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May 6, 2017

"Designed to Fail: The President's Deference to the Department of Justice in Advancing Criminal Justice Reform"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Rachel Barkow and Mark Osler now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

One puzzle of President Obama’s presidency is why his stated commitment to criminal justice reform was not matched by actual progress.  We argue that the Obama Administration’s failure to accomplish more substantial reform, even in those areas that did not require congressional action, was largely rooted in an unfortunate deference to the Department of Justice.  In this Article, we document numerous examples (in sentencing, clemency, compassionate release, and forensic science) of the Department resisting commonsense criminal justice reforms that would save taxpayer dollars, help reduce mass incarceration, and maintain public safety.

These examples and basic institutional design theory both point in the same direction: real criminal justice reform requires putting the right institutions in charge of criminal justice policymaking.  This Article offers institutional changes that would help future presidents make the system less punitive and reduce prison populations to achieve the broad transformation that Obama desired but did not attain.  A critical move is to place criminal justice policymaking in the hands of individuals who can advise the president independent of the institutional interests of prosecutors.

May 6, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (21)

May 5, 2017

Might Prez Trump conduct something of a federal "drug war" retreat through major budget cuts?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable new CBS News article headlined "Trump administration proposes massive cuts to Drug Czar office."  Here are the details:

The Trump administration is looking to slash the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) budget by nearly 95 percent, according to a memo obtained by CBS News.  The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has proposed major ONDCP budget cuts for fiscal year 2018 that would cut 33 employees, nearly half the office staff, along with intelligence, research and budget functions at the agency, as well as the Model State Drug Laws and Drug Court grant programs....

The document also zeroes out funding to a number of grant programs including the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas (HIDTA) program and the Drug-free Communities Support Program.  These grants are "duplicative of other efforts across the Federal government and supplant State and local responsibilities," the memo states.

HIDTA serves as a catalyst for coordination among federal state and local enforcement entities, and funds task forces in 49 states across the country.  It is considered a vital tool used by law enforcement agencies to go after very high profile drug dealers and conduct in-depth interagency investigations.  The drug free communities support program is the nation's largest drug prevention program and funds 5,000 local anti-drug community coalitions across the country.  This program has also enjoyed broad bipartisan support.

President Donald Trump signed an Executive Order last month to create a presidential commission to tackle the national opioid [crisis], chaired by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.  The Order stated that the ONDCP would be providing support for the Commission.  "I have been encouraged by the Administration's commitment to addressing the opioid epidemic, and the President's personal engagement on the issue, both during the campaign and since he was sworn into office," the ONDCP's Acting Director, Richard Baum, wrote in an office-wide email. "However, since OMB's proposed cuts are also at odds with the fact that the President has tasked us with supporting his Commission on Combatting drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis."

"These drastic proposed cuts are frankly heartbreaking, and if carried out, would cause us to lose many good people who contribute greatly to ONDCP's mission and core activities," Baum wrote.

The staff was notified of the cuts Friday after Baum and top aides were notified of the draconian cuts last Thursday.  According to a source familiar with the discussions, Baum has been in close contact with Jared Kushner, who heads up the White House Office of American Innovation.  Baum had hoped to convince the Office of American Innovation that the ONDCP is an essential tool in combatting the opioid epidemic. The discussions did not go as planned.

"The budget process is a complex one with many moving parts," The White House said in a statement to CBS. "It would be premature for us to comment - or anyone to report - on any aspect of this ever-changing, internal discussion before the publication of the document. The President and his cabinet are working collaboratively to create a leaner, more efficient government that does more with less of tax payers' hard-earned dollars."

Due in part of some of the rhetoric used by both Prez Trump and Attorney General Sessions, there has been much talk and consternation about the prospect of the Trump Administration ramping up the federal drug war. But if these significant budget cuts become a reality, it is quite possible that the Trump Administration would be functionally doing a lot more to pull back on the drug war in his first Term than did President Obama during his first Term.

UPDATE: This new CBS News article, headlined "White House dismisses concerns over steep potential cuts to 'Drug Czar' office," includes new statements from White House officials suggesting any ONDCP cuts would not signal a drug war retreat as well as some informed reaction to the budget cutting talk:

A senior administration official suggested that if the White House decided to strip ONDCP of its agency mandate to coordinate collaboration between federal and local law enforcement and public health organizations, transitioning it into an office like the National Security Council or National Economic Council. The official said cuts would "by no means signal the commitment to winning the war on drugs is lessened." The senior administration official pointed to dozens of drug programs across many federal agencies as evidence that the White House is committed to anti-drug efforts, even if the ONDCP loses its ability to issue grants.

But Rafael Lemaitre, a former top spokesman for the ONDCP, countered that the reason the ONDCP was created in the first place was to coordinate these programs into one comprehensive strategy for the president. "Creating chaos at ONDCP or eliminating the agency will mean that each of the bureaucrats who run each those long list of programs and are spread out across government will have no single point of contact or direction to follow," Lemaitre said. "Efforts will be duplicated. Presidential priorities won't be followed. Ineffective programs will continue."...

Scores of former government officials, doctors, community based organizations, law enforcement officials and officials at drug treatment and prevention programs agree. In a letter to senior White House adviser Reed Cordish, dozens called on the White House to maintain ONDCP's funding and strong national influence.

"As we have written before, ONDCP brings essential expertise to the table on complex drug issues, expertise that would otherwise be missing or dispersed across multiple agencies," the letter states. "ONDCP holds all federal, state, and local agencies accountable for achieving specific goals to reduce drug trafficking, use, and other consequences."

Kevin Sabet, the head of Smart Approaches to Marijuana and a three-time ONDCP adviser who distributed the letter, did not mince words. "To slash anti-drug finding during this opiate and marijuana crisis is exactly the wrong move at the wrong time," he said. 

May 5, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (16)

"Mass Monitoring"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Avlana Eisenberg and now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Business is booming for criminal justice monitoring technology: these days “ankle bracelet” refers as often to an electronic monitor as to jewelry.  Indeed, the explosive growth of electronic monitoring (“EM”) for criminal justice purposes — a phenomenon which this Article terms “mass monitoring” — is among the most overlooked features of the otherwise well-known phenomenon of mass incarceration.

This Article addresses the fundamental question of whether EM is punishment.  It finds that the origins and history of EM as a progressive alternative to incarceration — a punitive sanction — support characterization of EM as punitive, and that EM comports with the goals of dominant punishment theories.  Yet new uses of EM have complicated this narrative.  The Article draws attention to the expansion of EM both as a substitute for incarceration and as an added sanction, highlighting the analytic importance of what it terms the “substitution/addition distinction.”  The Article argues that, as a punitive sanction, EM can be justified when used as a substitute for incarceration, but that its use as an added sanction may result in excessive punishment and raises significant constitutional and policy concerns.

The Article’s findings have crucial implications for hotly contested questions over whether monitoring can be imposed retroactively and whether pretrial house arrest plus monitoring (which resembles the post-conviction use of monitoring as a substitute for incarceration) should count toward time served.  The Article provides a framework for addressing these questions and, at the same time, offers practical policy guidance that will enable courts and policymakers to ensure that EM programs are genuinely a cost-saving, progressive substitute for incarceration rather than another destructive expansion of government control.

