Issue 19: What is punishment? Two new papers expose another flaw in 8th Amendment case law—and show how state constitutions can do better

November 3, 2023

When someone is sent to prison, their punishment, in any normal sense of the word, involves far more than “serving time.” Often one must also endure poor healthcare, lethal heat, dehumanizing abuse, rampant disease, filthy drinking water, and extended solitary confinement that amounts to torture. And convictions follow people long after their release. The so-called “collateral consequences” of criminal convictions can last a lifetime, excluding people from employment, housing, and voting, and in some cases include the added shame and exclusion of public criminal registration. 

This reality of our criminal system—how prison conditions and other sanctions are inexorably intertwined with prison sentences—provides another basis for state supreme courts to depart from federal case law. As two forthcoming law review articles explain, the U.S. Supreme Court has—in ways ahistorical, illogical, and inconsistent—largely ignored this reality when answering two closely-related questions: What is “punishment”? And what is a criminal “sentence”?

Issue 18: Denied Parole 30 Times, Illinois Man Gets Relief Through State Anti-Punishment Clause

October 5, 2023

An Illinois appellate court in August used the state’s unique anti-punishment clause to rule that a man who was convicted and imprisoned decades ago must receive a new sentence. While just an intermediate appellate court decision, the analysis shows how state constitutions can check outdated sentencing practices and end-run intractable parole boards that ignore evidence of profound change and rehabilitation. 

Issue 17: Tear Gas, Junk Science, Resentencings, & Evictions

September 18, 2023

State supreme courts in Washington & Louisiana rollback criminal justice reforms; NJ appellate court kicks ‘junk science’ out of courtrooms; MN supreme court nixes “I smelled marijuana” justification for police to search cars; and WI & MI supreme courts shape eviction rules

Issue 16: False Confessions & State Supreme Courts

September 5, 2023

In 2019, the Hawaii Supreme Court made a groundbreaking ruling that restricted police deception during interrogations: Falsely telling someone that they have failed a polygraph test, the court held, is inherently coercive and any resulting statements must be excluded from trial. This year, the Michigan Supreme Court could have adopted the Hawaii court’s reasoning and applied it more broadly to protect people—or at least young people—from the coercive force of police deception. But rather than break new ground under the state constitution, the court took a modest approach that followed federal footsteps. 

Issue 15: How Other Cruel Punishments Could Fall After Court Strikes Down Lifetime Voting Ban

August 11, 2023

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals last week struck down Mississippi’s lifetime voting ban for people with felony convictions, finding that it is “cruel and unusual” punishment under the 8th Amendment. It’s a remarkable decision not just for the outcome but how it got there: The Fifth Circuit’s Analysis marks an historic moment in 8th Amendment jurisprudence with sweeping implications for the constitutional limits of criminal punishments.

Issue 14: Looking To State Courts After Another SCOTUS Debacle

July 13, 2023

In a new essay for New York Magazine, law professors Lara Bazelon and James Forman, Jr. argue that progressives should respond to a reactionary Supreme Court by focusing on state courts “where they actually stand a chance.” It’s a call to action not just for lawyers looking to strengthen constitutional rights through litigation, but also organizers and activists who to this point have ignored state courts as a target for change: “Progressives must do with state courts what the right has already done with conservative judges: elevate liberal jurists who have principles, guts, and vision.”

Issue 13: Alaska Joins State Court Movement To Protect Kids From Death-In-Prison Sentences

June 2, 2023

The Alaska Court of Appeals this month issued the latest state constitutional ruling to protect children from excessive criminal punishments—doing so by explicitly rejecting the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent gutting of 8th Amendment protections. The case is just the latest example of how state constitutions can protect children and young adults from death-in-prison sentences, and shows how even state constitutions that track the 8th Amendment verbatim retain their independent meaning.

Issue 12: The Washington Supreme Court Kicks Police Out of Fare Enforcement

May 1, 2023

In its latest effort to root out racism in the criminal legal system, the Washington Supreme Court wields the state constitution to limit the role of police in transit fare enforcement. The ruling shows how Fourth Amendment analogs in state constitutions can curtail needless, discriminatory, and dangerous police encounters, and ultimately reduce our reliance on policing.

Issue 11: Kansas Rulings Suggest Prison Terms & Felony Disenfranchisement Must Pass Strict Scrutinty

March 31, 2023

The Kansas Court of Appeals ruled this month that because voting is a “fundamental” state constitutional right, any restrictions on voting must pass strict scrutiny—the most exacting form of constitutional review. This particular case involves a series of new laws regulating how votes may be collected and counted, but the court’s analysis could be far-reaching. For one, the Kansas Supreme Court has also noted that “liberty” is a fundamental right that is “obviously impair[ed]” by imprisonment. If that’s true (and it does indeed seem obvious) then prison terms should also be subject to strict scrutiny. It also casts doubt on felony disenfranchisement, which serves no real purpose other than to transfer political power from certain groups to others, and it does so in flagrantly discriminatory fashion.

Issue 10: Putting Extreme Sentences On Trial

February 11, 2023

A Kansas trial court held a rare hearing to examine how the death penalty is a proven policy failure — but the same sort of evidence challenging capital punishment could be marshaled against other draconian sentences that are discriminatory, fail to deter, waste public resources, and are disproportionately foisted upon people with intellectual disabilities and mental illness. Death may be different in some respects, but not in its failure to efficiently and fairly promote public safety, and not in its ability to inflict needless suffering. The sort of evidentiary hearing held this week in Sedgwick County, Kansas should be the norm, not the rare exception, so that courts can meaningfully test the theories of punishment against the proven reality.