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February 11, 2013

Talk in Chicago of increasing mandatory minimum sentences for gun possession

Chicago gunsAs reported in this new local article from Chicago, that city's "mayor, cops and prosecutors are taking aim at Illinois’ gun possession laws — calling for longer mandatory prison terms and 'truth in sentencing'." Here are some of the details of the proposal and the sentencing debate is has started to engender:

Their wish list includes boosting the minimum required sentence for people convicted of gun possession from one year in prison to three years. They hope to increase the minimum sentence for felons caught with guns from two years to three years.

They also want everyone convicted of felony gun possession to be required to serve 85 percent of their sentences. Now those inmates must complete only half their terms — and sometimes much less after earning “good time” in prison.

Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez said the proposed reforms would deter more people from carrying guns illegally and would help curb violence. “The guys who are doing the shootings would be away from the corners for a longer time,” Alvarez said in an interview.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel, whose office drafted the legislative proposals, is expected to announce them Monday with Alvarez and other officials. “Criminals continue to escape with minor sentences for possessing and using firearms,” Emanuel said in a prepared statement.

For months, police Supt. Garry McCarthy has proposed lengthening the mandatory sentence for gun possession to three years, pointing to New York City, where he was once a high-ranking cop. The state of New York passed a 3½-year mandatory minimum sentence for illegal gun possession in 2007. The following year, NFL star Plaxico Burress was arrested after a handgun he was carrying accidentally discharged and shot him.

Burress pleaded guilty to a lesser offense and was hit with a two-year jail term, drawing national attention to New York City as a place that cracks down on illegal gun possession. Criminologists point to the mandatory gun sentence in New York as one of the reasons for the Big Apple’s continuing decline in violent crime.

Chicago — whose murder tally rose 16 percent to 506 last year — has about three times as many murders per capita as New York. Also, about 85 percent of murders in Chicago involve a gun, compared to about 60 percent in New York.

While the cops and prosecutors in charge of locking up criminals support lengthier sentences, one judge said the General Assembly — and the public — need to think hard before making the gun laws harsher. “As a taxpayer of this state, I would hope the legislators are cognizant that creating mandatory minimum sentences creates a financial consequence to the state,” said Cook County Judge Nicholas Ford.  “A lot of judges bristle at mandatory minimum sentences.  It’s not my position to question it.  It’s my job to enforce whatever the legislature forwards me.

“But for a person who’s never been convicted of a felony, for a person who’s never committed a violent crime, for a taxpayer who’s never had any problems with the law, I wonder about that,” Ford said.

Alvarez responded that few people without criminal backgrounds are charged with felony gun possession in Cook County.  “You will see that once in a while, but that is when our discretion [as prosecutors] comes into play in charging and in looking at cases once they’re in the system,” she said.

Supporters of mandatory minimum sentences say they also provide a predictable outcome. Indeed, a Chicago Sun-Times examination found wide disparities in how often Cook County judges put people behind bars for gun possession before mandatory minimum sentences fully took effect in early 2011.

Ford, for example, sentenced 42 defendants for gun possession and sent about 76 percent to prison. About 21 percent received probation and 2 percent went to boot camp. The length of his average prison sentence was almost two and a half years. Judge Michael Brown, meanwhile, sentenced 45 defendants. About half went to prison, 23 percent received community service, 18 percent probation and 5 percent boot camp. But the length of his average prison sentence was more than three years.

Overall, Cook County judges sent nearly three-quarters of such defendants to prison for an average sentence of almost two and a half years.  About 14 percent got probation, 6 percent boot camp and 4 percent community service.  The newspaper studied 2011 sentencing outcomes in felony gun possession cases that didn’t include other types of crimes.

Many of those cases involved 2010 arrests, which didn’t apply to the mandatory minimum sentences that took effect in 2011. A separate law that took effect in late 2009 requires a minimum sentence of three years for gang members convicted of carrying a loaded gun.

The Sun-Times analysis found that judges sometimes sentenced defendants to Cook County boot camp — a four-month program with eight additional months of strict supervision. Ford called boot camp a “really solid disposition” for younger defendants without a felony record or violent background.