May 5, 2017 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Technocorrections | Permalink | Comments (4)

Stories of severe federal sentences and the judges forced to impose them

Two different news sources this morning have these two equally interesting pieces about federal sentencing practices and federal judges struggling with their sentencing responsibilities:

May 5, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

May 4, 2017

"The Use of Risk Assessment at Sentencing: Implications for Research and Policy"

The title of this post is the title of this paper authored by Jordan Hyatt and Steven Chanenson recently posted to SSRN. Here is the abstract:

At-sentencing risk assessments are predictions of an individual’s statistically likely future criminal conduct.  These assessments can be derived from a number of methodologies ranging from unstructured clinical judgment to advanced statistical and actuarial processes.  Some assessments consider only correlates of criminal recidivism, while others also take into account criminogenic needs.  Assessments of this nature have long been used to classify defendants for treatment and supervision within prisons and on community supervision, but they have only relatively recently begun to be used — or considered for use — during the sentencing process.  This shift in application has raised substantial practical and policy challenges and questions.

This paper, supported by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance, directly addresses these issues and provides information and examples from a range of jurisdictions, including some which have integrated at-sentencing risk assessment programs in place or are in the process of doing so.  Derived from a survey of judges, as well as a series of interviews with stakeholders from across the nation, opportunities for future research and planning to guide the cautious engagement with at-sentencing risk assessment are identified.

May 4, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Will Rod Rosenstein serve as a check on the attorney general, or will he tolerate his boss’s unabashed cheerleading for Trump?"

UntitledThe loaded question in the title of this post is the subheadline of this interesting new Slate piece by Leon Neyfakh with the main headline "The Man Who Could Stop Jeff Sessions." The piece is an extended profile of the fellow who was recently officially confirmed by the Senate to be the second-in-command at the US Justice Department. Here is part of the piece:

Rod Rosenstein — who joined the DOJ in 1990 as a trial attorney in the public-integrity section of the criminal division and most recently spent 12 years as the U.S. attorney for Maryland — is known in legal circles as a consummate professional who has never allowed politics to interfere with his decision-making.  The new deputy attorney general was, famously, the only U.S. attorney appointed by George W. Bush who was asked to stay on by Barack Obama — a merit badge that suggests he has been consistently even-handed in dealing with people from both sides of the aisle.  It’s a reputation that has attached itself to Rosenstein like a very flattering glue. Practically every profile of him includes words like apolitical, principled, and independent.  At his confirmation hearing in March, Maryland Sens. Chris Van Hollen and Ben Cardin called him, respectively, a “fair and focused administrator of justice” and a prosecutor who has conducted himself in “a totally nonpartisan, professional manner.”

In his new job overseeing the DOJ’s day-to-day operations, the 52-year-old Rosenstein is expected to bring a degree of normalcy and structure to an agency that, three months into Trump’s presidency, remains severely understaffed at its top levels. The extent to which he is allowed to assert his principles in running the department — and the extent to which he’s able to exert influence over the attorney general — will be a huge factor in determining what kinds of actions the DOJ takes under Trump and Sessions.

The differences between how Rosenstein and Sessions think about the Justice Department’s role in the federal government are manifest. Where the former seems to buy into an idealized vision of the agency as a nonpartisan instrument of pure law enforcement, Sessions has already demonstrated a gleeful willingness to align himself and his agency with the Trump administration....  Sessions is, of course, a key member of Trump’s cabinet. He was also an enthusiastic adviser to the Trump campaign back when he was a senator and was the first member of Congress to endorse him during the Republican primaries. On account of that history, and his well-established ideological kinship with Trump, Sessions’ continuing closeness to the president makes sense.  And yet there are good reasons to be concerned about a sitting attorney general who is unapologetically loyal to the president.

“There is an inherent tension in the role of attorney general,” said Michael Vatis, who served in the office of the deputy attorney general from 1994 to 1998. “Just like every other cabinet member, he is a political appointee who is supposed to be working the president’s agenda, but at the same time, it’s important for him to maintain a sense of independence from the White House, because inevitably, the Justice Department and the people who work under the AG are going to have to conduct investigations … that have some political element to them.” For those investigations to have credibility, Vatis continued, “you can’t have people in the country thinking … the investigation is not going to be conducted fairly, because the AG is just going to look out for the president’s political interests.”...

For many career lawyers at the DOJ, as well as alumni who have been watching the Trump administration’s manhandling of their beloved agency with increasing horror, Rosenstein’s hiring is a reason to feel cautiously optimistic about the agency’s future.  “He’s a career DOJ guy,” said one agency staffer, speaking on condition of anonymity. “The career people and the long-termers view him as a known quantity.  If they don’t know him personally, they know people who do.  If I had to surmise what the rest of the department thinks, I would guess they’re thinking, ‘OK, this is someone we can work with.’ ”

How much power will Rosenstein have as deputy attorney general? Potentially a great deal. “Obviously the attorney general is the final decision-maker and the visionary for the department. He’s in charge. … But the DAG’s office is essentially the nucleus of the department.  It’s where major litigation is overseen, and it’s where policy initiatives are led,” said Mónica Ramírez Almadani, who served in the DAG's office during the Obama administration....

The fact that Rosenstein himself seems to take great pride in his professionalism and independence raises the question of how he will respond when his boss engages in the kind of actions the administration’s critics see as inappropriately political.  How far will he be willing to go, for instance, to defend the scores of police chiefs around the country who have argued that the immigration crackdown Sessions is demanding will impede their ability to effectively fight crime?  This is what current and former DOJ alumni are waiting to find out: Will Rosenstein serve as any kind of check on the new regime — someone who will tame Sessions’ most aggressive political instincts and push for greater distance between the DOJ and the White House — or will he fall in line and tolerate Sessions’ unabashed cheerleading for Trump?...

“I don’t know how much influence he’ll have on Sessions,” said Richard Jerome, who worked in the associate attorney general’s office from 1997 to 2001. “[Sessions is] a pretty strong personality, he’s certainly not new to Washington, and he has his own views. There’s not much that’s going to change his approach.”

One important factor to consider is that Sessions probably doesn’t believe that “politicization” of the DOJ is the unforgivable sin that many liberals make it out to be. Indeed, it’s fair to argue that the agency is by definition political and has always been in alignment with the administration it exists to serve.  Pretending otherwise, according to this line of thinking, is a form of naïveté: While most people agree that the DOJ should be “nonpartisan” in the sense that a Republican-led agency shouldn’t make it its mission to go after Democrats, the notion that someone like Sessions should try to suppress or hide his ideological priors is a nonstarter.  It’s not clear that it’s even possible for the Sessions DOJ to create distance between itself and the White House, considering that the ideas Sessions believes in most fervently — deporting illegal immigrants, reducing drug use through incarceration, and reducing federal scrutiny of local police departments — are the same ones Trump ran on as a candidate, and has embraced as president....

Still, the AG and the president can be on the same page ideologically without becoming so closely aligned that doing right by the administration becomes more important than doing what’s right.  This is the true meaning of “independence” — and in Rosenstein, Sessions has a deputy whose career has been defined by a belief in its importance. Let’s see if he continues to uphold that belief while working in Sessions’ shadow.

