Monday, December 04, 2017

Latest trial of Michael Slager for killing Walter Scott taking place during his federal sentencing for civil rights offense

As noted in this post from May, after a state mistrial in December 2016, former South Carolina police officer Michael Slager pleaded guilty to a federal civil rights offense as a result of his lethal shooting of Walter Scott.  That resolution all but ensured that continued debate concerning Slager's action would take place during his federal sentencing.  And this local article reporting on the first day of that sentencing highlights that this continued debate is in the form of a kind of mini-trial at sentencing.  Here are some details:

What Walter Scott did during his fatal confrontation with North Charleston officer Michael Slager and what the policeman said afterward quickly became the focus of the first day of Slager’s sentencing hearing.

Slager, 36, already has acknowledged violating Scott’s civil rights by repeatedly shooting the fleeing black man as a bystander filmed the encounter. He pleaded guilty to that in May, but key facts remain in dispute — a point on full display Monday at the federal courthouse in downtown Charleston.

Before hashing out a penalty, a judge must decide this week what underlying offense Slager committed in depriving Scott of his constitutional right to be free of excessive force: murder or voluntary manslaughter. After listening to three government witnesses, the judge gave no initial indication on how he might rule. The proceeding is expected to resume Tuesday morning, possibly with another prosecution witness before the defense takes over.

Prosecutors said Scott was simply trying to escape a traffic stop, and they called eyewitness Feidin Santana to back up their contention that Slager murdered Scott and lied to cover his tracks. They rejected Slager’s explanation for the shooting: that he fired only after Scott took his Taser. “I saw a man just determined to get away and leave,” Santana said of Scott. “Like I say in the video, it was an abuse — something unnecessary.”

It was the second time Santana publicly testified against Slager, whose murder trial in state court ended a year ago with a hung jury. Portions of his latest account in U.S. District Court were geared toward helping Judge David Norton decide whether Scott’s conduct contributed to Slager’s decision to shoot. Prosecutors said no; it was wrong from the moment the officer first pulled the trigger.

But defense lawyers said Scott could have at any point stopped and surrendered, and lead attorney Andy Savage pressed Santana about whether Scott had ever raised his arms and given up. “If that happened,” Santana responded, “we wouldn’t be here.”

Santana’s video footage of the April 4, 2015, killing brought national scrutiny to North Charleston amid a broader examination of police-involved deaths across the country. It also landed Slager in jail on a state murder charge when the cellphone clip emerged publicly three days later.

But the jurors in the state case were unable to agree whether he had committed a crime. At least one of them sat in the courtroom Monday, this time as an observer....

The hearing resembled a trial without the same rules of evidence and procedures that can slow proceedings. And the ultimate arbiter of justice is Norton, who can pick any sentence between no prison time and up to life behind bars.  A pre-sentencing report suggested a term of between 10 and nearly 13 years in prison, but defense attorneys asked the judge Monday for a “significant” departure from those guidelines because of the role Scott played in his own death.

In my prior post about this case after Slager's plea, I calculated based on the government advocating for the court to apply the guidelines for second degree murder and obstruction of justice that Slager would be facing a guideline range of roughly 17 to 22 years of imprisonment. But it would appear that the PSR in this case has urged the court to consider Slager guilty only of voluntary manslaughter for sentencing purposes. Of course, Slager has in fact only pleaded guilty to "a violation of 18 U.S.C. § 242, Deprivation of Rights Under Color of Law," but in the magical world of federal sentencing the offense of conviction still often does not really matter all that much.  In this high-profile case, it will be a judge not a jury tasked with both deciding what crime he really committed and what sentence should go with that crime.

Prior related post:

December 4, 2017 in Advisory Sentencing Guidelines, Blakely in Sentencing Courts, Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in district courts, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Sunday, December 03, 2017

"Disproportionate Impact: An Impetus to Raise the Standard of Proof at Sentencing"

The title of this post is the title of this student note authored by Anthony LoMonaco recently published in the October 2017 issue of the NYU Law Review.  Here is its abstract:

It is well-known that in a criminal trial, the prosecution must prove culpability beyond a reasonable doubt.  But during the subsequent sentencing phase, the standard of proof is much lower: a preponderance of the evidence.  This relatively low standard can lead to a problem known as “disproportionate impact.”  Disproportionate impact occurs when evidence of additional criminal activity is introduced during the sentencing phase and becomes more determinative of the defendant’s punishment than the actual crime of conviction.  Such evidence can subject criminal defendants to significantly more punishment without the safeguards available at a criminal trial, and it may include uncharged and acquitted crimes.

In response to this issue, some circuit courts fashioned an exception to the preponderance rule, raising the standard of proof to the clear and convincing standard to protect the due process rights of criminal defendants. However, use of this exception was curtailed in all circuits but the Ninth when the Supreme Court rendered the Sentencing Guidelines advisory in 2005.  This Note analyzes the lopsided circuit split surrounding the disproportionate impact exception and challenges the notion that the exception is no longer necessary because the Guidelines have become advisory.

December 3, 2017 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, November 19, 2017

"How Congress, the U.S. Sentencing Commission and Federal Judges Contribute to Mass Incarceration"

The title of this post is the title of this recently posted short article by US District Judge Lynn Adelman.  Here is its abstract:

This article argues that each of the major decision-makers in the federal sentencing process, Congress, the United States Sentencing Commission and the federal judiciary contribute substantially to mass incarceration.  The article first discusses how, beginning in the 1960s and continuing for the next three decades, Congress enacted a series of increasingly punitive anti-crime laws. Congress’s focus on crime was inextricably connected to the urban rebellion of the 1960s, and members of both political parties played important roles in passing the harsh legislation. 

Probably the worst of the laws that Congress enacted, and the one that contributed most to mass incarceration, was the mis-named Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 which abolished federal parole and established a commission to promulgate mandatory sentencing guidelines.  The commission proceeded to enact extremely harsh guidelines and virtually preclude sentences of probation.  The article laments how, even after the Supreme Court struck down the mandatory feature of the guidelines, federal judges continue to adhere closely to the guidelines when sentencing defendants.

Finally, the article argues that one of the fundamental problems plaguing federal sentencing is the widespread misconception that the most important indicator of an effective and credible sentencing system is the absence of inter-judge disparity rather than the exercise of informed discretion.

November 19, 2017 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, November 02, 2017

With notable advocates, former Gov Blagojevich bringing notable sentencing issue to SCOTUS

As reported in this local press article, headlined "Imprisoned Blagojevich again asks U.S. Supreme Court to hear his case," a high-profile defendant is bringing an interesting sentencing issue to the Supreme Court. Here are the basics:

Ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich has again appealed his case to the U.S. Supreme Court, his lawyer confirmed Thursday. The former governor’s bid to the high court is among the very few options the imprisoned Democrat has left.

Blagojevich has tried to take his case to the Supreme Court once before. It refused to hear from him early last year, and his new petition is also considered a long-shot. Blagojevich is not due out of prison until May 2024.

The new 133-page filing presents the Supreme Court with two questions: Whether prosecutors in a case like Blagojevich’s must prove a public official made an “explicit promise or undertaking” in exchange for a campaign contribution, and whether more consideration should have been given to sentences handed down in similar cases.

This big cert petition is available at this link, where one can see that Thomas Goldstein and Kevin Russell of SCOTUSblog fame are listed as counsel of record.  And here is how these two astute SCOTUS litigators frame the sentencing issue they are bringing to the Justices in this case:

May a district court decline to address a defendant’s nonfrivolous argument that a shorter sentence is necessary to avoid “unwarranted sentence disparities,” 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a)(6), so long as it issues a sentence within the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines, as the Seventh and Tenth Circuits hold, in conflict with the law of the majority of circuits?

Long-time readers know that I see a whole host of post-Booker 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a) sentencing issues as cert-worthy, but the Justices themselves have not taken up many such cases over the last decade. It is great to see experienced SCOTUS litigators making the case for cert on these kinds of grounds in a high-profile setting, though I think the "long-shot" adjective remains fitting.

November 2, 2017 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

"The History of the Original United States Sentencing Commission, 1985–1987"

the title of this post is the title of this exciting new article about a (never really old) piece of sentencing legal history that I find fascinating. This lengthy article is authored by Brent Newton and Dawinder Sidhu, and here is the abstract:

An eighteen-month period from the fall of 1985 to the spring of 1987 witnessed the most significant change to the federal criminal justice system in American history.  In those eighteen months, the United States Sentencing Commission, a new and novel independent agency in the federal judicial branch, developed sentencing guidelines for all federal judges during the same period when Congress was enacting new mandatory minimum statutory penalties that dramatically increased existing penalties for drug trafficking and firearms offenses.

This Article describes this founding era of structured federal sentencing, beginning with the Commission’s first meeting and ending with the transmittal of the initial Guidelines Manual to Congress on April 13, 1987, for its 180-day review period.  As the guidelines remain the “lodestone” of federal sentencing thirty years later, and as improving the criminal justice system continues to be an important national bipartisan aspiration, a thorough exploration of the history of the original Commission is both timely and important.

Parts II and III of this Article discuss the historical context in which the Commission was created, the key players (Commissioners and staff) during the Commission’s first eighteen months, and the initial policy decisions of the original Commission that are reflected in the Guidelines Manual and that still largely govern federal sentencing today, albeit in an “advisory” rather than a “mandatory” guidelines system. Finally, Part V offers some conclusions about the work of the original Commission.

September 6, 2017 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

Split Tenth Circuit panel finds mandatory five-year prison term for violation of supervised release itself violates Fifth and Sixth Amendments

I just saw that an interesting and  important constitutional procedure opinion was handed down by the Tenth Circuit last week in US v. Haymond, No. 16-5156 (10th Cir. Aug 31, 2017) (available here).  Here is how the panel's majority opinion gets started and some of the opinion's substantive analysis:

The district court revoked Andre Ralph Haymond’s supervised release based in part on a finding that Haymond knowingly possessed thirteen images of child pornography. The district court imposed the mandatory minimum sentence required by 18 U.S.C. § 3583(k). Haymond appeals and argues that the evidence was insufficient to support a finding by a preponderance of the evidence that he possessed child pornography, and that 18 U.S.C. § 3583(k) is unconstitutional because it violates his right to due process.

We conclude that the evidence was sufficient to support the district court’s finding that Haymond violated the conditions of his supervised release, but we agree that 18 U.S.C. § 3583(k) is unconstitutional because it strips the sentencing judge of discretion to impose punishment within the statutorily prescribed range, and it imposes heightened punishment on sex offenders based, not on their original crimes of conviction, but on new conduct for which they have not been convicted by a jury beyond a reasonable doubt. Thus, we affirm the district court’s revocation of Haymond’s supervised release, but we vacate Haymond’s sentence and remand for resentencing....

We conclude that 18 U.S.C. § 3583(k) violates the Fifth and Sixth Amendments because (1) it strips the sentencing judge of discretion to impose punishment within the statutorily prescribed range, and (2) it imposes heightened punishment on sex offenders expressly based, not on their original crimes of conviction, but on new conduct for which they have not been convicted by a jury beyond a reasonable doubt and for which they may be separately charged, convicted, and punished....

By requiring a mandatory term of reimprisonment, 18 U.S.C. § 3583(k) increases the minimum sentence to which a defendant may be subjected. For example, when Haymond was originally convicted by a jury, the sentencing judge was authorized to impose a term of imprisonment between zero and ten years.  See 18 U.S.C. § 2252(b)(2). After the judge found, by a preponderance of the evidence, however, that Haymond had violated a particular condition of his supervised release, the mandatory provision in § 3583(k) required that Haymond be sentenced to a term of reincarceration of at least five years, up to a maximum term of life. This unquestionably increased the mandatory minimum sentence of incarceration to which he was exposed from no years to five years, yet the jury did not make the factual finding required to change his statutorily prescribed sentencing range. Instead, that finding was made by a judge by only a preponderance of the evidence. This violates the Sixth Amendment....

In Johnson v. United States, 529 U.S. 694 (2000), the Supreme Court made clear that, in order to avoid serious constitutional concerns, revocation of supervised release must be viewed as punishment for the original crime of conviction, not as punishment for the violation of the conditions of supervised release....

Regardless of the nature or severity of the defendant’s original crime of conviction, § 3583(k) imposes a mandatory minimum five-year term of imprisonment for only those specific offenses enumerated, while all other violations are subject to the maximum terms set in § 3583(e)(3). By separating these crimes from other violations, § 3583(k) imposes a heightened penalty that must be viewed, at least in part, as punishment for the subsequent conduct — conduct for which the defendant has not been tried by a jury or found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.  This, the Court has said, is not permitted. 

To be sure, the sentencing judge can and, according to the Sentencing Guidelines, should consider the severity of the conduct by which a defendant violated the conditions of his or her supervised release.  A more serious violation might well recommend a longer term of reimprisonment.  But, if we wish to maintain the premise that revocation of supervised release is a punishment for the original crime of conviction, Congress must set the authorized term of reimprisonment based on the severity of that original crime.

Notably, Judge Kelly dissents in part because he is (reasonably) concerned that the majority's reasoning might impact any and all judicial fact-finding supporting the revocation of supervised release:

Were the court correct [in its constitutional analysis], the problem it identifies seems like it would be true of all revocation proceedings: if a defendant is sentenced to any term of supervised release, the fact that the release can then be revoked and the defendant be sent back to prison for an additional term means that “the penalty to which a defendant may be subjected” has been increased based on facts not found by a jury. Id. (emphasis added).

In other words, unless either (a) all revocation proceedings must empanel juries for fact-finding (which the Supreme Court, with good reason, has told us is not the case) or (b) the revocation proceeding is treated as a new criminal prosecution (which the Supreme Court also has told us is not the case), it is hard to understand why under current precedent Booker would apply but Apprendi and Alleyne would not. While postrevocation penalties might be considered attributable to the original conviction, the revocation proceeding is neither part of that criminal prosecution nor is it a new criminal prosecution. See Johnson, 529 U.S. at 700....

[According to the majority], the distinction, apparently, is that the terms of revocation differ based on what kind of new crime the defendant committed. But I see no reason why Congress cannot make that distinction. As the Sentencing Guidelines explain, under the “breach of trust” theory applicable to the revocation of supervised release, “the nature of the conduct leading to the revocation [can] be considered in measuring the extent of the breach of trust.” U.S. Sentencing Guidelines Manual § 7A3(b) (2016). In my view, Congress can determine that the commission of certain crimes constitutes a more serious breach of trust warranting a longer term of revocation. Doing so does not thereby make the revocation proceeding a new criminal prosecution....

Ultimately, we should not jump ahead of the Supreme Court when it has already spoken on this issue. Any tension between the supervised release scheme approved in Johnson and the rationale of the Apprendi / Booker line of cases is for the Supreme Court itself to resolve.

Ever since the Supreme Court got serious about applying its Apprendi doctrine to various sentencing determinations in cases like Blakely and Booker, I have thought the judicial fact-finding that takes place in federal supervised release proceedings were on constitutionally shaky grounds.  Or, to parrot Judge Kelly's final statment, I have long believed that there is significant tension between the supervised release scheme approved in Johnson and the rationale of the Apprendi / Booker line of cases.  But, in various settings, various lower federal courts have found various ways to uphold the judicial fact-finding involved in supervised release revocations — revocations that result in a significant number of federal defendants getting sent back to prison.  (This 2010 USSC report found that roughly 1/3 of all released federal prisoners get revoked and sent back to prison, and that 6% of the federal prison population are serving revocation terms.)

