On January 23, 2017, ACLU filed a class action suit against Wisconsin officials alleging severe human and children’s rights abuses. The complaint’s introduction states:
The State of Wisconsin operates the Lincoln Hills School for Boys and the Copper Lake School for Girls, which incarcerate approximately 150-200 youth who are as young as 14 years old, in remote northern Wisconsin. The State routinely subjects these youth to unlawful solitary confinement, mechanical restraints and pepper spraying. Prior to state and federal raids on the facility at the end of 2015, staff also regularly physically abused youth in the facility. Currently, Wisconsin’s juvenile corrections officials lock up approximately 15 to 20% percent or more of the facilities’ young residents in solitary confinement cells for 22 or 23 hours per day. Many of these children are forced to spend their only free hour of time per day outside of a solitary confinement cell in handcuffs and chained to a table. Officers also repeatedly and excessively use Bear Mace and other pepper sprays against the youth, causing them excruciating pain and impairing their breathing. These practices constitute serious violations of the children’s constitutional rights, including their rights to substantive due process, as guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, and their right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment, as guaranteed by the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution.
- J.J. et al. v. Litscher et al., No. 3:17-cv-00047 (W. D. Wis. Jan 23, 2017) (Complaint).
- ACLU, CAGED IN: Solitary Confinement’s Devastating Harm on Prisoners with Physical Disabilities (Jan. 2017).
- Erica Danielsen, Prof. Mushlin Testifies in Favor of Oversight in NY State Prisons, Pace Criminal Justice Blog (Dec. 8, 2015).
- Jason M. Breslow, What Does Solitary Confinement Do to Your Mind?, PBS Frontline, (Apr. 22, 2014).
- ACLU, Change is Possible: A Case Study of Solitary Confinement Reform in Maine (March 2013).
- ACLU, Growing Up Locked Down: Youth in Solitary Confinement in Jails and Prisons Across the United States (2012).
- Solitary Watch Blog
Although three US states placed a death- penalty-related question on the ballot in the 2016 election, the overall statistics show another record decline in the imposition of the death penalty.
According to the Death Penalty Information Center’s The Death Penalty in 2016: Year End Report, “the death sentences, executions, and public support for death penalty [are] at historical lows.”
Death sentences peaked in 1996, with 315 death sentences imposed, while in 2016, about 30 death sentences were projected to be imposed as punishment. Looking at the numbers since 1973 (the year when states began re-enacting death penalty statutes), the average decline over the last 10 years is significant, showing more than a 50% decline.
The report also offers interesting facts about individual state practices, for example:
Four states that are responsible for 90% of the executions in the U.S. in 2016—Georgia (9), Texas (7), Florida (1), and Missouri (1)—have also carried out more than 85% of the country’s 83 executions over the past three years (Texas (27), Missouri (17), Georgia (16), and Florida (11)). 80% of all executions in the U.S. in 2016 took place in either Georgia or Texas.
Lastly, the report documents changes in public support for the death penalty, with a steady decline in support of the death penalty in favor of life without parole.
- Death Penalty Information Center, The Death Penalty in 2016: Year End Report (2016).
- Liliana Segura, The Death Penalty Won Big on Election Day, but the Devil is in the Details, The Intercept (Nov. 11, 2016).
- 2016 Election Results: POTUS and State Ballot Measures on the Death Penalty, Marijuana, Gun Control, and More, Procon.org (Nov. 9, 2016).
- Bureau of Justice Statistics, Publications & Products: Capital Punishment (last updated with 2013 numbers).
- Bureau of Justice Statistics, Capital Punishment.
- Death Penalty Information Center, Facts about the Death Penalty (Dec. 9, 2016).
Today, the US Supreme Court is considering a question of
whether the constitution is violated if the chief judge on the highest court of the state refuses to disqualify himself in a death penalty appeal where he was the chief prosecutor who authorized the defendant’s death sentence, obtained the death sentence though his office’s misconduct, and campaigned for the judgeship by showing how many people he put on death row, including the defendant.
Interestingly, amici included many judges, including the late Judge Judith Kaye, who argued that the judge should have recused himself, and a group of professional responsibility law school professors on the same side.
Prof. Bennett Gershman analyzes the issues and implications of Williams v. Pennsylvania in his latest HuffPost article titled A Perfect Storm: Judicial Prosecutorial Misconduct, and a Death Sentence and outlines the various issues involved in this case. The ultimate question is not only whether the judge should have disqualified himself when deciding the defendant’s death penalty appeal but also whether, if he didn’t, his bias on the panel decision was nothing more than a harmless error. As Prof. Gershman concludes that
…without Justice Scalia, a 4-4 split on the Supreme Court is possible. And if that is the result, then under the Supreme Court’s rules the decision of the Pennsylvania supreme Court would be affirmed – and Terrence Williams will be executed.