May 4, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8)

The Sentencing Project reports on "America’s Increasing Use of Life and Long-Term Sentences"

The Sentencing Project yesterday released this significant new report titled "Still Life: America’s Increasing Use of Life and Long-Term Sentences." Here is its introduction:

The number of people serving life sentences in U.S. prisons is at an all-time high. Nearly 162,000 people are serving a life sentence -- one of every nine people in prison.  An additional 44,311 individuals are serving “virtual life” sentences of 50 years or more. Incorporating this category of life sentence, the total population serving a life or virtual life sentence reached 206,268 in 2016.  This represents 13.9 percent of the prison population, or one of every seven people behind bars. A mix of factors has led to the broad use of life sentences in the United States, placing it in stark contrast to practices in other nations.

Every state and the federal government allow prison sentences that are so long that death in prison is presumed.  This report provides a comprehensive profile of those living in this deep end of the justice system. Our analysis provides current figures on people serving life with parole (LWP) and life without parole (LWOP) as well as a category of long-term prisoner that has not previously been quantified: those serving “virtual” or de facto life sentences.  Even though virtual life sentences can extend beyond the typical lifespan, because the sentences are not legally considered life sentences, traditional counts of life-sentenced prisoners have excluded them until now.

KEY FINDINGS

• As of 2016, there were 161,957 people serving life sentences, or one of every nine people in prison.

• An additional 44,311 individuals are serving “virtual life” sentences, yielding a total population of life and virtual life sentences at 206,268 – or one of every seven people in prison.

• The pool of people serving life sentences has more than quadrupled since 1984.The increase in the LWOP population has far outpaced the changes in the LWP population.

• There are 44,311 people serving prison sentences that are 50 years or longer. In Indiana, Louisiana, and Montana, more than 11 percent of the prison population is serving a de facto life sentence.

• Nearly half (48.3%) of life and virtual life-sentenced individuals are African American, equal to one in five black prisoners overall.

• Nearly 12,000 people have been sentenced to life or virtual life for crimes committed as juveniles; of these over 2,300 were sentenced to life without parole.

• More than 17,000 individuals with an LWP, LWOP, or virtual life sentence have been convicted of nonviolent crimes.

• The United States incarcerates people for life at a rate of 50 per 100,000, roughly equivalent to the entire incarceration rates of the Scandinavian nations of Denmark, Finland, and Sweden.

May 4, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (6)

South Carolina Supreme Court rejects constitutional challenge to juve sex offender's mandatory lifetime registration/monitoring

Yesterday the South Carolina Supreme Court handed down an opinion in In the Interest of Justin B., No. 27716 (S. Ct. May 3, 2017) (available here), unanimously rejecting the contention that "mandatory imposition of lifetime registration and electronic monitoring on juveniles is unconstitutional."  The relatively short opinion is a bit curious because, after reviewing a bunch of previous rulings in which it had "upheld the constitutionality of the mandatory lifetime sex offender registry requirement with electronic monitoring for adults and juveniles," the opinion does not discuss Graham or Miller but does confront and reject the juvenile's assertion that the constitutional analysis should "yield a different result under the reasoning of Roper v. Simmons."

Roper is, indisputably, a relevant precedent if and when a juvenile offender is arguing against mandatory imposition of lifetime registration and electronic monitoring.  But, in my view, the more recent precedents of Graham and Miller are even more critical and central to mounting an Eighth Amendment argument against any mandatory lifetime sanction for a juvenile offender. (As noted in this prior post, more than five years ago the Ohio Supreme Court relied heavily on Graham to find unconstitutional a mandatory lifetime registration requirement for juvenile sex offenders.)

In the end, I do not think engagement with Graham and Miller would have made any real difference to the South Carolina Supreme Court.  As this conclusion to the opinion highlights, that court has long deemed registration and monitoring to be civil non-punitive provisions that are not really subject to traditional constitutional limits on punishment:

The requirement that adults and juveniles who commit criminal sexual conduct must register as a sex offender and wear an electronic monitor is not a punitive measure, and the requirement bears a rational relationship to the Legislature's purpose in the Sex Offender Registry Act to protect our citizens — including children — from repeat sex offenders.  The requirement, therefore, is not unconstitutional.  If the requirement that juvenile sex offenders must register and must wear an electronic monitor is in need of change, that decision is to be made by the Legislature — not the courts.  The decision of the family court to follow the mandatory, statutory requirement to impose lifetime sex offender registration and electronic monitoring on Justin B. is AFFIRMED

May 4, 2017 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (16)

May 3, 2017

PBS Frontline covers the impact of Miller via "Second Chance Kids"

Pbs-frontline-merged-logoAs detailed via this posting, the PBS series Frontline premiered a new documentary last night titled Second Chance Kids. Here is a kind of preview from the posting:

What happens when prisoners convicted of murder as teenagers are given the chance to re-enter society? In the wake of Miller v. Alabama — the 2012 Supreme Court ruling that found mandatory life sentences without the chance of parole for juveniles unconstitutional — some 2,000 offenders across the country are hoping to find out.

With unique access, the new FRONTLINE documentary, Second Chance Kids, follows the cases of two of the first juvenile lifers in the country to seek parole following the landmark ruling — including Anthony Rolon of Massachusetts.

At age 17, Rolon stabbed 20-year-old Bobby Botelho to death. He was given life without parole during the country’s crackdown on so-called juvenile “superpredators” — teenagers who were labeled violent, dangerous and incapable of change. The theory, which was popularized by academics and embraced by Democrats and Republicans alike, resulted in disproportionately extreme sentencing of black and Latino youths.

As the documentary explores, the “superpredator” theory has now largely been discredited and disavowed. And a series of Supreme Court rulings, relying heavily on developmental science, has said that the personal circumstances of teenage offenders must be taken into account when they’re sentenced. The court has also ruled that many of them should have the chance to prove they’ve changed.

In the above excerpt from Second Chance Kids, go inside the parole hearing that will decide Rolon’s fate. Watch as Rolon and his legal team plead for his release after 18 years, and as Botelho’s family argues against it.

As juvenile offenders across the country await their potential re-sentencing, the documentary asks tough questions about crime and punishment in America, and what happens when some offenders are given a second chance.

The PSB website allows one to watch the documentary in full, and it also has these two companion articles:

"They Were Sentenced as “Superpredators.” Who Were They Really?"

"How Brain Science Is Changing How Long Teens Spend in Prison"

May 3, 2017 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (9)

"The Eighth Amendment's Milieu: Penal Reform in the Late Eighteenth Century"

The title of this post is the title of this paper by Erin Braatz recently posted to SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Conflicting interpretations of the history of the “cruel and unusual punishments” clause of the Eighth Amendment play a significant role in seemingly never-ending debates within the Supreme Court over the scope of that Amendment’s application.  These competing histories have at their cores some conception of the specific punishments deemed acceptable at the time of the Amendment’s adoption.  These narrow accounts fail, however, to seriously engage with the broader history of penal practice and reform in the eighteenth century.  This is a critical deficiency as the century leading up to the adoption of the Eighth Amendment was a period in which penal practices underwent numerous changes and reforms.

This Article closely examines the experiments in penal reform that occurred in the American colonies immediately following the Revolution to elucidate what the Founding Generation thought about penal form, how and why it might change, and its relationship to the creation of the American republic.  It argues that these penal reform movements, which have been ignored in discussions of the Eighth Amendment, were well known during the founding era. Furthermore, the salience of these reform movements at the time demonstrates a persistent concern among the Founders with adopting a more enlightened or civilized penal code in order to distinguish the American republic from monarchical practices in England and Europe.  Foregrounding the content of both the experiments themselves and the debates over penal practice, they reflect yields important and previously unrecognized insights for our understanding of the Eighth Amendment’s meaning and its import at the time it was drafted.

This Article helps illuminate current debates over the interpretation and application of the Eighth Amendment, including the use of international comparisons, the idea of evolution or progress, and the concept of proportionality. It also exposes significant gaps and limitations in the historical accounts relied upon by the Court to date.

May 3, 2017 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Recommended reading, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

May 2, 2017

After his guilty plea to a civil rights offense, what federal guideline range and ultimate sentence will Michael Slager face for killing Walter Scott?

As reported in this ABC News piece, "police officer Michael Slager pleaded guilty today to a federal civil rights offense in the shooting death of unarmed black man Walter Scott, bringing a conclusion to the case two years after the police shooting was caught on video by a bystander."  Here are more of the case processing basics: 

Slager pleading guilty to violating Scott's civil rights in federal court this afternoon will end the federal case against him and also resolve the state charges that were still pending after a mistrial was declared in the state murder trial last year. Slager's mother and Scott's mother both wept in court as the 35-year old former cop was led away in handcuffs.

Slager, dressed in a gray suit, said very little, answering "yes" to each of the judge's questions about whether he was aware of the various rights he was surrendering.  Slager's attorney, Andrew Savage, said in a statement before court, "We hope that Michael’s acceptance of responsibility will help the Scott family as they continue to grieve their loss."...

Slager, who is white, was accused of killing Scott, an unarmed black man, at a traffic stop on April 4, 2015, while Slager was an officer with North Charleston's police department.  Video that surfaced shortly after the encounter appears to show the moment Slager fatally shot Scott as he ran away. The video garnered national attention, propelling Slager into the spotlight.  He was fired from the force after the shooting.

Slager was charged in South Carolina with murder and pleaded not guilty.  The case ended in a mistrial in December 2016 and the retrial was expected to take place this year.  The federal trial had been expected to take place later this month.  The Justice Department said in a statement today that, according to documents filed in connection with the guilty plea, Slager "willfully used deadly force on Walter Scott even though it was objectively unreasonable under the circumstances."...

Slager has not yet been sentenced and the sentence is at the discretion of the judge, Wilson said. Slager faces a maximum sentence of life in prison for the federal civil rights violation as well as a potential $250,000 fine, the Department of Justice said.

For those thinking about the sentence that Slager can and will face, the plea agreement put together in the case foreshadows some of the likely guidelines action. Specifically, here is what Section 5 of the plea agreement says (with my emphasis added):

The parties request that the Court apply the United States Sentencing Guidelines (Guidelines) to calculate the applicable sentence and impose a sentence consistent with the Guidelines and 18 U.S.C. § 3553. The defendant agrees to waive all constitutional challenges to the validity of the Guidelines.  The defendant understands and acknowledges that the Court will find, by a preponderance of the evidence, the facts used to determine the offense level and, that in making its findings, the Court may consider any reliable evidence, including hearsay. Nothing in this section prevents the parties from filing objections to the Presentence Report prepared by the United States Probation Office, or from arguing the application of specific sections of the Guidelines.  The parties agree that the Court will determine the final Guideline range.  The parties understand that this Plea Agreement binds the parties only and does not bind the Court. The defendant understands that the government will advocate for the Court to apply the guidelines for Second Degree Murder and Obstruction of Justice, and reserves the right to seek a guidelines sentence, up to and including a sentence of life imprisonment.   The defendant reserves the right to advocate for any sentence he deems appropriate and the right to request a downward departure and/or downward variance.

Based on my understanding of this bolded sentence, it would appear the government will advocate for these basic guideline calculations: base level of 38 (for 2d degree murder) + 2 (for obstruction) - 3 (for acceptance of responsibility) = offense level of at least 37.  (I say "at least" 37 for the offense level because some victim-related or other chapter 3 enhancements might be deemed applicable, and the last part of this bolded sentence hints that the government may think other enhancements are applicable.) 

At offense level 37, Slager as a first offender would be looing at a guideline range of 210 to 262 month (17.5 to 21.8 years).  Arguably, the bolded language would preclude the government from seeking a departure or variance above whatever is determined to be the calculated guideline range.  And one can reasonably expect Slager and his defense team will seek a downward departure or variance, though what exact sentence the defense will seek is an interesting issue to watch as sentencing approaches.

May 2, 2017 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (21)

Florida legislative debate provides interesting sign of the modern mandatory-minimum drug sentencing times

This new local article from Florida, headlined "Steube bill aimed at curbing overdoses sparks drug sentencing debate," highlights how legislators even in traditionally "tough" states are starting to have much more nuanced discussions about mandatory minimum sentencing proposals. Here are the interesting details:

Legislation aimed at tackling the opioid epidemic in Florida sparked a debate about mandatory minimum drug sentences in the state Senate Tuesday, prompting an amendment that put the measure sponsored by two Southwest Florida lawmakers in jeopardy.

Rep. Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton, and Sen. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, have been pushing a bill that would establish penalties for the possession of large amounts of fentanyl — a powerful synthetic opioid often laced with heroin — and its many derivatives.  Manatee and Sarasota counties were the top two communities in the state for fentanyl-related deaths per capita in 2015, according to the Florida Medical Examiners Commission.  Fentanyl was responsible for 911 deaths across Florida in 2015, and continues to be a major health crisis across the state.

But mandatory minimum drug sentences have come under increasing scrutiny nationwide and there is bipartisan concern in the Florida Legislature about what many lawmakers view as overly harsh sentencing laws.  The fentanyl bill — with the mandatory minimums included — already has passed the House, but both Republicans and Democrats in the Senate took aim at the sentencing aspect of the bill Tuesday.

The Senate amended the bill — over Steube’s objections — to strip out the mandatory minimums, which included at least three years in jail for possession of between four and 14 grams, at least 15 years for possession of between 14 and 28 grams and at least 25 years for possession of more than 28 grams. That amendment may kill the bill. Boyd does not seem inclined to push for it now, saying in a text message: “I don’t believe the bill deals with this deadly opioid problem” as amended.

Boyd said if the House takes up the Senate bill he would seek to strip off the sentencing amendment. But that likely would keep it from clearing the Senate. Steube noted that the amended legislation still makes possession of large amounts of fentanyl a crime for the first time.  “We’re still taking — in my opinion — a good step in the right direction,” Steube said of the amended bill.

The Senate debate showed the appetite within the chamber for criminal justice reform, an issue that has been championed by Republican Senate President Joe Negron.

Some lawmakers argued that any reforms tackling mandatory minimum sentences should be done in a comprehensive way and that the fentanyl bill was not the right place to start the discussion. “I have some concerns about how we have these bills come along and we put minimum mandatories on them every year,” said Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island. But Bradley added that the Senate needs to have a “global discussion” about the issue and argued against the amendment.

Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, countered that “it’s the right conversation to have because minimum mandatories don’t work in my opinion.”  Judges need to have discretion over when to crack down and when to show leniency added Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs. Tough drug sentencing laws can destroy lives, he said.