But Alvarez said she doesn’t think judges should have the option to sentence such defendants to boot camp. “It’s not ‘pen’ time,” she said. “I think the law is clear that they should not be giving boot camp, but judges see it a different way.”

Alvarez said she’s considering discussing the matter with Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans and “seeing if there’s something we need to change legislatively — or litigate it.” As Alvarez and other politicians pursue tougher gun laws, one man convicted of illegal gun possession surprisingly said they’re right.

Matthew Munoz, 24, was arrested in 2011 after he and his pals got into a squabble with rival gang members on the South Side.... Munoz was eligible for probation because his crime happened in 2010, before the one-year mandatory minimum took effect. He was sentenced to two years’ probation, but after one year he messed up when he tried to foil a drug test.

Munoz was sent to prison. But because he got credit for time he spent in the Cook County Jail, he said he spent only one day at Stateville Correctional Center. “It’s called ‘dress in and dress out,’ ” he said.

Munoz is now on parole, which he vows to complete successfully. He plans to go to school and get a job. “Some people need prison to learn their lesson,” Munoz said. “I wish I got sent to prison a long time ago. I kept getting probation for this and that. . . . Chicago is getting out of control with the gang violence. They should send those guys to prison — even guys like me.”

As serious sentencing fans know well, and as this article helps highlight, mandatory minimum sentencing laws do not really mandate prison for all offenders.  Rather, they mostly serve to transfer the discretion as to which offenders go to prison from judges to prosecutors. 

If there is good research indicating that this transfer of discretion in the gun crime settings help to reduce illegal gun use and gun violence, I can understand why folks in Chicago and elsewhere think increased mandatory minimums should be a needed response to gun crimes and gun violence.  But, as lots of research and experience reveals in the federal system and elsewhere, having prosecutors as exercising the most sentencing discretion via mandatory minimums tends to increase sentencing disparities, not ensure that similar defendants always receive similar sentences.

Recent and older related posts:

February 11, 2013 in Gun policy and sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Second Amendment issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (16) | TrackBack

"America's prison boom is starting to fizzle"

The title of this post is the first sentence of this new Wall Street Journal article, which carries this headline and subheading: "With Fewer to Lock Up, Prisons Shut Doors: Declining Inmate Population, Partly Thanks to Softer Sentences, Spurs Some Cash-Strapped States to Close Facilities." Here are highlights:

For decades, the country had little trouble filling its ever-growing number of prisons, thanks in large part to tough-on-crime policies and harsh drug laws. But a combination of falling crime rates, softer sentences for low-level and nonviolent offenders and a dwindling appetite for hefty prison budgets has begun to whittle away at the number of people behind bars. That is allowing many states to do what a few years ago seemed unthinkable: close prisons.

Comprehensive numbers on prison closures are hard to come by. But the National Conference of State Legislatures shows that 35 adult correctional facilities in 15 states have closed in the past two years, and governors in states including Pennsylvania, New York and Illinois are pushing for more closures this year....

The closures haven't been without opposition. Corrections unions and community leaders worry about job losses and say a result could be overcrowding in the prisons that remain.

Cash-strapped states are increasingly turning to corrections budgets in search of cuts. From 1982 through 2001, state corrections budgets more than tripled to a peak of $53.5 billion, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Now, spending is 9% below that level. In Illinois, Gov. Pat Quinn, a Democrat, is aiming to close four adult and three youth corrections facilities in a bid to save the state $70 million.

It isn't clear whether the nation's total prison count is shrinking. Some states, including Pennsylvania, are consolidating old facilities into new ones rather than eliminating capacity. In recent years, private-prison operators built new facilities, though analysts say the pace of construction has slowed.

Still, there does appear to be a broader shift in the corrections system. From 1990 through 2009, the number of people in state and federal prisons more than doubled to 1.6 million, while the number of prisons rose 41% to 1,821 from 1990 through 2005, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Then, in 2010, the inmate population fell for the first time in nearly four decades. It fell again in 2011, the bureau said.

The declines have been uneven. Roughly 70% of the 2011 decline in state prison rolls was due to a massive drop in California's inmate population owing to a Supreme Court order that the state reduce overcrowding. Many of those inmates are now in county jails or other facilities. Some states, including Tennessee and Kentucky, saw their prison populations rise in 2011.

