« "Expansion of the Federal Safety Valve for Mandatory Minimum Sentences" | Main | Texas carries out its second execution of 2018 »

January 30, 2018

A SCOTUS amicus opportunity to reiterate some of my views on sentence finality

The Supreme Court has three(!) upcoming arguments concerning the proper application of the federal prison term modification rules that Congress set out in 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2): Hughes v. United States and Koons v. United States are due to be argued March 27, and Chavez-Meza v. United States will likely be argued in late April.  The fact that the SCOTUS has decided to take up three cases dealing with § 3582(c)(2) highlights the range of intricate issues that sentence modification motions can present.  And the first of these cases, Hughes, deals with the initial issue of who is even eligible for sentence modification and presents further questions about how to deal with the 4-1-4 divide among the Justices in the leading prior ruling of Freeman v. United States, 564 U.S. 522 (2011).

As readers know, I have written up some of my perspectives on "sentence finality" in an law review article, "Re-Balancing Fitness, Fairness, and Finality for Sentences", and in a number of prior posts (some of which are reprinted below).  I was encouraged recently to channel some of these ideas into an amicus brief in Hughes, and a terrific set of lawyers at Sidley Austin LLP played the leading and central role in making this amicus brief a reality.  Here is the "Summary of Argument" from this just-filed brief:

The standard presumption in favor of finality for criminal judgments need not and should not be elevated over other critical criminal justice interests when a defendant seeks only to modify an ongoing prison sentence based on new legal developments.  See Douglas A. Berman, Re-Balancing Fitness, Fairness, and Finality for Sentences, 4 Wake Forest J.L. & Pol’y 151, 174–75 (2014). Through sentence-modification provisions like the one at issue in this case, see 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2), Congress has expressed its concerns for those other criminal justice interests by creating a significant sentencing exception to the usual presumption in favor of finality.  Appreciating the importance of getting sentences right while an offender is still serving a prison term, Congress has astutely elevated substantive sentencing goals like accuracy, fairness, and uniformity over concerns about finality in this context.  Section 3582(c)(2) serves well the purposes of fitness and fairness: its sentence-modification provisions eliminate unwarranted disparities in federal sentencing, promote the government’s legitimate substantive penological interests, foster societal respect for the criminal justice system, and save long-term costs associated with excessive terms of incarceration.

The question of statutory interpretation presented in this case, i.e., what does the term “based on” mean, should be resolved in favor of clear congressional policy and purpose. Defendants who commit crimes of similar severity under similar conditions should receive similar sentences.  When it is functionally apparent that a particular amended guideline was applicable in a defendant’s case, it ought not matter whether that defendant’s plea agreement contained calculations applying the since-reduced guideline.  A contrary interpretation, one that unnecessarily narrows eligibility for relief under § 3582(c)(2), would turn congressional policy on its head, wrongly elevate finality interests over those Congress sought to champion, and lead to systemic injustice.  The Court should take this opportunity to embrace a broad interpretation of “based on” that comports with overriding congressional policy.  Accordingly, petitioner should be eligible for relief under § 3582(c)(2) because his sentence was “based on” a Guidelines range that has been subsequently lowered.

Some (of many) prior posts on sentencing finality:

January 30, 2018 at 04:53 PM | Permalink

Comments

"Defendants who commit crimes of similar severity under similar conditions should receive similar sentences."

Because all persons commit thousands of crimes, sentencing should be based on the person, and not on the crime. Because utility is the best standard of decision making, individualized sentences are needed. So, a serial killer drug kingpin shoplifts a bottle of pop, he may get the death penalty. As with all remedies individual host properties need to be assessed, and the size of the remedy needs to be fitted.

I also urge a measurement of the pulse and blood pressure around age 18. Low ones predict recidivism, according to a meta-analysis of 40 studies, and the verification of this effect in a huge database.

Posted by: David Behar | Jan 30, 2018 5:53:56 PM

Post a comment

In the body of your email, please indicate if you are a professor, student, prosecutor, defense attorney, etc. so I can gain a sense of who is reading my blog. Thank you, DAB