Steube said he is sympathetic to concerns about mandatory minimums but believes reform efforts should start with a drug such as marijuana that is not deadly.  “I certainly didn’t want this bill to be the bill that’s talked about,” he said.

The amendment was proposed by Sen. Randolph Bracy, one of the few Democrats in the chamber to chair a committee.  The Orlando lawmaker was not expecting the amendment to generate such a robust debate.  He hopes to address the issue of mandatory minimums in a broad way in his committee next year.

May 2, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

"Tell the Client's Story: Mitigation in Criminal and Death Penalty Cases"

263155631_Def_LThe title of this post is the title of this notable new collection of essays edited by Edward Monahan and James Clark and produced by ABA Book Publishing.  Here is a description from the ABA website:

Tell the Client's Story provides litigation teams the best strategies for effective mitigation work in criminal and capital cases.  Top mitigation experts from across the nation with demonstrated practice wisdom will help readers to successfully litigate complex criminal cases.  The book also utilizes significant legal, social science, and behavioral science research findings that will inform practitioners on multi-disciplinary approaches to crafting courtroom strategy.  Using practical case studies, surveys, checklists, and appendices that are grounded in multi-professional scientific and clinical literatures, this book will give readers approaches to cogently and persuasively present mitigation evidence to decision makers.  In addition to understanding the law and ethics of mitigation, you will learn how to:

• Develop consistent arguments for life imprisonment -- rather than death -- and mitigated sentences in other criminal cases through effective storytelling and theme-building;

• Build productive relationships with clients, witnesses, and experts;

• Utilize the Capital Jury Project's empirical findings for successful jury selection and persuasion;

• Develop robust case theories;

• Collect and organize information crucial for compelling mitigation;

• Create a winning mitigation team and employ the cutting-edge methodology of structured case review;

• Proactively manage media coverage for positive mitigation outcomes, and

• Effectively present mitigation evidence at pretrial, voir dire, and penalty phases.

This book will benefit seasoned defense professionals, while also providing crucial guidance for attorneys and other professionals with limited or no experience in mitigation techniques.

May 2, 2017 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

US Justice Department releases "data on incarcerated aliens"

I just received notice of this new Department of Justice press release titled "Pursuant to Executive Order on Public Safety, Department of Justice Releases Data on Incarcerated Aliens." Here are excerpts:

President Trump’s Executive Order on Public Safety in the Interior of the United States requires the Department of Justice to collect relevant data and provide quarterly reports on data collection efforts. The data in this release shows a significant prison population of incarcerated aliens.

“Illegal aliens who commit additional crimes in the United States are a threat to public safety and a burden on our criminal justice system,” said Attorney General Jeff Sessions. “This is why we must secure our borders through a wall and effective law enforcement, and we must strengthen cooperation between federal, state and local governments as we strive to fulfill our sacred duty of protecting and serving the American people.”

Below is a summary of data collected under Section 16 of the Order, which directs “the Secretary [of Homeland Security] and the Attorney General . . . to collect relevant data and provide quarterly reports” regarding the following subjects: (a) the immigration status of all aliens incarcerated under the supervision of the Bureau of Prisons; (b) the immigration status of all aliens incarcerated as federal pretrial detainees; and (c) the immigration status of all convicted aliens in state prisons and local detention centers throughout the United States....

By way of satisfying the department’s first quarterly report of this data, below is information regarding aliens currently incarcerated under the supervision of BOP. This data is current as of March 25, 2017:

There are 45,493 foreign-born inmates currently in BOP custody, of which 3,939 are U.S. citizens (either naturalized or derivative). Of the remaining 41,554 foreign-born inmates (aliens):

  • Approximately 22,541 (54.2 percent) are aliens for which final immigration orders have been issued for their removal;

  • Approximately 13,886 (33.4 percent) are aliens who are under ICE investigation for possible removal;

  • Approximately 5,101 (12.3 percent) are aliens still pending adjudication (in other words, ICE has charged these aliens as removal cases, but a final disposition has not yet been reached); and

  • Approximately 26 (0.1 percent) are aliens who have been granted relief on the basis of asylum claims.... 

At the department’s direction, US [Marshals Service] has begun providing ICE with complete data on all foreign-born detainees on a daily basis.  The first of these data transfers to ICE took place on April 5, 2017, with a transfer of data associated with approximately 19,000 foreign-born detainees.  ICE anticipates that its analysis of this data will soon be complete, and the department will then provide an updated status report.

May 2, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (15)

"Leading with Conviction: The Transformative Role of Formerly Incarcerated Leaders in Reducing Mass Incarceration"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper by Susan Sturm and Haran Tae now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

This report documents the roles of formerly incarcerated leaders engaged in work related to reducing incarceration and rebuilding communities, drawing on in-depth interviews with 48 of these leaders conducted over a period of 14 months.  These “leaders with conviction” have developed a set of capabilities that enable them to advance transformative change, both in the lives of individuals affected by mass incarceration and in the criminal legal systems that have devastated so many lives and communities.  Their leadership assumes particular importance in the era of the Trump Presidency, when the durability of the ideological coalitions to undo the failed apparatus of mass incarceration will be tested.

Our analysis of these interviews indicates that a particular set of qualities equips this group of formerly incarcerated leaders to serve as organizational catalysts.  Organizational catalysts are individuals with knowledge, influence, and credibility who are in a position to mobilize change.  They operate at the intersection of communities and systems that do not usually interact, and bring a track record of commitment and an ability to communicate across different backgrounds and cultures.  They can transform organizations and networks by (1) mobilizing varied forms of knowledge to promote change, (2) developing collaborations in strategic locations, (3) cultivating new organizational catalysts, and (4) maintaining pressure and support for action.

The leaders share three important characteristics contributing to their evolution into organizational catalysts: (1) first-hand experience with the criminal legal system, (2) education that legitimizes and enhances their knowledge and leadership capacity, and (3) jobs and activist positions placing them at the intersection of different communities and systems.  This combination affords them multifaceted insight into the needs, barriers, and opportunities for transformation, as well as the legitimacy and influence needed to mobilize change based on that knowledge.

These leaders with conviction have developed the capacity to mobilize unusually diverse forms of social capital. As such, formerly incarcerated leaders are bonders (maintaining ties and sharing resources among those with a common identity linked to experiencing and seeking to transform the criminal justice system), bridgers (connecting individuals who would not ordinarily come in contact), and linkers (linking those with direct experience and knowledge of criminal justice to people in positions to influence public policy and change the public narrative).

The leaders use their social capital both as an engine of mobility for those affected by mass incarceration and as a vehicle for catalyzing change.  Their varied knowledge and experience equip them to speak the language of many different communities, and thus to communicate effectively with different audiences.  They build trust with people who have experienced consistent stigmatization and dispel myths among people who hold stereotypes that have prevented them from learning the realities of the criminal justice system.

Three structural supports emerged from this study as crucial building blocks of leaders with conviction: (1) relationships with people who believe in them and support their development, including when they struggle, (2) education and training that cultivates their identity and capacity as leaders, and (3) institutional and policy design that makes them full participants in the decision-making process.

