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September 8, 2018

"The Power of Prosecutors"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article authored by Jeffrey Bellin now available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

One of the predominant themes in the criminal justice literature is that prosecutors, not legislators, judges, or police, dominate the justice system.  Over 75 years ago, Attorney General Robert Jackson famously proclaimed that the “prosecutor has more control over life, liberty, and reputation than any other person in America.”  In one of the most cited law review articles of all time, Bill Stuntz added that prosecutors, not judges, police, or legislators, “are the criminal justice system’s real lawmakers.”  And an unchallenged modern consensus holds that prosecutors “rule the criminal justice system.”

This Article applies a critical lens to longstanding claims of prosecutorial preeminence.  It reveals a curious echo chamber enabled by a puzzling lack of dissent.  With few voices challenging ever-more-strident prosecutor-dominance rhetoric, academic claims became uncritical, imprecise, and ultimately incorrect.

An unchallenged consensus that “prosecutors are the criminal justice system” and that the “institution of the prosecutor has more power than any other in the criminal justice system,” has real consequences for criminal justice discourse.  Portraying prosecutors as the system’s iron-fisted rulers obscures the complex interplay that actually determines criminal justice outcomes.  The overheated rhetoric of prosecutorial preeminence fosters a superficial understanding of the criminal justice system, overlooks the powerful forces that can and do constrain prosecutors, and diverts attention from the most promising sources of reform (legislators, judges, and police) to the least (prosecutors).

September 8, 2018 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

September 7, 2018

US House passes broad rewrite of the federal definition of "crime of violence" without any hearings

While a number of seemingly popular federal sentencing reform bills and marijuana reform bills have waited years for a vote in one or another chamber of Congress, the "Community Safety and Security Act of 2018," H.R. 6691, was passed through the US House of Representatives this morning barely a week after its introduction.  This new Reason piece provides some details under a full headline that captures the essentials: "House Passes Bill to Reclassify Dozens of Offenses as 'Crimes of Violence': Opponents say the bill, rushed to the floor without a hearing, would dangerously expand what's considered an 'aggravated offense'":

Republicans in the House passed a bill this morning that would reclassify dozens of federal crimes as "crimes of violence," making them deportable offenses under immigration law. Criminal justice advocacy groups say the bill, rushed to the floor without a single hearing, is unnecessary, is overbroad, and will intensify the problem of overcriminalization.

The Community Safety and Security Act of 2018, H.R. 6691, passed the House by a largely party-line vote of 247–152. Among the crimes that it would make violent offenses are burglary, fleeing, and coercion through fraud.

"Groups on the right and the left are deeply concerned about the bad policy in this bill and the unfair process through which it came to the floor," Holly Harris, the executive director of the U.S. Justice Action Network, said in a statement to Reason. "At a time when we have bipartisan support for criminal justice reforms that will safely reduce incarceration and better prioritize public safety, passing a bill that does just the opposite makes no sense at all."

In April, the Supreme Court ruled in Sessions v. Dimaya that the definition of a "crime of violence" used for federal immigration law — conviction under which can lead to deportation proceedings — was unconstitutionally vague. House Republicans crafted the bill, they say, in response to the Supreme Court's recommendations in that case. But the criminal justice reform advocacy group FAMM warned that the bill "would label seemingly nonviolent offenses such as burglary of an unoccupied home and fleeing as violent offenses."...

The bill was also opposed by the House Liberty Caucus, which released a statement saying that the legislation "expands unconstitutional federal crimes and provides grossly disproportionate consequences for nonviolent offenses."...

Rep. Karen Handel (R-Ga.) claims the bill is urgently needed to keep, as its name suggests, communities safe from violent crime.  "We don't have the privilege to squabble over hypotheticals that have no bearing on the application of this law," Handel said on the House floor.  "I can assure my colleagues this bill is not overly broad. It's not a dangerous overexpansion. Instead, it's a carefully crafted response to the Supreme Court's recommendations."

Democrats and criminal justice groups also objected to the speed at which the bill sailed to the House floor.  It was introduced just a week ago and did not have a single hearing or markup prior to today's vote. The House Liberty Caucus calls the process "farcical."

In a tweet, Jason Pye, the vice president of legislative affairs at the libertarian-leaning group FreedomWorks, writes: "In my view, this bill is mostly politics.  I agree that Dimaya requires a fix, but this bill has flaws that could have, and should have, been worked out in committee markup.  It's shameful that this bill was handled this way."

Especially because the definition of "crime of violence" under federal law matters in lots of arenas beyond immigration, I am hopeful that the Senate will take a more careful and deliberative approach to this issue than has the House. I am also amazed at how quickly complicate legislation can be moved through part of the legislative process when there is a political will to do so (even when it is unclear whose political will is in operation).

September 7, 2018 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (6)

You be the federal judge: what sentence for George Papadopoulos after guilty plea to one count of making false statements?

As reported in this Hill article, headlined "Former Trump adviser Papadopoulos to be sentenced Friday," a high-profile defendant is due to be sentenced in federal court this afternoon by Judge Randolph Moss.  Here are some of the terms of the sentencing debate:

George Papadopoulos, the Trump campaign adviser who pleaded guilty nearly a year ago to lying about his Russia contacts, is scheduled to be sentenced in federal court on Friday.

His sentencing will mark a milestone in Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation as the special counsel makes headway on several other fronts, including interviewing individuals linked to former Trump adviser Roger Stone and readying for the Washington, D.C., trial of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort.

Papadopoulos admitted to lying to FBI agents in October about the extent, nature and timing of his contacts with Russian individuals who he tried to use to broker a meeting between the campaign and the Russian government.

Government prosecutors are asking that Papadopoulos be jailed for up to six months and that he face a $9,500 fine for his crime, arguing in a recent court filing that his false statements “caused damage to the government’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.” “The defendant’s false statements were intended to harm the investigation, and did so,” prosecutors wrote in an Aug. 17 sentencing memorandum.

