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June 3, 2013

As expected, feds ask full Sixth Circuit to review and reverse Blewett crack retroactivity ruling

As covered via a number posts on this blog, a split Sixth Circuit panel decided in Blewett, based on Equal Protection principles, that the new lower statutory mandatory-minimum thresholds for crack offenses established in the Fair Sentencing Act are applicable in motions to reduce otherwise-final sentences for incarcerated offenders.  (The Blewett panel ruling was first discussed in this post, and further here and here.) 

As predicted in these posts, the federal government is not happy with this ruling, and late Friday it finally filed a petition for rehearing en banc.  Here is the opening paragraph of the argument section from that filing, which can be downloaded below:

The majority’s holding is legally incorrect, in conflict with prior Sixth Circuit decisions, in conflict with the law of every other circuit, and inconsistent with Dorsey.  Moreover, the effect of the decision will be widespread if it is allowed to stand.  The panel majority’s core reasoning is seriously flawed in multiple respects, but two central errors highlight the need for en banc consideration.  Download Blewett_petition for rehearing

I would be truly shocked if the full Sixth Circuit did not grant this petition for rehearing.  Indeed, in my view the only real procedural questions now are (1) how long will it take the full Sixth Circuit to grant the petition, and (2) what kind of briefing and argument schedule will be set for this important case.  (I would urge the Sixth Circuit to give plenty of time for briefing because I know that a number of public policy groups are likely to be eager to file amicus briefs in this matter.)

As I briefly explained in my first post on Blewett, I think a Fifth Amendment equal protection theory used by the majority in the Blewett panel decision provides a very shaky constitutional foundation for giving the new crack statutory sentences of the FSA retroactive effect.  But I also think, in the wake of the passage of the Fair Sentencing Act and the USSC's implementation of its new 18-1 crack guidelines retroactively, that a proper application of the Eighth Amendment could provide a more reasoned and reasonable basis to give full retroactive effect to all the provisions of the FSA.

Related posts on Blewett:

June 3, 2013 in New crack statute and the FSA's impact, New USSC crack guidelines and report, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

"some in the West Wing privately tell associates they wish he would step down, viewing him as politically maladroit"

The intriguing phrase in the title of this post comes from this lengthy New York Times article about our Nation's Attorney General. The article is headlined "Seeking a Fresh Start, Holder Finds a Fresh Set of Troubles," and here is an excerpt that especially captured my attention:

The president is also said to appreciate Mr. Holder’s integrity and his positions during some of the big debates over antiterrorism policies and other volatile issues.  The White House also points to his department’s successful defense of the president’s health care program before the Supreme Court and prosecutions in high-profile terrorism, financial crimes and corporate wrongdoing cases.

Moreover, advisers said, Mr. Obama after a full term in office is less likely to worry about political flare-ups that will eventually die down. “It’s very easy sitting in that town to overestimate the longevity and impact of these issues,” David Axelrod, Mr. Obama’s political strategist, said from Chicago.  “I don’t think Americans are sitting around their kitchen tables clamoring for Holder’s head because of the A.P. or Fox subpoenas.  It’s not water-cooler discussion.”

I find the first paragraph of this excerpt notable because, at least in my view, the legal accomplishments of the Obama Administration have been achieved mostly despite Holder's underwhelming sterwardship of the Justice Department, not because of it.  And I think the second paragraph is amusing because Kate Litvak in this article years ago described the "Blog as a Bugged Water Cooler," and the posts below highlight that many folks on this blog (myself included) have in fact been sitting around this virtual kitchen table talking about who should be the next Attorney General.

A few prior posts which include clamoring for Holder's head:

June 3, 2013 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

June 2, 2013

Justifiable praise for Virginia Gov for new order restoring some felon voting rights

Today's New York Times has this notable editorial headlined "Restoring the Vote in Virginia." Here are excerpts:

Gov. Bob McDonnell of Virginia enlarged democracy on Wednesday when he announced an order requiring the automatic restoration of voting rights for nonviolent offenders who have historically had to fight through a bureaucratic maze to gain access to the polls.

Governor McDonnell’s order, which could cover more than 100,000 people, reflects a growing awareness that disenfranchisement serves no rehabilitative purpose — and may, in fact, contribute to further criminal behavior by forcing former offenders to the margins of society.

In all, nearly six million Americans — about 2.5 percent of the voting-age population — are barred from voting by a confusing patchwork of state laws that strip convicted felons of the right to vote, often temporarily, but sometimes for life.  Nearly two dozen states have softened their disenfranchisement policies since the late 1990s, with several states repealing or scaling back lifetime bans.

But the practice of barring offenders from the polls remains a pronounced and malignant problem in the South, where it was used starting in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to curtail the political power of African-Americans.  During that period, state legislatures in the South went so far as to disenfranchise citizens for what they viewed as “Negro crimes,” like theft, while exempting defendants convicted of “white crimes,” including fighting in the streets and even murder.

The burden of disenfranchisement continues to fall heavily upon blacks generally, but especially blacks in the South....

Mr. McDonnell, a Republican who was once a prosecutor, saw firsthand how disenfranchisement, combined with other obstacles, makes it harder for former offenders to forge lives outside of prison, and he has worked diligently to address the issue.

Under his order, people convicted of nonviolent felonies will have their right to vote restored if they have completed their sentences, satisfied court-ordered conditions and have no pending felony charges. Although details remain to be worked out, this important move helps restore fundamental rights for a neglected part of the population.

June 2, 2013 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack

Another notable GOP member of Congress advocating for federal sentencing reform

ChafAs regular readers know, I have been excited and heartened to see a number of notable Republican leaders speak out in favor of state sentencing reforms in the last few years.  Significant sentencing reform efforts at the state level have gotten a real boost from GOP governors like Chris Christie, Nathan Deal, Bobby Jindal and John Kasich.  Other high-profile folks on that side of the aisle ranging from Newt Gingrich to Ed Meese to David Keene to Grover Norquist have also been vocal in support of cost-saving sentencing reform efforts.  But this right-side movement has not gotten much attention or traction at the federal level, save for the recent work of Sentator Rand Paul advocating for reform of mandatory minimum sentencing provisions.

Consequently, it is now great to see that another notable GOP elected official is starting to talk up the need and opportunity for effective sentencing reforms at the federal level.  Specifically, as detailed in this lengthy new article in The Salt Lake Tribune, GOP representative Jason Chffetz is now among the Republican stalwarts urging federal sentencing reform. The article is headlined " Chaffetz unveils prison program to reduce recidivism and lower crime: Plan would put low-risk inmates in halfway houses, increase use of ankle bracelets," and here are excerpts:

Hoping to shrink the glut of low-risk federal inmates consuming tax dollars in prison, Rep. Jason Chaffetz is about to unveil a post-sentencing reform bill that would allow drug offenders and others to earn early release into halfway houses, home confinement and ankle-bracelet monitoring.

Quietly, the Utah Republican has worked Washington’s back channels for 18 months to forge bipartisan support. He insists the program — vetted by the Heritage Foundation and the ACLU — would reduce recidivism, lower crime rates and rein in spending on the federal prison system.

“There’s some really good work being done by states that we ought to learn from,” Chaffetz told The Salt Lake Tribune editorial board this week. “It’s a financial imperative, it’s a moral imperative — it just makes a lot of sense.”

The challenge, Chaffetz concedes, is assuring the political right the measure isn’t soft on crime, while convincing the left it goes far enough — short of unwinding mandatory minimum sentences. “The risk, if there is with this, is the over-simplification,” the congressman said, bemoaning bumper-sticker politics. “It does take some explanation. It does take an adult conversation to say, ‘folks, we can do this.’ ”

The proposal marks a pivot for Chaffetz, whose more partisan turns with conservative media include talk of impeaching President Barack Obama regarding recent investigations, including the embassy attack in Benghazi, Libya....

The program would work by dividing federal prisoners into high, moderate or low risks of recidivism. They would be judged by level of engagement in existing programs, holding prison jobs and participation in faith-based services and educational courses.

Low-risk inmates would earn 30 days credit per month, moderate would notch 15 days, while high-risk convicts could get eight days worth of credit. Only low-risk prisoners would be eligible for pre-release custody into a halfway house, home confinement or ankle-bracelet program. Prisoners convicted of violent felonies, terrorism, rape or a sex offense against a minor would not be considered. Neither would undocumented immigrants, an “albatross” and too touchy a topic, Chaffetz says.

The measure neither reduces minimum sentence time nor impacts Truth in Sentencing requirements. That’s because 85 percent of each federal sentence still would be completed as mandated — though some of it could be outside the prison walls....

Brett Tolman, a former U.S. attorney, remembers how inflexible the federal system seemed when a young man “who had a bad weekend” with drugs was slapped with a 35-year minimum sentence.

Then there is Utah music producer Weldon Angelos, who had no prior criminal record and now is considered a casualty of the war on drugs. Convicted in 2003 while he was in his early 20s of selling small amounts of marijuana — a witness claimed he had a gun on his side — Angelos was sentenced to 55 years under federal minimums. Cassell, the judge in the case hamstrung by the law, urged President George W. Bush to commute the sentence, calling it “unjust, cruel and irrational.”...

“We’ve got to fix the front end,” said Mary Price, vice president of the nonprofit Families Against Mandatory Minimums, which is still reviewing the Chaffetz bill. “We’re still pouring thousands of people into prison every year for sentences that are frankly too long.”

Karen McCreary, executive director of ACLU of Utah, says she too would like to see reform to mandatory minimums but is intrigued by Chaffetz’ bill. “The drug wars have made our system so full, so this is a positive,” McCreary said. “It seems like a good step in the right direction.”...

The Chaffetz proposal is modeled partly on Texas, which became the first state to complete a so-called “justice reinvestment” process, saving the state $1.5 billion in construction costs and $340 million in averted operating costs.

Tolman told the editorial board it’s time the feds learned effective prison models from states like Texas. “We’ve always been arrogant and felt that we can do things better,” Tolman said. “Either we’re so large and cumbersome that we can’t, or we’re so ignorant and stubborn that we won’t.”

Some recent and older related posts:

June 2, 2013 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

"Monitoring the Plea Process"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper by Susan Klein now avaiable via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Gideon versus Wainwright heralded a new age in American criminal prosecutions.  Indigent blacks in the South would have the same opportunity to fight felony criminal charges and receive the same sentencing discounts of favorable guilty pleas as rich white northerners, and the innocent would be accurately separated by adversarial testing from the guilty. Yet fifty years later, indigent defendants (who comprise 80% of total defendants), often get substandard counsel, and innocent individuals are rarely, but sometimes convicted or plead guilty.  Some of the blame falls squarely on the Court for settling on the contours of our current two-pronged test in Strickland versus Washington, that determines when counsel is ineffective and the defendant is accordingly prejudiced.  Some blame falls on legislators for failing to adequately fund defense counsel.  Our criminal justice evolved from an adversarial system to what Judge Lynch calls, "a defacto administrative regime". The criminal justice system is the plea bargaining system.

In this essay, the author posits that last term's Lafler versus Cooper and Missouri versus Frye gave us another chance to both police equality of sentences for the guilty, and to mandate better investigation of the underlying offense to ferret out the innocent. Information and resource disparity skews the system.  The defense bar cannot buck a system stacked so heavily against them.  Large-scale structural reform such as legislation or proper funding for defense is equally unlikely.  Plea bargaining has failed.

Professor Klein suggests that our most politically feasible hope for reform is for federal and state judges to amend the rules of criminal procedure in order to monitor and record the discovery and plea negotiation process via nonwaivable conferences.  A second proposal is for the Department of Justice and local District Attorneys' Offices to implement internal guidelines to regulate the timing and content of plea negotiations and discovery procedures.  Though the Court imposed its new Sixth Amendment duties on the defense bar, it is prosecutors who have the incentive to ensure the finality of guilty pleas and to stave off potentially harsher legislative or judicial action in this area.

June 2, 2013 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack