Crime and Stigma: New Research Explores the Connections

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.  (more…)

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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. 

(more…)

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

Three 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…

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Race and Risk Assessment

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.  (more…)

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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.   (more…)

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