It will be very interest to watch if the Justice Department seeks en banc or SCOTUS review of this Tenth Circuit ruling.  I hope they will, in part because this case seems like it might just get SCOTUS to finally take a look at what its modern Fifth and Sixth Amendment doctrines should mean for supervised release revocation proceedings.

September 5, 2017 in Blakely Commentary and News, Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, August 03, 2017

"Justice Thomas, Criminal Justice, and Originalism’s Legitimacy"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new essay authored by Judge William Pryor as part of a Yale Law Journal Forum collections of essays under the heading "Justice Thomas: Twenty-Five Years on the Supreme Court."  The essay covers lots of elements of Justice Thomas's criminal justice jurisprudence, and I recommend the piece in full.  And especially because Judge Pryor is the current Acting Chair of the US Sentencing Commission, I figure sentencing fans might find this passage from the essay interesting:

A second area where Justices Thomas and Scalia agreed on a legal rule but disagreed on how to apply it was in determining whether statutory mandatory minimum sentences violated the right to a jury trial. Both Justices agreed with the rule established in Apprendi v. New Jersey that any fact, other than a prior conviction, that increases the penalty for a crime beyond the statutory maximum must be proved to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt. And both voted to invalidate mandatory sentencing guidelines that required judges to find facts that would increase sentencing ranges. But the Justices disagreed about why mandatory sentencing guidelines were problematic. Justice Scalia saw the problem as permitting fact-finding to increase the ceiling of a judge’s discretion in a way that could disadvantage a defendant. Justice Thomas, on the other hand, saw the problem as changing the range of discretion, even if the sentencing ceiling remained unchanged.

This difference led the Justices to opposite positions in Alleyne, discussed above. Justice Thomas wrote for the majority that facts that trigger statutory mandatory minimum sentences must be proved to a jury because the facts “alter the prescribed range of sentences to which a defendant is exposed and do so in a manner that aggravates the punishment.” Justice Scalia joined a dissent written by Chief Justice Roberts that viewed the application of a statutory mandatory minimum as a limit on the discretion of the judge that in no way affected the role of the jury.

As an aside, I respectfully disagree with both Justices Scalia’s and Thomas’s decisions to join in the majority opinions in Blakely and Booker, the foundational decisions underlying Alleyne. The notion that mandatory guidelines that regulate judicial discretion within a statutory range of punishment to reduce sentencing disparities somehow violates a defendant’s right to a jury trial even though it is entirely permissible for judges, in an indeterminate system, to find sentencing facts and impose punishments anywhere within a broad statutory range has never made sense to me. I side with another Yalie, Justice Samuel Alito, on that one. But accepting the logic of Blakely and Booker that the Sixth Amendment requires a jury to find all facts essential to the potential penalty, only Justice Thomas’s position in Alleyne makes sense.

August 3, 2017 in Blakely Commentary and News, Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, July 14, 2017

Is there much to — or much to say about — reasonableness review a decade after Rita, Gall, and Kimbrough?

The question in the title of this post was the one kicking around my head as I reviewed a DC Circuit sentencing opinion handed down last week in US v. Pyles, No. 14-3069 (DC Cir. July 7, 2017) (available here). A helpful reader made sure I did not miss this lengthy opinion (nearly 50 pages), in which the panel splits over the reasonableness of a (nearly-top-of-the-guideline-range) sentence of 132-months imprisonment for child pornography distribution.   In addition to finding generally reasonable the extended reasonableness discussion of both the majority and the dissent in Pyles, I was struck by how the discussion and debate over the nature and operation of reasonableness review has really not changed much at all in the 10 years since the Supreme Court gave us Rita, Gall, and Kimbrough.

I am not sure anyone should have expected many major jurisprudential developments in the circuit courts after Rita, Gall, and Kimbrough. But, on this summer Friday morning, I am struggling to really think of any major reasonableness review developments. Though there are some important specific rulings from specific circuits on specific issues (like the Dorvee ruling on child porn sentencings from the Second Circuit), I am not sure I could describe any defining characteristics  of reasonableness review circa 2017 that is distinct in any big way from the basic reasonableness review template set by Rita, Gall, and Kimbrough in 2007.

I would especially like to hear from federal practitioners about whether I might be missing something obvious or subtle when noting the seemingly staid nature of reasonableness review jurisprudence over the last decade.  What really strikes me in this context is the fact that debates over federal sentencing laws, polices and practices have been anything but staid over the last decade even as reasonableness jurisprudence has sailed forward ever so smoothly.

July 14, 2017 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in the Circuits, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Monday, May 15, 2017

One last chance to RSVP for "Behind the Bench: The Past, Present, and Future of Federal Sentencing"

FSRAs mentioned in this prior post, I will be attending this exciting afternoon event, titled "Behind the Bench: The Past, Present, and Future of Federal Sentencing," which is taking place this Wednesday (5/17) in Washington DC.  I considered the event quite timely when I posted about it last week, but the discussions generated by Attorney General Jeff Sessions new charging memo for federal prosecutors only serves to add an extra-timely dimension to the topics to be discussed.

As mentioned before, this event emerges from a thoughtful and provocative federal sentencing reform proposal put forward by current Acting US Sentencing Commission Chair Judge William Pryor (in part because that he graciously allowed this proposal to published in the Federal Sentencing Reporter).  Through my work with FSR, I played a small  role in getting this event off the ground, and here is the event's description from this webpage where one can register to attend:

Thirty years ago, the U.S. Sentencing Commission established the first-ever set of federal sentencing guidelines. Those initial Guidelines received a chilly reception as more than 200 federal judges found them unconstitutional.  Although the Supreme Court’s United States v. Booker decision in 2005 upheld the basic structure of the Guidelines, it recast them as “effectively advisory” to allow judges to continue applying the Guidelines consistent with new Sixth Amendment jurisprudence.

The Booker ruling stated Congress was free to devise a different system moving forward.  More than a dozen years and nearly a million federal sentences later, Congress has yet to act despite diverse criticisms of the Supreme Court’s advisory sentencing scheme.  This spotlights an enduring question: What is the proper relationship between the legislative and judicial branches in determining sentencing policy?

On May 17, please join the Charles Koch Institute, the Federal Sentencing Reporter, and the Law & Economics Center at George Mason University Antonin Scalia Law School as we explore this question and discuss how we can learn from the past to improve present and future federal sentencing policy.

KEYNOTE SPEAKER: Judge William H. Pryor

MODERATED DISCUSSION: Judge Ricardo H. Hinojosa and Judge Patti B. Saris

MODERATOR: Vikrant P. Reddy

Date: May 17

Time: 12:00 pm - 2:45 pm

I have been told that there is still a little bit of the limited space available, so folks interested in attending what ought to be a very interesting afternoon of federal sentencing discussion should still be sure to register via this webpage ASAP.

May 15, 2017 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

"Behind the Bench: The Past, Present, and Future of Federal Sentencing"

The title of this post is the name of this exciting afternoon event taking place next week in Washington DC.  The event emerges from a thoughtful and provocative federal sentencing reform proposal put forward by current Acting US Sentencing Commission Chair Judge WIlliam Pryor (in part because that he graciously allowed this proposal to published in the Federal Sentencing Reporter).  Through my work with FSR, I played a small  role in getting this event off the ground, and here is the event's description from this webpage where one can register to attend:

Thirty years ago, the U.S. Sentencing Commission established the first-ever set of federal sentencing guidelines. Those initial Guidelines received a chilly reception as more than 200 federal judges found them unconstitutional.  Although the Supreme Court’s United States v. Booker decision in 2005 upheld the basic structure of the Guidelines, it recast them as “effectively advisory” to allow judges to continue applying the Guidelines consistent with new Sixth Amendment jurisprudence.

The Booker ruling stated Congress was free to devise a different system moving forward.  More than a dozen years and nearly a million federal sentences later, Congress has yet to act despite diverse criticisms of the Supreme Court’s advisory sentencing scheme.  This spotlights an enduring question: What is the proper relationship between the legislative and judicial branches in determining sentencing policy?

On May 17, please join the Charles Koch Institute, the Federal Sentencing Reporter, and the Law & Economics Center at George Mason University Antonin Scalia Law School as we explore this question and discuss how we can learn from the past to improve present and future federal sentencing policy.

KEYNOTE SPEAKER: Judge William H. Pryor

MODERATED DISCUSSION: Judge Ricardo H. Hinojosa and Judge Patti B. Saris

MODERATOR: Vikrant P. Reddy

Date: May 17

Time: 12:00 pm - 2:45 pm

I have been told that space is limited so folks interested in attending what ought to be a very interesting afternoon of federal sentencing discussion ought to be sure to register via this webpage ASAP.

May 10, 2017 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Monday, April 03, 2017

Supreme Court unanimously rules for defendant and district court sentencing discretion in Dean

I am intrigued and surprised and ultimately pleased that a unanimous Supreme Court this morning emphasized the significance of federal district court sentencing discretion through its ruling in Dean v. United States, No. 15-9260 (April 3, 2017) (available here). The Chief Justice authored a relatively brief opinion for the Court in Dean that was obviously convincing enough to get even the most pro-prosecution Justices comfortable with ruling against the prosecution.  Here are some key parts of the opinion, starting with the first paragraph that signals where the rest is headed:

Congress has made it a separate offense to use or possess a firearm in connection with a violent or drug trafficking crime. 18 U. S. C. §924(c). That separate firearm offense carries a mandatory minimum sentence of five years for the first conviction and 25 years for a second. Those sentences must be in addition to and consecutive to the sentence for the underlying predicate offense. The question presented is whether, in calculating the sentence for the predicate offense, a judge must ignore the fact that the defendant will serve the mandatory minimums imposed under §924(c)....

The §3553(a) factors are used to set both the length of separate prison terms and an aggregate prison term comprising separate sentences for multiple counts of conviction. Under §3582 a court, “in determining whether to impose a term of imprisonment, and, if a term of imprisonment is to be imposed, in determining the length of the term, shall consider the factors set forth in section 3553(a).”...

As a general matter, the foregoing provisions permit a court imposing a sentence on one count of conviction to consider sentences imposed on other counts....

The Government speaks of Congress’s intent to prevent district courts from bottoming out sentences for predicate §924(c) offenses whenever they think a mandatory minimum under §924(c) is already punishment enough.  But no such intent finds expression in the language of §924(c).  That language simply requires any mandatory minimum under §924(c) to be imposed “in addition to” the sentence for the predicate offense, and to run consecutively to that sentence.  Nothing in those requirements prevents a sentencing court from considering a mandatory minimum under §924(c) when calculating an appropriate sentence for the predicate offense.

April 3, 2017 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in district courts, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

"Booker Disparity and Data-Driven Sentencing"

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

Sentencing disparity among similar offenders has increased at a disconcerting rate over the last decade.  Some judges issue sentences twice as harsh as peer judges, meaning that a defendant’s sentence substantially depends on which judge is randomly assigned to a case.  The old mandatory sentencing guidelines repressed disparity but only by causing unwarranted uniformity.  The advisory guidelines swing the pendulum toward the opposite extreme, and this problem promises to grow worse as the lingering effect of the old regime continues to decrease.

This Article is the first to propose a system — data-driven appellate review — that curbs sentencing disparity without re-introducing unwarranted uniformity.  Congress should establish a rebuttable presumption that outlier sentences among similar offenders are unreasonable.  The U.S. Sentencing Commission collects data on over 70,000 criminal cases annually.  This data provides the tool for defining categories of similar offenders.  Culling outlier sentences through data-driven appellate review would increase judicial awareness of sentences issued by peer judges and would therefore curb the increase in inter-judge disparity without resorting to unwarranted uniformity.

March 7, 2017 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Highlighting the notable absence of criminal trials in a high-profile federal district court ... thanks to the modern "trial penalty"

Jury1Yesterday's New York Times had this article on the modern reality of negotiated federal criminal justice headlined "Trial by Jury, a Hallowed American Right, Is Vanishing."  Here are excerpts:

The criminal trial ended more than two and a half years ago, but Judge Jesse M. Furman can still vividly recall the case.  It stands out, not because of the defendant or the subject matter, but because of its rarity: In his four-plus years on the bench in Federal District Court in Manhattan, it was his only criminal jury trial.

He is far from alone. Judge J. Paul Oetken, in half a decade on that bench, has had four criminal trials, including one that was repeated after a jury deadlocked.  For Judge Lewis A. Kaplan, who has handled some of the nation’s most important terrorism cases, it has been 18 months since his last criminal jury trial.  “It’s a loss,” Judge Kaplan said, “because when one thinks of the American system of justice, one thinks of justice being administered by juries of our peers. And to the extent that there’s a decline in criminal jury trials, that is happening less frequently.”

The national decline in trials, both criminal and civil, has been noted in law journal articles, bar association studies and judicial opinions.  But recently, in the two federal courthouses in Manhattan and a third in White Plains (known collectively as the Southern District of New York), the vanishing of criminal jury trials has never seemed so pronounced.  The Southern District held only 50 criminal jury trials last year, the lowest since 2004, according to data provided by the court.  The pace remains slow this year.

In 2005, records show, there were more than double the number of trials: 106. And decades ago, legal experts said, the numbers were much higher. “It’s hugely disappointing,” said Judge Jed S. Rakoff, a 20-year veteran of the Manhattan federal bench. “A trial is the one place where the system really gets tested.  Everything else is done behind closed doors.”

Legal experts attribute the decline primarily to the advent of the congressional sentencing guidelines and the increased use of mandatory minimum sentences, which transferred power to prosecutors, and discouraged defendants from going to trial, where, if convicted, they might face harsher sentences.  “This is what jury trials were supposed to be a check against — the potential abuse of the use of prosecutorial power,” said Frederick P. Hafetz, a defense lawyer and a former chief of the criminal division of the United States attorney’s office in Manhattan, who is researching the issue of declining trials.

Julia L. Gatto, a federal public defender, recalled the case of Oumar Issa, a Malian arrested in Africa in a 2009 sting operation on charges of narco-terrorism conspiracy, which carried a mandatory minimum 20-year sentence, and conspiring to support a terrorist organization, which had no minimum.  Although Ms. Gatto and her client believed that elements of the case were weak and that there were strongly mitigating circumstances, Mr. Issa concluded that the risk of going to trial was too high.  He pleaded guilty in 2012 to material support, with prosecutors dropping the other charge.  He received 57 months in prison. “It was the only thing he could do,” Ms. Gatto said. “His hands were tied.”

In 1997, according to federal courts data nationwide, 3,200 of 63,000 federal defendants were convicted in jury trials; in 2015, there were only 1,650 jury convictions, out of 81,000 defendants....

Judge P. Kevin Castel, who helped to organize the court’s 225th anniversary celebration in 2014, recalled taking a friend, Mary Noe, a legal studies professor at St. John’s University, to see an exhibit of courtroom illustrations documenting Southern District trial scenes of past decades.  But as they reached the end, Professor Noe observed that the sketches of more recent defendants, like Bernard L. Madoff and the would-be Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad showed them pleading guilty.  “I was like, what happened to the trials?” she recalled.