Papadopoulos’ defense attorneys, meanwhile, are challenging the notion that their client did deliberate harm to the investigation, writing in a filing on Aug. 31 that Papadopoulos “misled investigators to save his professional aspirations and preserve a perhaps misguided loyalty to his master.” They argue he should face one-year probation.

The Papadopoulos case is noteworthy because he was the first Trump associate to plead guilty and cooperate with prosecutors in Mueller’s investigation. There is no indication that he played more than a minimal role during his months as a foreign policy adviser on the campaign. The White House aggressively sought to downplay his involvement last year, with the president dismissing him as a “low-level volunteer” in a tweet following his guilty plea.

The sentencing of Papadopoulos, 31, will tie up one loose end in the special counsel’s sprawling investigation, and signals his cooperation is no longer needed in the investigation. His guilty plea created a media firestorm last October, revealed the same day Mueller charged Manafort and Rick Gates, another former Trump campaign aide, in an elaborate illegal foreign lobbying scheme unrelated to the work they did during for the campaign.

Court filings told the curious story of a young aide who misled FBI agents during a January 2017 interview about his contacts with a professor, later identified as Joseph Mifsud, who claimed substantial connections to the Russian government and who told Papadopoulos that the Russians possessed “dirt” on Hillary Clinton in the form of “thousands of emails” – months before hacked Democratic emails began to leak on the web. The New York Times later reported that it was Papadopoulos’ discussions with an Australian diplomat, Alexander Downer, about those emails in May 2016 that helped trigger the FBI’s inquiry into Russian interference the following July.

Papadopoulos also misled FBI investigators about his contacts with other Russians, including a woman believed to be a relative of Putin, who he sought to use to broker a meeting between the Trump campaign and Moscow – lies that the government says were damaging to an investigation in its infancy.

Prosecutors have suggested his cooperation did not bear much fruit, writing in August that he did not offer “substantial assistance” to the investigation and that much of the information he provided “came only after the government confronted him with his own emails, text messages, internet search history, and other information it had obtained via search warrants and subpoenas.”

The Papadopoulos defense attorneys tell a different story. They say that, since his guilty plea, he has provided government investigators with “critical information” about his contacts with members of the Trump campaign. In the recent filing, they referenced a key meeting in March 2016 during which he allegedly broached the subject of arranging a meeting between Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin....

Papadopoulos will be the second individual sentenced in the Russia investigation. Dutch lawyer Alex Van Der Zwaan was handed 30 days in prison and slapped with a $20,000 fine in April after pleading guilty to making false statements relevant to the government’s investigations into foreign lobbing by Manafort and Gates. Papadopoulos’ wife, Simona Mangiante, had signaled in recent weeks that her husband was mulling walking away from the plea deal with Mueller, though she backed down from those suggestions late last week.

Prior related post:

UPDATE: This Vox article provides the real outcome in its headline, "Papadopoulos given 14-day sentence as part of the Mueller investigation."

September 7, 2018 in Booker in district courts, Celebrity sentencings, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (3)

"Mitigation is Difficult: A Moral Evaluation of a Mitigation Practice at Sentencing"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting-looking new paper just posted to SSRN authored by Allan McCay.  Here is its abstract:

In this paper I presuppose that blame and retributive punishment can be deserved, and construct a theory that is intended to morally evaluate the mitigation practices of criminal justice systems, using insights about the assessment of degrees of blameworthiness found in the work of Dana Nelkin, in conjunction with David Hodgson’s views on self-formation. After using the theory to evaluate an actual mitigation practice, I note that as a result of the complexity of any fully satisfactory theory, there is an epistemic problem inherent in the assessment of pleas in mitigation that means that even moderately competent evaluation of such pleas may be beyond the capacities of humans.  I argue that this epistemic issue presents a problem for retributive practices, such as those found in many criminal justice systems.

September 7, 2018 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1)

September 6, 2018

Noting the uptick in federal gun prosecutions

This Courthouse News Service piece, headlined "Trump Administration Steps Up Prosecution of Gun Crimes," reports on and contextualizes this recent TRAC data report titled "Weapons Prosecutions Continue to Climb in 2018." Here are excerpts from the press piece:

Though Donald Trump ran on a pro-gun, Second Amendment platform, a recent study from Syracuse University shows the administration has stepped up prosecutions of weapons offenses, bringing 8,403 such cases in the first 10 months of fiscal year 2018, a 22.5 percent increase from the previous year.

TRAC Reports, a data-gathering organization at Syracuse University, also reported last week that that nation’s 94 U.S. Attorney’s Offices have prosecuted 41.3 percent more weapons cases than they did 5 years ago, under the Obama Administration.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions told the National District Attorneys Association in July 2017: “I want to see a substantial increase in gun crime prosecutions. I believe, as we partner together and hammer criminals who carry firearms during crimes or criminals that possess firearms after being convicted of a felony, the effect will be to reduce violent crime.”

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms handles the lion’s share of prosecutions, the TRAC study said: 64 percent of the prosecutions were recommended by BATF....

In addition to prosecuting people who use guns during crimes, Sessions said prosecutors also are targeting people who are prohibited from owning firearms, such as felons, and guns that are illegal in themselves, such as those with serial numbers scratched off....

However, David Kennedy, director of the National Network for Safe Communities at John Jay College, said the focus on prosecuting federal firearms offenses to too simplistic, because U.S. Attorney’s Offices do too little on their own to deter crime. Most gun crimes are first handled by state and federal law enforcement, Kennedy said, and federal attorneys prosecute the cases they choose to adopt, which is a fraction of the larger pool of gun-related offenses.

“What goes to federal and what doesn’t is effectively completely unpredictable on the street,” Kennedy told Courthouse News. “So if you’re somebody walking around in the community and you’re thinking whether or not to carry a gun or whether to commit a gun crime, you may not even know that the federal policy has changed. If you’re not aware that the U.S. attorney is taking more of these cases, it’s not going to affect your behavior.”

By the time charges are leveled and the accused is standing in a federal courtroom, it’s too late for them to change their behavior, Kennedy said. He said one unintended consequence of focusing on firearm prosecutions is that young, urban black men are overwhelmingly targeted by prosecutors, which makes the communities in which they live more distrustful of police and law enforcement.