Still, several states are experiencing a meaningful drop. Florida, Texas, New York and Michigan each shed more than 1,000 prisoners in 2011. Each of those states closed prisons in the past two years....

Policy experts attribute the declines partly to measures aimed at reducing the number of nonviolent offenders behind bars. In New York, they cite the 2009 relaxation of the state's tough Rockefeller-era drug laws. Prison rolls in New York fell by nearly a quarter from a peak of 72,600 in 1999 to about 55,000 in 2011, the latest data available.

Texas closed a state prison for the first time everin August 2011. Until the closure, the state had built an average of more than three prisons a year since 1990, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. "You've got to distinguish who you're afraid of and who you're mad at. You're afraid of child molesters, murderers and rapists," said State Sen. John Whitmire, who has helped lead an overhaul of the Texas prison system. "People like low-level offenders, you're not afraid of them."...

In rural areas, which often depend on prisons for jobs, a closure can be particularly difficult. In early January, Pennsylvania officials said they planned to shut prisons in Cresson and Greensburg and replace them with a single facility near State College. "It's going to hurt the restaurants, the hardware store, every business place here is going to be affected," said Patrick Mulhern, the longtime mayor of Cresson, east of Pittsburgh. "Five hundred employees in one fell swoop — that's an awful lot."

February 11, 2013 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

February 10, 2013

"Plea Bargaining, Sentence Modifications, and the Real World"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper on SSRN by Julian A. Cook. Here is the abstract:

This article examines the 2011 Supreme Court decision in United States v. Freeman.  At issue was whether defendants, such as Freeman, who enter a guilty plea pursuant to a binding plea agreement, are entitled to seek a modification of their sentence when the guideline range applicable to their offense has subsequently been lowered by the United States Sentencing Commission.  By a five-to-four vote, the Court found that Freeman was eligible to seek a sentence reduction.  However, as the article explains, the concurring and controlling opinion of Justice Sotomayor may ultimately prove to be problematic for criminal defendants generally and for the Commission for many years to come.  In her opinion, Sotomayor suggests, in dicta, that the government can preempt future sentencing reduction claims through the insertion in plea agreements of waiver clauses. Should the Department of Justice adopt such a policy, the article warns of (and describes) the long-term adverse consequences that such a decision would have for criminal defendants and for ability of the Commission to achieve equity through guideline sentencing.

As part of its critique of Freeman, the article also explains why the Freeman Court erred in its analytical approach.  In so doing, it illuminates the real world of plea bargaining in the Freeman context, and explains why this plea negotiation truism provides a sounder, firmer, and clearer foundation to decide not only Freeman-type cases but any such case involving a sentence reduction claim.  The article also uses Freeman to highlight and correct a common misunderstanding about the nature of plea agreement contracts.  It explains why plea agreements have been erroneously construed as unilateral arrangements between the prosecution and the defendant, and why they should properly be interpreted as bilateral contracts involving three parties — the prosecution, the defendant and the court.

February 10, 2013 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Guest post on Amish sentencing: "A Travesty in Cleveland"

Experienced lawyer and federal sentencing guru Mark Allenbaugh (firm website here) attended this past Friday's high-profile federal sentencing of the Amish defendants involved in the high-profile beard-cutting attacks in northern Ohio.  I am pleased to be able to now reprint his lengthy guest-post on the sentencing proceedings:

Living in northeast Ohio, I have encountered Amish on several occasions, usually on the road behind their horse-drawn buggies, but never in a courtroom.  Yesterday I had the opportunity to sit through perhaps the most surreal sentencing I will ever encounter. Reminiscent of the movie “Witness,” the followers of Samuel Mullet, Jr. sat on the right side, with the women wearing kerchiefs, while victims and their supporters sat on the left with the women wearing bonnets — the only apparent distinction between the two groups. The men, all in similar attire, had large, solid hands, built up from years of farming, some with flecks of mud on their clothing.  They sat quiet, subdued, and unlike the “English” present, did not speak among themselves.