Judge Analisa Torres said she had felt the difference ever since joining the federal bench in 2013.  Judge Torres, a former state court judge who handled about two dozen criminal trials a year in Manhattan and the Bronx, said she has since had just a few such trials. “It’s day and night,” she said. On the state bench, she said, she spent her entire day in the courtroom but for the lunch hour. “Now, I am in chambers all day long.”

This article rightfully suggests that the vanishing jury trial is a sentencing story related to the distinctive severity of federal statutes and guidelines and the impact of the modern "trial penalty" in federal courts. Competent defense attorneys have to tell their federal clients that the decision to test the government's evidence at trial will almost always risk adding years, if not decades, to any eventual federal sentence on any charge that produces a conviction.

It is ironic, but not really surprising, that this problem has only gotten worse since the Blakely and Booker SCOTUS rulings a decade ago made much of a defendant's Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial.  Had the Booker court adopted a "jury trial" remedy to "fix" federal guideline sentencing rather than the advisory remedy, we likely would have seen an increase in jury trials focused on specific guideline enhancements (especially in fraud and other kinds of high-profile cases more common in the Southern District of New York).  In addition, modern federal sentencing doctrines that diminish the need for and significance of jury determinations — like guideline anhancements based on "acquitted conduct" and "uncharged conduct" and "relevant conduct" — would be no more.

It is also disconcerting, but not surprising, that federal district judges are now so quick to lament the lack of jury trials, but are still so slow to explore their powers and opportunities to encourage more trials.  Though subject to some legal uncertainty (and sure to generate some federal prosecutorial pushback), federal judges still could today consider requiring limited jury trials to aid the resolution of any major factual disputes that have major guideline sentencing consequences.  Notably, in other high-profile settings, especially with respect to the death penalty and fraud sentencings and collateral consequences, SDNY federal district judges have been willing to test the reach and limits of thier judicial authority to move the law forward as they see fit.  If these judges really lament the vanishing criminal trial so much, they can and should be more aggressively exploring just what they might be able to do about this problem.

August 9, 2016 in Blakely Commentary and News, Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in district courts, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Making a friendly pitch for SCOTUS to consider constitutional limits on extreme judicial sentencing increase based on uncharged homicide

Regular readers know that I have long been troubled by significant sentence increases by judges based on so-called acquitted conduct, and that I have filed a number of federal appellate briefs articulating my concerns. Building on some of that prior work, I recently had a chance to work on an amicus brief in support of certiorari in Hebert v. US, a case out of the Fifth Circuit involving an extreme sentence increase based on uncharged conduct. The full amicus (which the fine folks at the Jones Day in DC made so fine) can be downloaded below, and here are excerpts from its start providing context and key arguments:

It is difficult to imagine a starker violation of the Sixth Amendment and due process than what transpired below. Mr. Hebert pleaded guilty to a $16,000 fraud that carried a guidelines range topping out at 5 years.  After persuading Mr. Hebert to admit responsibility for his fraud and accept punishment for that crime, the Government ambushed him at sentencing by asserting that he had committed an intentional murder along with the fraud to which he had confessed. The Government then asked the district court to find it was more likely than not that Mr. Hebert committed this un-charged, non-admitted, never-convicted, non-federal crime. Then, on the basis of that judicial determination, the district court gave Mr. Hebert a 92-year sentence — a sentence the Government has conceded and the Fifth Circuit recognized “would have been substantively unreasonable under the post-Booker sentencing regime absent a judicial finding of murder,” Pet.App.22a — again, a crime with which Mr. Hebert has never even been charged.

Because Mr. Hebert has never been charged with — much less convicted of — murder, he remains entirely innocent of that crime. If the Government wishes to convict Mr. Hebert of murder, it is welcome to try.  But what it cannot do is use Mr. Hebert’s confession to lesser crimes as the springboard for de facto convicting him of a far more serious crime in a judicial proceeding with no jury, the civil standard of proof, and none of the criminal justice system’s fundamental rules and procedures....

There are at least two constitutional provisions that, under this Court’s well-established jurisprudence, forbid this inverted regime.  First, this Court has made clear that a criminal defendant has a Sixth Amendment “right to have a jury find the facts behind his punishment.” Hurst v. Florida, 136 S. Ct. 616, 621 (2016).  That right reflects the vital role of the jury as the “circuitbreaker in the State’s machinery of justice” — a role that cannot be “relegated to making a determination that the defendant at some point did something wrong [as] a mere preliminary to a judicial inquisition into the facts of the crime the State actually seeks to punish.” Blakely v. Washington, 542 U.S. 296, 306–07 (2004).  The Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial is a constitutional protection of “surpassing importance,” Apprendi, 530 U.S. at 476, yet the decision below makes a mockery of it....

Second, this Court has long recognized that due process forbids grossly unfair procedures when a person’s liberty is at stake. Specifically, this Court has indicated that (1) judges are sometimes limited from imposing distinct new punishments based on “a new finding of fact that was not an ingredient of the offense charged,” Specht v. Patterson, 386 U.S. 605, 608 (1967) (citation omitted); (2) the “safeguards of due process” in criminal cases are “concerned with substance rather than [any] kind of formalism,” Mullaney v. Wilbur, 421 U.S. 684, 698–99 (1975); and (3) constitutional concerns are raised whenever sentencing findings become “a tail which wags the dog of the substantive offense,” or when the government restructures criminal prosecutions “to ‘evade’ the commands” of the Constitution. McMillan v. Pennsylvania, 477 U.S. 79, 88–89 (1986).

The simple principle that unifies these decisions is fatal to the legal rule embraced below: Due process forbids prosecutors from manipulating the criminal justice system to evade its core protections.  Applied here, that principle barred prosecutors from waylaying Mr. Hebert at sentencing with allegations of a far more serious crime for which he has never been indicted or convicted — allegations that depend, moreover, on evidence which the prosecutors were apparently unwilling to subject to the crucible of a criminal trial or test against the burden of proof they must carry there.  Due process demands more.

Download Berman Amicus in Support of Cert in Hebert

May 25, 2016 in Blakely in the Supreme Court, Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in the Circuits, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (17)

Monday, April 25, 2016

New speech by Justice John Paul Stevens reflects on Justice Antonin Scalia and the Court's constitutional work before and after Apprendi

A helpful reader alerted me to this notable new speech given today by Justice John Paul Stevens at the Washington University School of Law. The speech is titled "Some Thoughts about a Former Colleague," and much of the discussion is a review of the McMillan, Watts, Apprendi, Harris, Blakely, Alleyne and Hurst decisions from the Supreme Court over the last three decades.  The speech also notes disagreements between Justices Stevens and Scalia in the Second and Eighth Amendment contexts, and concludes with some comments about original intent as a mode of constitutional interpretations.

My quick review of the speech did not lead me to find any surprising revelations, but it did lead me to conclude that Justice Stevens is pleased that, in his words, a "consensus [] has developed around Apprendi's rule since it was first announced in a 5-4 decision 16 years ago."  I also found quite notable that the Booker decision did not get any mention in the discussion.

April 25, 2016 in Blakely in the Supreme Court, Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Lots of interesting post-Booker guideline talk as federal defendant gets another sentencing win from SCOTUS

The Supreme Court today handed down its opinon this morning in Molina-Martinez v. US, No. 14-8913 (S. Ct. April 20, 2016) (available here), a little case about the application of plain error review of guideline calculation errors.  Excitingly, because the majority opinion authored by Justice Kennedy has lots of dicta about post-Booker sentencing, and because a concurrence by Justice Alito complains about some of that dicta, Molina-Martinez is now a must-read for all sentencing practitioners.  

I will likely have some further commentary about Molina-Martinez after I get a chance to read it thoroughly.  In the meantime, here are a couple of key passages from the majority opinion:

This case involves the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. In sentencing petitioner, the District Court applied a Guidelines range higher than the applicable one. The error went unnoticed by the court and the parties, so no timely objection was entered. The error was first noted when, during briefing to the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, petitioner himself raised the mistake. The Court of Appeals refused to correct the error because, in its view, petitioner could not establish a reasonable probability that but for the error he would have received a different sentence. Under that court’s decisions, if a defendant’s ultimate sentence falls within what would have been the correct Guidelines range, the defendant, on appeal, must identify “additional evidence” to show that use of the incorrect Guidelines range did in fact affect his sentence. Absent that evidence, in the Court of Appeals’ view, a defendant who is sentenced under an incorrect range but whose sentence is also within what would have been the correct range cannot demonstrate he has been prejudiced by the error....

The Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit stands generally apart from other Courts of Appeals with respect to its consideration of unpreserved Guidelines errors. This Court now holds that its approach is incorrect.

Nothing in the text of Rule 52(b), its rationale, or the Court’s precedents supports a requirement that a defendant seeking appellate review of an unpreserved Guidelines error make some further showing of prejudice beyond the fact that the erroneous, and higher, Guidelines range set the wrong framework for the sentencing proceedings. This is so even if the ultimate sentence falls within both the correct and incorrect range. When a defendant is sentenced under an incorrect Guidelines range—whether or not the defendant’s ultimate sentence falls within the correct range—the error itself can, and most often will, be sufficient to show a reasonable probability of a different outcome absent the error....

In the ordinary case the Guidelines accomplish their purpose. They serve as the starting point for the district court’s decision and anchor the court’s discretion in selecting an appropriate sentence. It follows, then, that in most cases the Guidelines range will affect the sentence. When that is so, a defendant sentenced under an incorrect Guidelines range should be able to rely on that fact to show a reasonable probability that the district court would have imposed a different sentence under the correct range. That probability is all that is needed to establish an effect on substantial rights for purposes of obtaining relief under Rule 52(b).

And here is the start of the concurrence authored by Justice Alito:

I agree with the Court that the Fifth Circuit’s rigid approach to unpreserved Guidelines errors is incorrect. And I agree that petitioner has shown a reasonable probability that the District Court would have imposed a different sentence in his case if his recommended Guidelines sentence had been accurately calculated. Unlike the Court, however, I would not speculate about how often the reasonable probability test will be satisfied in future cases. The Court’s predictions in dicta about how plain-error review will play out are predicated on the view that sentencing judges will continue to rely very heavily on the Guidelines in the future, but that prediction may not turn out to be accurate. We should not make predictions about the future effects of Guidelines errors, particularly since some may misunderstand those predictions as veiled directives.

April 20, 2016 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

Has DOJ decided not to appeal Judge Weinstein's recent notable decision in US v. RV to give no prison time to child porn downloaded?

The question in the title of this post is a follow-up to my speculations here about the post-Booker challenges that face federal prosecutors when a district judge gives a very leinent sentence that they dislike.  Specifically, after blogging about US District Judge Jack Weinstein's decision in US v. RV to give a waaaaaaaay-below-guideline sentence in a child porn downloading case, I suggested the Justice Department would struggle with the decision whether to appeal this lenient sentencing ruling to the Second Circuit because of the Second Cicuit's significant 2010 Dorvee ruling which stressed the "irrationality" of the child porn guidelines.

When I posted about US v. RV, my pal Bill Otis seemed to think my appellate speculations here were waaaaaaaay off the mark.  Over in this lengthy post at Crime & Consequences, Bill Otis asserted that my speculation revealed that I know "almost nothing about the workings of US Attorneys' Offices."   Bill went further even in this post, stating repeatedly that he would eagerly "bet $500 here and now that Weirstein [sic] is again going to get reversed in the Second Circuit, again without garnering a single vote."

I did not take up Bill's bet for a number of reasons: (1) I wanted to read Judge Weinstein's 90+ page sentencing opinion in full before speculating on the fate of the decision in RV, (2) based on what Judge Weinstein wrote, I might be inclined to participate in an amicus effort in the Second Circuit if/when DOJ appealed, and (3) I find it a bit unsavory (and perhaps unethical) to make big cash bets on the fate of a real legal case, especially in an area of law I hope to infuence.  But now, as the title of this post hints, I think it may turn out that a lot of us should have taken Bill's bet because it seems, based on my limited research skills, that DOJ has decided not to appeal Judge Weinstein's sentencing decision in RV.

Because I am bad at researching appellate dockets, and also because the process for when and how the Justice Department makes appellate decisions is quite opaque in various ways, I do not yet want to crow about being right here that DOJ did not want to appeal this decision and risk its affirmance by the Second Circuit.  But I am hoping, perhaps with the help of readers, I can soon confirm that the Second Circuit will not be reversing RV because federal prosecutors have decided not to appeal the decision. (Needless to say, I am somewhat excited about the possibility of demonstrating that I now actually do know a lot more than Bill Otis "about the workings of US Attorneys' Offices" even though I have never worked in such an office and Bill spent most of his professional life in these offices.)  If it does turn out true that DOJ has decided not to appeal in US v. RV, I think this discretionary prosecutorial decision is itself a very interesting and important bit of evidence concerning how post-Booker reasonableness review works (and doesn't work) to iron out sentencing disparties in CP downloading cases and many others.

Prior related posts about recent notable CP cases from the EDNY:

March 1, 2016 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Second Circuit panel laments the "Statement of Reasons" form used by sentencing judges

A helpful reader made sure I did not miss the interesting sentencing opinion handed down by the Second Circuit yesterday in US v. Pruitt, No. 14‐1921 (2d Cir. Feb. 1, 2016) (available here).  Authored by District Judge John Gleeson sitting by designation, here is how the Pruitt opinion gets started:

Kaylon Pruitt appeals from the May 29, 2014 judgment of conviction entered against him in the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York (Suddaby, J.).  Pruitt was sentenced principally to a 46‐month term of imprisonment on his plea of guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g).  He contends that the district court committed procedural error during his sentencing by failing to explain the reasons for the sentence, as required by 18 U.S.C. § 3553(c).

We affirm but write to suggest to the United States Sentencing Commission and the Judicial Conference of the United States that the Statement of Reasons form included within the statutorily‐required form for the entry of criminal judgments ‐‐ Form AO 245B ‐‐ be amended to bring it into conformity with § 3553(c) and Supreme Court precedent.  Specifically, a check‐a‐box section of the form, which was checked by the district court in this case, invites sentencing judges to impose a sentence within the applicable Guidelines range simply because the judge finds no reason to depart.   Because that both undermines the statutory obligation to state the reasons for every sentence and unlawfully presumes the reasonableness of the advisory Guidelines range, the form should be amended.

In a final notable footnote, the Pruitt opinion takes a notable shot at the US Sentencing Commission:

The form as a whole seems designed to encourage judges to sentence within the range.  A path of least resistance is clearly marked, and it is consistent with the Commission’s overall approach to sentencing in the post‐Booker era.  In United States v. Booker, 543 U.S. 220 (2005), the Supreme Court held that the mandatory guidelines system was incompatible with the Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury, and it accordingly severed the provision of the Act that made the Guidelines mandatory.  The Sentencing Commission has since repeatedly asked Congress to enact legislation requiring sentencing courts to give greater weight to the Guidelines range than Booker and its progeny permit.  The specific proposals include laws that would require sentencing judges give “substantial weight” to the advisory Guidelines range and require appellate courts to accord a presumption of reasonableness to within‐range sentences.  Thus, the objectionable part of Statement of Reasons form may reflect the law as the Commission wants it to be.

February 2, 2016 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Is it reasonable to ask Santa Claus to bring a certiorari grant on acquitted conduct sentencing?

Download (6)The silly question in the title of this post is prompted by the terrific Christmas-week opinions authored by DC Circuit Judges Kavanaugh and Millett in concurrences to the denial of en banc rehearing in US v. Bell, No. 08-3037 (DC Cir. Dec. 22, 2015) (available here). Regular readers know that I have long been troubled by the use of so-called acquitted conduct in the calculations of an applicable guideline range, both opinions in Bell spotlight well some of the reasons why.

Interestingly, Judge Kavanaugh suggests he thinks Congress or the Sentencing Commission may need to act in order now to address problems with acquitted conduct. But Judge Millett's opinion in Bell provides, in the space of eight pages, a thoughtful and thorough accounting of why the Supreme Court should consider anew the constitutional validity of sentences enhanced dramatically on the basis of allegations that a jury considered insufficient for a lawful conviction.  I will provide here an exceprt from the start and end of Judge Millett's opinion:

This case is one in an “unbroken string of cases” encroaching on the Sixth Amendment right to a trial by jury, Jones v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 8, 9 (2014) (Scalia, J., joined by Thomas & Ginsburg, JJ., dissenting from the denial of certiorari).  The government indicted Gregory Bell for a “mélange” of crimes, “including conspiracy and crack distribution.”  Panel Op. 2.  Bell exercised his constitutional right to a trial by jury on those charges, and the jury acquitted Bell of ten of the thirteen charges against him, “including all narcotics and racketeering conspiracy charges.”  Panel Op. 3.  The jury convicted Bell of only three crack cocaine distribution charges that together added up to just 5 grams.

Because Bell had no significant criminal history and the amount of cocaine was relatively small, Bell’s Sentencing Guidelines range for the offense of conviction would have been 51 to 63 months.  At sentencing, however, the district court found that Bell had engaged in the very cocaine conspiracy of which the jury had acquitted him, and sentenced Bell to 192 months in prison — a sentence that was over 300% above the top of the Guidelines range for the crimes of which he was actually convicted.

In a constitutional system that relies upon the jury as the “great bulwark of [our] civil and political liberties,” Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 U.S. 466, 477 (2000) (quoting 2 J. Story, Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States 540– 541 (4th ed. 1873)), it is hard to describe Bell’s sentence as anything other than a “perverse result,” United States v. Watts, 519 U.S. 148, 164 (1997) (Stevens, J., dissenting).  The foundational role of the jury is to stand as a neutral arbiter between the defendant and a government bent on depriving him of his liberty.  But when the central justification the government offers for such an extraordinary increase in the length of imprisonment is the very conduct for which the jury acquitted the defendant, that liberty-protecting bulwark becomes little more than a speed bump at sentencing....

While I am deeply concerned about the use of acquitted conduct in this case, I concur in the denial of rehearing en banc.  That is because only the Supreme Court can resolve the contradictions in the current state of the law, by either “put[ting] an end to the unbroken string of cases disregarding the Sixth Amendment” or “eliminat[ing] the Sixth Amendment difficulty by acknowledging that all sentences below the statutory maximum are substantively reasonable.”  Jones, 135 S. Ct. at 9 (Scalia, J., joined by Thomas and Ginsburg, JJ., dissenting from denial of certiorari).  Though I am not certain Bell’s argument is directly foreclosed by Supreme Court precedent, my colleagues on the panel have done their best to navigate existing precedent, recognizing that the Supreme Court has thus far declined to address this issue.  Going en banc would only delay affording the Supreme Court another opportunity to take up this important, frequently recurring, and troubling contradiction in sentencing law.

Despite seemingly having a number of sound vehicles for reconsidering Watts in the wake of Apprendi, Blakely, Booker et al., the Supreme Court has persistently dodged this acquitted conduct issue for well over a decade. Thus, we may need some of the holiday magic of Old Saint Nick in order to finally get the Justices to give needed attention to "this important, frequently recurring, and troubling contradiction in sentencing law."

December 24, 2015 in Blakely in the Supreme Court, Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (17)

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Great Hastings Law Journal coverage of federal sentencing circa 2015

Earlier this year, I had the honor of participating in a Hastings Law Journal symposium on federal sentencing reform a decade after Booker.  During the live event back in February, I thought that the written product of the symposium would be terrific if it captured even just a small piece of the many ideas developed during the live event. This current issue of Hastings Law Journal has these resulting articles, and they are all terrific:

Keynote Address: Federal Sentencing Reform Ten Years After United States v. Booker by Hon. Charles Breyer

Merit-Based Sentencing Reductions: Moving Forward on Specifics, and Some Critique of the New Model Penal Code by Rory Little

Incentivizing Excellence: A Suggestion for Merit-Based Reductions from a Twenty-Six-Year Federal Prison Insider by Michael Santos

Federal Sentencing in the States: Some Thoughts on Federal Grants and State Imprisonment by John Pfaff

October 25, 2015 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Recommended reading, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, January 12, 2015

United States v. Booker is exactly 10 years old today, and...

apparently I am the only one to highlight (or perhaps even realize) that today marks a huge milestone in the history of the federal sentencing system and provides a unique moment for extended reflection on what a decade of advisory guidelines has wrought.

Given that sentencing jurisprudence never gets much respect from the usual constitutional law gurus, I suppose I am not all that surprised that the folks at SCOTUSblog or The Volokh Conspiracy  are not running some kind of "Booker at 10" commentary symposium.  But I suppose I was secretly hoping that maybe the US Sentencing Commission or the federal public defenders or the US Department of Justice or some of the bigger federal sentencing reform advocacy groups would have something notable on their websites about this milestone.

In an effort to fill this notable void, in some coming posts I may try to do some armchair data analyses and comment broadly on what I think a decade of advisory guidelines has wrought.  But for now I just wanted to link here to the full 124-page Booker opinion, note that this Booker anniversary is dog that is not barking, and encourage reader commentary about what the lack of attention might mean.

UPDATE:  A helpful reader reminded me that I should here note and praise that the Hastings Law Journal, as detailed here, is hosting a terrific symposium next month titled "Federal Sentencing Reform, Ten Years After United States v. Booker." I feel bad I did not flag this before, as I am one of the scheduled speakers on the second of these four planned panels:

January 12, 2015 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Refusing to take up acquitted punishment, passive virtues, SCOTUS reputation, and cert-denial-deal speculation

I cannot resist the urge to use this space to reflect upon (and perhaps salve) my disappointment in the learning the certiorari petition in Jones v. US, No. 13-10026 — a case in which I wrote this SCOTUS amicus brief in support of cert — came up only one SCOTUS vote short of making it as the petition today was denied over a dissent authored by Justice Scalia and joined by Justices Thomas and Ginsburg.   As I briefly explained in this initial post on the cert denial, I find especially notable and troubling that neither Justices Sotomayor and Kagan provided the key single additional vote for cert given that both were in the majority in two recent cases which, I think, further set a foundation for finding constitutional limits on guideline punishment enhancements based on acquitted conduct.

As I have explained in prior posts and in my Jones amicus brief, in Peugh v. United States, 133 S. Ct. 2072 (2013) (authored by Justice Sotomayor), the Supreme Court clarified that Guideline ranges, even though now only advisory after Booker, still have consequential “force as the framework for sentencing” and thus are subject to at least some constitutional limitations on how they are calculated and applied. Id. at 2083-84.  And in Alleyne v. United States, 133 S. Ct. 2151 (2013) (with both Justices Sotomayor and Kagan as key votes to reverse a pre-Blakely/Booker precedent), the Supreme Court overturned a prior holding that had failed to recognize that the constitutional protections of the Fifth and Sixth Amendments apply fully not only to facts raising maximum sentences, but whenever the law creates a “linkage of facts with particular sentencing ranges." 133 S. Ct. at 2159-62.

I continue to believe (or at least want to believe) that the huge acquitted conduct guideline punishment enhancements at issue in Jones have to trouble greatly any Justice who truly accepts the Apprendi-Blakely Sixth Amendment jurisprudence, AND who truly believes the advisory federal sentencing guidelines still have constitutionally-significant legal force (as Peugh holds), AND who truly claims the Constitution is concerned with judicial findings of facts that raise punishment floors as well as ceilings (as Alleyne holds).  In other words, I continue to believe (or at least want to believe) that Justices Sotomayor and Kagan would be votes to reverse the sentences at issue in a case like Jones if and when cert is ever granted to review huge acquitted conduct guideline punishment enhancements.  

So why wasn't cert granted this time around, especially with Justices Scalia, Thomas and Ginsburg vocally in support of such a grant in Jones?  As the title of this post is meant to suggest, I think Justices Sotomayor and Kagan may have concluded it would be virtuous and valuable to be passive in this setting, at least for right now, because any extended SCOTUS consideration of extended acquitted guidelines punishment could give Sixth Amendment rights (and SCOTUS itself) an extended black eye (especially if one or both of them might ultimately be inclined to uphold extended acquitted guidelines punishments in Jones).  

I have long hoped for and sought a cert grant on acquitted conduct enhancements because I have long believed jurisprudes on both the left and the right will (and should) have a hard time defending, especially in light of the strong jury-rights rhetoric in cases like Apprendi and Blakely, a federal guideline sentencing system that still recommends huge punishment increases based essentially on judicial rejection of a not-guilty jury verdict.  (Notably, the only time SCOTUS directly addressed this issue, in the 1997 Watts case, the Court issued a summary reversal to permit acquitted conduct enhancements and thus prevented full briefing or oral argument on the matter.)   But yet again because of another cert denial, we will not learn if Justices Breyer and Kennedy (or even CJ Roberts), who in other settings express concerns about prosecutorial power and excessive sentencing, might be cajoled through full briefing and argument to see the constitutional vices of allowing prosecutors and judges to trump juries in the federal sentencing process. 

Finally, once one starts thinking about the possibility that Justices Breyer and Kennedy and even CJ Roberts might have been especially eager right now to dodge full consideration of acquitted conduct punishments, it becomes hard to avoid speculating about "long confernce" deals to deny cert and thereby dodge consideration now of other (higher profile) hard constitutionally issues.  As all Court-watchers know, the really big cert-denial news after the SCOTUS long conference involved denials in all the same-sex marriage cases from around the country.  Dare I show my ignorance about what really goes on behind SCOTUS doors when I wonder if, at least tacitly, a large block of Justices concluded during the long conference that it was in every Justices' interest to be "deeply in denial."  Just a (silly?) thought.

Previous related posts on the Jones case:

October 14, 2014 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Three Justices dissent from denial of certiorari in Jones/Ball acquitted conduct case

I am very disappointed to have to report that this morning the Supreme Court denied certiorari review in the notable federal drug sentencing case from DC involving Antwan Ball and his co-defendants concerning judicial fact-finding to increase a federal guideline sentence contrary to a jury acquittal.  As I noted in this post last week, Jones v. US, No. 13-10026, was relisted by the Justices after their "long conference."  Now today's SCOTUS order list has at the very end the news that cert has been denied in Jones v. US, No. 13-10026, with a three-page dissent from that decision authored by Justice Scalia and joined by Justices Thomas and Ginsburg.  Mega-bummer!!!

Here is the bulk of Justice Scalia's dissent from the denial of cert in Jones (with emphasis in the original): 

A jury convicted petitioners Joseph Jones, Desmond Thurston, and Antwuan Ball of distributing very small amounts of crack cocaine, and acquitted them of conspiring to distribute drugs. The sentencing judge, however, found that they had engaged in the charged conspiracy and, relying largely on that finding, imposed sentences that petitioners say were many times longer than those the Guidelines would otherwise have recommended.

Petitioners present a strong case that, but for the judge’s finding of fact, their sentences would have been “substantively unreasonable” and therefore illegal.  See Rita v. United States, 551 U.S. 338, 372 (2007) (SCALIA, J., joined by THOMAS, J., concurring in part and concurring in judgment).  If so, their constitutional rights were violated.  The Sixth Amendment, together with the Fifth Amendment’s Due Process Clause, “requires that each element of a crime” be either admitted by the defendant, or “proved to the jury beyond a reasonable doubt.”  Alleyne v. United States, 570 U. S. ___, ___ (2013) (slip op., at 3). Any fact that increases the penalty to which a defendant is exposed constitutes an element of a crime, Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 U.S. 466, 483, n. 10, 490 (2000), and “must be found by a jury, not a judge,” Cunningham v. California, 549 U. S. 270, 281 (2007).  We have held that a substantively unreasonable penalty is illegal and must be set aside.  Gall v. United States, 552 U.S. 38, 51 (2007).  It unavoidably follows that any fact necessary to prevent a sentence from being substantively unreasonable — thereby exposing the defendant to the longer sentence — is an element that must be either admitted by the defendant or found by the jury.  It may not be found by a judge.

For years, however, we have refrained from saying so.  In Rita v. United States, we dismissed the possibility of Sixth Amendment violations resulting from substantive reasonableness review as hypothetical and not presented by the facts of the case.  We thus left for another day the question whether the Sixth Amendment is violated when courts impose sentences that, but for a judge-found fact, would be reversed for substantive unreasonableness.  551 U.S., at 353; see also id., at 366 (Stevens, J., joined in part by GINSBURG, J., concurring) (“Such a hypothetical case should be decided if and when it arises”).  Nonetheless, the Courts of Appeals have uniformly taken our continuing silence to suggest that the Constitution does permit otherwise unreasonable sentences supported by judicial factfinding, so long as they are within the statutory range....

This has gone on long enough.  The present petition presents the nonhypothetical case the Court claimed to have been waiting for.  And it is a particularly appealing case, because not only did no jury convict these defendants of the offense the sentencing judge thought them guilty of, but a jury acquitted them of that offense.  Petitioners were convicted of distributing drugs, but acquitted of conspiring to distribute drugs.  The sentencing judge found that petitioners had engaged in the conspiracy of which the jury acquitted them. The Guidelines, petitioners claim, recommend sentences of between 27 and 71 months for their distribution convictions.  But in light of the conspiracy finding, the court calculated much higher Guidelines ranges, and sentenced Jones, Thurston, and Ball to 180, 194, and 225 months’ imprisonment.  

On petitioners’ appeal, the D. C. Circuit held that even if their sentences would have been substantively unreasonable but for judge-found facts, their Sixth Amendment rights were not violated.  744 F. 3d 1362, 1369 (2014).  We should grant certiorari to put an end to the unbroken string of cases disregarding the Sixth Amendment — or to eliminate the Sixth Amendment difficulty by acknowledging that all sentences below the statutory maximum are substantively reasonable.

I am especially disappointed that Justice Scalia and his joiners here could not garner one more vote to grant cert from any of the newer Justices who came on the Court after Blakely and Booker became the Sixth Amendment law of the land.  Of course, Justice Alito has frequently shown his disaffinity for expanding the Sixth Amendment rights recognized in those cases.  But Chief Justice Roberts joined the Blakely gang in applying (and arguably expanding) Sixth Amendment rights in Cunningham v. California and Justices Sotomayor and Kagan have "shown empathy" for defendants seeking expanded applications of the Sixth Amendment in more recent cases such as Alleyne.  As I will explain in a future post, anyone (like me) hoping that Justices Sotomayor and Kagan might end up being even more committed to defendants' procedural rights at sentencing has to be deeply troubled by their disinclination to provide a fourth vote for granting cert in Jones.

Previous related posts on this case and acquitted conduct sentencing enhancements:

October 14, 2014 in Advisory Sentencing Guidelines, Blakely Commentary and News, Blakely in the Supreme Court, Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (14) | TrackBack

Sunday, October 12, 2014

"Confronting Cognitive 'Anchoring Effect' and 'Blind Spot' Biases in Federal Sentencing: A Modest Solution for Reforming a Fundamental Flaw"

The title of this post is the title of this intriguing new paper by U.S. District Judge Mark Bennett. Here is the abstract:

Cognitive "anchoring effect" bias, especially related to numbers, like sentencing guidelines ranges, is widely recognized in cognitive psychology as an extremely robust and powerful heuristic.  It is a cognitive shortcut that has a strong tendency to undermine judgments by "anchoring" a judgment to an earlier disclosed number, the anchor.  Numerous studies prove anchoring bias produces systematic errors in judgment in wide-ranging circumstances, including judgments by experts — doctors, lawyers, real estate agents, psychologists, and auditors — as well as a variety of decisions by foreign and American federal and state judges.  The anchoring effect occurs even when the anchor is incomplete, inaccurate, irrelevant, implausible, or even random.

Roughly corresponding in time with the developing understanding of the anchoring effect, federal sentencing has undergone a revolution from judges having virtually unlimited discretion, to virtually no discretion, and back to considerable discretion, as the Federal Sentencing Guidelines went from mandatory to advisory in a single monumental U.S. Supreme Court decision, United States v. Booker, 543 U.S. 220 (2005).  Surprisingly, since judges were granted much greater discretion in Booker, the length and severity of federal sentences, for the most part, has not changed.  This remains true despite long-standing, persistent, and widespread dissatisfaction among federal district court judges with the Guidelines and the length of sentences.  This Article argues that this is because judges’ sentences are subconsciously anchored by the calculated Guidelines range.

This Article offers a simple, modest, and practical solution that requires no change in existing law by the Supreme Court or Congress.  It simply requires rearranging the numerical anchoring information in the presentence report and adding additional relevant numerical information to counteract the anchoring effect of the Guidelines.  If federal district court judges are educated about the effect of cognitive anchoring and their own bias-based blind spots to it — their improved awareness can only enhance the fairness of sentencing.

October 12, 2014 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

"Rebellion: The Courts of Appeals' Latest Anti-Booker Backlash"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new essay about federal sentencing and appellate practices by Alison Siegler available via SSRN.  Here is the abstract:

For over twenty-five years, federal courts of appeals have rebelled against every Supreme Court mandate that weakens the United States Sentencing Guidelines. Since the Court made the Guidelines advisory in United States v Booker, the rebellion has intensified, with the appellate courts consistently ensuring adherence to the Guidelines by over-policing sentences that fall outside the Guidelines and under-policing within-Guidelines sentences.  The courts of appeals are now staging a new revolt, creating appellate rules — carve-outs — that enable them to reject meritorious challenges to within-Guidelines sentences.

Part I describes the previous rebellions.  Part II introduces the current rebellion.  Part II.A discusses what I term the “stock carve-out,” an appellate rule that violates the sentencing statute and the Sixth Amendment by allowing sentencing judges to ignore mitigating arguments regarding defendants’ personal characteristics.  Part II.B discusses the “§ 3553(a)(6) carve-out,” a rule that similarly violates the statute and precedent by allowing sentencing judges to ignore disparity arguments.  Part III concludes.

August 27, 2014 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Thursday, March 20, 2014

"Sentencing in Tax Cases after Booker: Striking the Right Balance between Uniformity and Discretion"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper by Scott Schumacher now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

It has been nearly ten years since the Supreme Court’s seminal decision in United States v. Booker, in which the Court invalidated the mandatory application of the United States Sentencing Guidelines.  In the cases that followed, the Court addressed subsidiary issues regarding the application of the Guidelines and the scope of appellate review.  However, despite — or perhaps because of — these opinions, there is little consensus regarding the status and extent of appellate review, as well as the discretion afforded sentencing courts. More troubling, what consensus there is seems to permit judges to impose any sentence they wish, as long as the appropriate sentencing procedures are followed.  As a result, we are in danger of returning to “the shameful lack of parity, which the Guidelines sought to remedy.”

The Sentencing Reform Act and the Sentencing Guidelines were designed to reduce disparity in sentencing and to reign in what one commentator described as a “lawless system.” However, the Guidelines as ultimately conceived drastically limited the sentencing judge’s ability to impose a sentence that was appropriate for the conduct and culpability of the defendant, creating a different kind of sentencing disparity. The current, post-Booker system provides more guidance than the pre-Guidelines system, but permits sentencing judges to disregard the Guidelines and develop their own sentencing policy.  As a result, rather than having a system that allows for sentences to be tailored to individual defendants, the current system allows sentences to be imposed based on the penal philosophy of individual judges. This will inevitably lead to unwarranted sentencing disparity.

This article traces the recent history of criminal sentencing and, relying on the influential works of John Rawls and H.L.A. Hart on theories of punishment, argues for a better system that allows for both guidance to sentencing judges and appropriately individualized sentencing.  My recommendation, although equally applicable to any federal sentence, will be examined through the lens of tax sentencing.

March 20, 2014 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Has anyone formally calculated exactly how very few federal sentences are found unreasonable?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by two noteworthy (or perhaps not really noteworthy) circuit opinions from last week in which two way-above-guideline sentences were affirmed as reasonable by the panels of the First and Seventh Circuits in US v. Santiago-Rivera, No. 13-1228 (1st Cir. Feb. 28, 2014) (available here); US v. Castaldi, No. 10-3406 (7th Cir. Feb. 24, 2014) (available here).  In both cases, a defendant appealed as unreasonable the imposition of a prison sentence roughly a decade longer than the (already lengthy) prison term suggested by the applicable guidelines.  In both cases, the panel found the way-above-guideline sentence procedurally and substantively reasonable (though one Seventh Circuit judge dissented in Castaldi).

At one level, these two rulings highlight how increased district court discretion to sentence outside the guidelines will often be used enhance sentences involving serious and harmful crimes.  (Castaldi involved a big Ponzi scheme impacting many persons, Santiago-Rivera involved a police officer shooting.)  In addition, both rulings show that circuits may be especially inclined to find way-above-guideline sentences reasonable, even more so than way-below-guideline sentences.  (I cannot readily think of one, let alone two, sentences set a full decade below the calculated guideline sentence upheld after an appeal by the government.)  But, as the title of this post suggests, perhaps the broader story is how very few federal sentences are even found unreasonable.

Booker has been the federal sentencing law of the land since 2005, but the true era of modern reasonableness review likely should be defined as starting in December 2007 after the Supreme Court handed down the last of the troika of reasonableness review cases via Gall, Kimbrough and Rita.  Since those opinions were issued, we have probably had over 500,000 federal sentences imposed, and I suspect that less than 250 have been found procedurally unreasonable on appeal and less than 50 have been found substantively unreasonable.  (This federal defender document titled Appellate Decisions After Gall (and updated through early December 2013) provides the most complete accounting of reasonableness rulings that I have seen.)

In other words, based on this very rough assessment of reasonableness review outcomes compared to sentences imposed, it would seem that in only about one of every 2,000 federal sentencings does something go procedurally wrong and in only one of every 10,000 federal sentencings involves some substantive unreasonableness.  (Of course, the vast majority of federal sentences are not appealed, in part due to the wide use of appeal waivers in plea agreements, so the outcomes of appeals is not the ideal measuring stick here.  Still, I think these numbers are telling.)

For a lot of reasons, the prospect of reasonableness review may do a lot more work and have a lot more influence than the so-very-rare reversal of a sentence as unreasonable would suggest.  Still, I have largely given up my prior habit of regularly report notable federal circuit rulings concerning reasonableness appeals in part because affirmances in cases like Castaldi and Santiago-Rivera are, statistically speaking, not really notable.

UPDATE: I just noticed that a Fourth Circuit panel also issued an opinion on the same day as the First Circuit opinion linked above that affirms as reasonable a sentence set about 8 years above the guideline range in US v. Washington, No. 13-4132 (4th Cir. Feb. 28, 2014) (available here).

March 2, 2014 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in the Circuits, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

Sunday, January 19, 2014

"More than a Formality: The Case for Meaningful Substantive Reasonableness Review"

The title of this post is the title of this astute new Note just published in the January 2014 issue of the Harvard Law Review. Here is the Note's introduction:

Appellate review of sentencing is under assault.  When the Supreme Court rendered the Federal Sentencing Guidelines nonbinding in United States v. Booker, it established appellate review of federal sentences for reasonableness to cabin sentencing judges’ newly acquired discretion.  The substantive component of this review — which authorizes appellate courts to vacate those sentences that reflect clear errors in judgment or that are excessively disproportionate — is a fundament of the post-Booker sentencing regime, but one that courts have struggled to implement.  Indeed, a troubling consensus is emerging that substantive reasonableness review is unworkable or even undesirable.  Such views neglect unwarranted disparities in sentences and threaten to disrupt the feedback loop between courts and the U.S. Sentencing Commission (the Commission) that appellate review was intended to serve.  If sentencing is to be fair, appellate courts must do better. This Note argues that they can.

This Note proceeds in five parts.  Part I surveys the history of appellate review of federal sentences.  Part II relies on case law and recent statements by a variety of stakeholders to examine the state of substantive reasonableness review in the circuit courts.  Part III defends meaningful substantive reasonableness review as essential to promoting fairness and uniformity in federal sentencing.  Part IV identifies ways in which the courts and the Commission can work toward a more effective and stable system of substantive review. Part V concludes.

January 19, 2014 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in the Circuits, Kimbrough reasonableness case, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Monday, November 11, 2013

"Sentence Appeals in England: Promoting Consistent Sentencing through Robust Appellate Review

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

Unlike in most areas of the law, federal courts of appeals in the United States defer to trial courts on many issues of sentencing law and policy.  As a result, the power to decide sentencing law and policy is often at the discretion of individual district court judges. Law reform scholars have long decried the disparity, lack of transparency, and legitimization concerns that this practice raises.  These concerns are heightened in the post-Booker sentencing regime, where the advisory nature of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines undermines those Guidelines’ ability to further sentencing consistency.

The deferential approach to federal sentence appeals is in sharp contrast to the approach in England, where the appellate court conducts de novo review of sentencing law and policy to develop a common law of sentencing that is independent of the English sentencing guidelines.  The English model of appellate review suggests a new way to design the role of appellate courts in the federal system: from bodies that merely enforce guidelines to further consistency of sentencing outcomes, to bodies that develop sentencing law to further consistency of sentencing approach.

In this paper, I explore the primary functional, institutional, and normative arguments behind the resistance to robust appellate review in the federal appellate courts and study the English model as a means of evaluating these critiques.  Ultimately, I suggest that the federal courts of appeals borrow England’s “mixed deference approach” to sentence appeals, including de novo review of sentencing law and principles.  Doing so will promote greater sentencing consistency without either over-enforcement of the Guidelines or unwarranted encroachment of sentencing discretion.

November 11, 2013 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in the Circuits, Sentences Reconsidered, Sentencing around the world, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Monday, September 30, 2013

Advice for the US Sentencing Commission from former USDJ Nancy Gertner

Nancy-gertnerI am genuinely unsure if the US Sentencing Commission gets to keep working if we end up having a federal government shut-down this week.  But I am sure that the USSC starts an official new fiscal year as of tomorrow morning and that any government shut-down is not going to keep federal defendants from being sentenced and that the USSC will be up-and-running in some capacity both sooner and later.  For those reasons, I am pleased right now to be able to post these comments sent my way by former federal district judge (and now Harvard law professor) Nancy Gertner about what the USSC ought to be doing as FY 2014 in the federal sentencing system gets underway:

At a time when the “common law of sentencing,” is being shaped in federal district courts, why does the Sentencing Commission only post Circuit Court decisions on its web site?  In 2012, sentences that had been appealed on the grounds of unreasonableness were affirmed 95 percent of the time.  And that rate has remained steady on the national level: In 2011, the affirmance rate was roughly 94 percent; in 2010 it was approximately 96 percent; and in 2009, 97 percent affirmances.  In my circuit, the First Circuit, not a single sentence was deemed unreasonable on appeal in 2011 or 2012, and only a handful of cases qualified in the immediately preceding years. In effect, as with other areas of law where the standards of review are forgiving (think evidentiary appeals on forensic issues which are reviewed for “abuse of discretion” and rarely overturned), the appellate courts are not defining substantive sentencing standards, and imposing only minimal procedural ones.

Clearly most of the meaningful sentencing developments -- the substantive sentencing standards, the guideline analysis and trenchant critique -- are happening at the district court level in the decisions of judges like John Gleeson and Jack Weinstein (S.D.N.Y.), Mark Bennett (N.D. Iowa), Ellen Huvelle (D.C.), Paul Friedman (D.C.) and Lynn Adelman (E.D. Wisconsin). While not all judges take the time to write formal sentencing opinions, those that do should have their work circulated by our “expert” Commission rather than being ignored.

If the Commission is interested in minimizing disparity in sentencing in a post-Booker world (which should be one of its goals -- hardly the only one), what better way than to make certain that the opinions of district court judges are communicated more broadly to the federal bench?  When these judges offer a reasoned analysis of the Guidelines or an alternative way of analyzing the cases, why not ensure that other judges see their work and decide whether to follow it?  Other judges can look at their reasoning– not as binding precedent, but as a template for the cases they see, e.g. here’s one approach to firearms cases, non violent drug offenders, white collar cases, etc.  If a common law of sentencing is ever to evolve -- supplementing (or in some cases supplanting) the Guidelines -- why not assist in its development? In a common law system, decisional law establishes standards. Uniformity is not enforced from above -- as in civil code countries -- but evolves from reasoned judicial decisions.  In effect, with advisory Guidelines, we have a hybrid system -- Guidelines and decisional law.

To look at the Commission web site, there is only one orthodoxy -- the Guidelines, and Appellate Court decisions that rarely say much of anything.  In fact, the message conveyed by the web site is that the Commission is not interested in uniformity as a general matter, just one kind of uniformity -- the uniform enforcement of its flawed product, the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines.  Teach the Guidelines.  Describe appellate court decisions affirming whatever the district courts do without meaningful analysis.  Ignore the fine work of the judges trying to create meaningful standards where it counts the most, in the sentencing of individuals.

September 30, 2013 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Saturday, August 10, 2013

"Parole: Corpse or Phoenix?"

The title of this post is the title of this very interesting looking new paper authored by Paul Larkin Jr. of The Heritage Foundation and now available via SSRN.  Here is the abstract:

For most of the twentieth century, the federal government used an indeterminate sentencing system at the front end of the correctional process and a parole system at the back end in order to determine when an offender should be released from prison. In 1984, Congress sought completely to revise the federal sentencing and correctional processes. Congress adopted a mandatory sentencing guidelines system in order to restrain the discretionary sentencing authority that federal courts traditionally had enjoyed. Congress rejected an advisory guidelines system because Congress believed that such a process would not eliminate the sentencing disparities that had plagued the federal criminal justice system for decades. Because the new mandatory guidelines would both regularize the sentencing decision and determine when a prisoner would be released, Congress repealed the federal parole laws as being unnecessary. The Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the new system over separation of challenges in Mistretta v. United States, 488 U.S. 361 (1989), and parole seemed to have passed into history.

Sixteen years later in United States v. Booker, 543 U.S. 220 (2005), however, the Court held that the same mandatory sentencing guidelines system upheld in Mistretta violated a defendant’s rights under the Sixth Amendment Jury Trial Clause. Booker and later decisions have made the federal sentencing guidelines advisory. The problem is that Congress rejected an advisory guidelines system and would not have repealed the parole laws if the federal sentencing process did not strictly constrain district courts’ sentencing authority. One of the consequences of the Booker decision, accordingly, is that federal sentencing now is susceptible to the same disparities that Congress sought to remedy with mandatory determinate sentencing guidelines in 1984. The article discusses the question whether the Booker decision has breathed new life into the federal parole laws now that the condition precedent for their repeal, adoption of a mandatory sentencing guidelines system, is no longer in effect.

August 10, 2013 in Advisory Sentencing Guidelines, Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Monday, June 17, 2013

First-cut reactions as to what is big, and not so big, about Alleyne's reversal of Harris

I will likely have a lot to say about the specifics of the Sixth Amendment discussions in all the Alleyne opinions later today once I get more time to review the decision more closely.  But I have three quick reactions about the ruling and its potential impact I wanted to share right away.  I will give this trio of reactions these labels: big, not-so-big, could-be-huge.

The Big of Alleyne: though serious talk of a "Booker" fix to the advisory guidelines sentencing system has not had much juice for a very long time, the Alleyne ruling serves as a final nail in the "mandatory topless guidelines" idea that made the rounds as a potential legislative response to Blakely and Booker in the federal system.  That "fix," which would have required judges to do fact-finding to raise guideline minimums without impacting maximums, depended on the validity and vitality of Harris.  And Harris is now a goner.

The No-So-Big of Alleyne: though persons imprisoned now based on mandatory minimums triggered by judicial fact-finding might hope Alleyne is a new jurisprudential key to freedom, a host of doctrices may ensure very few new imprisoned persons get much benefit from Alleyne.  For starters, the retroactivity doctrines of Teague and AEDPA may make it hard for those long ago sentenced to get their Alleyne claims even heard in court.  Moreover, the harmeless error doctrines of Cotton and Recuenco may make it easy now for judges to say, even in those cases in which the issue can still be raised, that any Sixth Amendment error was harmless.

The Could-Be-Huge of Alleyne: there are any number of shaky exceptions and carve-outs to the full application of Apprendi doctrines, ranging from the prior-conviction exception of Almendarez-Torres to all sorts of efforts by lower courts to refuse to acknowledge Apprendi's potential impact on all sorts of judicial fact-finding that impacts punishment realities.  If Alleyne (which comes just a year after Southern Union) portends a Court now willing and eager to keep taking up Apprendi issues and extending the reach of the Sixth Amendment, we all might be in for quite an interesting Sixth Amendment ride over the next few Term.  (And, for the really creative, perhaps Alleyne could be combined with Peugh to perhaps even generate procedural protections even for federal defendants sentencing in a post-Booker world.)

Prior related post on Alleyne ruling:

June 17, 2013 in Almendarez-Torres and the prior conviction exception, Apprendi / Blakely Retroactivity , Blakely Commentary and News, Blakely in the Supreme Court, Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (13) | TrackBack

Thursday, June 13, 2013

"The Non-Redelegation Doctrine" with post-Booker sentencing in mind

Now available via SSRN is this intriguing new article from F. Andrew Hessick III and Carissa Byrne Hessick, which is titled simply "The Non-Redelegation Doctrine." Here is the abstract, which highlights why this article should be of special interest to sentencing fans:

In United States v. Booker, the Court remedied a constitutional defect in the federal sentencing scheme by rendering advisory the then-binding sentencing guidelines promulgated by the U.S. Sentencing Commission.  One important but overlooked consequence of this decision is that it redelegated the power to set sentencing policy from the Sentencing Commission to federal judges.  District courts now may sentence based on their own policy views instead of being bound by the policy determinations rendered by the Commission.

This Essay argues that, when faced with a decision that implicates a delegation, the courts should not redelegate unless authorized by Congress to do so.  The proposed non-redelegation doctrine rests on both constitutional and practical grounds. Constitutionally, because delegation defines how Congress chooses to perform its core function of setting policy, judicial redelegation raises substantial separation of powers concerns.  Practically, judicial redelegation is bound to affect the substantive policies that are adopted because the policies that the agent adopts depend on the agent’s unique characteristics and preferences.  Although this Essay uses Booker to illustrate the need for the presumption, the presumption would apply equally to the myriad contexts in which Congress delegates its power to make policy and courts have the opportunity to alter that delegation.

June 13, 2013 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in district courts, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Monday, June 10, 2013

Guidelines are "the lodestone" of federal sentencing (as well as "the starting point and the initial benchmark")

225-lodestone-magnetThe title of this post is drawn from the key word in a key paragraph that captured my attention in what is otherwise a straight-forward opinion by the Supreme Court today in Peugh (basics here).  Here is the context from a paragraph that effectively summarizes the conclusions of the Peugh majority opinion per Justice Sotomayor:

"The federal system adopts procedural measures intended to make the Guidelines the lodestone of sentencing.  A retrospective increase in the Guidelines range applicable to a defendant creates a sufficient risk of a higher sentence to constitute an ex post facto violation."

Major kudos to Justice Sotomayor for adding a fitting new term to the post-Booker federal sentencing lexicon.  Kudos also to the majority Court for stressing these enduring modern federal sentencing realities in the course of reaching its conclusions:

When Peugh committed his crime, the recommended sentence was 30 to 37 months.  When he was sentenced, it was 70 to 87 months....  Such a retrospective increase in the measure of punishment raises clear ex post facto concerns.  We have previously recognized, for instance, that a defendant charged with an increased punishment for his crime is likely to feel enhanced pressure to plead guilty.  See Carmell, 529 U.S., at 534, n.24; Weaver, 450 U.S., at 32.  This pressure does not disappear simply because the Guidelines range is advisory; the defendant will be aware that the range is intended to, and usually does, exert controlling influence on the sentence that the court will impose....

On the Government’s account, the Guidelines are just one among many persuasive sources a sentencing court can consult, no different from a “policy paper.”  Brief for United States 28.  The Government’s argument fails to acknowledge, however, that district courts are not required to consult any policy paper in order to avoid reversible procedural error; nor must they “consider the extent of [their] deviation” from a given policy paper and “ensure that the justification is sufficiently compelling to support the degree of the variance,” Gall, 552 U.S., at 50.  Courts of appeals, in turn, are not permitted to presume that a sentence that comports with a particular policy paper is reasonable; nor do courts of appeals, in considering whether the district court’s sentence was reasonable, weigh the extent of any departure from a given policy paper in determining whether the district court abused its discretion, see id., at 51.  It is simply not the case that the Sentencing Guidelines are merely a volume that the district court reads with academic interest in the course of sentencing.

And kudos also to Justice Thomas for providing a slightly competing vision of the post-Booker world via passages in his dissent like the following that, I suspect, will end up in many more defense sentencing submissions than government ones:

[T]he Guidelines do not constrain the discretion of district courts and, thus, have no legal effect on a defendant’s sentence.  Second, to the extent that the amended Guidelines create a risk that a defendant might receive a harsher punishment, that risk results from the Guidelines’ persuasive force, not any legal effect....

Petitioner next argues that the Guidelines limit district court discretion because sentences falling outside the Guidelines are more likely to be reversed for substantive unreasonableness.  Brief for Petitioner 25.  I doubt, however, that reversal is a likely outcome when a district judge can justify his sentence based on agreement with either of two Guidelines — the old or the new.  If a district court calculated the sentencing range under the new Guidelines but sentenced the defendant to a below-Guidelines sentence that fell within the range provided by the old Guidelines, it would be difficult to label such a sentence “substantively unreasonable.”  To do so would cast doubt on every within-Guidelines sentence issued under the old Guidelines.

I have long suggested that defense attorneys regularly and in every case calculate, and submit to a sentencing court prior to sentencing, the "old" sentencing ranges that would have applied under the original 1987 version of the federal sentencing guidelines which were first promulgated by the original US Sentencing Commission.  The above-quoted passages from Justice Thomas now would enable sentencing courts to feel confident that a sentence within the range suggested by the 1987 guidelines should nearly always be deemed reasonable.

June 10, 2013 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

SCOTUS concludes Ex Post Facto Clause still limits application of new guidelines after Booker

Thanks to the fine folks live-blogging at SCOTUSblog, I can provide this summary report (with a few edits) of the one big sentencing ruling handed down by the US Supreme Court this morning:

Justice Sotomayor for the Court in Peugh v. United States....

The decision of the Seventh Circuit is reversed, the case is remanded.  The Court is splintered.  Justice Sotomayor delivers the opinion of the Court except for one part. The Ex Post Facto Clause is violated when a defendant is sentenced under guidelines promulgated after he committed his acts, and the new version of the guidelines provides for a higher sentence than the one in effect at the time he committed his act.

Justice Sotomayor's opinion is for the Court except for a discussion about the policies underlying the Ex Post Facto Clause.  It's another case where Justice Kennedy joins the more liberal members of the Court.

Justice Thomas dissents, joined by the Chief and Scalia and Alito. Justice Alito dissents, joined by Justice Scalia.  Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, and Kagan join all of the Sotomayor opinion; Justice Kennedy declines to join Part III-C.

The big fight in the case was whether the Sentencing Guidelines are important enough to trigger Ex Post Facto review given that they are no longer binding -- the majority says they are....

The part of the Sotomayor opinion that Kennedy does not join is a response to the argument by the government and the dissent that the Ex Post Facto Clause is not implicated by this case.  The ruling will be significant to the ability of courts to apply tougher new sentencing guidelines to pending cases.  It is also a strong reaffirmation of the Ex Post Facto Clause.

The full opinions in Peugh are available here.  The opinion for the Court per Justice Sotomayor runs 20 pages, and the main dissent per Justice Thomas is 14 pages. 

Kudos to the Court in keep this one relatively brief, as I suspect every sentence from the Justices in this case could end up having some impact on the operation of the post-Booker federal sentencing world.  And once I get some time to read these opinions, I will do some follow-up posts on whether Peugh passes the smell test (get it..., I know, pretty lame).

June 10, 2013 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Thursday, February 21, 2013

US Sentencing Commission website back in action with full Booker report and FY 2012 sentencing data

I am very pleased to have discovered tonight that the US Sentencing Commission, just less than a month after Anonymous hacked into its website (basic here), now has its website up and running again.  And not only is the USSC website back, but it is now better than ever with these two new big sets of materials:

NEW Report to Congress on the Continuing Impact of United States v. Booker on Federal Sentencing

This report assesses the continuing impact on the federal sentencing system of the Supreme Court's decision in United States v. Booker.

NEW Final FY12 Quarterly Sentencing Update

This report includes an extensive set of tables and charts presenting fiscal year quarterly data on cases in which the offender was sentenced during fiscal year 2012. The report also provides an analysis of sentencing trends over five years for several key sentencing practices.

Congrats to the USSC for getting its on-line house back in order. I for one truly missed the USSC website when it was gone.

Recent related posts:

February 21, 2013 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

"Doing Kimbrough Justice: Implementing Policy Disagreements with the Federal Sentencing Guidelines"

The title of this post is the title of this newly available piece via SSRN authored by Scott Michelman and Jay Rorty. Here is the abstract:

Federal sentencing law is in the midst of a period of profound change.  In 1984, responding to concerns about excessive judicial discretion in sentencing, Congress created the United States Sentencing Commission to promulgate the United States Sentencing Guidelines (Guidelines), a complex and mandatory schedule of federal criminal sentences based on a multitude of offense- and offender-specific factors.  The Guidelines were introduced in 1987 and governed federal sentencing for nearly twenty years.  But in 2005, the Supreme Court held that the Guidelines, by requiring judges instead of juries to find facts that could increase a defendant's sentence, violated the Sixth Amendment.  The Court's remedy was to render the Guidelines advisory only -- a starting point but not necessarily the endpoint for sentencing decisions.

Over the past several years, the Supreme Court and the lower federal courts have had to answer a range of questions about how the new advisory Guideline system would work in practice.  Among the most consequential were the procedural question of how a district court should apply the now-advisory Guidelines, and the substantive question of whether a court could vary from the Guidelines on the basis of a policy disagreement with the Guidelines themselves rather than the circumstances of an individual defendant.

The Supreme Court answered these two crucial questions in the Gall and Kimbrough cases in December 2007, yet these two decisions seemed to talk past each other in terms of sentencing procedure.  Kimbrough authorized policy-based variances.  Gall instructed courts how to apply the advisory Guidelines in individual cases.  But neither case explained how or when in the sentencing process courts should apply the policy-based variances the Court had just authorized.  The result has been a lack of procedural uniformity among district courts applying policy-based variances, with most courts mingling policy and individualized considerations without specifying the role of each factor in determining sentences.  Most courts have not even acknowledged, much less attempted to bridge, the gap between the substantive sentencing considerations authorized in Kimbrough and the procedural roadmap laid out in Gall.  Academic discourse has likewise left this issue unaddressed.

This Article urges courts to reconcile Kimbrough and Gall by adding an analytical step to the sentencing process through which courts can explicitly apply policy considerations separately from, and prior to, individualized considerations.  The blending of policy- and individual-based factors in sentencing adversely affects both the fairness of individual sentences and the development of the Sentencing Guidelines themselves.  When courts blend different types of variances together, it is more difficult for them to exercise fully each type of discretion available under the advisory Guideline regime.  Additionally, the Sentencing Commission relies on a continuing dialogue with district courts to fulfill its perpetual responsibility of refining the Guidelines based on empirical data and national experience; a clear articulation of courts' grounds for variance, therefore, provides vital information about how the Guidelines can be improved.  The creation of an independent analytical step will ensure faithfulness to Kimbrough and due consideration of each facet of the sentencing court's discretion.  The result will be a sentencing process that is more precise, more transparent, and ultimately fairer.

February 19, 2013 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Kimbrough reasonableness case, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Recommended reading | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Sunday, February 17, 2013

If you are eager for access to all parts of the new US Sentencing Commission Booker report...

Federal practitioner Mark Allenbaugh has posted via this special page (which is part of his firm website) all the separate parts of the US Sentencing Commission's massive report on the post-Booker federal sentencing system. 

Regular readers will recall that I had the honor, via this post, of being the first website to post Part A of the new USSC Booker report (and an accompanying press release) due to the technical difficulties facing the USSC website thanks to the Anonymous scoundrals.  I has been hoping, now a full three weeks after the US Sentencing Commission's website was hacked up and taken down, that the USSC would have its on-line home back in working order.  But, as of this writing, the USSC's main webpage is still "under construction." 

Word among those in the know is that, within the next few weeks, the US Sentencing Commission will also be releasing a big new report about federal child porn sentencing.  I remain hopeful that the USSC's website will be back in action by the time the CP report is ready.  But I suppose only time will tell.