Instead of focusing on gun prosecution, Kennedy said, it would be more effective if law enforcement seeks to identify the people most likely to commit violent crime and engage in outreach. He cited Oakland, California’s Operation Ceasefire, which identified the less-than 1 percent of Oakland residents who were associated with two-thirds of the city’s gun violence and provided them with coaching, social services, jobs and other assistance.

September 6, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Gun policy and sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

The (complicated) Florida constitutional ballot initiative, Amendment 11, seeking to allow retroactive sentencing changes

Download (20)My twitter feed lately has included links to "Yes on 11," which is a reference to the ballot initiative coming before voters in Florida that seeks to, according to the campaign, repeal "three obsolete or outdated provisions of Florida’s constitution."  One of those provisions concerns sentencing reform, and here is more from the campaign website:

Florida's Constitution Revision Commission added Amendment 11 to the ballot by a vote of 36-1, the largest margin of any measure added to the ballot by the CRC this year.

WHAT DOES AMENDMENT 11 ACTUALLY DO?

There's no denying that Amendment 11 is confusing. It contains several provisions, the ballot summary is full of legalese, and it even appears contradictory in places. Here's a brief summary of Amendment 11 that will hopefully clear up any confusion.

Amendment 11 does three things, each related to some obsolete or outdated provision of Florida's constitution. Here they are:

1. AMENDMENT 11 AMENDS FLORIDA'S "SAVINGS CLAUSE" TO ALLOW RETROACTIVE APPLICATION OF CHANGES TO CRIMINAL STATUTES, INCLUDING REDUCTIONS OF CRIMINAL SENTENCES.

In 1885, delegates to the Florida constitutional convention added a provision to Florida's constitution that said whatever the sentence is at the time a crime occurs is the only sentence that matters, no matter what happens in the future.

Even if the legislature reduces the sentence for a crime later, courts can't go back and change it for anyone who's already been convicted. Florida is the only state in the country with this provision in its constitution.

Amendment 11 would give the legislature the authority to apply sentencing reforms retroactively, or reduce sentences for those who were convicted under old laws.

For examples of who would benefit from this change, click here.

2. AMENDMENT 11 REPEALS THE "ALIEN LAND LAW."...

3. AMENDMENT 11 REPEALS OBSOLETE LANGUAGE ABOUT A HIGH-SPEED RAIL SYSTEM....

WHAT DO THESE THINGS HAVE TO DO WITH EACH OTHER?

That's a good question! On the surface, a provision about criminal statutes, another about property rights, and another about an obsolete high-speed rail system don't really have much in common. So why are they all grouped together on the ballot? All three provisions are obsolete, outdated, or both....

These provisions were grouped together because none is controversial. No member of the public and no organization opposed any of the proposals in Amendment 11 at any public meeting of the Constitution Revision Commission. To avoid making an already long ballot even longer, the CRC grouped these uncontroversial proposals together....

Every element in Amendment 11 is exclusively a constitutional issue. Unlike some of the other amendments on the ballot, nothing in Amendment 11 is a policy issue that could be settled in the legislature.

Amendment 11 is a "cleanup" amendment. In 1998, Florida voters approved a similar amendment that bundled eight technical revisions to the constitution. Like those in Amendment 11, those provisions were not controversial.

Writing three different amendments for these proposals would make an already lengthy ballot unnecessarily longer. Bundling the repeal of outdated and obsolete provisions makes the voting process more convenient and allows voters to spend more time on the issues that have generated more controversy. The proposals in Amendment 11 are bipartisan, and passed by a vote of 36-1 in the Constitution Revision Commission.

Regular readers know my affinity for allowing retroactive sentencing changes, so I am all in on Amendment 11 (if only I was a Florida voter).

September 6, 2018 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

"Nikolas Cruz’s birth mom had a violent, criminal past. Could it help keep him off Death Row?"

The title of this post is the title of this very lengthy Miami Herald article which gets started this way:

Nikolas Cruz had two mothers: his birth mom, who gave him life, an almond-shaped head and auburn hair — and his adoptive mom, who gave him all the advantages of an upscale, suburban upbringing.

His birth mother, Brenda Woodard, was sometimes homeless, and panhandled for money on a highway exit ramp. His adoptive mother, Lynda Cruz, stayed home to manage a 4,500-square-foot, five-bedroom house in the suburbs, with a two-car garage and a sprawling yard. A career criminal, Woodard’s 28 arrests include a 2010 charge for beating a companion with a tire iron; she also threatened to burn the friend’s house down. Lynda Cruz had a clean record.

Woodard was so gripped by addiction she was arrested buying crack cocaine while pregnant with Nikolas. Lynda Cruz was known to drink wine, though not excessively.

Conventional wisdom suggests that Nikolas Cruz should have taken after the woman who raised him from birth, rather than the one who shared only his DNA. But little of Cruz’s story is conventional. While, by most accounts, Lynda Cruz was thoughtful and disciplined, her adoptive son was violent and impulsive — characteristics he seems to share with the birth mother he never knew.

Now the history of his birth family — sealed by statute and never before reported — could become a factor in his desperate attempt to stay off Florida’s Death Row.

Many of the details of Cruz’s difficult childhood and stormy adolescence emerged in the months following his deadly Feb. 14 attack on Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland that left 17 students and staff members dead: He was a poor student prone to sometimes violent outbursts. He had an unhealthy obsession with guns. He shot and tortured animals. But where Cruz came from, genetically, has remained a missing piece of the puzzle.

Though Nikolas was raised in comfort — Lynda Cruz apparently believed that indulging her son with video games and weapons would soften his moods — the shadow of his genetic heritage seemed to loom over his life.

Experts in criminal law say the Broward Public Defender’s Office will likely explore Cruz’s genetic makeup and childhood development in their effort to keep the 19-year-old from being executed. His birth mother could be called to testify during the sentencing phase of his trial on 17 charges of first-degree murder and 17 charges of attempted murder.

Prior related posts:

September 6, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (0)

September 5, 2018

ACLU Campaign for Smart Justice launches "Smart Justice 50-State Blueprints"

As detailed in this ACLU press release, titled "Smart Justice Blueprints Launch With 24 State Reports And Interactive Web Tool, Remaining 27 To Be Rolled Out In Coming Months," the folks at the ACLU have an interesting new set of state-focused national resources advocating for criminal justice reform. Here are portions of the press release:

The American Civil Liberties Union’s Campaign for Smart Justice today unveiled the Smart Justice 50-State Blueprints, a comprehensive, state-by-state analysis of how states can transform their criminal justice system and cut incarceration in half.

The Smart Justice 50-State Blueprints are the first-ever analysis of their kind and will serve as tools for activists, advocates, and policymakers to push for transformational change to the criminal justice system.  They are the result of a multi-year partnership between the ACLU, its state affiliates, and the Urban Institute to develop actionable policy options for each state that capture the nuance of local laws and sentencing practices.

The 51 reports — covering all 50 states and the District of Columbia — will be released in multiple phases, beginning with an initial rollout of 24 state reports.  The reports are all viewable on an interactive website that allows users to visualize the reductions in jail and prison population that would result from the policy decisions that states pursue.  The interactive feature is here.

Each blueprint includes an overview of the state’s incarcerated populations, including analysis on who is being sent to jail and prison and the racial disparities that are present, what drives people into the system, how long people spend behind bars, and why people are imprisoned for so long.  The blueprints offer a calculation on the impact of certain reforms by 2025 on racial disparities in the prison population, fiscal costs, and overall prison population.  They also show precisely how a 50 percent decarceration goal could be achieved.

While more than 2 million people are behind bars in the United States, only about 10 percent are in federal prisons. Approximately 90 percent of the people incarcerated in the United States are held in local jails and in state prisons.  “Mass incarceration is a nationwide problem, but one that is rooted in the states and must be fixed by the states,” said Udi Ofer, director of the ACLU Campaign for Smart Justice.  “We hope that the Smart Justice 50-State Blueprints provide necessary guideposts for activists and policymakers as they pursue local solutions that will address the stark racial disparities in our criminal justice system and dramatically reduce their jail and prison populations.  Some of the reforms contained in the blueprints are readily achievable, while others are going to require audacious change. But all are needed to prioritize people over prisons.”

The state reports provide a snapshot of how reformers cannot take a one-size-fits-all approach to ending mass incarceration.  For example, in Louisiana, because more than one in three people admitted to prison in 2016 were convicted of property offenses and 30 percent of all admissions were for drug offenses, one road that Louisianans could take for reducing their prison population would be reclassifying drug and many property offenses as misdemeanors rather than felonies.

In Pennsylvania, the number of people entering prison for parole violations grew by 56 percent between 2006 and 2016, suggesting that the state’s decarceration strategy should include the improvement of parole and release policies and the implementation of reforms that would drive down the number of people sent to prison due to supervision violations.

Finally, in Michigan, 16 percent of prison admissions are for drug offenses, and a majority of the people (74 percent) imprisoned in Michigan are serving time for offenses involving violence. Thus, to reduce significantly the prison population in Michigan, policymakers must focus more heavily on transforming the way the criminal justice system responds to offenses like robbery and assault, which lead to sentences that have become harsher and longer over the past decade.

The website and the reports were created by utilizing a forecasting tool developed by the Urban Institute, which can be viewed here.

September 5, 2018 in Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (6)

Can Kimme bring "REAL systemic change" to the clemency process? She is with all the right folks at the White House.

After Kim Kardashian West talked Prez Donald Trump to commute the life sentence of a drug offenders (basics here), I am inclined to call her a leading force in modern criminal justice reform. And now, as detailed in this CNN piece, headlined "Kim Kardashian at White House for clemency review session," she is back at the White House preaching the need for systemic reform:

Kim Kardashian West arrived at the White House on Wednesday to discuss sentencing reform and clemency issues with White House officials, two White House officials told CNN. The reality TV star and entrepreneur was not expected to meet with President Donald Trump, one White House official said, though the plans could change.

Kardashian West, who successfully lobbied Trump earlier this summer to commute the sentence of Alice Marie Johnson, a nonviolent drug offender serving a life sentence, returned to the White House on Wednesday for a listening session on clemency issues with White House officials, including the President's son-in-law Jared Kushner.

"Today at the White House, members of the administration are hosting a listening session about the clemency process. The discussion is mainly focused on ways to improve that process to ensure deserving cases receive a fair review," deputy White House press secretary Hogan Gidley said in a statement.

Kardashian West was just one of several prison reform advocates and legal activists at the White House for the listening session on Wednesday, including Van Jones, a CNN political commentator and former adviser to President Barack Obama; Leonard Leo of the Federalist Society; Mark Holden, the general counsel of Koch Industries and Jessica Jackson Sloan, a human rights attorney and prison reform advocate.

Other attendees include Rachel Barkow, Brittany Barnett, Alex Gudich, Shon Hopwood, Paul Larkin, Mark Osler and Kevin Sharp, a former federal judge....

Trump's exercise of that clemency power has so far been on a case-by-case basis and frequently animated by personal loyalty or personal advocacy efforts. The White House is now seeking to create a regular review process for clemency review.

Kardashian West has signaled in recent days that she is taking up another case, appearing on the podcast "Wrongful Conviction" to say that she is now working on the case of Chris Young, who is serving a life sentence related to a drug case due to a mandatory minimum prison sentence.

This report is very encouraging, as is this tweet from Ms. West:

A few of many recent related posts about recent Trumpian clemency activity:

September 5, 2018 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

"Decarceration Strategies: How 5 States Achieved Substantial Prison Population Reductions"

The title of this post is the title of this new 50-page report by The Sentencing Project. Here is the start of its executive summary:

From 1980 until its peak in 2009, the total federal and state prison population of the United States climbed from about 330,000 to more than 1.6 million — a nearly 400% increase  — while the total general population of the country grew by only 36%, and the crime rate fell by 42%.  The catalyst of this prison expansion was policy changes that prioritized “getting tough” on crime. 

The national prison population began a gradual descent after 2009, lessening by nearly 113,000 (6%) from 2009 through 2016.  Several factors contributed to this decline: ongoing decreases in crime rates leading to fewer felony convictions; scaling back “war on drugs” policies; increased interest in evidence-based approaches to sentencing and reentry; and growing concerns about the fiscal cost of corrections and its impact on other state priorities.  The state of California alone was responsible for 36% of the overall population decline, a function of a 2011 U.S. Supreme Court ruling declaring its overcrowded prison system to be unconstitutional and subsequent legislative responses to reduce the use of state incarceration.

Despite the decline, the overall pace of change is quite modest.  A recent analysis documents that at the rate of change from 2009 to 2016 it will take 75 years to reduce the prison population by half.  And while 42 states have experienced declines from their peak prison populations, 20 of these declines are less than 5%, while 8 states are still experiencing rising populations.

To aid policymakers and criminal justice officials in achieving substantial prison population reductions, this report examines the experience of five states – Connecticut, Michigan, Mississippi, Rhode Island, and South Carolina — that have achieved prison population reductions of 14-25%.  This produced a cumulative total of 23,646 fewer people in prison with no adverse effects on public safety. (While a handful of other states have also experienced significant population reductions — including California, New York, and New Jersey —  these have been examined in other publications, and so are not addressed here.

The five states highlighted in this report are geographically and politically diverse and have all enacted a range of shifts in policy and practice to produce these outcomes.  All five were engaged in the Justice Reinvestment Initiative process, spearheaded by the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Council on State Governments, which was designed to work with stakeholders to respond to the driving forces of prison expansion in each state and to develop strategies for change in policy and practice.

This report seeks to inform stakeholders in other states of the range of policy options available to them for significantly reducing their prison population.  While we provide some assessment of the political environment which contributed to these changes, we do not go into great detail in this area since stakeholders will need to make their own determinations of strategy based on the particularities of their state.  We note, though, that the leaders of reform varied among states, and emerged among governors, legislators, criminal justice officials, and advocacy organizations, often benefiting from media coverage and editorial support.

The prison population reductions in these five states were achieved through data-driven policy reforms that pursued bipartisan consensus.  Changes were advanced in the areas of risk and needs assessment, community supervision, alternatives to incarceration, sentencing and sanctions, prison release mechanisms, prisoner reentry and community reintegration.

Five key strategies and practices that were employed in these states are summarized below, followed by extensive reviews for each of the five states.

September 5, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

September 4, 2018

Federal district court finds Louisiana LWOP sentence for low-level recidivist unconstitutionally excessive under Eighth Amendment (and local DA will not appeal to Fifth Circuit)

A helpful reader made sure I did not miss this local press report, headlined "Judge orders release or resentencing of St. Tammany man serving life for burglary," discussing a notable ruling from the federal district court in New Orleans.  Here are the basics:

When he went before a judge in 2010, Patrick Matthews was a 22-year-old father of two who had a criminal record but had never spent a day in prison. But to the office of former north shore District Attorney Walter Reed, he was a hardened criminal who deserved a life sentence as a habitual offender for the crime of simple burglary. Matthews received that sentence with no chance at parole in a state where “life means life.”

Eight years later, Reed is a convicted federal felon, though his case is on appeal. The Legislature has changed the law so that no one could receive a sentence like Matthews’ today, but Matthews himself, now 31, remains behind bars at a prison in St. Gabriel.

On Wednesday, however, U.S. District Judge Nannette Jolivette Brown said Matthews’ life sentence violates the U.S. Constitution’s ban on “cruel and unusual” punishment. She ordered him to be resentenced to a lesser term or released within 120 days.

Current 22nd Judicial District Attorney Warren Montgomery’s office is not appealing Brown’s decision, although prosecutors could still seek to keep him in prison for several years more. Attorney Justin Harrell said his client’s family is ecstatic. “At least there’ll be an end to it, as opposed to that indefinite life sentence,” Harrell said.

Although the federal court ruling hinged on the specific facts of Matthews’ case, it is in line with a larger shift in the past decade away from Louisiana’s strict mandatory minimum sentences. In 2013, the American Civil Liberties Union estimated that 429 people in Louisiana were serving sentences of life without possibility of parole for nonviolent offenses — more than in any other state. Criminal justice reform advocates like the ACLU singled out Matthews as an egregious example of the state’s penchant for sending people away for life for nonviolent offenses.

The Legislature changed the habitual offender law in 2017 to make it less strict. However, those changes did not affect sentences already in place. With his appeals in state court exhausted, Matthews had only the federal courts to ask for mercy.

Brown agreed to adopt the recommendation of Magistrate Judge Janis van Meerveld, who acknowledged that it was rare for the federal courts to weigh in on a state sentence. However, Meerveld said, Matthews presented an unusual case.... Meerveld said she had “no hesitation in finding that a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for a youthful, drug-addicted offender guilty of nothing more than two clusters of minor, nonviolent property crimes crosses the line from merely harsh to grossly disproportionate.”

Prosecutors under both Reed's and Montgomery’s administrations consistently opposed Matthews’ appeals, but lately their stance has changed. In a short brief filed in July, Assistant District Attorney Matthew Caplan replied to a question from the judge as to whether the sentence was grossly disproportionate. “It appears that way,” he said.

As this press account reveals, US District Judge Nannette Jolivette Brown granted relief on "Matthews' excessive sentence claim" on the basis of the recommendation of US Magistrate Judge Janis van Meerveld.  Judge van Meerveld wrote an extended opinion explaining her recommendation in Matthews v. Cain, No. 2:15-cv-00430-NJB (E.D. La. Aug. 13, 2018), and that opinion can be downloaded below (and merits a full read).  Here are some key passages therein (emphasis in original):

Of course, the mere fact that a sentence is harsh does not mean that it is disproportionate.  Nevertheless, the undersigned has no hesitation in finding that a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for a youthful, drug-addicted offender guilty of nothing more than two clusters of minor, nonviolent property crimes crosses the line from merely harsh to grossly disproportionate.  As one scholar has noted: “[T]here is no uglier disproportionality than a man, guilty of a minor crime, banished to a cage for the remainder of his life.”  Craig S. Lerner, Who’s Really Sentenced to Life Without Parole?: Searching for the “Ugly Disproportionalities” in the American Criminal Justice System, 2015 Wis. L. Rev. 789, 793 (2015) (footnote omitted)....

