pose an imminent danger to the community. In the late years of the Bush Administration and early years of the Obama Administration, the DEA became increasingly aggressive in using this authority to target businesses that were involved in questionable ways with the distribution of opioids. The Post reports that these businesses pushed back, initially finding some success through lobbying the Department of Justice. However, they seemingly had their greatest success when Congress passed, and President Obama signed into law, changes to the DEA’s enforcement standards and procedures.

This legislation is the subject of the Marquette Law Review piece, authored by John Mulrooney and Katherine Legel. Mulrooney is an administrative law judge with the DEA. Legel, a graduate of Marquette Law School, was a judicial law clerk with the DEA. Of the 2016 law, they write, “If it had been the intent of Congress to completely eliminate the DEA’s ability to ever impose an immediate suspension on distributors or manufacturers, it would be difficult to conceive of a more effective vehicle for achieving that goal.” This and other aspects of the law review article are noted in the Post’s reporting. Student-editors who have been working on the article should feel gratified to see the piece playing such a prominent role in the ongoing efforts of journalists, policymakers, and academics to better understand the multitude of factors that may be contributing to the current opioid crisis.

New Cases on the Constitutionality of Long Sentences for Juveniles: The Graham Saga Continues

Posted on Categories Constitutional Interpretation, Constitutional Law, Criminal Law & Process, Federal Criminal Law & Process, Federal Sentencing, Federalism, Public, U.S. Supreme CourtLeave a comment» on New Cases on the Constitutionality of Long Sentences for Juveniles: The Graham Saga Continues

In Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010), the U.S. Supreme Court barred the sentence of life without the possibility of parole (LWOP) for crimes committed by anyone under eighteen years of age. Grounded in the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause of the Eighth Amendment, the Court’s holding recognized only one exception: juvenile LWOP might be permissible in cases involving homicide.

Despite its seemingly straightforward character, the Graham holding has spawned considerable litigation in the lower courts over its scope and application. Two interesting appellate decisions from last month highlight some of the difficulties.

In the first, U.S. v. Mathurin, the Eleventh Circuit had to consider whether a 685-month prison term should be treated as the functional equivalent of an LWOP sentence for Eighth Amendment purposes.   Continue reading “New Cases on the Constitutionality of Long Sentences for Juveniles: The Graham Saga Continues”

After Return from Prison, Friends Can Be Key to Success or Failure

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New research highlights the importance of friends in determining whether returning prisoners will commit new crimes. A considerable body of prior research has demonstrated the importance of family relationships to the returning prisoner, but a new study John Boman and Thomas Mowen suggests that peer relationships may exert an even greater influence over success or failure.

Boman and Mowen collected data on a sample of 625 serious and violent male offenders, including their self-reported substance abuse and new criminal activity over a fifteen-month period after release from prison. The data also included the offenders’ assessment of their family support and the criminal histories of their closest friends.

After controlling for a number of variables, Boman and Mowen identified several factors that proved to be statistically significant predictors of post-release recidivism.   Continue reading “After Return from Prison, Friends Can Be Key to Success or Failure”

Crime and Stigma: New Research Explores the Connections

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The colonial Americans famously had their “scarlet letter” punishments, which marked and shamed the criminal. Today, the stigma of a conviction may be less vividly displayed, but it is no less real. Two interesting new criminological articles present research on the impact of this stigma.

First, an article by Jeff Bouffard and LaQuana Askew considers potential crime-reducing benefits of stigma, specifically in relation to sex offender registration and notification (SORN) laws. Such laws, adopted across the United States in the 1990s, require certain convicted sex offenders to register their residence and other information with state authorities on an ongoing basis, sometimes for the rest of their lives. The information is then made publicly available, which can greatly magnify the duration and intensity of the stigma of the conviction.

It was thought that SORN laws might reduce sexual offending in two ways: by deterring prospective offenders from committing crimes that might land them on a registry, and by alerting potential victims to the proximity of individuals who were already registered and hence possibly dangerous. However, several studies thus far have found little or no reduction in offending in the wake of the adoption of SORN legislation.  Continue reading “Crime and Stigma: New Research Explores the Connections”

Right to Counsel: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

Posted on Categories Constitutional Law, Criminal Law & Process, Federalism, Public, U.S. Supreme CourtLeave a comment» on Right to Counsel: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

A photo of the Supreme CourtAs part of its end-of-term flurry, the U.S. Supreme Court issued three notable decisions in the past week on the criminal defendant’s right to effective assistance of counsel. The results were a mixed bag.

First, the step forward: in Lee v. United States, the Court strengthened the defendant’s right to accurate legal advice in relation to plea bargaining. Lee, a South Korean who resided lawfully in the U.S. for more than three decades, faced a federal charge of possession with intent to distribute ecstasy. His attorney advised him that he would likely get a lighter sentence if he pleaded guilty, but Lee was concerned that he would be deported if convicted; deportation, not prison, seems to have been his primary concern. Lee’s lawyer assured him that he would not be deported, so Lee agreed to the guilty plea. However, the lawyer was wrong — Lee faced mandatory deportation as a result of his conviction. When Lee found out, he sought to withdraw his guilty plea on the basis of ineffective assistance of counsel.

The lower courts rejected his motion. For Lee to show a violation of his constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel, he was required to demonstrate both deficient performance by this attorney and prejudice. The lower courts seemed to accept that Lee’s lawyer performed poorly, but held that Lee could show no prejudice since he had no viable defense if the case had gone to trial. In other words, even with better information, Lee would have been convicted and deported anyway.

The Supreme Court reversed, holding that prejudice can be established in some cases based on the lost opportunity to have a trial, without regard to the likely outcome of that trial. 

Continue reading “Right to Counsel: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back”

Supreme Court Dodges Long-Running Dispute Over Defendant’s Right to Psychiatric Expert

Posted on Categories Criminal Law & Process, Poverty & Law, Public, U.S. Supreme CourtLeave a comment» on Supreme Court Dodges Long-Running Dispute Over Defendant’s Right to Psychiatric Expert

A photo of the Supreme CourtThree decades ago, in Ake v. Oklahoma, the Supreme Court held that indigent criminal defendants have a constitutional right of access to a psychiatric expert in some cases. More specifically, the Court stated, “[W]hen a defendant demonstrates to the trial judge that his sanity at the time of the offense is to be a significant factor at trial, the State must, at a minimum, assure the defendant access to a competent psychiatrist who will conduct an appropriate examination and assist in evaluation, preparation, and presentation of the defense.” 470 U.S. 68, 83 (1985).

This seemingly straightforward holding has spawned a number of long-running disputes in the lower courts. Among the more important lingering questions is this: May a state satisfy its obligation under Ake by supplying the defendant with access to a neutral expert who is equally available to both sides, or must the state engage an expert who will truly serve as a member of the defense team? Of course, a wealthy defendant would almost always be well-advised to hire his own expert, rather than merely relying on a neutral, but Ake does not necessarily guarantee that poor defendants will have all of the advantages of their rich counterparts.

With the lower courts split on this question, the Supreme Court finally seemed poised to provide a definitive answer this term in McWilliams v. DunnHowever, when the Court issued its McWilliams decision earlier this week, the justices actually ruled in the defendant’s favor on quite narrow, case-specific grounds, leaving the big question about the acceptability of a neutral expert unanswered.

Whenever the Court gets around to answering the question — and, given the way that matters were resolved this week, McWilliams itself could well provide the vehicle on a return trip to the Court — the justices will confront a difficult issue that touches more generally on the role of experts in an adversarial system of justice, and even on the very nature of scientific knowledge.

Our ideal for science is objective knowledge. We hope that scientists will develop analytical methods that will invariably yield the same conclusion as to the same subject, regardless of who is doing the analysis.

If tests for mental illness are “scientific” in this sense, then there seems little unfairness in limiting the defendant to a neutral psychiatrist. The only way in which having an expert on the defense team might change the outcome would be if the defendant’s “hired gun” were dishonest or incompetent — and there surely cannot be a constitutional right to mislead the jury with bad science.

Thus, the claim that the defendant should have his own expert seems implicitly grounded in a belief — accurate, I should think — that psychiatric diagnosis does not always fit that ideal of wholly objective and indisputable conclusions. In the American legal tradition, of course, we look to adversarial process to determine the truth when there are two conflicting, but both still plausible, versions of reality available. Thus, if reasonable psychiatrists could differ over a defendant’s diagnosis, it seems natural to fall back on adversarial process and give each side an opportunity to make the best case possible for its version of reality, including with its own expert witness. We are accustomed to think that the truth will emerge from such an adversarial clash.

And, yet, there is something disquieting about this picture. When we ask a jury to choose between two competing stories about what a defendant did, we count on the jury to use its common sense and life experience to decide which version of reality is more plausible. But, when the question instead relates to what was going on in the defendant’s head, it is not so clear that common sense and life experience are up to the challenge. After all, the essence of the defendant’s claim is that his brain was not working in a way that is familiar to most lay people in their day-to-day lives. The very reason we bring experts to bear to try to deal with the issue makes lay jurors seem unqualified to pick between the two different versions of reality being presented.

There does seem a dilemma here. If we use only a single, nominally neutral expert, then the jury may be left with a sense in some cases that the science is more certain and one-sided than it really is. On the other hand, if we arm each side with its own expert, then we implicitly ask the jury to perform a task for which it is ill-equipped — adjudicating the scientific quality of competing expert opinions. There may be ways of alleviating the concerns — e.g., through use of a neutral panel of experts — but such approaches tend to raise cost and other practical difficulties.

Perhaps the conundrum helps to explain why the Court has not seemed anxious to resolve the big question that was posed by McWilliams.

Race and Risk Assessment

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Risk-assessment has become all the rage in American criminal justice. In jurisdictions across the country, criminal-justice officials are utilizing increasingly sophisticated risk-assessment tools, which can be used to predict a given offender’s likelihood to reoffend based on his criminal history and a number of other variables. These predictive evaluations can be brought to bear at several important decisional points in the criminal process: pretrial release, diversion into treatment, sentencing, and others.

Although risk assessment has been widely applauded for its potential to support increased efficiency in the use of scarce criminal-justice resources, a recurring criticism has been that leading risk-assessment tools have built-in racial biases. A particular concern has been the heavy reliance on criminal history; to the extent that criminal history reflects biased actions by police or others in the past, then predictions based on that history may tend to overestimate the relative risk posed by minority defendants. Thus, for instance, a black defendant and a white defendant whose actual risk levels are identical could potentially receive quite different risk scores, leading to quite different bail or sentencing decisions.

Such concerns find some support in the empirical research.

A new study, however, reaches more reassuring conclusions, at least with respect to one risk-assessment tool used in federal court.  Continue reading “Race and Risk Assessment”

Dark Clouds on the Horizon for Graham v. Florida?

Posted on Categories Criminal Law & Process, Public, U.S. Supreme CourtLeave a comment» on Dark Clouds on the Horizon for Graham v. Florida?

A photo of the Supreme CourtIn 2010, the Supreme Court ruled in Graham v. Florida that a juvenile sentenced to life in prison for a nonhomicide crime must be given “some meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.” But what makes a release opportunity “meaningful”? The Court’s decision yesterday in Virginia v. LeBlanc suggests that the threshold may not be as high as some hoped.

LeBlanc was convicted of committing a rape when he was 16 and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of conventional parole. On the face of it, this would seem a clear violation of Graham. However, in federal habeas proceedings, the state argued that LeBlanc would eventually have his “meaningful opportunity” through a geriatric release program, which permits the release of some inmates who are age sixty or older.

Since many other states also have geriatric release programs, the issue presented by LeBlanc has important, national ramifications for the strength of the Eighth Amendment right recognized in Graham.

A district judge and then a panel of the Fourth Circuit held in LeBlanc’s favor. The Fourth Circuit noted the highly discretionary nature of geriatric release under Virginia law, which effectively permits the releasing authority to disregard an applicant’s “demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation,” contrary to Graham. 841 F.3d 256, 269 (4th Cir. 2016).

Yet, the Supreme Court reversed yesterday in a brief per curiam opinion.   Continue reading “Dark Clouds on the Horizon for Graham v. Florida?”

Violence Prevention Initiatives: The Difficulty of Building on Early Success

Posted on Categories Criminal Law & Process, Federal Criminal Law & Process, PublicLeave a comment» on Violence Prevention Initiatives: The Difficulty of Building on Early Success

Project Safe Neighborhoods has been among the highest-profile and best-funded national violence prevention initiatives of the past two decades, involving allocations of about $1 billion to U.S. Attorney’s Offices across the country. Evaluations to date have generally been positive, but a new study of the PSN experience in Chicago highlights the challenges of building on early success.

The researchers, Ben Grunwald and Andrew Papachristos, attempted a rigorous, beat-level analysis of the impact of PSN on troubled neighborhoods in the Windy City, which had a distinctive approach to PSN that seemed quite effective at first. Continue reading “Violence Prevention Initiatives: The Difficulty of Building on Early Success”

1 in 7 U.S. Prisoners Now in for Life

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According to a new report by the Sentencing Project, there are now 206,268 life-sentenced prisoners in the United States, amounting to one in every seven inmates. As a result of a long-term national crime decline and years of effort in many states to divert nonviolent drug offenders from prison, the nation’s overall incarcerated population has been slowly dropping in recent years. However, the number of life-sentenced inmates has continued its seemingly inexorable increase.

The Sentencing Project has helpfully tracked life-sentence trends in a series of reports since 2004, but the new publication includes a valuable addition to the data: those inmates who do not formally have a life sentence, but whose prison terms are so long that they may be fairly characterized as life sentences anyway. The Sentencing Project defines these “virtual life” sentences as those involving prison terms of at least fifty years. Given an average age at arrest of thirty for violent offenders, and a life expectancy of forty-eight more years for American males of that age, the fifty-year cutoff seems reasonable. Using this criterion, the Sentencing Project counted 44,311 inmates with virtual life sentences (included in the 206,268 figure noted above).

Most of the life-sentenced inmates are at least theoretically parole-eligible.  Continue reading “1 in 7 U.S. Prisoners Now in for Life”

New Research Suggests Potential of Prison Furloughs, But Shadow of Willie Horton Still Looms

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It remains the paradigmatic moment in the modern history of tough-on-crime politics. In  the summer of 1988, Michael Dukakis, the Democratic Governor of Massachusetts, seemed to be cruising toward a presidential election victory in November. Then, Republican operatives began to pummel him for a horrific failure in Massachusetts’s prison furlough program. This program offered short leaves for inmates to spend time at home, which was thought to help prepare them for their permanent release. The program had a good track record until an inmate named Willie Horton absconded during one of his releases and brutally assaulted a young couple. As the Horton story became more widely known nationally, Dukakis’s lead in the polls evaporated. His eventual loss seemed to confirm that politicians could no longer afford even a tangential association with policies or programs that were perceived to be soft on crime.

The Horton story reverberated for years across the whole field of criminal justice, but perhaps its most direct impact was a sharp constriction in prison furlough programs, which had previously been widely accepted and utilized by American corrections officials.

As furlough programs faded away, so, too, did research on their effectiveness. Although several older studies suggested that furloughs might help to reduce post-release recidivism, there has been a growing need for updated research.

A new paper by L. Maaike Helmus & Marguerite Ternes helps to fill the gap.   Continue reading “New Research Suggests Potential of Prison Furloughs, But Shadow of Willie Horton Still Looms”