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Vermont Reformers Target Life Imprisonment, and a North Carolina Sheriff Restricts Ties with ICE

Also today: A review of legislative developments in Indiana, New York, and Utah

In This Edition of the Political Report

February 28, 2019:

  • Vermont, and beyond: Reformers target life imprisonment and sentences of life without parole

  • North Carolina: Yet another county stops honoring ICE detainers

  • Legislative roundup: New York coalition pushes for decriminalization of sex work, Utah considers deportation consequences, and more

You can visit The Appeal: Political Report’s website to read our latest analyses of the local politics of criminal justice reform and mass incarceration. You can also read the latest installment of the series “The Contenders 2020: Criminal Justice in the Race for President,” written by my Daily Appeal colleagues.

Vermont, and beyond: Reformers target life imprisonment and sentences of life without parole

Proponents of criminal justice reform are aiming to curtail life imprisonment in Vermont. New legislation (House Bill 382) would abolish sentences of life without the possibility of parole and replaces them with sentences of 25-to-life, which would make incarcerated individuals eligible for parole after 25 years of incarceration.

“It’s inconsistent with our values to lock people up and throw away the key,” said Tom Dalton, the executive director of Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform, a group that supports this bill. “We have an ethical and moral obligation to not incarcerate people beyond reasonable punishment. I think that decades in prison is significant penalty, and it’s a value judgment that after decades of punishment it’s reasonable to assess whether someone can safely be released to their community.” Dalton emphasized that this bill would not create a guarantee of release, but rather “an opportunity to go in front of the parole board and have an individual assessment.”

The legislation also targets virtual life sentences, namely sentences that are handed for a finite duration or that technically permit parole but with an eligibility for release that is so far into the future as to make it meaningless in the context of a human life span. “You might not be able to get in front of the parole board before life expectancy,” Dalton said.

A report published by the Sentencing Project in 2017 documented the nationwide growth of life sentences, which have been the target of recent litigation. Take the case of Arthur Franklin, who was 17 at the time of non-homicide offenses for which he received three concurrent 1,000-year sentences in Florida. While these sentences came with the possibility of parole, the state’s Parole Commission calculated that his parole year was 2352. Franklin challenged this on the grounds that this timeline made his punishment indistinguishable from life without parole and that it was thus unconstitutional; the U.S. Supreme Court held in Graham v. Florida in 2010 that juveniles cannot serve life without parole for crimes other than homicide. But the Florida Supreme Court rejected Franklin’s petition in November, ruling that “because Franklin’s sentences include eligibility for parole there is no violation of the categorical rule announced in Graham.” “There is no indication that Franklin has even a chance of being released before the end of his natural life expectancy,” Justice Barbara Pariente wrote in dissent. [See also: “Looming Appointments Could Alter Florida Supreme Court’s Sentencing Outlook”]

The details of the Vermont legislation are still missing because the bill was introduced in short form. But the stated intent of the bill is to bar “a sentence that, in effect, amounts to life without parole due to the length of the sentence and restriction on parole,” and to replace such punishments with a sentence of 25-to-life. State Representative Brian Cina, one of the bill’s sponsors, told me that he was open to negotiating how to define what “amounts to life without parole” with the House Committee on Judiciary, or with the state’s Sentencing Commission.

“The idea is that there should be an opportunity to be released while a person is still alive,” Cina said. “We want to leave the door open for hope and redemption.” He characterized the legislation in terms of restorative justice, an approach that aims to involve offenders, victims, and communities in a resolution process. “We want there to be some pathway and some consideration in sentencing for people to be able to redeem themselves and make amends for what they did, to restore their place in society and repair the harm they did,” he said.

Sarah George, the state’s attorney for Vermont’s largest county, Chittenden, retweeted a petition of support for HB 382. She did not reply to a subsequent request for comment on her views about the legislation.

If Vermont passed legislation matching this bill’s intent, it would be the first state to effectively bar life without parole sentences. All states but Alaska allow sentences of life without parole, and Alaska’s 99-year sentence is the functional equivalent. Last year, Pennsylvania state Senator Sharif Street launched a similar push by proposing that people serving a life sentence should be eligible for parole, but his bill did not move forward.

“It’s terrific that the state is broadening life-sentence reforms to include those who will likely not outlive their sentence because of its length,” Ashley Nellis, senior research analyst at the Sentencing Project and co-author of the recent book “The Meaning of Life: The Case for Abolishing Life Sentences,” told me in an email.

But Nellis also encouraged Vermont to stay bold in rethinking excessively long sentences, especially as lawmakers works out the details of this legislation, and of resisting the introduction of carve-outs. “A progressive state like Vermont, which has relatively few lifers, could establish itself as a leader by limiting sentences to at most 20 years,” she said. Limiting incarceration to 20 years is the goal of the Campaign to End Life Imprisonment, which the Sentencing Project started in 2018.

German Lopez of Vox wrote an essay this month that makes the case for “capping all prison sentences at no more than 20 years.” He argued that “empirical research has consistently found that locking up people for very long periods of time does little to nothing to combat crime, and may actually lead to more crime as people spend more time in prison,” and also that “a cap will force us to think of prison as a place for rehabilitation.”

Reformers have already been successful this last decade in curtailing lifetime imprisonment for minors.

Following a series of Supreme Court rulings that constrained life without parole sentences for juveniles, states adopted a wave of further reforms. Today, 21 states plus D.C. allow no life without parole sentences for juveniles. Eighteen of them have abolished that sentence since 2012, according to a tracker of reforms that is maintained by the Juvenile Sentencing Project. (That said, because of disparate retroactivity and resentencing provisions, people are still serving life without parole sentences over offenses they committed as minors in some of these states.)

Will that movement progress further in 2019?

The Political Report knows of four states with still-active legislation in the current session to abolish life without parole sentences for offenses people commit before they are 18: Oklahoma (Senate Bill 112), Rhode Island (House Bill 5333), South Carolina (Senate Bill 47), and Tennessee (House Bill 876, Senate Bill 842). Some of these bills, like Tennessee’s, also expand parole eligibility for minors with lengthy sentences that come with a distant possibility of a release; Tennessee’s exceptionally harsh rules regarding when minors will be eligible for parole came back under the spotlight last fall when the state Supreme Court ruled that Cyntoia Brown would be eligible for parole after serving a minimum of 51 years. (Governor Bill Haslam granted Brown clemency in January.)

Only Oklahoma’s version has moved forward a legislative step as of now, making it out of one House committee. But similar bills have already been defeated in at least two states this year: Montana, where the House Judiciary committee tabled the legislation on Feb. 19, and Arizona, where the deadline for a proposed bill to move out of committee expired last week with no action.

As drafted, these bills differ as to how long someone sentenced for an offense they committed as a minor has to wait parole eligibility. For instance, Rhode Island’s would make people eligible for parole after 15 years, while South Carolina’s timeline is 20 to 30 years. Of course, when parole eligibility actually kicks in is a major factor in whether sentences are effectively curtailed, as is what that process actually looks like once it happens. “Parole boards are problematic in many places,” Nellis told me. “Boards that are overly politicized or considering cases in name only can set individuals back even though they are prepared for life on the outside.”

Dalton, of Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform, said that some of the same reasons to not impose life without parole sentences on minors apply to older individuals as well. “The reality is that brain development continues well into your twenties,” he said, also citing research like that conducted by the Stanford Criminal Justice Center that found that the risk of recidivism among “recently released lifers” was “minimal.” Dalton argued that these factors make it unreasonable “to punish somebody for life, to take away their freedom for their entire life span when there may be significant circumstances that would indicate that they could be safely released. … The question is, is there a point at which punishment has served every purpose that it can be reasonably expected to serve?”

A standalone version of this story is available here.

North Carolina: Yet another county stops honoring ICE detainers

The 2018 elections for sheriff continue to make waves in North Carolina. Quentin Miller, the new sheriff of Buncombe County (Asheville), announced on Feb. 26 that his office will stop honoring ICE detainers. Detainers are warrantless requests by which ICE asks a local jail to continue detaining people beyond their scheduled release because of a suspected civil immigration violation, even if they have posted bail or have resolved their criminal charges. This gives the federal agency more time to pick up detained individuals.

“We do not make or enforce immigration laws; that is not part of our law enforcement duties,” said Miller, who described such cooperation with ICE as harmful to relations with county residents. “It is vital that members of our immigrant community can call the sheriff’s office without fear when they are in need of assistance from law enforcement.”

Miller is the fifth North Carolina sheriff elected in 2018 to announce an end to ICE detainers. The sheriffs of Durham County (Durham), Forsyth County (Winston-Salem), Mecklenburg County (Charlotte), and Wake County (Raleigh) have all announced this same step since taking office in December amid sustained organizing by immigrant rights’ activists in the state. Some of these sheriffs have also cut more formal modes of ICE cooperation, such as 287(g) contracts and detention agreements, which Buncombe already lacked. All five sheriffs are African American Democrats who won their first term in 2018.