[A]at the time Matthews was sentenced, Louisiana law punished a wide swath of fourth offenders identically, regardless of the nature of their criminal histories.  Accordingly, a fourth offender with a history of nonviolent property crimes, such as Matthews, was treated no differently than a fourth offender with a history of violent crimes and/or serious sex offenses. However, the impropriety of equating such disparate offenders was so apparent that the state has now abandoned that practice.  In fact, as Matthews noted and the respondent did not dispute, an individual with Matthews’ criminal history would not even be eligible for a life sentence as a habitual offender under current Louisiana law.

The undersigned therefore finds that an interjurisdictional comparative analysis likewise supports a conclusion that Matthews’ sentence is unconstitutionally excessive.  It must be noted that this conclusion neither calls into question the general constitutionality of Louisiana’s habitual offender law nor impugns the state’s decision to employ a harsher recidivist sentencing structure than those employed by the vast majority of its sister states.  Rather, it is simply a recognition that even among the minority of states that vigorously punish recidivism, a sentence of life imprisonment without parole for a young, drug-addicted, nonviolent, sporadic burglar who had never been sentenced to a single day in prison for his prior offenses is such an anomaly as to be unconstitutional.

Download Matthews v. Cain excessiveness opinion

September 4, 2018 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Former Enron CEO Jeff Skilling completes his time in federal prison

The name Jeff Skilling still stirs up a lot of sentencing thoughts for me because, 15 years ago, he was portrayed as one of the "worst-of-the-worst" white-collar offenders and he was one of the first very high-profile white-collar defendants to be sentenced after Booker made the guidelines advisory.  Consequently, this new article caught my eye under the headline "Former Enron CEO Jeff Skilling released from prison and sent to a halfway house." Here are the particulars and context:

Jeffrey K. Skilling, the former Enron CEO sentenced to a long prison term for his role in one of most notorious corporate fraud cases in history, was recently released from a minimum security federal prison camp in Alabama to a halfway house at an undisclosed location.

Enron's spectacular collapse cost investors billions of dollars and wiped out the retirement savings — not to mention the jobs — of thousands of employees.  Skilling, 64, was convicted of 12 counts of securities fraud, five counts of making false statements to auditors, one count of insider trading and one count of conspiracy in 2006 for his role in hiding debt and orchestrating a web of financial fraud that ended in the Houston company's bankruptcy.

He was sentenced to 24 years in prison and fined $45 million, the harshest sentence of any former Enron executive.  Five years ago, Skilling's sentence was reduced to 14 years by U.S. District Judge Sim Lake.  He is scheduled to be released Feb. 21, 2019, according to the Bureau of Prisons.

Federal prisoners are often released from prison several months early to a halfway house, a highly restricted dormitory-like setting that helps inmates ease back into society. They must maintain curfews, find work and stay out of trouble.  A. Kelley, assistant residential re-entry manager for the Bureau of Prisons in San Antonio, said the bureau would not say where Skilling is living.

The Bureau of Prisons typically sends inmates to a halfway house in their home city where they resided before incarceration.  It helps them re-acclimate to a more normal life and re-establish relationships with their families, said Philip Hilder, a white-collar defense lawyer who represented Sherron Watkins, a former vice president at Enron who went to then-Enron chairman Kenneth Lay to warn him of accounting irregularities she discovered while reviewing Enron's assets.

Inmates are typically required to get a job while they're at a halfway house and to report regularly to the federal probation department for up to three years, Hilder said. Skilling's lawyer could not be reached for comment.

September 4, 2018 in Celebrity sentencings, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

September 3, 2018

Noticing latest USSC data on retroactive impact of "drugs -2" guideline amendment

Just before the long weekend, I saw that the US Sentencing Commission's website has this new data document titled simply "2014 Drug Guidelines Amendment Retroactivity Data Report." This report, dated August 2018, provides updated "information concerning motions for a reduced sentence pursuant to the retroactive application of Amendment 782. The data in this report reflects all motions decided through July 31, 2018, and for which court documentation was received, coded,and edited at the Commission by August 23, 2018."

The official data in the report indicate that, thanks to the USSC's decision to make Amendment 782 (the so-called "drugs -2" guideline amendment) fully retroactive, now 31,381 federal prisoners have had their federal drug prison sentences reduced by an average of 25 month.  (Notably, this federal register document reports that the "average cost of incarceration for Federal inmates was $34,704.12 ($94.82 per day) in FY 2016 and $36,299.25 ($99.45 per day) in FY 2017."   This "average cost" number is a very imperfect proxy for the actual prison cost savings from reduced sentences resulting from the retroactive drugs-2 guideline amendment, but it suggests federal taxpayers have saved billions in prison costs thanks to drugs -2 retroactivity.)  

Among other impacts, the the drugs -2 amendment and its retroactivity are likely key contributors to a continued decline in the federal prison population.  The amendment was in 2014, and its  retroactivity became effective in November 2015.  In Fiscal Year 2014, the federal prison population clocked in at 214,1495, and in Fiscal Year 2015 the federal prison population was down to 205,723.  By Fiscal Year 2016, the federal prison population dropped all the way down to 192,170; by Fiscal Year 2017, the federal prison population was down further to 185,617.  As as of August 30, 2018, the federal prison population was at 182,797.  (All theses data come from this Bureau of Prisons webpage.)   I keep expecting and waiting for the policies and practices of Attorney General Jeff Sessions to turn around this recent steady decline in the federal prison population, but is seems the "drugs -2" guideline amendment, its retroactivity and other forces have keep a downward pressure on the federal prison population for the time being.

September 3, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (2)

"Giving Guidance to the Guidelines"

The title of this post is the title of this paper by Jelani Jefferson Exum recently posted to SSRN. Here is its abstract:

Throughout the country, we are seeing sentencing reform efforts reshape the way resources are being used to control crime and punish offenders.  Fueled mostly by the practical challenges of overcrowded prisons and mounting costs, lawmakers have been willing to amend existing law in order to reduce incarceration for low-level, nonviolent offenders. This same effort at being “smart on crime” has been embraced by the federal government as well.  While most of these changes are in the form of changes to mandatory minimum laws, the use of evidence-based sentencing practices, and a focus on diversion and re-entry programs, the role that the actual sentencers -- the judges -- play in the process should not be ignored. Any reform of federal sentencing necessarily requires reforming the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines to incorporate those changes.  However, now that the sentencing guidelines are advisory, judges can follow their own policy rationales in deciding what sentences are reasonable for each offender before them.  Therefore, though Congress may have made certain changes to sentencing law, and the Attorney General may have shifted law enforcement and punishment priorities, when it comes to individual sentencing decisions, judges are free to follow their own vision of sentencing reform.

While judicial sentencing discretion has its benefits when it comes to individualizing sentences, unfortunately, judges often do not have enough relevant information to adequately determine what amount and type of punishment is appropriate to achieve punishment goals.  However, my interviews with federal district judges indicate that many judges are very open to receiving such information.  Thus, federal sentencing reform efforts should include the development of a way to effectively deliver information about sentencing goals and purposes to district judges.  The Guidelines could be used to accomplish this task, but that would require allowing the needs of judges to give guidance to the Guidelines.

September 3, 2018 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

September 2, 2018

After 40+ years as a senator, Orrin Hatch now expresses concerns about acquitted conduct to promote Judge Kavanaugh's elevation

I am always pleased when politicians show a willingness to "evolve" on various issues, especially when they evolve toward a position that I embrace.  So I am quite pleased to see this lengthy new SCOTUSblog commentary by Senator Orrin Hatch under the headline "Judge Kavanaugh’s fight for stronger jury rights," which assails "basing prison sentences on conduct for which a defendant has been acquitted by a jury." I recommend the piece in full, and these particular passages justify both praise and follow-up questions:

Kavanaugh’s decisions have spanned the full spectrum of cases and controversies, including those that impinge on the liberty of some of the most overlooked individuals in America — criminal defendants.  One example, especially important to me, is his objection to basing prison sentences on conduct for which a defendant has been acquitted by a jury.  It’s a practice as outrageous as it sounds....

Every single circuit court has found it “reasonable” for a judge to enhance a sentence based on acquitted conduct. This follows the Supreme Court’s 1997 decision in United States v. Watts, which upheld the use of acquitted conduct against a double jeopardy challenge because “a jury’s verdict of acquittal does not prevent the sentencing court from considering conduct underlying the acquitted charge, so long as that conduct has been proved by a preponderance of the evidence.”  The court thought that statutory sentencing ranges would keep sentences proportional to the convicted offenses. But the broad ranges embraced by our criminal code make it easy to separate crime from its punishment....

In the current system, a judge can inflate a defendant’s sentence for a convicted crime to make up for the jury’s decision to acquit him of a separate charge.  Judges should not wield that kind of veto.

​I’m troubled by the consequences this has on the venerated role of juries in criminal justice.  Beyond these policy problems, which are in my purview as a legislator, are constitutional concerns, which have rankled Kavanaugh’s judicial sensibilities. His understanding of the Fifth and Sixth Amendments has caused him to question why “many key facts used to calculate the sentence are still being determined by a judge under a preponderance of the evidence standard, not by a jury beyond a reasonable doubt.”...

I find it remarkable that Kavanaugh, despite his open campaign against the use of acquitted conduct at sentencing, has rebuffed the easy temptation of judicial activism. In the 2015 case United States v. Bell, he agreed that current precedent prevented the D.C. Circuit from reviewing the issue. The only appropriate action, he said, was for sentencing judges to think twice before choosing to consider acquitted conduct.  Only a few months ago, he again wrote separately in an acquitted-conduct case to reaffirm that precedent tied his hands, dissenting in part in United States v. Brown. But he didn’t abandon his drumbeat for change through the proper channels. He concluded, “If th[e] system seems unsound — and there are good reasons to be concerned about the use of acquitted conduct at sentencing, both as a matter of appearance and as a matter of fairness — Congress and the Supreme Court may fix it, as may individual district judges in individual cases.”...

​The Supreme Court’s evolving jurisprudence on the appropriate roles of judge and jury as factfinders for the purpose of sentencing has dovetailed with my own reconsideration of the use of acquitted conduct at sentencing. In the past, I have been supportive of considering all relevant conduct at sentencing, including acquitted conduct.  But Kavanaugh and others have convinced me that this practice must end — as a matter of fundamental fairness if not of constitutional law.  I plan to soon introduce the Acquitted Conduct Sentencing Reform Act, which will stop judges from punishing defendants for crimes for which a jury found them “not guilty.”  The contours of civilization require fairness in our criminal justice system, and the Constitution demands that American men and women hold prosecutors and judges accountable. The role of the jury is central to the Constitution’s protection of individual rights, and it is time for Congress to restore power to the people.

​Sure, it would be much easier to let circuit judges reverse sentences that were based on acquitted conduct. Introducing a bill, as I plan to do, can be tedious and hard work. I’m happy to take on the task for an important issue like this, but meanwhile, defendants are serving time for crimes they didn’t do.  It’s frustrating to me, and it’s frustrating to Kavanaugh. But he has prudently declined to step outside of his constitutional role. Time and time again, he has respected precedent and affirmed the repugnant power of sentencing judges to consider acquitted conduct.  However, Kavanaugh has wisely used his judicial platform to shed light on troubling law that shackles the rights of criminal defendants. His legal acumen, compassion, and respect for the judicial role assure me, and should assure you, that he will be an excellent, fair, and faithful justice.

I could not be more thrilled to hear a prominent experienced Senator calling acquitted conduct sentencing "outrageous" and asserting that "this practice must end."  I am also over the moon to hear that Senator Hatch is soon to introduce the "Acquitted Conduct Sentencing Reform Act," and I sincerely hope some folks have the sense to try to role it into the on-going federal prison and sentencing reform bills working their way through Congress. 