May 2, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Highlighting prosecutorial efforts to prevent rolling back of mandatory minimums

This new Slate article highlights the state of debate over mandatory minimums in various states.  The piece is headlined "Mandatory Minimums Don’t Make Us Safer: Many states are realizing this and changing the rules.  But district attorneys seem intent on blocking the progress." Here is how it gets started:

Mandatory minimum sentences are among the most lasting and damaging result of previous eras of draconian drug policy.  They include, for example, laws requiring at least two years in prison for all drug crimes within 1,000 feet of a school.  Enforcement can lead to irrational outcomes, locking people up for very minor crimes and stripping away discretion from judges.

Moreover, research has shown that tough-on-crime policies like mandatory minimums have not been effective at reducing crime.  Instead, mandatory minimum laws have been shown to cause expanded racial disparities in sentencing.  States that shifted away from minimums have seen lower prison populations and bigger cost savings. And all 17 states that decreased their prison populations over the last decade saw a reduction in crime rates.

Many states are leading the charge in doing away with mandatory minimum laws.  From Massachusetts to Iowa to Florida, momentum has grown in state legislatures this year to rewrite laws that guarantee long sentences for low-level offenders.  The reform has, in most places, won broad bipartisan support, from elected officials, judges, advocacy groups on the right and the left, and law enforcement officials.

One of the only major groups to consistently oppose reforming mandatory minimums is district attorneys.  In almost every state considering reform, local DAs and DA associations have lined up against it, arguing that reducing mandatory sentences would lead to an upswing in drug abuse.  No matter that this fearmongering is likely untrue.  The national scare over opioid use and overdose is fueling the district attorneys’ campaign for tougher drug laws.

The district attorneys claim they need the threat of a long, mandatory sentence as leverage to cajole defendants into pleading guilty to lower crimes and that mandatory minimums ensure a measure of consistency in sentencing.

Boil away this rhetoric and you get to the heart of the argument: “It’s all about power,” said Kevin Ring, the president of the advocacy group Families Against Mandatory Minimums.  “Mandatory minimums have given DAs — who already had unreviewable charging authority — the ability to pick sentences and cut judges out of the picture.”

The article goes on the discuss developments and debates over mandatory minimums in Massachusetts, Iowa, Nebraska, Florida and Pennsylvania.  And, as regular readers know, this dynamic has also been on full display in the federal system in recent years where various current and former prosecutors (including the current Attorney General) have been the loudest voices opposing proposed federal statutory reforms seeking to reduce the severity of mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug offenses.

May 2, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

May 1, 2017

Justice Gorsuch refusing to jump into the cert pool

A decade or so ago after the Blakely and Booker rulings created extraordinary churn in lower courts, I used to think a lot about how the US Supreme Court set its docket. (More specifically, as posts here and here highlight, I used to complain a lot about SCOTUS taking up so many capital sentencing cases and so relatively few non-capital sentencing cases.)  In the context of thinking about these SCOTUS docket issues, and in writing up a little recent article on the topic, I came to the tentative conclusion that the modern development of the "cert pool," which has come to be used by nearly all the Justices to consider which cases to review on the merits, was not such a healthy development.

I provide all this background as a set up this interesting SCOTUS news from inside the Beltway via the New York Times: "Gorsuch, in Sign of Independence, Is Out of Supreme Court’s Clerical Pool." Here is how the article gets started:

In an early sign of Justice Neil M. Gorsuch’s independence and work ethic, he has decided not to join a labor pool at the Supreme Court in which justices share their law clerks in an effort to streamline decisions about which cases to hear.

Justice Gorsuch joined the court last month. His decision not to participate in the pool was confirmed by Kathleen L. Arberg, the court’s public information officer. The only other member of the court who is not part of the arrangement is Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr.

Justices in the pool receive a common “pool memo” on each petition seeking Supreme Court review — more formally, “petition for certiorari” — from a single law clerk. The memo analyzes the petition and makes a recommendation about whether it should be granted.

As a law clerk to Justices Byron R. White and Anthony M. Kennedy in 1993 and 1994, a young Mr. Gorsuch wrote quite a few such memos.

Justices who do not participate, by contrast, have their law clerks review all of the roughly 7,000 petitions filed each year, looking for the 75 or so worthy of the court’s attention.

The pool has been criticized for giving too much power to law clerks and for contributing to the court’s shrinking docket. For almost two decades until 2008, only Justice John Paul Stevens, who retired in 2010, stayed out of the pool. He said it had caused “the lessening of the docket.”

“You stick your neck out as a clerk when you recommend to grant a case,” he told USA Today. “The risk-averse thing to do is to recommend not to take a case.”

Some scholars have traced the decline of the Supreme Court docket to the pool. In the early 1980s, the Supreme Court decided more than 150 cases a year. These days, it decides about half that many.

A few posts from nearly a decade ago on SCOTUS docket issues:

May 1, 2017 in Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)

Ohio Gov Kasich officially pushed back nine executions as lethal injection litigation comes before en banc Sixth Circuit

As noted in this post, last week the en banc Sixth Circuit took up the current stay in Ohio blocking executions, but set oral argument for a month after Ohio's scheduled execution.  Thus, unsurprisingly and as reported in this local piece, "execution dates for nine death row inmates have been delayed while the state continues its appeal of a court decision blocking use of its lethal injection protocol."  Here is more:

Nine executions were pushed back in a revised schedule released Monday by Gov. John Kasich. The next execution, of Akron child killer Ronald Phillips, was rescheduled for July 26.

On Jan. 26, a federal magistrate judge found the state's three-drug injection cocktail to be unconstitutional and stayed the next three executions. A three-judge panel for the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the lower court and kept the stay in place. The full Cincinnati appeals court last week agreed to rehear the state's appeal. A hearing has been set for June 14.

The state had planed to execute Phillips and Gary Otte, who killed two people to death in back-to-back robberies in Parma, before that date. Otte's execution was moved to Sept. 13. The state has scheduled 33 executions through March 2021.

I think it reasonable for Gov. Kasich to expect the full Sixth Circuit to rule on the state's execution protocol within roughly a month after hearing oral argument.

Prior recent related posts:

May 1, 2017 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Spotlighting again the use of risk-assessment computations at sentencing (under an inaccurate headline)

Adam Liptak has this new column discussing the Loomis risk-assessment sentencing case pending SCOTUS cert review, but the column bears the inaccurate headline "Sent to Prison by a Software Program’s Secret Algorithms."  As of this writing, software programs alone have not sent any persons to prison, not in the Wisconsin case before SCOTUS or any other that I know about.  Software may be making recommendations to sentencing decision-makers, and that certainly justifies scrutiny, but we have not quite yet reached the brave new world that this headline suggests.  That said, the headline did grab my attention, and here are parts of the article that follows:

[A] Wisconsin man, Eric L. Loomis, who was sentenced to six years in prison based in part on a private company’s proprietary software. Mr. Loomis says his right to due process was violated by a judge’s consideration of a report generated by the software’s secret algorithm, one Mr. Loomis was unable to inspect or challenge.

In March, in a signal that the justices were intrigued by Mr. Loomis’s case, they asked the federal government to file a friend-of-the-court brief offering its views on whether the court should hear his appeal.

The report in Mr. Loomis’s case was produced by a product called Compas, sold by Northpointe Inc. It included a series of bar charts that assessed the risk that Mr. Loomis would commit more crimes. The Compas report, a prosecutor told the trial judge, showed “a high risk of violence, high risk of recidivism, high pretrial risk.” The judge agreed, telling Mr. Loomis that “you’re identified, through the Compas assessment, as an individual who is a high risk to the community.”

