On Mar. 3, the Supreme Court will hear oral argument in a case that will decide whether Freddie Hall should be on death row. In an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, Prof. Marc Tasse argues that Florida’s standard for evaluating intellectual disability in death penalty cases is “unscientific and a breach of Hall’s constitutional protection as mandated in Atkins v. Virginia.” For more on Hall v. Florida, please see analysis by Prof. John H. Blume at ACSblog.
Consumers were victorious Monday when the high court rejected an appeal from washing machine manufacturers in a class-action lawsuit. Writing for Slate, Emily Bazelon explains why the decision is “surprising and good news.”
Republicans are calling for Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer to veto a bill that would allow businesses to discriminate against gay and lesbian customers. Reuters’ David Schwartz reports on growing frustration in the Grand Canyon State.
The Supreme Court heard oral argument this week on the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. Adam Liptak at The New York Times reviews Utility Air Regulatory Group v. EPA.
On the second anniversary of Trayvon Martin’s death, Charles D. Ellison of The Root reflects on Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law.
The American Bar Association Standards Review Committee is considering a recommendation that the ABA no longer prohibit law students from receiving money for internships and externships. Karen Sloan of The National Law Journal has the story.
In their debut article for The Intercept, Jeremy Scahill and Glenn Greenwald examine the National Security Agency’s controversial role in targeting terror suspects for lethal drone strikes and the effectiveness of geolocating technology.
Dallas District Attorney Craig Watkins created the nation's first Conviction Integrity Unit. In an interview with NPR’s Melissa Block, Watkins discusses the 87 overturned convictions in the U.S. in 2013 and what is being done in Dallas County to prevent miscarriages of justice.
With the U.S. Supreme Court returning to session on February 24, the justices could soon rule on whether legislative prayer violates the Establishment Clause. Michael Kirkland at UPI breaks down Town of Greece v. Galloway.
* Ms. Love now represents applicants for executive clemency. Her client Clarence Aaron was one of those commuted by President Obama on December 19.
On December 19, President Obama commuted the prison sentences of eight people convicted of trafficking in crack cocaine and sentenced to lengthy prison terms. Each person had spent at least 15 years behind bars, and all but two were serving a mandatory life term. The President was generally commended for his acts of mercy, the only reservation being that he had not done more to provide relief to thousands of similarly situated individuals still imprisoned under laws he himself characterized as “unjust.”
One of those whose sentence the President commuted was Clarence Aaron, a college student with no prior record who was sentenced in 1993 to three life terms based on his limited role in two drug transactions for which he was paid $1500. Another was Stephanie George, described by the sentencing judge as the “bag holder and money holder” for her crack-dealing boyfriend, whose life sentence was based on two prior convictions for selling a total of $160 worth of crack.
Clarence Aaron is now on his way home, as are Stephanie George and the other members of the December 19 Eight, most of whom thought they would never see home again. So it is time to consider what happens now for the hundreds of similarly situated individuals still behind bars.
The President himself acknowledged, in a statement accompanying the grants, that while he had taken “an important step toward restoring fundamental ideals of justice and fairness,” that step “must not be the last.” He urged Congress to act on “reform measures already working their way through Congress” to provide relief from “a disparity in the law that is now recognized as unjust.” The specific “reform measure” the President was referring to is the Smarter Sentencing Act, which would make the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act (FSA) fully retroactive. The impression left by his statement was that passage of this bill, along with policy changes announced by the Attorney General in August 2013, would be sufficient to restore fairness to the legal system, and that the job of doing justice had now passed to Congress.
In December, President Obama commuted the sentences of eight people serving harsh prison terms on crack-cocaine convictions. Why?
Until recently, those who possessed just five grams of crack cocaine received the same five-year sentence as those who distributed 500 grams of powder cocaine; those who used 50 grams of crack received the same sentence as traffickers of 5000 grams of powder cocaine. This 100-to-1 quantity ratio between two chemically identical substances disproportionately hurt African Americans and Latinos because of federal law enforcement’s top-heavy focus on inner-city communities.
The president’s commutations are a major step forward in the ongoing saga to end injustice in cocaine sentencing. This newest chapter comes in the wake of other adjustments that have successfully chipped away at these biased disparities. Three years ago, the Fair Sentencing Act reduced the discredited 100-to-1 ratio between crack and powder cocaine to the more reasonable, but still insufficient, 18-to-1 ratio. The U.S. Sentencing Commission amended its guideline ranges to assure consistency with the provisions of the new act and applied its guidelines retroactively.
The Supreme Court, consistent with revised Department of Justice policy, agreed that cases pending in the pipeline between passage of the new law and sentencing would receive the benefit of the new law. However, only Congress or the president can remedy the plight of the remaining people whose harsh sentences occurred prior to the Fair Sentencing Act.
While momentous, the eight commutations represent only the tip of the iceberg of cases left behind when the Fair Sentencing Act became law. Several thousand cases of men and women in similar situations still await relief. Obama acknowledged that his commutations were an important first step and that “it must not be the last.”
If you are in prison today, you are likely a minority and poor, as Southern Center for Human Rights leader Stephen Bright noted in an interview with ACSblog highlighted earlier this week.
Many are also imprisoned for non-violent drug crimes. A report from the Brennan Center notes that nearly “half the people in state prisons are there for drug crimes. Almost half the people in federal prisons are there for drug crimes. Only 7.6 percent of federal cocaine prosecutions and 1.8 percent of federal crack cocaine prosecutions are for high level trafficking.”
While the Department of Justice recently announced that prosecutors should not seek mandatory minimum sentences in drug cases, Professor Alex Kreit notes that there are “many moving parts” to the nation’s costly war on drugs, which have developed over several decades. The drug war and its impact will not be erased overnight.
In an interview with ACSblog, Nkechi Taifa, senior policy analyst for the Open Society Foundations, takes note of the lengthy war on drugs and its devastating impact on minority communities.
Taifa said, “Communities of color are disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs, by mass incarceration.” And even with some progress, such as the enactment of the Fair Sentencing Act, the statistics “remain staggering.”
She continued, “It is daunting to know that one in three young black men are under the jurisdiction of the criminal justice system on any given day, at any given time; whether in prison, whether in jail, whether on probation, whether on parole.”
Taifa concluded that the situation has greatly harmed generations of minorities. “This absolutely must stop."