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Month: January 2016

Federal Sentencing Reform

The Equal Justice Initiative recently profiled four bills that impact federal sentencing in the United States. The following blog post will outline those four bills based on information from EJI.

The first bill is the Safe, Accountable, Fair, and Effective (SAFE) Justice Act. If passed, this bill will allow judges more flexibility to adjust mandatory minimum sentencing for drug offenses. This will reduce the number of people sent to federal prison each year. The bill will also expand the compassionate release program, expand access to substance abuse treatment, and allow sentence reductions for those prisoners who complete vocational, educational, or substance abuse programs.

The second bill is the Smarter Sentencing Act. If passed, this bill will eliminate some mandatory minimum sentencing laws, particularly for drug offenses.

The third bill is the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015. If passed, this bill will create new mandatory minimum sentences for people who aid terrorists and perpetrators of domestic violence that result in death. It will also limit solitary confinement for juveniles in federal prisons.

The fourth bill is the Fair Chance to Compete for Jobs Act. If passed, this bill will remove some barriers to re-entry for former prisoners. It will also prohibit employers from asking about criminal history until the final conditional job offer.

For more information about these bills, click here.

Compensating the Wrongly Convicted

Anthony Ray Hinton was recently exonerated after 30 years behind bars in Alabama. His case, and others like it, have made the broken parts of our criminal justice system quite apparent. CBS’s 60 Minutes recently focused on compensation, or lack there of, for the wrongly convicted in our country.

According the Innocence Project, a national organization that works to exonerate the wrongly convicted through DNA testing and criminal justice system reform, only 30 states and Washington D.C. provide some kind of compensation for the wrongly convicted. However, just because states provide some kind of compensation does not mean it is enough. In Hinton’s state of Alabama, which does have compensation legislation, he received nothing. Since many states have poor or nonexistent compensation laws, many exonerees are homeless after being released. Exonerees are given less support than those out on parole. According to 60 Minutes people out on parole in Alabama are eligible for job training, housing assistance, and a bus ticket home. Exonerees like Hinton are not eligible for those services.

In response to this problem, Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative stated that exonerees “need support, they need economic support, they need housing support, they need medical support, they need mental health care. They need to know that their victimization, their abuse has been taken seriously.”

Here in Wisconsin, wrongly convicted individuals can receive up to $25,000 in compensation. On December 24, 2015 Andrew Beckett of the Wisconsin Radio Network reported that there are efforts in process to raise that number to $1 million. State representative Dale Kooyenga (R – Brookfield) co-sponsored the bill saying that it will help the wrongly convicted individuals restore their lives The proposed bill would also provide exonerees health care, job training, and affordable housing. Previous efforts to increase compensation limits in Wisconsin have failed to pass in the Legislature.

To watch the 60 Minutes episode about compensation for the wrongly convicted click here.

To read the Innocence Project fact sheet about compensation for the wrongly convicted click here.

To read “Wisconsin lawmakers push to raise restitution for wrongful convictions” from the Wisconsin Radio Network click here.

Florida and Alabama’s Capital Sentencing Scheme Found to be Unconstitutional

On January 12th, the United States Supreme court found Florida and Alabama’s capital sentencing procedures to be unconstitutional as they do not require the jury to make the critical findings necessary to hand out a death sentence.

Florida and Alabama allow a jury’s recommendation of a life sentence to be overruled by an elected judge. This means that a judge can decide to impose the death penalty against a jury’s recommendation. In Florida, no judge has overruled a jury’s recommendation of a life sentence in 15 years. Alabama on the other hand, has had judges override juries’ recommendations of life sentences 101 times since 1976, including 26 times since the year 2000.

The Supreme Court found the capital sentencing design of Florida and Alabama to violate the Sixth Amendment which states that any fact that makes a person eligible for death must be determined by a jury, not a judge.

Read more about the ruling here.

Read the Supreme Court ruling here.