Monday, November 28, 2011
Some notable responses to recent DOJ post-Booker disparity complaints
Regular readers with a special interest in federal sentencing may recall this posting from a few weeks ago noting a public speech by Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer in which he lamented increasing federal sentencing disparity and asserted that "many prosecutors, defense lawyers, and judges agree that more and more, the length of a defendant’s sentence depends primarily on the identity of the judge assigned to the case, and the district in which he or she is in." I have gotten a sense that this speech has generated some extra amounts of notable buzz in the federal sentencing world, and it has also now also generated some notable responses.
One such response comes from Mary Price, the Vice President and General Counsel of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), via this commentary piece at the website Main Justice. The piece carries the headline "It's Not the Judges," and here are the four numbers points that appear in this piece:
- Prosecutors share responsibility for different guideline adherence rates among districts
- Different federal districts are just that: different
- Flawed guidelines, not flawed judges, drive variance rates
- Sentencing rules drive racial disparity
Another response comes via a letter put together by a set of federal public defenders which can be downloaded below and starts this way:
As Federal Public Defenders, we read with interest the remarks you made before the American Lawyer/National Law Journal Summit in Washington, D.C. on November 15, 2011. We were heartened to see that you believe, as we do, that the significant prison population in both federal and state facilities is a tremendously important issue for all legal practitioners, whether or not they practice criminal law. But we read with some concern your statements regarding sentencing disparities between federal districts, particularly the three districts in which we serve....
We write because, as experienced practitioners in the districts you mention, we disagree that the disparities you identify have much at all to do with the sentencing judges involved. Instead, we believe that these disparities have far more to do with the types of cases that arise in each district, and the prosecution policies that local federal prosecutors have chosen to address these cases.
Thursday, October 13, 2011
Additional written testimony submitted at House Booker hearing
At the tail end of yesterday's hearing of the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security of the House Judiciary Committee, titled "Uncertain Justice: The Status of Federal Sentencing and the U.S. Sentencing Commission Six Years after U.S. v. Booker," the members of the committee entered into the record submitted written testimony submitted by some public policy groups. I hope to be able to provide links to all this submitted testimony, and already available at this link is testimony authored by Testimony of Mary Price, the Vice President and General Counsel of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM). I believe a number of defense groups also submitted testimony, which I will post if/when I can find it.
UPDATE: Here is a link to testimony from the ACLU submitted to the house subcommittee.
Some recent related posts about the House hearing:
- Witnesses identified for House hearing on post-Booker federal sentencing
- Webcast of House hearing on federal sentencing after Booker available
- "Should sentences reflect the will of the public?"
- "Should the USSC publish sentencing data for individual judges?"
- Early reactions to the (too) quick House hearing on post-Booker sentencing
October 13, 2011 in Advisory Sentencing Guidelines, Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack
Wednesday, October 12, 2011
Early reactions to the (too) quick House hearing on post-Booker sentencing
Less than two hours after it started, today's hearing of the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security of the House Judiciary Committee, titled "Uncertain Justice: The Status of Federal Sentencing and the U.S. Sentencing Commission Six Years after U.S. v. Booker," has come to a close. As detailed in prior posts linked below, a lot happened in the 100 minutes of this hearing, though I seriously doubt that much is going to happen legislatively as a result of what just transpired. Without too much reflection, here are a few quick reactions:
1. There is clearly lots of bad blood among members of this subcommittee as reflected in a shouting match that broke out between Rep. Jackson Lee and Rep. Sensenbrenner
2. Other than a precious few members, it is not obvious that many even on this subcommittee care too much about this subject. Only about one-quearter of the 20 members of the subcommittee appeared to be in attendance and only a precious few asked questions suggesting they even understood how modern federal sentencing works.
3. The absence of a Justice Department representative was both telling and disappointing, especially because it is very hard to predict how federal prosecutors would view proposals to abolish the US Sentencing Commission or to have a Blakely-compliant mandatory guideline system.
4. The USSC's apparent recommendations to Congress to give reasonableness review more bite via statutory reform is very sound and very important and very constitutionally challenging, all of which in turn leads me to predict/fear that it is very unlikely to happen anytime soon.
5. A lot of worrisome "smaller" federal sentencing issues that could benefit most from congressional oversight and legislative reform — the application of the Armed Career Criminal Act, child porn victim restitution awards, fast-track departures, the persistent growth of the federal criminal docket — did not even get mentioned.