The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled against Mr. Loomis. The report added valuable information, it said, and Mr. Loomis would have gotten the same sentence based solely on the usual factors, including his crime — fleeing the police in a car — and his criminal history.

At the same time, the court seemed uneasy with using a secret algorithm to send a man to prison. Justice Ann Walsh Bradley, writing for the court, discussed, for instance, a report from ProPublica about Compas that concluded that black defendants in Broward County, Fla., “were far more likely than white defendants to be incorrectly judged to be at a higher rate of recidivism.”

Justice Bradley noted that Northpointe had disputed the analysis. Still, she wrote, “this study and others raise concerns regarding how a Compas assessment’s risk factors correlate with race.” In the end, though, Justice Bradley allowed sentencing judges to use Compas. They must take account of the algorithm’s limitations and the secrecy surrounding it, she wrote, but said the software could be helpful “in providing the sentencing court with as much information as possible in order to arrive at an individualized sentence.”

Justice Bradley made Compas’s role in sentencing sound like the consideration of race in a selective university’s holistic admissions program. It could be one factor among many, she wrote, but not the determinative one.

In urging the United States Supreme Court not to hear the case, Wisconsin’s attorney general, Brad D. Schimel, seemed to acknowledge that the questions in the case were substantial ones. But he said the justices should not move too fast. “The use of risk assessments by sentencing courts is a novel issue, which needs time for further percolation,” Mr. Schimel wrote.

He added that Mr. Loomis “was free to question the assessment and explain its possible flaws.” But it is a little hard to see how he could do that without access to the algorithm itself. The company that markets Compas says its formula is a trade secret. “The key to our product is the algorithms, and they’re proprietary,” one of its executives said last year. “We’ve created them, and we don’t release them because it’s certainly a core piece of our business.”

Compas and other products with similar algorithms play a role in many states’ criminal justice systems. “These proprietary techniques are used to set bail, determine sentences, and even contribute to determinations about guilt or innocence,” a report from the Electronic Privacy Information Center found [available here]. “Yet the inner workings of these tools are largely hidden from public view.”...

There are good reasons to use data to ensure uniformity in sentencing. It is less clear that uniformity must come at the price of secrecy, particularly when the justification for secrecy is the protection of a private company’s profits. The government can surely develop its own algorithms and allow defense lawyers to evaluate them. At Rensselaer last month, Chief Justice Roberts said that judges had work to do in an era of rapid change. “The impact of technology has been across the board,” he said, “and we haven’t yet really absorbed how it’s going to change the way we do business.” 

Some prior related posts on Loomis case:

May 1, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

"Unwarranted Disparity: Effectively Using Statistics in Federal Sentencing"

The title of this post is the title of this recent practitioner-oriented piece authored by Alan Ellis and Mark Allenbaugh. Here is its introduction:

Now in their 30th year, the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines (Guidelines) have been used to sentence well over 1.5 million defendants nationwide since Nov. 1, 1987, when they first went into effect. (See U.S. Sentencing Comm’n, 1996-2015 Sourcebooks on Federal Sentencing Statistics, Tbl. 10; U.S. Sentencing Comm’n, Quarterly Data Report (4th Quarter Release), Tbl. 1 (Sept. 30, 2016).  From these sources, there were approximately 1.4 million individuals sentenced under the Guidelines.)

Eliminating unwarranted sentencing disparity was the primary goal of the Sentencing Reform Act. (See U.S. Sentencing Comm’n, Fifteen Years of Guidelines Sentencing, 79 (2004)). The act created the U.S. Sentencing Commission (Commission), tasking it with the creation of the Guidelines, and the authority to amend and promulgate new Guidelines from time to time. (See 28 U.S.C. § 994).

Since their inception, the Guidelines have been amended hundreds of times.  This process largely has been informed by the data the Commission collects, publishes and analyzes regarding the application of the Guidelines, including sentences imposed, and departures or variances.  Although in many instances the Commission has been directed by Congress to make certain changes.  In short, the Guidelines have evolved primarily, although not exclusively, as a result of the Commission’s ‘‘empirical approach’’ to sentencing. (See USSG, Ch. 1, Pt. A.)

The purpose of this article is to provide the reader with an overview of what data are available, and to provide suggestions as to how the data may most effectively be used by practitioners in mitigation of punishment.

May 1, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (2)

April 30, 2017

A rare year without any formal amendments to the US Sentencing Guidelines

Download (1)Hard-core federal sentencing nerds like me know that the end of April/start of May is the time period each year when the US Sentencing Commission submits formal guideline amendments to Congress.  And, as noted in this post from December, just before a number of Commissioners' terms expired, the USSC unanimously voted to publish some ambitious proposed amendments for 2017.

But, is seems personnel transitions mean 2017 will go in the books as one of the rare years without any formal amendments to the guidelines. Acting USSC Chair Judge William Pryor explained why in these remarks given before the start of the USSC public hearing a few weeks ago:

Although the Commission again has the four voting members required to promulgate guideline amendments, the lack of a voting quorum for almost three critical months of our amendment cycle means we will not be able to promulgate amendments this year.  Those who closely follow us know that in December, we voted to publish several proposed amendments for comment, among them an amendment that would add a downward adjustment and encourage the use of alternatives for some first-time offenders, and amendments that would respond to recommendations made by the Tribal Issues Advisory Group regarding how tribal offenses and juvenile sentences are considered.

The public comment period has closed.  We received a great deal of thoughtful public comment, which can be reviewed on our website.  We thank the public for taking the time to give careful consideration to these proposals.

Ordinarily, we would have received testimony about the proposed amendments at a public hearing in March.  But with only two voting commissioners we deferred scheduling a hearing until a reconstituted Commission was formed.

By statute, the Commission is required to submit any amendments to the guidelines to Congress by May 1st for a 180-day congressional review period.  Because we did not have a voting quorum for almost three months, there simply is not enough time for us to schedule a public hearing on the proposed amendments, digest the public comment, deliberate, and hold a public vote by the statutory deadline.  Therefore, this year we will not promulgate any amendments to the guidelines.  But our data analysis, legal research, and public comment on these proposed amendments should provide us a sound basis for considering guideline amendments as early as possible during the next amendment cycle.

April 30, 2017 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

"Purpose-Focused Sentencing: How Reforming Punishment Can Transform Policing"

The title of this post is the title of this essay authored by Jelani Jefferson Exum recently posted on SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Today’s discussions about police reform have focused on changing police training and procedures.  As accounts of deaths of African-Americans at the hands of police officers have played out in the news and social media, demands for racial justice in policing have become more prevalent.  To end what I have coined as “the Death Penalty on the Street,” there have been calls for diversity training, training on non-lethal force, and, of course, community policing.  While it is perfectly rational for the response to excessive police force to be a focus on changing policing methods, such reforms will only have limited success as long as attitudes about black criminality remain the same.  Though we would like to hold them to a higher standard, police officers are merely human, so they carry with them the same biases and prejudices that any of us can hold.  Studies have shown that, in general, Americans are -- regardless of our race -- biased against blacks, especially young black men.  African Americans are more likely seen as criminals, and most of us overestimate the amount of crime attributable to the black population.  Therefore, in order to truly address the problem of racial injustice in policing, we must address the racial biases held by our society that play out in our criminal justice system.  Though perhaps not the obvious place for this revolution to start, sentencing reform has the potential to change the face of the punishment in our country, thus transforming the (usually black) face of whom we see as deserving of punishment by the police and the courts.

