Criminal Justice

  • April 26, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Despite the rhetoric to move beyond a perpetual “war on drugs” the Obama administration remains mired in the tough-on-drugs mindset and its Justice Department seems befuddled by the states that have legalized small amounts of marijuana for recreational use.

    The Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report revealing that the administration’s goals set out in 2010 have largely not been met. The report noted that the Office of National Drug Control Policy and other federal agencies established “seven Strategy goals related to reducing illicit drug use and its consequences by 2015.” GAO continued, “As of March 2013,” its “analysis showed that of the five goals for which primary data on results were available, one shows progress and four show no progress.”

    But, as The Huffington Post’s Matt Sledge reports drug czar Gil Kerlikowske, head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy has just released another drug control plan that builds on the policies the GAO has said are not working. More troubling, Sledge notes that the drug office’s budget “still devotes less than half of it funds to treatment and prevention. The GAO found that prevention and treatment programs are ‘fragmented’ across 15 federal agencies.”

    In an April 24 post on its web site, the Office of National Drug Control Policy bemoans “illicit drug use,” claiming “drug-induced overdose deaths now surpass homicides and car crashes as the leading cause of injury or death in America.” It also declares “we cannot arrest or incarcerate our way out of the drug problem.”

    The language from the administration’s drug control office is softer than rhetoric about the “war on drugs,” which the Nixon administration launched with the enactment of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) several decades ago. But the administration’s drug control office is not embracing drug legalization or even any changes to the CSA, such as removing marijuana from the list of drugs deemed as dangerous as say heroin.

    The muddled message from the Obama administration -- not helped by its Justice Department’s silence on how it will respond to Colorado and Washington, where officials are crafting measures to implement and regulate the recreational use of marijuana -- is preserving tough-on-drugs policies.

  • April 23, 2013
    Guest Post

    by Vincent Imhoff, Managing Partner, Imhoff & Associates, P.C.

    Clarence Earl Gideon was about 50-years old when he was arrested in relation to the theft of money and wine from a pool hall in Panama City, Fla., in 1961. Gideon’s father had died when he was young, and Gideon himself quit school after eighth grade, running away from home and becoming a drifter. By the time Gideon was 16 he already had a criminal record, one that would follow him up until that fateful day when he was arrested, tried, and convicted of breaking and entering with intent to commit petty larceny. Gideon was too poor to pay for any type of defense in the case, and back in 1961 in Bay County, Fla., that meant you had to defend yourself against even the toughest prosecuting attorneys unless you were convicted of a capital offense. So it was that the Gideon’s judge denied him access to a lawyer, Gideon defended himself, lost, and was sentenced to the maximum prison term of one year.

    While serving his time, Gideon learned a little bit about law and wrote a 5-page letter to the Supreme Court about how his right to counsel under the Sixth Amendment had been violated. The Supreme Court eventually decided to take his case, and, under the argument that “you cannot have a fair trial without counsel,” ruled in Gideon’s favor. The landmark case, Gideon v. Wainwright, set precedent that states had to provide counsel for criminal defendants who could not afford counsel, essentially owing to the eventual segment of the Miranda Rights that basically read “if you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you.” After a retrial, Gideon was set free, and the legal landscape of the United States of America was changed.

  • April 9, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    It’s been 50 years since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that criminal defendants have a constitutional right to counsel even if they cannot afford it. But too many states have not lived up to their constitutional obligation of ensuring that indigent defendants have counsel, helping lead to mass incarceration.

    A new report from the Brennan Center For Justice explains that the states’ woefully ineffective handling of indigent defense cases has led to mass incarceration that is far more costly than providing adequate counsel to poor defendants. The report also provides suggestions for reforming the system.

    In Gideon at 50: Three Reforms to Revive the Right to Counsel it is noted that at the time the high court down Gideon v. Wainwright in 1963 there were about 217,000 people in prison. “Today, the incarcerated population has expanded to approximately 2.3 million people. The United States has only 5 percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of its prison population. One in four American adults now has been convicted of a crime. We live in an era of mass incarceration,” the report states.

    If Gideon’s promise were being met, then it is likely the country could more easily overcome the crisis of mass imprisonment.

    “Our poorly funded public defense system exacerbates our nation’s mass incarceration problem,” the Brennan report continues. “Rarely does the accused have adequate legal representation. Rarely is their fight balanced. Rarely do public defenders have the resources they need to keep Gideon’s promise of providing a constitutional right to effective counsel.”