But I have to ask, as follow-up question number one for Senator Hatch, what took you so long?  The ugliness of acquitted conduct sentencing has been on full display since the 1997 Watts decision and your commentary here also references the 2014 dissent from certorari by Justice Antonin Scalia in an acquitted conduct case.  And Judge Kavanaugh has been calling for the barring of acquitted conduct guideline enhancements for nearly a decade.  Moreover, Senator Hatch, you served a chair of the Judiciary Committee at the time Watts was decided and also when Blakely was decided and Booker was before SCOTUS.  For those of use who have long railed against acquitted conduct sentencing, it sure would have been nice to have an ally like you, Senator Hatch, much sooner than a few months before your retirement after more than four decades in charge of helping to make the rules for the federal sentencing system.

That all said, my biggest follow-up question is for every other member of Congress: Are you willing to sign on ASAP to the "Acquitted Conduct Sentencing Reform Act" and commit to making its passage a fitting going-away present for Senator Hatch.  Because I agree with Senator Hatch that acquitted conduct sentencing is "outrageous" and is a practice that "must end," I hope all members of Congress join in on the Senator Hatch acquitted conduct (r)evolution.

A few prior posts with thoughts on sentencing jurisprudence in a post-Justice Kennedy Court:

Previous related posts on the acquitted conduct stressed by Senator Hatch:

September 2, 2018 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (9)

Did the Buffalo Bills cause the Oklahoma City bombing?

The quite silly question in the title of this post is prompted by this remarkable new Politico Magazine piece headlined "How Football Fed Timothy McVeigh’s Despair: The Oklahoma City bomber was once a promising young Gulf War veteran.  His slide into isolation and extremism happened to dovetail with the fate of his beloved Buffalo Bills."  For a host of reasons, I recommend the full Politico piece (which comes from a book by Sam Anderson), which provides context for this closing excerpt from the article:

Just four weeks after that disastrous Super Bowl loss [by the Bills in 1993], McVeigh found and latched onto the cause that would define the rest of his life. A group of citizens in Waco, Texas — a religious cult called the Branch Davidians — had refused to surrender its weapons to the federal government. A standoff ensued, and McVeigh became obsessed. He read and watched everything he could, then loaded his car with anti-government pamphlets and bumper stickers (“When guns are outlawed, I will become an outlaw”) and drove down to see the action firsthand.

He sold his paraphernalia to other militants and gave interviews to the news media in support of the persecuted.  When, some weeks later, the Waco situation went terribly wrong — the FBI set fire to the compound, killing almost everyone inside — McVeigh watched the news footage and wept.  That injustice became the core of his case against the United States government. Revenge became his life’s mission.

I am not saying that Timothy McVeigh bombed Oklahoma City in 1995 because the Buffalo Bills lost four Super Bowls in a row. (They made it back in 1994 and — incredibly — lost that one too, cementing their reputation as the greatest losers in NFL history.)  Such a claim would be absurd. Human motives are incalculably complex.  But that Buffalo heartbreak was one of the many shadows that fell across McVeigh’s life between his unstable childhood and his perpetration of mass murder in Oklahoma City.

The almost unbelievable failure of the Bills, and the civic pain it caused, amplified his native pain. After McVeigh returned from the Gulf War, his Bills fandom was one of the few positive social networks he was able to plug back into, one of the most powerful, stable, visceral communities to which he unquestionably belonged.  Its failure was devastating, to him and to everyone else in the area.  To this day, even well-adjusted Buffalonians walk around imagining alternate lives in which their team actually won four Super Bowls in a row, becoming arguably the greatest team in NFL history, putting the city on the map in a way it otherwise never could have dreamed of.

Or at least won one Super Bowl, securing a happy little foothold in history. Instead, that 1990s Bills team is remembered as a tragic joke.  It’s easy to pretend that sports doesn’t matter in real life, but for many millions of people, it does.  It matters profoundly, every day.  After Super Bowl XXVII, Timothy McVeigh went looking for somewhere else to be, something else to do — something bigger, more meaningful, more real. Reality had failed him, in so many ways, so he went off to pursue his own fantasy of justice, very far from Buffalo.

Criminal justice fans know that, among other echoes, the Oklahoma City bombing played a key role in federal habeas reforms that still matter profoundly every day to just about everyone serving long prison terms.  But beyond spotlighting one legal echo of the worst home-grown terror mass murder of modern history, I thought this article serves as an interesting and important reminder that the roots of evil and violent behavior are often quite varied and unpredictable.

September 2, 2018 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (1)

"Prosecuting in the Shadow of the Jury"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper authored by Anna Offit available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

This article offers an unprecedented empirical window into prosecutorial discretion drawing on long-term participatory research between 2013 and 2017.  The central finding is that jurors play a vital role in federal prosecutors’ decision-making, professional identities, and formulations of justice.  This is because even the remote possibility of lay scrutiny creates an opening for prosecutors to make common sense assessments of (1) the evidence in their cases, (2) the character of witnesses, defendants and victims, and (3) their own moral and professional character as public servants.

By facilitating explicit consideration of the fairness of their cases from a public vantage point, I argue that imagined jurors serve as an ethical resource for prosecutors.  Part I reviews contemporary legal and interdisciplinary research on the declining number of jury trials and prosecutorial discretion in the United States.  Part II describes the ethnographic research method deployed in this case study, noting its unique capacity to document off the record decision-making practices.  Part III presents the empirical findings of this study with attention to how hypothetical jurors inform prosecutors' evaluations of their cases, evidence, investigations, and plea agreement discussions.  Part IV considers several explanations for hypothetical jurors' perceived relevance to prosecutors' work beyond their instrumental and strategic value.  Part V concludes that the U.S. Attorney’s Office that is the subject of this study models the democratizing potential of lay decision-makers, even in hypothetical form.  This finding contributes a novel rationale for fortifying the U.S. jury system and a novel perspective to the study of prosecutorial ethics.

September 2, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)