Recent related posts:

February 17, 2013 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Friday, February 01, 2013

Summary of key USSC findings in its big new Booker report

6141708385_8dedf68f37As explained here, unfortunately, wascally on-line wabbits have so far managed to allow only the first big part of US Sentencing Commission super-sized new Booker report to be available on-line only via this SL&P link.  Fortunately, because others are primarily in charge of chasing down the annoying anonymous hackers (and because the NRA is primarily in charge of making sure all the rest of us have a right to use maximum firepower when hunting other forms of wabbits), I can spend my time trying to take stock of all the incredible effort and research reflected in the part of the new USSC Booker report now available for general consumption.

Though I am still just start to scratch the massive surface of the mass of information in just the first part of the new USSC Bookerreport, I can begin some assessment of what's in there by first praising the Commission for having a handy list of bolded "key findings" summarized in the first chapter.  Here, in full text, are all the bolded key findings set out in the report's Overview chapter [with my own numbers added]:

[1] The number of federal offenders has substantially increased, and most federal offenders have continued to receive substantial sentences of imprisonment.

[2] The guidelines have remained the essential starting point for all federal sentences and have continued to influence sentences significantly.

[3] The influence of the guidelines, as measured by the relationship between the average guideline minimum and the average sentence, has generally remained stable in drug trafficking, firearms, and immigration offenses, but has diminished in fraud and child pornography offenses.

[4] For most offense types, the rate of within range sentences has decreased while the rate of below range sentences (both government sponsored and non-government sponsored) has increased over time.

[5] The influence of the guidelines, as measured by the relationship between the average guideline minimum and the average sentence, and as measured by within range rates, has varied by circuit.

[6] The rates of non-government sponsored below range sentences have increased in most districts and the variation in such rates across districts for most offenses was greatest in the Gall period, indicating that sentencing outcomes increasingly depend upon the district in which the defendant is sentenced.

[7] For offenses in the aggregate, the average extent of the reduction for non-government sponsored below range sentences has been approximately 40 percent below the guideline minimum during all periods (amounting to average reductions of 17 to 21 months); however, the extent of the reduction has varied by offense type.

[8]Prosecutorial practices have contributed to disparities in federal sentencing.

[9] Variation in the rates of non-government sponsored below range sentences among judges within the same district has increased in most districts since Booker, indicating that sentencing outcomes increasingly depend upon the judge to whom the case is assigned.

[10] Appellate review has not promoted uniformity in sentencing to the extent the Supreme Court anticipated in Booker.

[11] Demographic factors (such as race, gender, and citizenship) have been associated with sentence length at higher rates in the Gall period than in previous periods.

I do not think any of these key findings are especially surprising, though I suspect some (many?) will still prove to be somewhat controversial.  Most fundamentally, I am certain that all of these findings could be "spun" in any number of ways in any number of settings.  For example, I think one might reasonably wonder whether finding 8 concerning prosecutors contributing to disparties best explains finding 11 concerning increased demographic disparities.  (Also, it is especially interesting to consider how one might spin findings 2 and 5 and 6 in the on-going Supreme Court litigation concerning the application of ex post facto doctrines in the post-Booker advisory guideline system.)

All these key findings should and likely will engender lots of discussion and debate in the weeks ahead.  For now, though, I am eager to hear from readers about which particular finding they consider most important or least important (or, perhaps, least likely to get enough attention or most likely to get too much attention).   As one who has long been concerned that federal sentencing severity and the overall growth in the total number federal defendants gets too little attention while disparity gets too much attention, I will assert that finding 1 above and the realities it reflects is really the most important big-picture take-away point.  I have a feeling, though, that others may have distinct views.

Recent related post:

February 1, 2013 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Thursday, June 28, 2012

The cites to and echoes of Booker in today's SCOTUS health care ruling

In the comments to this prior post, DEJ makes this observation: "After holding the Medicaid expansion unconstitutional, the Court had to decide the remedy for violating the Spending Clause: Must the entire expansion fall or does it remain in some form?   And how, exactly, did the plurality come to its remedy? By looking to the Booker remedy opinion: "In considering that question, '[w]e seek to determine what Congress would have intended in light of the Court’s constitutional holding.' United States v. Booker, 543 U. S. 220, 246 (2005)."   Booker is twice cited by the plurality to support its remedy."

In addition, a thoughtful law grad from my alma mater, Rajiv Mohan, sent me this e-mail to not "how similar [the ACA ruling] is to Booker":

In both cases, legislative innovations -- if not limited -- threatened deeply-held constitutional principles: the right to trial by jury on the one hand, and enumerated powers on the other.

In both cases, the proposed limiting principle is oddly formalistic and susceptible to legislative circumvention. The Apprendi principle, after all, could be circumvented by advisory guidelines that give no role to the jury. And even with a ban on mandates under the Commerce Clause, Congress could achieve the same effect through the tax power.

And in both cases, a majority of the Court accepts the limiting principle, only for one Justice to back away from its seemingly natural consequences by pragmatically imputing to Congress a will to do what it no doubt could have done, in the face of considerable doubt that it actually did.

In a similar vein, public defender David Hemmingway sent me an e-mail to report his "whimsical notion" that the Booker remedy played a role in the ACA litigation outcome, which includes these observation:

This morning as SCOTUSblog was reporting that the individual mandate survived at the very same time that CNN & Fox loudly proclaimed that the Court had struck it down, [a lawyer in] our office recalled that overcast January day in 2005 when the Court issued Booker: everyone was reading it and scratching their head. In the ensuing seven years, CJ Roberts along with Justices Sotomayor and finally Justice Kagan have embraced it (as confirmed by last week's decision in Southern Union that the Apprendi right to jury fact finding also applies to criminal fines).

So maybe seven years of life with the Booker remedy -- which still stands in tension with both the Sixth Amendment violation that prompted it and the Congressional intent to reduce judicial discretion under the Sentencing Reform Act -- helped make it possible or easier for Roberts to join two conflicting majorities and uphold the ACA. At this time, on this planet, there are times when the best one can hope for requires that we live in a contradiction.

June 28, 2012 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Friday, May 18, 2012

What are the odds SCOTUS grants cert in the (in)famous Rubashkin case?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this recent commentary by Harlan Protass in the Des Moines Register headlined "Jail sentence doesn't fit the crime." Here are snippets:

Sholom Rubashkin, a first-time, non-violent offender, was convicted in 2009 of bank fraud related to his operation of a kosher slaughterhouse in Postville.  He is no Boy Scout.  He committed financial fraud, was convicted at trial and deserves punishment.  Like any defendant found guilty of having committed a federal crime, Rubashkin also was constitutionally entitled to consideration of all arguments for leniency, an explanation of the reasons for the sentence he received, and review of that punishment by a higher court.

But when Chief District Judge Linda R. Reade of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Iowa disregarded her obligation to consider Rubashkin’s grounds for mercy and instead just sentenced him to 27 years behind bars, she left the appellate judges who examined Rubashkin’s case with no means for determining whether the penalty she imposed was fair, just or reasonable.  That’s why it’s so important for the U.S. Supreme Court to hear Rubashkin’s appeal....

A series of recent Supreme Court decisions prohibit judges from mechanically adhering to federal guidelines.  Rather, judges are supposed to use their own judgment when meting out sentences, including consideration of all factors that might mitigate the sentence suggested by the guidelines. Simply put, judges are required to impose sentences that fit both the offender and the offense and are supposed to jail defendants for only as long as is “sufficient, but not greater than necessary” to reflect a host of penal objectives.

In Rubashkin’s case, Judge Reade paid only lip service to these legal requirements.  She dispatched her obligation to consider factors other than the federal guidelines in a mere four pages of her 52-page sentencing decision.  She essentially gave the back of her hand to the mitigating detail presented by Rubashkin’s lawyers, including his responsibility for 10 children, his extensive charitable activities, the absence of any indication that he was motivated by greed, and, most significantly, the disproportionality of the sentence recommended by federal guidelines as compared to those handed down in fraud cases of similar size and scope.

On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit essentially ignored Judge Reade’s omissions, inaccurately stating that she had “explicitly discussed each possible basis” for a shorter sentence than that called for by federal guidelines.  In doing so, that court failed to fulfill its own obligation to ensure that sentences conform with the constitutional standards set by the Supreme Court.

To ensure the promise of a fair and just criminal justice system, it is critical that the Supreme Court, which is currently considering his request for a hearing, review Rubashkin’s case.  It should find that judges must state on the record — in a written statement of reasons or during the sentencing hearing itself — that they considered and how they accounted for each and every mitigating factor.

This is of particular importance to those who receive sentences measured in decades, not years, like the 27-year prison term that Rubashkin received.  The alternative — silence by sentencing judges — is constitutionally unacceptable, not only for the likes of Rubashkin, but also for any other citizen who might one day run afoul of the law.

As detailed in an amicus brief on sentencing issues I authored to support Rubashkin's cert petition (discussed here), I concur with this commentary's advocacy for SCOTUS review in this case focused on sentencing issues.  In addition, as detailed in this ABA Journal report, my amicus brief was one of six filed in support of cert.  One amicus brief, authored by former SG Seth Waxman, concerns recusal issues based on the presiding judge's pre-trial involvement with prosecutors as "was signed by 86 former officials and judges, including former attorneys general and other prior Justice Department officials. They include former FBI directors Louis Freeh and William Sessions, former Attorneys General Edwin Meese and Dick Thornburgh, and former Solicitor General Kenneth Starr." And, other amicus briefs "were filed by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers ..., the Association of Professional Responsibility Lawyers, a group of 40 legal ethics professors, and the Justice Fellowship. Some of the briefs deal only with the fairness of the sentence, while others deal with recusal issues and the 8th Circuit's new trial standard."

All this amicus support, together with the fact that former SG (and SCOTUS magician) Paul Clement is representing Rubashkin before the High Court, surely raises significantly the odds of a cert grant.  But, while making a cert grant more likely, it is hard to ever assert that a cert grant in a federal criminal case is "probable."  Indeed, in this effective Slate commentary focused upon the judicial bias issues raised by the case, Emily Bazelon concludes with this sober assessment:

The larger problem here is that, practically speaking, federal judges have enormous leeway in deciding whether to take themselves off a case because of potential bias or perceived bias.  When they make a bad call, there are rarely any consequences. In all likelihood, the Supreme Court will turn Rubashkin down and refuse to intervene this time, too.  The jury who convicted Rubashkin sat for 18 days and reviewed more than 9,000 exhibits, and the justices probably have as little appetite for a do-over as they do for smacking down Judge Reade.  But even if you can’t bring yourself to care much about the fate of Sholom Rubashkin, the oddities of this case don’t sit well.  Judges shouldn’t be able to make up their own rules for policing themselves.

As this Supreme Court docket sheet reveals, the feds will not be filing a response to all the cert advocacy until at least early July, and thus the Justices will not be considering this case directly until well into summer.  To its credit, SCOTUS recently has not shield away from taking up high-profile criminal cases raising high-profile issues (see, e.g., US v. Skilling), and thus I am a bit more optimistic that Bazelon that SCOTUS will take up the Rubashkin case.  But I am eager to hear from readers as to whether they think this might be just wishful thinking on my part.

May 18, 2012 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Gall reasonableness case, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Judge Young's latest account of (and homage to) jury involvement in sentencing fact-finding

US District Judge William Young of the District of Massachusetts, who has produced a regular supply of interesting (and lengthy) opinions about the role of juries in the modern criminal justice system, today issued another interesting (and lengthy) opinion such in US v. Gurley, No. NO. 10-10310 (D. Mass. May 17, 2012) (available for download below).  Judge Young's work always merits attention, and the 51-page sentencing opinion in Gurley does not disappoint.  There is far too much ground covered in Gurley to allow a simple summary, but here is the start of the main legal discussion section -- which begins on page 24 of the opinion! -- to provide a flavor of why Gurley is today's federal sentencing must-read:

I am a district judge sitting in the First Circuit. I owe the utmost fidelity to the Acts of Congress, the decisions of the Supreme Court, and those of the First Circuit. Government waiver aside, I owe a duty to explain that my post-Booker insistence on keeping the jury-front-and-center is fully consonant with the controlling statutes and case law.

The issues presented to this Court are whether the Court “must” apply the ten-year mandatory minimum sentence to the basic sentencing range set out in 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(C) and whether the principle of juror lenity bears on determinations as to the authorized sentence range.

I answer to the first question in the negative because the statutory range authorized by the jury does not provide for a mandatory minimum sentence. As to the second question, Supreme Court precedent binds this Court to recognize the principle of juror lenity in determining the applicable sentencing range. In doing so, this Court does not abdicate its post-Booker discretion to decide a just sentence based on a fair preponderance of the evidence as counseled by the Sentencing Guidelines. Rather, this Court endeavors to harmonize the principle of juror lenity with the jury’s recognized authority to acquit a defendant should a sentencing range appear to it disproportionate.

Download 10-cr-10310Gurley Mem

May 17, 2012 in Blakely in Sentencing Courts, Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in district courts, Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Monday, May 14, 2012

Professor Bowman's latest potent pitch for a Booker fix

I have long respected (and even have sometimes agreed with) Frank Bowman's informed perspectives on federal sentencing policy and practice.  Thus I am pleased to see his latest and greatest advocacy for reform of the post-Booker system now available on SSRN.  This latest piece, which is forthcoming in the Federal Sentencing Reporter, is titled "Nothing is Not Enough: Fix the Absurd Post-Booker Federal Sentencing System."  Here is the abstract:

This article is an elaboration of testimony I gave in February 2012 at a U.S. Sentencing Commission hearing considering whether the advisory guidelines system created by the Supreme Court’s 2005 decision in United States v. Booker should be modified or replaced. I argue that it should.

First, the post-Booker advisory system is conceptually indefensible.  It retains virtually every feature excoriated by critics of the original sentencing guidelines.  Its extreme ‘advisoriness,’ while partially ameliorating some problems with the original guidelines, reintroduces the very concerns about unreviewable judicial arbitrariness that spawned the structured sentencing movement in the first place.  More importantly, the post-Booker system does not solve the biggest problem with the pre-Booker system — that its architecture and institutional arrangements predisposed the Commission’s rule-making process to become a one-way upward ratchet which raised sentences often and lowered them virtually never.  Its sole relative advantage — that of conferring additional (and effectively unreviewable) discretion on sentencing judges — is insufficient to justify its retention as a permanent system.

Second, there exist a number of constitutionally permissible alternatives to the court-created Booker system, one of which — that originally proposed by the Constitution Project and more recently endorsed by Judge William Sessions, former Chair of the U.S. Sentencing Commission — is markedly superior to the present system.

Third, the difficult problem is not designing a sentencing mechanism better than either the pre- or post-Booker guidelines, but ensuring that such a system, once in place, does not replicate pre-Booker experience and become a one-way upward ratchet prescribing ever higher sentences.  I offer suggestions about how this difficulty might be solved. However, I concede both the difficulty of this problem and the justice of the concern that, however imperfect the advisory system, it may be the best that can be achieved given the present constellation of institutional and political forces.