    The report makes a strong case that it would be a far more effective use of public dollars to help ensure indigent defendants have competent, adequate counsel instead of continuing to support a mass incarceration system that is incredibly costly and harmful to minority communities.

    First, the report notes that mass imprisonment largely targets minority communities. “African-American and Hispanics, who make up less than 30 percent of the country’s population, are nearly 60 percent of the prison population. Whites, with 64 percent of the general population, make up approximately 35 percent of the prison population.”

  • March 28, 2013

    by E. Sebastian Arduengo

    After more than a decade of watching procedural shows like CSI and their progeny, you might think that video recordings of custodial police interrogations are de rigueur in the law enforcement community. But, as it turns out, fewer than half of the states require law enforcement agencies to record custodial interrogations (questioning initiated by police officers after someone is taken into custody), and of those, four states record interrogations because the state supreme court ruled that not doing so violated the suspect’s rights. Right now, an additional seven states are actively considering whether to require recording of felony interrogation. Rightly or wrongly, the practice is hugely controversial in a number of police departments across the country, mostly because officers worry about whether being on camera will deter suspects from confessing or affect the rapport of an interview. But, until last year, there weren’t any comprehensive studies about the law and practices of recording interrogations nationwide.

    That changed with the release of Jenner & Block Partner Thomas P. Sullivan’s research. After nine years of research, Sullivan and his team at Jenner & Block published their results after having surveyed more than 1,000 police departments across the country, ranging in size from big-city departments with hundreds of officers to rural sheriffs’ departments with only a handful of officers. What they found was that without a shadow of a doubt, there was no good reason not to record custodial interrogations from the time a Miranda warning is given advising a suspect of his rights.

  • March 18, 2013
    Guest Post

    by Stephen B. Bright and Sia M. Sanneh. Bright teaches at Yale Law School and is President and Senior Counsel of The Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta. Sanneh is the Senior Liman Fellow at Yale Law School and an attorney with the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama. 


    Exactly 50 years ago, in Gideon v. Wainwright, the Supreme Court declared the right to a lawyer “fundamental and essential” to fairness in the criminal courts and held that lawyers must be provided for people who could not afford them so that every person “stands equal before the law.” In later decisions, the Court ruled that a poor person facing any loss of liberty must have a lawyer “so that the accused may know precisely what he is doing, so that he is fully aware of the prospect of going to jail or prison, and so that he is treated fairly by the prosecution.”And yet, a half century later this right is violated every day in thousands of courts across the nation, at every stage of the process.

    In our forthcoming essay, Fifty Years of Defiance and Resistance After Gideon v. Wainwright, to be published in the Yale Law Journal, we chronicle the day-to-day denial of counsel in counties throughout the country; the refusal of governments to provide adequate funding for lawyers for the people they seek to convict, fine, imprison and execute; the complicity of judges in the denial of counsel; the enormous and unchecked power of prosecutors to decide cases, including sentences, often with little or no input from defense counsel; and the Supreme Court’s decision to paper over and ignore violations of the right to counsel instead of correcting them.

    As we argue in our essay:

    The cost of this one-sided system is enormous. Innocent people are convicted and sent to prison while the perpetrators remain at large. Important issues, such as the system’s pervasive racism—from stops by law enforcement officers to disparate sentencing—are ignored. People are sentenced without consideration of their individual characteristics, allowing race, politics, and other improper factors to influence sentences. Over 2.2 million people—a grossly disproportionate number of them African Americans and Latinos—are in prisons and jails at a cost of $75 billion a year. Nearly an additional five million people are on probation, parole, or supervised release. Over seventy thousand children are held in juvenile facilities. Even those who have completed their sentences may be deported, denied the right to vote, dishonorably discharged from the Armed Forces, denied public benefits, and denied business or professional licenses. Reentry into society is extremely difficult, extending the costs to the families and communities of those who have been imprisoned.

    There are expressive costs as well. A system in which all of the key actors routinely ignore one of its most fundamental constitutional requirements is not a system based on the rule of law, no matter what it claims to be. When those actors shirk their constitutional obligations and bring the immense power of the state down most heavily on African Americans and Latinos, people cease to have confidence in the courts. The system lacks legitimacy and credibility and is undeserving of respect. For this to change, courts, legislatures, executives, and members of the legal profession will need to respond with a sense of urgency and commitment to justice that has been missing in most places during the last fifty years.