The counties that will newly reject ICE detainers are five of North Carolina’s seven largest counties. The two other counties among the seven already had a policy of not abiding by ICE detainers.

  • “We don’t honor ICE detainer requests,” Cumberland County Public Information Officer Sean Swain told me on Tuesday. Swain added this policy was already in place under current sheriff Ennis Wright’s predecessor.

  • Similarly, Guilford County didn’t honor ICE detainers under the prior sheriff (Republican BJ Barnes), and newly elected Democrat Danny Rogers has maintained this policy. Jim Secor, the attorney of the sheriff’s office told Jordan Green of the Triad City Beat this month that detaining an individual absent an arrest warrant most likely violates the constitutional ban against “illegal seizure.” Secor also said the Guilford County sheriff’s office communicates with ICE throughout an individual’s detention period to help the federal agency take someone into custody.

This leaves Union County as North Carolina’s largest county with a sheriff whose stated policy is to abide by ICE’s requests. “We do honor Federal detainers that may not be accompanied by an additional criminal or judicial warrant,” Tony Underwood, the public information officer of the sheriff’s office, told me via email. The sheriff since 2002 is Republican Eddie Cathey.

A standalone version of this story is available here.

Legislative roundup: New York coalition pushes for decriminalization of sex work, Utah considers deportation consequences, and more

Indiana: The Indiana House unanimously adopted legislation (House Bill 1150) to provide exonerated individuals $50,000 of restitution for each year they were wrongfully incarcerated. The bill is sponsored by Representative Greg Steuerwald, a Republican, who calls it “a matter of fairness.” However, exonerated people would qualify for this restitution only if they forego all litigation against the state. The Hendricks County Flyer reports that HB 1150 would apply retroactively to already exonerated individuals, but only if their lawsuits are still unresolved and only if they agree to drop them. Kristine Bunch, who was exonerated in 2012 after being incarcerated for 17 years, has founded the nonprofit Justis 4 Justus to assist exonerated people in Indiana. She told the Flyer that although the restitution provisions in HB 1150 are important, asking people to choose between these funds and a lawsuit evades accountability. “Saying you can’t have a civil suit in addition to receiving help … it’s like they’ve gotten away with it,” she said.

New Hampshire, Vermont: Efforts to legalize marijuana move forward in two northeastern states. Although Vermont legalized the possession of marijuana last year, it did not set up a system of legal sales. The House and Senate are now considering competing bills (House Bill 196 and Senate Bill 54) to set up such a system, as Marijuana Moment details. The Senate bill has already advanced in three legislative committees.  In New Hampshire, the House voted to legalize possession and sales, and also enable expungement of past convictions, Marijuana Moment reports. The legislation (House Bill 481), which moves to the Senate, did not reach a veto-proof majority, however, and the governor has said he opposes legalization.

New York: Decrim NY, a coalition of state organizations, launched a campaign to decriminalize sex work on Feb. 25. Melissa Gira Grant reported on this new effort in The Appeal. The coalition’s aim is “repealing laws criminalizing sex work, restoring the rights of people who have been prosecuted for prostitution-related offenses, and ensuring all people in the sex trades can meet their basic needs … without discrimination,” Grant writes. She explains that although some cast criminalization as important for fighting trafficking, Decrim NY members warn about the harmful consequences of conflating trafficking and sex work; they point out that the enforcement of these codes disproportionately and punitively impacts women of color, as well as trans and gender nonconforming people, and also exposes them to ICE. The coalition has partnered with lawmakers who plan to introduce decriminalization legislation. Jessica Ramos and Julia Salazar, two state senators who were elected in 2018 by ousting incumbents in the Democratic primary, wrote an op-ed in the New York Daily News about their intent to push for such reform.

Utah: Under federal law, noncitizens who receive a sentence that includes at least one year of detention face deportation. What this means in Utah is that people can be deported over a misdemeanor-level offense: State law provides for a maximum of 365 days in jail for Class A misdemeanors. On Feb. 25, the state House unanimously approved legislation (House Bill 244) that would reduce the maximum detention associated with such misdemeanors by one day (from 365 to 364). This would prevent misdemeanor convictions from triggering such dire immigration consequences. The bill, whose chief sponsor is Republican Representative Eric Hutchings, now moves to the state Senate. Other states, such as California in 2014, have taken this step or, like Connecticut, are considering doing so now. 

You can visit our legislative roundup page for more on states’ legislative debates.

Thanks for reading. We’ll see you next week!