These obviously were simple, passive people, involved in a serious and unfortunate dispute.  A dispute that resulted in shameful and abusive conduct by Mullet and some of his followers against other Amish: beard and hair cutting, which held religious symbolism. This conduct, while criminal, was not tantamount to the seriousness reflected in the severity of the sentences handed down.   That Mullet received a 15-year sentence for ordering the assaults, and that his remaining followers received from a year-and-a-day to 7 years, which will result in effectively orphaning a few dozen children, was the most surreal part of yesterday’s sentencing.

Given the severity of the sentences the government (incredulously sought) — in Mullet’s case, life — it was surprising that statistics were not raised during the hearing.

First, 18 U.S.C. s. 249 offenses are rarely prosecuted, and despite their high-profile nature, hate crimes generally are rarely sentenced.  While the FBI reports that in 2011 there were 6,222 hate crime incidents, per the most recent U.S. Sentencing Commission datafile, there were exactly two cases involving a 249 charge in 2011, and the hate crime enhancement at 3A1.1 was applied a mere 35 times.  Likewise, section 2H1.1 of the guidelines under which Mullet and his co-defendants were sentenced was applied only 47 times last year.  Section 2A4.1, which governs kidnapping and was the ultimate guideline the court utilized for sentencing, was applied in slightly more cases: 108 out of over 86,000 cases.  In light of recent and widespread criticism regarding the guidelines lacking empirical support, it would seem that offenses rarely prosecuted and guidelines rarely utilized in such unique circumstances as these would render any sentencing range not only questionable, but plainly inapplicable.

Second, while at a considerable variance from the advisory guideline sentence of life, Mullet’s sentence still is nearly equivalent to the median sentence for murder (189 months), and far, far greater than those for manslaughter (37 months), sexual abuse (87 months), assault (27 months) and arson (50 months).  While it is close to the median sentence for kidnapping (184 months), given that this was a kidnapping in a very technical sense (much as this was only a technical hate crime), that should have given the Court considerable pause before imposing such a draconian sentence.  Is Mullet’s offense really the equivalent of a murder and more serious than manslaughter?

Finally, Mullet is 67.  A 15-year sentence still effectively is a life sentence for him.  With an already over-crowded federal prison system and growing, Mullet’s time will be even more onerous than most in light of his age and most glaringly, his cultural and religious background, will make him highly susceptible to abuse.  Further, his age will impose additional financial burdens on the BOP, with some estimates as high as $90,000 per year. Is this an appropriate use of the public fisc?

This was an awful case from every perspective.  Why the federal government thought it was appropriate to bring criminal charges under truly unique circumstances defies explanation.  Clearly, the courts of Ohio could have (and should have) addressed this matter.  The sentences handed down merely have compounded the travesty of this prosecution.  While Judge Polster did an admirable job in detailing his reasoning — especially noting the irony of the Amish defendants trampling the very Constitution that makes their lifestyle possible — but for the absurdity of a federal sentencing system that has for years encouraged the judiciary to hand out multi-year sentences as if they are candy, one wonders how Judge Polster would have sentenced unencumbered by a sentencing regime that clearly did not contemplate the facts of this case and has otherwise run amok.

The federal government not only chose to prosecute these assaults as if they were kidnappings but hate crimes.  While technically hate crimes given the religious motivation for the assaults, the assaults, which left no permanent physical injuries, certainly were nowhere of the kind the statute was intended to address, while the punishment, ironically, was.  Indeed, the hate crime statute upon which the defendants’ convictions rested — 18 U.S.C. s. 249 — was enacted as part of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009.  Both Shepard and Byrd were the victims of the most atrocious and violent hate crimes in recent memory — Shepard tortured and left to die tied to a fence in Wyoming because of his sexual orientation, and Byrd gruesomely dragged to his death and decapitated behind a pick-up because of his race.  Sentencing these Amish assaults as if they were equivalent to the offenses suffered by Shepard and Byrd is an affront to their memories.  Hopefully the Sixth Circuit will rectify this manifest injustice.

Related posts:

February 10, 2013 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (39) | TrackBack

District judge rejects too sweet federal plea deal for long-time fraudster in Pennsylvania

A helpful reader sent along this interesting local article from Pennsylvania, eadlined "Rosetti plea rejected by judge," reports on a case in which a federal judge took the usual step of rejecting a plea deal as too lenient. Here are the details:

In a strong rebuke calling for "just punishment," a federal judge has rejected the plea agreement made by Fred Rosetti, Ed.D., former executive director of the Northeastern Educational Intermediate Unit.   The deal, which called for 12 to 18 months in prison, is not appropriate for the "defendant's longstanding, pervasive and wide-ranging criminal activities," U.S. District Judge Robert D. Mariani wrote in his order.