May 14, 2012 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in district courts, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Fascinating comments from Justice Alito about "most academic" Supreme Court

Thanks to a link from How Appealing, I saw this press release from Columbia Law School titled "U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito Says Pragmatism, Stability Should Guide Court." As the title hints, there is much of interest in what Justice Alito had to say at Columbia Law School’s conference on Burkean Constitutionalism.  And I found these passages from the press release especially noteworthy:

In his lunchtime speech, Alito wrested Burke’s legacy from the realm of theory. “He was not a theorist, and I am not a theorist,” Alito said, before distinguishing himself from other members of the current Supreme Court.  “I feel almost outnumbered,” he said, noting that the Court has four former professors.  “The Supreme Court these days is the most academic in the history of the country.  We’re at a tipping point where we might tip into the purely theoretical realm.”...

For Alito, the virtue of Burke is stability: If judges are bound to respect prior decisions, he said, they’re less likely to risk the unintended consequences of “ill-considered judicial innovations.”

Sticking to established rules, Alito said, is good policy for judges who make decisions under isolated conditions and with limited resources.  He noted that judicial decisions “are discrete exercises of individual judgment, so they are more prone to error or ideological manipulation."

I am inclinded to suspect that Justice Alito might be thinking particularly of Blakely and Booker when he talks about “ill-considered judicial innovations.”  I am also inclinded to wonder whether and how these comments provide a tea leaf of sorts concerning how Justice Alito is approaching all the blockbuster cases still pending on the SCOTUS docket this Term.

April 25, 2012 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

"Racial Disparities, Judicial Discretion, and the United States Sentencing Guidelines"

The title of this post is the title of this new empirical paper available via SSRN authored by Joshua Fischman and Max Schanzenbach on a topic that has already generated significant conflicting empirical analyses and that is always of interest to federal sentencing policy-makers.   Here is the abstract:

The United States Sentencing Guidelines were instituted to restrict judicial discretion in sentencing, in part to reduce unwarranted racial disparities.  However, judicial discretion may also mitigate disparities that result from prosecutorial discretion or Guidelines factors that have disparate impact.  To measure the impact of judicial discretion on racial disparities, we examine doctrinal changes that affected judges’ discretion to depart from the Guidelines.  We find that racial disparities are either reduced or little changed when the Guidelines are made less binding.  Racial disparities increased after recent Supreme Court decisions declared the Guidelines to be advisory; however, we find that this increase is due primarily to the increased relevance of mandatory minimums.  Our findings suggest that judicial discretion does not contribute to, and may in fact mitigate, racial disparities in Guidelines sentencing.

April 3, 2012 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in district courts, Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

A little talk about Booker remedy when debating ACA severability

I am listening to the oral arguments of this morning's health care litigation (available at this link), in which the question on tap concerns whether and how SCOTUS ought to strike down other parts of the Affordable Care Act if it strikes down the individual mandate as unconstitutional.  In two parts of that argument, the remedy adopted in Booker gets mentioned.  Not surprisingly, the Justices and the advocates seem to give different spins to what the Court did in the remedy portion of Booker and what that means for severability doctrines.

March 28, 2012 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Notable comments on sentencing policy reform from AAG Breuer

This DOJ release, headlined "Assistant Attorney General Lanny A. Breuer Speaks at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law," provides the text of a speech given today by the head of Justice Department's Criminal Division. Intriguingly, the text includes a lot of sentencing reform discussion and merits a full read.  These notable passages seemed especially worth highlighting:

Although the Criminal Division’s primary mission is to investigate and prosecute crime, because we are in Washington, D.C., the division also plays a unique role in the development of criminal law policy. And I consider it to be a critical aspect of the Division’s work to advocate for reforming those aspects of the criminal justice system that we view as not working, or in need of improvement....

Today, I want to tell you about one example in particular, involving sentencing policy....

Twenty-six years ago, in the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, Congress instituted a stringent sentencing policy that created, among other things, an extreme difference in sentencing policy for crack cocaine and powder cocaine offenses....

Data compiled by the U.S. Sentencing Commission indicated that, among other effects, the extreme disparity in sentences for crack and powder cocaine offenses had a disproportionate impact on African Americans.  For example, in 2006, according to the commission, 82 percent of individuals convicted of federal crack cocaine offenses were African American, while just 9 percent were white.

As a result, the crack and powder cocaine regime came to symbolize a significant unfairness in the criminal justice system, and the Sentencing Commission and others began advocating many years ago for the 100:1 ratio to be reduced.  But it was not until 2010, when President Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act, or FSA, into law that something was done about it.

Early in this administration, the Justice Department began advocating to completely eliminate the disparity in crack and cocaine sentencing, and reduce the ratio to 1:1. Indeed, days after I joined the Justice Department, in 2009, I was proud to testify before Congress on behalf of the administration in favor of eliminating the disparity.

The FSA reduced the ratio from 100:1 to 18:1. In doing so, it did not go as far as we had urged. But the act was nevertheless hugely important, going a long way toward eliminating the appearance of racial bias in the sentencing system.

Of course, our work in the area of sentencing is not done.  As I’m sure many of you know, the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines went into effect in 1987, prescribing specific sentencing ranges for particular crimes, depending upon the defendant’s criminal history and other factors.  In 2005, however, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in the case of Booker v. United States, that federal judges could treat the sentencing guidelines as advisory only. And there is evidence that unwarranted sentencing disparities have been increasing in recent years. One area among others in which we have seen significant such disparities is financial fraud.  With increasing frequency, federal district courts have been sentencing fraud offenders -- especially offenders involved in high-loss fraud cases -- inconsistently and without regard to the federal sentencing guidelines.  For example, we have seen defendants in one district sentenced to one or two years in prison for causing losses of hundreds of millions of dollars while defendants in another district receive 10 or 20 years in prison for causing losses a fraction of the size.  This is another challenge in sentencing that we will need to address in the coming months and years.

The Fair Sentencing Act is just one example, albeit a very important one, of many I could give you where Criminal Division lawyers and others in the department have worked hard to advance needed legislation and reform an aspect of the criminal justice system in need of repair.  Your own Benjamin Cardozo once said, “Justice is not to be taken by storm. She is to be wooed by slow advances.”  In Washington, certainly, change rarely comes quickly, and because it is always the product of compromise, usually no one gets exactly what they were hoping for.  That was indeed the case with respect to the Fair Sentencing Act.  At the same time, when you see what is involved in moving a dramatic piece of legislation, or reforming something as fundamental as sentencing policy, such “slow advances” represent enormous achievements.

I adore the notion of seeking to "woo" Lady Justice though slow advances; extending the metaphor, I think we might well view debates over sentencing reform as a product of a number of different suitors pitching woo at Lady Justice.

March 13, 2012 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Monday, February 20, 2012

Brief reflections on federal sentencing policy, practice and politics after USSC hearings

I have many intricate "micro" observations about last week's two US Sentencing Commission hearings, but I fear I will not soon be able to find time to write up (m)any of them for this space.  But I think I can quickly here articulate and briefly explain my "macro" take away from both hearings: federal sentencing laws and their prospects for reform still suffer greatly from (and may always suffer from?) harmful disconnects between sound sentencing policies and practices and sound-bite sentencing politics.  Let me (too briefly) explain what I mean:

1.  There was a rough consensus from the written testimony submitted on the first hearing day concerning penalties for child pornography offenses (still available via links in this official agenda) that, as a matter of policy and practice, federal sentencing law in this area is functioning quite poorly.  (This is hardly surprising: the potential dysfunction of the existing CP guidelines has been stressed by courts and commentators for many years now.)  But I suspect and fear it will prove very challenging for the US Sentencing Commission or the Justice Department to engineer any quick and/or sound fix because the sound-bite politics of this issue make it almost impossible to propose lower sentences for anyone who downloads kiddie porn, even the most mitigated of offenders who already faces many years in prison under existing law.  (This is the same sad political reality that prevented any real change to the 100-1 crack/powder ratio for more than a decade after essentially everyone agreed that ratio was terribly misguided and racially unjust.)

2.  There was a rough consensus, at least coming from all the judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys and public policy groups (whose written testimony is still linked via this official agenda here), that the broader post-Booker sentencing structure is, as a matter of policy and practice, functioning reasonably well all things considerd.   But I suspect and fear the US Sentencing Commission and the Justice Department will feel very pressured to urge fixes to the post-Booker system because powerful Republican voices in Congress seem to relish the sound-bite politics of complaining about the possible unwarranted and/or racial disparities in federal sentencing.  (But, tellingly, these same Republican voices were often disturbingly silent for years concerning proposed crack sentence reductions that the USSC long said were clearly needed to reduce unwarranted and racial sentencing disparities.)

3.  Rigorous quantitative analysis of the post-Booker sentencing system done by both the US Sentencing Commission and outside researchers are already playing a large role in the policy and political debates.  But I fear that even the best quantitative research (like the Commission's own data runs) too often fails to break down categories of cases/regions for analysis in order to assess the impact of sets of outliers.  For example, the case-processing data differences in the CP cases and the larceny cases are profound in all sorts of ways, as are the difference in even the three judicial districts of North Carolina, but so much of the research and reporting necessarily has to lump many of these "local" stories together.  For this reason (and many others), I think the USSC and outside researchers ought to be devoting a lot more time to sophisticated qualitative research with a focus on particularly important "local" stories.

I could go on (and may in future posts), but for now I hope lots of thoughtful folks — whether following the USSC hearing closely or not — will share comments on my numbered observations above OR more generally about what they see in the future for federal sentencing reform debates.

Some recent related posts:

February 20, 2012 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in district courts, Data on sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Highlights from DOJ testimony to US Sentencing Commission about federal sentencing concerns

I cannot even hope to summarize all the interesting stories emerging from the US Sentencing Commission hearing on Thursday concerning the operation and potential reform of the modern post-Booker federal sentencing system.  But, in addition to once again urging all federal sentencing fans to review all the written testimony from the hearing (linked via the official agenda here), I can also highlight some notable passages from this written testimony from the Justice Department.  Though the entire testimony ought to be reviewed closely, these passages especially caught my attention:

We are now on a funding trajectory that will result in more federal money spent on imprisonment and less on police, investigators, prosecutors, reentry, and crime prevention.  At the same time, state and local enforcement and corrections budgets are under severe strain.  Taken together, and given the scale of current federal imprisonment penalties, we do not think this trajectory is a good one for continued improvements in public safety.

Prisons are essential for public safety.  But maximizing public safety can be achieved without maximizing prison spending.  And in these budget times, maximizing public safety can only be achieved if we control prison spending.  A proper balance of outlays must be found that allows, on the one hand, for sufficient numbers of investigative agents, prosecutors and judicial personnel to investigate, apprehend, prosecute and adjudicate those who commit federal crimes, and on the other hand, a sentencing policy that achieves public safety correctional goals and justice for victims, the community, and the offender.

This is all relevant to federal sentencing, because the federal prison population remains on an upward path.  Given the budgetary environment, this path will lead to further imbalances in the deployment of justice resources....

One way to reduce prison expenditures is to reduce the total number of prisonyears that inmates serve in the Federal Bureau of Prisons.  To that end, the Department has proposed limited new prison credits for those offenders who behave well in prison and participate in evidence-based programs with proven records of reducing recidivism.  We believe this is one example of a responsible way to control prison spending while also reducing reoffending.... 

We believe mandatory minimums in certain areas are not only reasonable, but are an essential law enforcement tool to increase public safety and provide predictability, certainty and uniformity in sentencing.  At the same time, we recognize that when the severity of mandatory minimum penalties is set inappropriately, consistent application is often lost and just punishment may not be achieved.  The Commission’s report reached the same conclusion.

There are also interesting passages about post-Booker disparities and the role of offender circumstances at sentencing in this DOJ testimony.  And all of the themes in this testimony seem certain to play a role if (and when?) talk of significant sentencing reform (and even a big "Booker fix") moves forward in the US Sentencing Commission and/or in Congress.

Some recent related posts:

February 18, 2012 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Thursday, February 09, 2012

"Don't Blame Judges for Racial Disparity"

The title of this post is the headline of this new commentary appearing at The Huffington Post authored by Julie Stewart, the President of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM). Here is how it starts:

It's almost too much to bear.  After decades of defending some of the most racially discriminatory mandatory minimum sentencing laws ever written, some lawmakers on Capitol Hill and their allies are now saying concern about racial disparity is motivating them to "fix" the federal sentencing guidelines. A new comprehensive report out of the University of Michigan makes clear that these legislative efforts are as misguided, as their proponents' stated concerns are transparently disingenuous.

In 2010, the U.S. Sentencing Commission analyzed recent sentencing data and concluded that the disparity in sentences received by blacks and whites was growing -- particularly after mandatory guidelines became advisory. The Commission warned against using its data to conclude judges were exercising discretion in a racially biased manner. And its warning seemed well-advised when a more rigorous, follow-up study by the University of Pennsylvania contradicted key Sentencing Commission's findings.

Undeterred, those seeking to restore mandatory guidelines insist that judges are to blame for unwarranted racial disparity in sentences.  They seek to pass legislation to reverse the effect of the Supreme Court's decision in United States v. Booker, which held that the federal sentencing guidelines should advise judges, but not bind them.  Thus, to the well-worn charge that federal judges (half of whom, inconveniently, were appointed by Republican presidents and approved overwhelmingly by Republican senators) are soft on crime, we now hear that some of these judges are racists, too.

Mandatory sentencing guidelines, just like mandatory minimum sentencing laws, transfer discretion from judges to prosecutors. Prosecutors, already the most powerful players in the criminal justice system, get to choose not only who to charge and what crimes to charge, but they also get to dictate what sentence a defendant will receive if found guilty since judges have little or no power to disagree. If this extraordinary concentration of power in the hands of one group of federal officials does not convince the public to reject a restoration of mandatory guidelines, the findings of this comprehensive new study should.

"Racial Disparity in Federal Criminal Charging and its Sentencing Consequences" is the understated title of the incredibly important and timely study conducted by Sonja Starr, a law professor from the University of Michigan, and M. Marit Rehavi, an economics professor from the University of British Columbia. The study, the first of its kind, looked at 58,000 federal criminal cases -- at every step where discretion and bias might arise, from arrest through sentencing -- in order to determine the impact of decisions made by prosecutors (rather than judges) on racial disparity in sentence lengths.

In particular, the study focused on how whites and blacks arrested for the same offense were ultimately sentenced. The researchers found significant black-white disparities in the overall severity of initial charges, but saw the most dramatic differences when they examined charges carrying mandatory minimum sentences. Black men were on average more than twice as likely be charged by prosecutors with a crime that carried a mandatory minimum sentence as were white men, even after holding other factors constant.

Those initial charging differences led inexorably to sentencing differences. The gap in sentence lengths between black and white offenders is largely explained by differences in criminal records and in the arrest offense. When you control for those two factors, and others such as gender, age, and district, however, the difference between sentences narrows to almost 10 percent on average. Because 10 percent is still a significant disparity, the authors looked for its cause(s). They found that the gap was caused by differences in the severity of the initial charge. Further, they found that this disparity was largely a result of the prosecutors' decisions to file mandatory minimum charges against blacks more often than against whites, even when the conduct was the same and the mandatory minimum bearing charges could have been filed against whites.

Some recent related posts:

February 9, 2012 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (33) | TrackBack