This Essay proposes “purpose-focused sentencing” as a means of remedying the over-incarceration of blacks, thereby combatting attitudes about crime and black criminality, and in turn, affecting how police see and treat blacks.  The goal is to reduce the racial disparity in incarceration, not solely through an overall lessened reliance on prisons and jails, but also by assessing and identifying appropriate sentences to fulfill criminal justice purposes.  Once those purposes -- deterrence, rehabilitation, incapacitation, and retribution -- are identified and assessed, there will not be room to justify disparities in sentencing attributable only to the race of the defendant.  All sentences, regardless of the peculiarities of an individual defendant, must be tailored to a specific result, rather than imposed at the whim of a particular judge or in accordance with legislation that has no basis in an identified sentencing goal.  As a result, we will see prisons and jails being used much more exclusively (to the extent that incarceration is used at all) for violent, repeat felons, which statistics tell us are not where our racial disparities lie today.  When punishment is more closely aligned with what the offender has done, and what our goals of punishments are given that behavior, we can begin to combat the stereotype that the dangerous criminal is most likely black.

Once sentencing no longer feeds into the heightened public view of blacks as criminals, the spillover effect will be that the new wave of police officers will not see blacks this way either.  And if they do, society certainly will not view this biased police violence against blacks as reasonable.  This Essay offers a solution that will take years, if not generations, to implement; and it will perhaps take even longer for it to completely transform the face of policing.  However, the proposal is a long-term approach that will immediately begin to move criminal justice in the right direction and encourage honest conversations about what we are trying to do in our system and how our current methods of punishment are only perpetuating racial injustice.

April 30, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Should an offender's citizenship status impact prosecutorial charging decisions and how?

The question in the title of this post is prompted in part by a comment made by Attorney General Jeff Sessions in this speech given on Friday and in part by this news article out of Baltimore brought to my attention by a commentor.  Here is part of the speech from AG Sessions focusing on the how some prosecutors may now be concerning themselves with citizen status in charging:

We have also taken steps to end the lawless practices of so-called “sanctuary” jurisdictions, which make our country less safe.  I understand there are those who disagree.  But the American people rightly demand a lawful system of immigration. Congress has established a lawful system of immigration.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics just released a report showing that 42 percent of defendants charged in U.S. district court were non-U.S. citizens.  And according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, in 2013, 48 percent of all deported aliens who were convicted for coming back to the United States illegally were also convicted of a non-immigration related crime.

And yet, I regret to say that we’ve seen district attorneys openly brag about not charging cases appropriately -- giving special treatment to illegal aliens to ensure these criminal aliens aren’t deported from their communities.  They advertise that they will charge a criminal alien with a lesser offense than presumably they would charge a United States citizen.  It baffles me.

Regardless, no jurisdiction has a right to violate federal law, especially when that violation leads to the death of innocent Americans, like Kate Steinle.  As the President has made clear, our system is a system of laws, and we will be the Administration that ends the rampant immigration illegality.

And here is part of the Baltimore press article highlighting what AG Sessions seems to be talking about:

The Baltimore State's Attorney's Office has instructed prosecutors to think twice before charging illegal immigrants with minor, non-violent crimes in response to stepped up immigration enforcement by the Trump administration.

Chief Deputy State's Attorney Michael Schatzow, in a memo sent to all staff Thursday and obtained by The Baltimore Sun, wrote that the Justice Department's deportation efforts "have increased the potential collateral consequences to certain immigrants of minor, non-violent criminal conduct." "In considering the appropriate disposition of a minor, non-violent criminal case, please be certain to consider those potential consequences to the victim, witnesses, and the defendant," Schatzow wrote....

The Homeland Security Department issued memos in February saying any immigrant in the country illegally who is charged or convicted of any offense, or even suspected of a crime, will now be an enforcement priority.

Elizabeth Alex, a Baltimore regional director for CASA de Maryland, said immigrants and their relatives are afraid to engage in the court process, and Baltimore prosecutors are right to include immigration status as part of their consideration in how to handle a case. "Prosecutorial discretion exists in all kinds of cases, and it's more education to [prosecutors] about the multiple factors that they should take into consideration as they proceed," she said. "The consequences are different today than they were a year ago."

U.S. Rep. Andy Harris, the lone Republican in Maryland's congressional delegation, said it is "a real shame that the State Attorney's office is unwilling to enforce the law against illegal aliens who commit crimes in the United States."

"A vast majority of Americans believe that illegal aliens who commit crimes while here in the U.S. should bear the full brunt of the law, and be deported," Harris said through a spokesperson.

The Justice Department declined to comment on the Baltimore memo. But in remarks Friday on Long Island, Sessions decried district attorneys who he said "openly brag about not charging cases appropriately -- giving special treatment to illegal aliens to ensure these criminal aliens aren't deported from their communities."... The comments appeared to be in response to the acting district attorney in Brooklyn, N.Y., who earlier this week issued similar instruction to prosecutors there.

"We must ensure that a conviction, especially for a minor offense, does not lead to unintended and severe consequences like deportation, which can be unfair, tear families apart and destabilize our communities and businesses," Acting District Attorney Eric Gonzalez said in an announcement Monday. Gonzalez went a step further, hiring two immigration attorneys to train staff on immigration issues and to advise prosecutors when making plea offers and sentencing recommendations "in an effort to avoid disproportionate collateral consequences."

Mayor Catherine E. Pugh, who has sought to reassure immigrants that Baltimore is a "welcoming city" that will not check for proof of citizenship, declined to comment on the State's Attorney's Office memo. "Mayor Pugh will leave prosecution strategies and tactics to the State's Attorney and her staff," spokesman Anthony McCarthy said in an e-mail....

Police Commissioner Kevin Davis has expressed concern about immigrants not reporting crimes or cooperating with investigations because they fear repercussions related to their status, and has attended community meetings stressing that police won't make immigration checks.  Schatzow, in the State's Attorney's Office memo, noted such concerns, saying fear of being deported could "impair our effectiveness in combating violent crimes and criminals."

Notably, it has long been common in many settings for defense attorneys to seek and prosecutors to seriously consider downgrading certain charges from felonies to misdemeanors for some immigrant offenders in order to keep them from being subject to automatic deportation under applicable federal statutes.  I am uncertain whether AG Sessions is baffled by this practice, but I am certain that this practice is not confined to just a few jurisdictions.

That said, I do think the equation feels a bit different if and when we focus on foregoing certain criminal charges altogether for a certain class of offender because of the collateral consequences of deportation that could follow from any charges.  Though I would be troubled by deportation always serving as the de facto punishment for, say, low-level marijuana possession, I also would be concerned about the deterrent impact (as well as the optics) of policies and practices that make it easier for illegal immigrant offenders to avoid charges for certain classes of criminal wrong-doing.  Stated somewhat differently, given that citizens as well as non-citizens can and often do suffer an array of profound collateral consequences even when charged with minor, non-violent crimes, I would like to see prosecutors in Baltimore and everywhere else regularly instructed to consider "potential collateral consequences" for all offenders in all setting when making charging decisions.

April 30, 2017 in Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)