Dr. Rosetti, who is accused of intentionally failing to record sick and vacation days, creating false travel vouchers and ordering employees to do personal tasks for him, now has the option of withdrawing his plea and going to trial or keeping his plea and letting the judge determine his sentence.  He could also try to negotiate a new plea agreement.

"The sentence proposed by the plea agreement, as well as the agreement's other terms, do not reflect the seriousness of the offense, do not promote respect for the law and do not provide just punishment for the offense," Judge Mariani's order states.

In October, Dr. Rosetti pleaded guilty to theft and mail fraud charges in a plea deal with prosecutors that called for 12 to 18 months of imprisonment and restitution of $120,000....  A presentence investigation report completed earlier this month and prepared by the United States Probation Office "describes a 12-year pattern of abuse of public trust and executive authority for private gain."

The report, which is not available to the public but part of which is detailed in Judge Mariani's order, describes how Dr. Rosetti intentionally failed to document time off from the NEIU, in the form of vacation, personal and sick leave.  For every day he did not record, he received a larger payout....

Other actions described in the order include ... 127 fraudulent travel vouchers, which Dr. Rosetti created or ordered employees to create, at a cost of $18,106.75.  Dr. Rosetti threatened employees with the loss of their jobs if they did not oblige....

The presentence report indicates the loss to the NEIU totals $137,944.13, but the plea agreement calls for restitution of $120,000.  The difference is significant because the amount could lead to a stricter sentence under federal sentencing guidelines that call for 27 to 33 months in prison....

The report also details the defendant's attempt to "obstruct or impede the administration of justice." Dr. Rosetti has been on home confinement since contacting witnesses this spring and subsequently spent 12 nights in jail....

When Dr. Rosetti was indicted in February 2012, prosecutors said that if convicted of the most serious charges, he could have faced 10 years in prison, a $250,000 fine and the forfeiture of $240,000, the contents of two bank accounts and his Archbald home. Dr. Rosetti originally faced 13 counts of fraud, theft and money laundering.  The plea agreement Judge Mariani rejected called for Dr. Rosetti to plead guilty on two counts: Count 1, mail fraud relating to a package delivered at NEIU expense; and Count 8, theft concerning programs receiving federal funds....

A hearing has been scheduled for Feb. 21 to inform Dr. Rosetti of his options and give him an opportunity to withdraw his plea.  If he does not withdraw his plea, a sentencing hearing is scheduled for March 5.  Judge Mariani would then determine Dr. Rosetti's punishment.

The District Court's 11-page order explaining its ruling is available at this link.

February 10, 2013 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Top Texas criminal court to hear case on Miller retroactivity

Over at Grits for Breakfast, Scott Henson has this helpful post reporting on the recent decision by the top criminal appeals court in Texas to consider the application of Miller in the Lone Start state.  Here is how the post gets started:

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals this week agreed to hear arguments in Ex Parte Terrell to determine whether the Supreme Court's Miller v. Alabama — a case which banned life without parole (LWOP) sentences for juveniles if lesser options weren't offered — applies retroactively in Texas.   As I understand it, around 28 Texas prisoners convicted of capital murder at age 17 since 2005 find themselves in that category: That's when the Legislature eliminated life without parole for juveniles 16 and under who, when convicted of capital murder, are now eligible for parole after 40 years.

For 17-year olds, though, who are tried as adults, there is presently no legal sentence available under Texas law. A 2005 statute made the death penalty and LWOP the only available sentences for adults convicted of capital murderers, and for purposes of trying to kill them or incarcerate them for life, at least, Texas treats 17 year olds as adults.  Or they were until the Supreme Court said that, for the most extreme sentencing purposes, they belonged in the juvenile category.  The SCOTUS ruling prompted state courts, now including Texas, to reconsider their old juvie LWOP sentences, and the results have been all over the map.  In Texas, this will be a case of first impression.

February 10, 2013 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack