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

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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?

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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

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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”

A Win for Judicial Sentencing Discretion in Armed Robbery Cases; Additional Reform Still Needed

Posted on Categories Criminal Law & Process, Federal Criminal Law & Process, Federal Law & Legal System, Federal Sentencing, Public, U.S. Supreme CourtLeave a comment» on A Win for Judicial Sentencing Discretion in Armed Robbery Cases; Additional Reform Still Needed

A photo of the Supreme CourtEarlier this month, in Dean v. United States, the Supreme Court ruled that federal sentencing judges retain some discretion to soften the notoriously draconian sentencing scheme of 18 U.S.C. §924(c). The statute establishes a mandatory prison term when a defendant uses or possesses a firearm in connection with a violent or drug trafficking crime. Unlike most minimums, though, this one must be imposed to run consecutively with any other sentences imposed at the same time. Thus, for instance, a defendant convicted of both a robbery and possession of a firearm during the robbery must get at least five years on top of whatever sentence is ordered for the robbery.

But what if a judge—in light of all of the facts of the case and the circumstances of the defendant—decides that five years is a sufficient punishment for the crime? Could the judge impose a sentence of just one day on the robbery count, so that the total sentence does not exceed what is necessary? In other words, in sentencing for the robbery count, can the judge take into consideration what she will have to impose for the §924(c) count?

Yes, said the Supreme Court in Dean.   Continue reading “A Win for Judicial Sentencing Discretion in Armed Robbery Cases; Additional Reform Still Needed”

Juvenile Court or Adult? New Research on the Consequences of the Decision

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Juvenile courts were invented at the end of the nineteenth century and spread rapidly across the U.S. Proponents argued that juvenile offenders were more readily rehabilitated than adults, and should be handled through a different court system that focused on treatment and spared offenders the permanent stigma of a criminal conviction. By the 1990s, though, attitudes toward juvenile offenders had grown more pessimistic and punitive. Although juvenile courts were not eliminated, most states adopted reforms that either reduced the maximum age for juvenile court jurisdiction or facilitated the transfer of some juveniles to adult court.

More recently, the pendulum of public opinion has begun to swing back in favor of juvenile courts. Connecticut, Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Hampshire, and South Carolina have all expanded the jurisdiction of their juvenile courts. There has also been a push in Wisconsin to raise the age of majority and keep some seventeen-year olds in juvenile court. A few states are even considering raising the age of majority to twenty-one.

Two intriguing new articles explore some of the social consequences of channeling more young offenders into juvenile court.   Continue reading “Juvenile Court or Adult? New Research on the Consequences of the Decision”

Supreme Court Permits Some Light Into the Black Box of Jury Deliberations

Posted on Categories Civil Rights, Constitutional Law, Criminal Law & Process, Public, Race & Law, U.S. Supreme CourtLeave a comment» on Supreme Court Permits Some Light Into the Black Box of Jury Deliberations

A photo of the Supreme CourtJury deliberations are the proverbial black box. After passively receiving the law, evidence, and arguments at a trial, the jurors will retire to discuss the case in secret. When they return with a verdict, no explanation will be required for their decision. Afterward, the jurors will normally be instructed that they need discuss the case with no one. The parties are left to wonder how well the jurors understood the governing law, attended to the key evidence, and faithfully attempted to apply the former to the latter.

Occasionally, the public catches some glimpse of what happens inside the black box. But when this happens, the law’s typical response echoes the famous admonition of the Wizard of Oz: “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!” This position is reflected in Federal Rule of Evidence 606(b), which generally prohibits jurors from testifying about their deliberations and thought processes when the validity of a verdict is challenged.

Although it seems perfectly sensible to discourage losing litigants from harassing jurors in the hope of uncovering errors, it is not so clear that the system benefits when judges are required to turn a blind eye to substantial evidence that a jury’s decisionmaking went off the rails.  Continue reading “Supreme Court Permits Some Light Into the Black Box of Jury Deliberations”

Chicago, New York Heading in Opposite Directions on Crime; Where Does Milwaukee Stand?

Posted on Categories Criminal Law & Process, Milwaukee, Public, Wisconsin Criminal Law & ProcessLeave a comment» on Chicago, New York Heading in Opposite Directions on Crime; Where Does Milwaukee Stand?

To judge by some of the political rhetoric last fall, violent crime must be surging in our nation’s cities. Is that true? The answer may depend on which city you are talking about, and which neighborhood within that city.

Consider the contrast between Chicago and New York. The Windy City had about 762 homicides in 2016, while the Big Apple had just 334. The difference is shocking, especially when you consider that New York has three times Chicago’s population.

To some extent, the contrasting figures from 2016 reflect longstanding trends. Although murders did spike in Chicago last year, New York has been doing better than Chicago on this score for a long time. The two cities had essentially identical per capita homicide rates in the late 1980s, but New York’s fell much faster and further than Chicago’s in the 1990s. New York has maintained a wide advantage ever since.

Still, the dramatic widening of that advantage in 2016 should be of great concern to Chicagoans. The chart below indicates the trends in recent years, based on FBI data. Note that the two cities moved in sync from 2013 through 2015: homicides down the first year, basically unchanged the next, and then up a little in 2015. However, in 2016, even as Chicago’s homicides shot up, New York’s dropped back down to where they had been in 2013 and 2014.

One should not get the sense, however, that one faces a dramatically elevated risk of violence throughout the Windy City.   Continue reading “Chicago, New York Heading in Opposite Directions on Crime; Where Does Milwaukee Stand?”

U.S. Prison Population Continues Slow Decline; Wisconsin’s Inches Up

Posted on Categories Criminal Law & Process, Federal Criminal Law & Process, Federal Sentencing, Public, Wisconsin Criminal Law & ProcessLeave a comment» on U.S. Prison Population Continues Slow Decline; Wisconsin’s Inches Up

Ringing in the new year, the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics recently released its data on prisoners in the United States in 2015. After rising consistently for about four decades, the U.S. prison population (state and federal combined) peaked at a little over 1.6 million in 2009. Since then, the population has declined steadily, but very slowly. For 2015, the total was a little over 1.5 million, or about 35,000 less than 2014. The continued reductions are encouraging, but must be kept in perspective: the population remains many times above its historic norms. The current rate of 458 prisoners per 100,000 U.S. residents is over four times greater than the long-term rate of about 100 per 100,000 from before the imprisonment boom. We are still very much in the era of mass incarceration.

The Wisconsin numbers continue to be lower than the national norms, but are moving in the opposite direction. At yearend 2015, Wisconsin’s prison population numbered 22,975, up 1.7 percent from 2014. This amounts to 377 prisoners per 100,000. By comparison, Minnesota’s rate was just 196 per 100,000.

Here are a few additional observations:   Continue reading “U.S. Prison Population Continues Slow Decline; Wisconsin’s Inches Up”

Gender and Negotiation–Prof. Schneider Takes the TED Stage

Posted on Categories Feminism, Marquette Law School, Negotiation, PublicLeave a comment» on Gender and Negotiation–Prof. Schneider Takes the TED Stage

TED talks can be a wonderful vehicle for academics to present their research in an accessible, neatly distilled way for a large audience. Our own Andrea Schneider has a new talk in the best TED tradition, explaining her fascinating work on gender and negotiation. Delivered at a recent TEDx event in Oshkosh, Andrea’s talk is entitled, “Women Don’t Negotiate and Other Similar Nonsense.” Congratulations, Andrea!