6. We desparately still need refined and consistent nomenclature to describe different potential kinds of federal guideline systems other than just advisory, presumptive and mandatory. I especially urge readers to help me come up with a labels other than "presumptive" to describe the kind of revised advisory guideline systems — advisory with bite? advisory with great weight? — to describe what the USSC now seems to be advocating Congress to enact.
I could go on and on and on, but I have now said more than enough and need to get off the grid for awhile just to make sure my head does not explode as I have flash-backs from some of the worst moments of this morning's House hearing.
Some recent related posts about the House hearing:
- Witnesses identified for House hearing on post-Booker federal sentencing
- Webcast of House hearing on federal sentencing after Booker available
- "Should sentences reflect the will of the public?"
- "Should the USSC publish sentencing data for individual judges?"
Webcast of House hearing on federal sentencing after Booker available
As reported in this prior post, this morning the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security of the House Judiciary Committee is conducting a hearing to examine the post-Booker federal sentencing system. The hearing is titled "Uncertain Justice: The Status of Federal Sentencing and the U.S. Sentencing Commission Six Years after U.S. v. Booker," and a webcast can be accessed via this calender entry [Update: Written testimony from the witnesses are now linked here]. I will do a little live-blogging as I follow along.
10:04: Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) has begun the hearing and is reading a prepared statement in which he complains at great length about sentencing disparities and says that Booker, in his view, "destroyed the guidelines." He is also complaining that the US Sentencing Commission has not proposed a "Booker fix" in the last six years, and also complaining about the USSC making its new lower crack guidelines retroactive, and also complaining about the USSC's operating budget going up.
10:06: Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) has begun his opening statement and says that Booker was the fix, not something that needs fixing. He also is noting that the number of judicial variances from the guidelines went down in the last quarter of FY11 and that prosecutors sponsor and/or do not object to the vast majority of non-guideline sentences.
10:10: Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) says a few things off the cuff that do little more than make Rick Perry seem eloquent by comparison.
10:20: USSC Chair Judge Patti Saris (very detailed written testimony here) begins witness testimony by stressing how Supreme Court Booker caselaw has impacted federal sentencing. She says the guidelines exert a "demonstrable gravitation pull" on sentencing, but also says that USSC recognizes "weaknesses" in the advisory guideline system. Chair Saris says USSC recommends these legislative changes by Congress:
- Congress should make reasonableness review tougher, especially for non-guideline sentences
- Congress should clarify statutory directives that are in tension
- Congress should clarify and codify that guidelines should be given substantial weight
Saris also indicates that three reports are forthcoming from the USSC: one on mandatory minimums, one on child porn sentencing, and one based on the testimony offered today about the post-Booker system.
10:26: Matthew Miner, White & Case partner (written testimony here), begins his testimony by stressing disparities between sentencing outcomes in Southern and Northern districts of New York. He urges a "presumptively applicable" guideline system and recognizes that this system needs to comply with Apprendi/Blakely rights and says that it should not be too hard for juries to make special sentencing-related findings. Paraphrasing: "If we can trust juries to make findings in death penalty cases, we can trust them to find aggravating factors for guideline sentencing." As a first step, making reasonableness review tougher would be a modest reform that would "go a long way" to reducing disparity.
10:31: William Otis, Georgetown Professor Law (written testimony here), begins his testimony by stressing importance of being a nation of laws, but says sentencing is now not a system of law but "a lottery." He notes that downward departures, which "favor the criminal," are 20 times more common than upward departures. He complains that the USSC has "compounded the problem" of Booker by encouraging departures based on offender characteristics, and that it has embraced a system that is "random and watered-down."
10:36: James Felman, Kynes, Markman & Felman partner (written testimony here), begins his testimony by saying advisory sentencing system "best achieves" the goals of Sentencing Reform Act. He stresses that sentences have not gone down since Booker in fraud and child porn cases, but rather have gone up greatly since Booker. Says Mr. Otis is "incorrect" that the recent trend show continued movement away from guidelines, and he also notes that departures and variances from guidelines are modest.
I will cover follow-up Q & A in a separate post...
Monday, September 26, 2011
New call for a (long overdue?) legislative and USSC fix to Booker
Matt Miner, who not long ago served as former Republican staff director for the Senate Judiciary Committee (and now is a partner at White & Case), has this notable new commentary on federal sentencing in today's National Law Journal. The piece is headlined "It's time to fix our sentencing laws; Years after the Supreme Court put the ball in Congress' court, commission can finally spur action." Here are excerpts:
The U.S. Sentencing Commission is confronting a challenge to its own existence. Critics of the commission's budget and inaction on sentencing reform have begun to call for massive cutbacks and even full elimination of the commission. Yet unlike other agencies that face similar crises, the commission has the power to propose reforms to justify and strengthen its role.
For more than six years — since the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated parts of the federal law governing sentencing policy in Booker v. U.S. — courts have increasingly disregarded the federal sentencing guidelines. At the same time, racial disparities have increased. The Supreme Court called for policymakers to respond, stating, "The ball now lies in Congress' court." But more than a half-decade later, neither Congress nor the commission has acted.
The time for action is now, and the commission has the opportunity to urge changes to restore order to our system. Given the impact of the commission's reports on crack-cocaine sentencing — resulting in passage of the Fair Sentencing Act — a commission-led Booker-fix proposal could be a game changer....
Since Booker, courts have drifted farther from guideline-based sentences, with many courts applying the guidelines less than half the time. Even more troubling, racial disparities in federal sentencing are on the rise. According to a recent commission report on demographic disparities post-Booker, the difference in sentences given to black versus white defendants has "been increasing steadily since that decision."
Sadly, racial and educational disparities have grown in a system that is increasingly determined by the judge a defendant draws. Making matters worse, appellate judges find themselves out of the sentencing business due to the lack of a meaningful appellate standard and the broad discretion retained by district courts....
The appetite for reform appears to have returned. Conservative law professor William Otis has called for a rewrite of the 1984 Sentencing Reform Act to once again make the guidelines mandatory, albeit with certain enhancements decided by a jury. And past commission chairman William Sessions, a federal judge, has proposed a grand reform to broaden the discretion given judges under the guidelines, while also restoring certainty and consistency to the system by making the guidelines "presumptive" rather than merely "advisory."
Although such reforms may take time, the commission should immediately recommend basic reforms such as codifying an appellate standard to replace the language struck down by Booker. The Supreme Court made clear that the standard that existed before the 2003 Feeney amendment would withstand constitutional challenge, and that standard is a worthwhile place to start. More recent Supreme Court decisions, including U.S. v. Rita, provide further components that could be added to the old appellate review standard, including a presumption of reasonableness for properly calculated sentences within the guidelines. Additionally, the commission should demand reforms that require judges to provide a heightened justification for any major departure from the prescribed guideline sentence.
In the absence of congressional action, federal courts will continue to struggle to apply constitutional principles to fill gaps in the sentencing statute. In essence, courts will be left to legislate from the bench.
I share Mr. Miner's interest in having the US Sentencing Commission and Congress playing a much more active role in managing and bringing greater legal order to the post-Booker sentencing system. I also think the "lack of a meaningful appellate standard" is a part of the systemic problem with the status quo. But I think this commentary overlooks at least three critical realities that must play a central role in any future sentencing reform work by the USSC and Congress:
- Crime rates are at historic low levels and have been continuing to trend down since Booker (basics blogged here and here);
- Federal prison populations are at record high levels, and the resulting overcrowding and costs must be addressed as soon as possible (as the US Justice Department stressed in its recent letter to the USSC);
- Before Booker and perhaps now even more after Booker, the defendant's luck in which prosecutor he draws matters a lot more than what judge he draws (which, as noted here, USSC stats always show).
For me, these three critical realities suggest (at least) three essential guideposts for future federal sentencing reform: (1) "Do no harm": we cannot figure out what is "working" with crime reductions, but we should make extra sure any federal sentencing changes do not reverse national crime trends; (2) "Reduce federal incarceration": we cannot afford stuffing a lot more federal prisoners into limited (and expensive) prison space, and thus we should make extra sure any federal sentencing changes do reverse the system's hyper-incarceration tendencies; (3) "Better regulate prosecutors first": initial USSC efforts to limit the impact of prosecutorial discretion have not really worked, and the USSC and Congress ought to start with prosecutorial guidelines/regulations if there is a genuine concern with enduring federal sentencing disparities.
Monday, July 11, 2011
"The Constitutionality of Post-Crime Guidelines Sentencing"
The title of this post is the title of this new piece by Benjamin Holley, an Illinois Assistant State's Attorney, which is now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
United States v. Booker famously excised the mandatory provisions of the federal Sentencing Guidelines, making them “effectively advisory.” Judges are still required to calculate the applicable Guidelines range, however, and will rarely be overturned if they impose a within-Guidelines sentence. The question thus arises: if the Guidelines are not formally mandatory, but remain the de facto basis for sentencing, does use of post-crime Guidelines violate the Ex Post Facto Clause?
A circuit split on this issue has developed, with the Seventh Circuit authorizing the use of post-crime Guidelines and the D.C. Circuit holding that such use can violate the ex post facto prohibition. This article examines both the legal standards and the empirical evidence, ultimately arguing that the use of post-crime Guidelines does not violate the Ex Post Facto clause.
Friday, June 10, 2011
"The Slow, Sad Swoon of the Sentencing Suggestions"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new article by (frequent SL&P commentor) William Otis appearing in the June 2011 issue of the Federalist Society's Engage publication. Here is how the piece starts and ends:
The Guidelines are a lost cause. When they became optional after Booker, the Sentencing Commission lost the central purpose for which Congress established it. Yet each year it spends more money making suggestions district courts now follow only little more than half the time. It's time for the Commission to go, and for Congress to re-write the Sentencing Reform Act....
With apologies to Justice Scalia’s Booker dissent, the Commission has assumed all the value of a cookbook listing advisory-only ingredients, but telling the chef to remember that, in the end, he can use pretty much whatever pops into his head. As the Supreme Court reminded us in Nelson, we are now so far down Booker’s path that district judges cannot so much as presume a Guidelines sentence is reasonable, much less correct, and still less binding.
By its incomprehensibly nonchalant attitude toward restoring the determinate sentencing system it was created to produce, the Commission became an anachronism the day Booker was decided. In the era of desperately needed government frugality, taxpayers shouldn’t have to continue to shell out millions for sentencing suggestions.
I strongly disagree with Bill's basic premise that the US Sentencing Commission is an anachronism in our world of advisory guidelines after Booker. In addition to within-guideline sentence still being imposed in 55% of all cases — which was over 45,000 sentencing in Fiscal Year 2010! — the guidelines remain as a central benchmark in the other 45% of the cases (among which a below-guideline sentence is most often urged by a prosecutor to reward cooperation or a super-quick plea). In other words, even six+ years after Booker, the now-advisory guidelines still control sentencing outcomes in most federal criminal cases and still significantly impact sentencing outcomes in all federal cases. Suggesting the the guidelines and the agency that controls them are no longer that important just does not jibe with enduring federal sentencing realities.
That said, I strongly agree with a broader theme in Bill's piece here that both the Sentencing Commission's work and the Sentencing Reform Act's terms ought to be subject to significant post-Booker changes. I especially like this passage/suggestion in this piece:
[I]if the Sentencing Commission is to remain in operation (see subsequent discussion), it should forthwith require of itself a crime-and-cost impact statement setting forth a line-by-line estimate of the real-world consequences any new guideline or policy statement is likely to produce.
It’s too obvious for argument that a government agency, before taking action, ought to understand, as well as disclose to the citizens, what effects its proposals are likely to have on them. For years the law has required environmental impact statements for proposed construction projects, and there is no reason the same principle should not be applied to proposed changes in sentencing. The human environment counts, too.
In particular, the Commission will have to refine and expand its present incarceration estimates. If the Commission proposes a change likely to result in higher sentences, it should study how many more years of imprisonment, in the aggregate, this change would produce and tell the public what it’s going to cost; the day has passed when the taxpayers can foot the bill for every change, even if seemingly desirable. Similarly, if the Commission proposes a change likely to result in lower sentences (e.g., its recent crack/powder equalization proposal, discussed subsequently), it should produce an estimate of the impact of the resulting additional crime.
Sounds good to me, especially if/when the USSC would put all its analysis on its website for others to see, consider, assess and debate.
June 10, 2011 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (15) | TrackBack
Friday, March 04, 2011
Is Pepper starting to add spice to federal sentencing proceedings?
The significant ruling by the Supreme Court this week in Pepper (basics here) has already impacted a on-going federal sentencing articles and projects of mine, and I am wondering if and how the Pepperruling is impacting on-going federal sentencing proceedings. I suspect more than a few litigants with pending sentencing appeals are filing letters of supplemental authority based on Pepper, and perhaps some district courts have already referenced the ruling in sentencing decisions. (Recall that there are, on average, more than 300 federal sentencings taking place every day in federal courts around the nation.)
I hope readers might use the comments to this post to report on any early impact from Pepper, and I also hope anyone who come across a sentencing opinion that has some Pepper added will send it my way.
Related posts on the Pepper ruling by the Supreme Court:
- SCOTUS rules in Pepper, again stressing sentencing discretion after Booker
- SCOTUS opinion in Pepper shows how/when/why courts can reject the FSG
- Will Pepper prompt many more federal sentencing judges to focus on post-offense rehabilitation?
Thursday, March 03, 2011
Former Chair of US Sentencing Commission urging "presumptive guideline" Booker fix
Federal district judge William K. Sessions III, who served on the US Sentencing Commission for more than a decade and who was its Chair through the end of last year, has authored an important new paper about the present and future of post-Booker sentencing law and policy. This paper, now available here via SSRN, is titled, "At the Crossroads of the Three Branches: the U.S. Sentencing Commission's Attempts to Achieve Sentencing Reform in the Midst of Inter-Branch Power Struggles." Here is the abstract:
During the past quarter-century, federal sentencing policy has been impacted by struggles among the three branches of government, with each branch possessing a legitimate stake in formulating the policy but at times exerting inordinate influence at the expense of the other branches. The United States Sentencing Commission has faced -- and will continue to face -- enormous challenges in its mission to serve as the neutral expert at the intersection of the three branches regarding federal sentencing policy.
In the same manner in which the Commission has had to adjust to dramatic changes in the past (such as the PROTECT Act and the Supreme Court’s decision in Booker v. United States), I envision that additional changes will occur in the foreseeable future and the Commission will yet again be forced to adjust. In particular, I predict that, despite allowing the “advisory” guidelines system created by Court to exist for over six years to date, Congress eventually will retool the current system because of growing sentencing disparities -- both inter-judge disparities and demographic disparities, the same type which caused bipartisan support for the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984. With this in mind, and as a consequence of its unique vantage point of being at the crossroads of the three branches of government, the Sentencing Commission must assume a leadership role in developing an improved federal sentencing scheme that recognizes the legitimate interests of each branch.
I urge the Commission, working together with Congress and executive branch, to reformulate the guidelines in a manner that helps reduce unwarranted disparities while, at the same time, remove the main obstacle that has hindered lasting achievement of the aspirations of the SRA: the undue complexity and rigidity of the guidelines system, which have resulted in large part from congressional directives and draconian mandatory minimum statutes and which have caused increasing numbers of judges to resist (and, after Booker, in some cases entirely reject) substantial portions of the current guidelines. The Commission should streamline individual guidelines (primarily by reducing the amount of numeric aggravating factors in Chapters Two and Three) and also simplify the Sentencing Table in Chapter Five of the Guidelines Manual to provide for fewer and broader sentencing ranges. To reduce unwarranted sentencing disparities, Congress should make the guidelines presumptive (rather than advisory) and provide for meaningful appellate review to generally keep sentences within the presumptive ranges (which also would make mandatory minimum statutory penalties unnecessary). Finally, in order to comply with the Court’s decisions in Blakely v. Washington and later Booker, juries would be required to find aggravating facts that raise the “ceilings” of guideline ranges. Yet broader ranges and fewer aggravating factors likely would make such jury findings a relatively uncommon event.
Such a presumptive guideline system subject to meaningful appellate review would meet Congress’s and the executive branch’s valid desire to minimize disparate sentences being imposed on similarly situated defendants who committed similar offenses. At the same time, however, broader sentencing ranges and fewer mandatory aggravating factors would allow sentencing judges to better account for individual offender and offense characteristics, thereby allowing judges to carry out their traditional role in determining fair and just sentences.
My proposed system would not be perfect; no sentencing system ever will come close to being perfect. But it would be a genuine compromise that would provide something meaningful to all three branches. At the very least, my proposal is intended to advance the dialogue regarding changes that are clearly needed.
I have heard a bit of buzz from some fans of the current post-Booker federal sentencing status quo that they were troubled to see the former USSC Chair actively urging a legislative Booker fix. But especially in the wake of the federal sentencing ruling by the Supreme Court yesterday in Pepper (basics here), it is understandable that Judge Sessions and perhaps many others continue to be concerned that the broad discretion that Booker jurisprudence now affords sentencing judges could, in the words of this article, hinder what some consider the "lasting achievement of the aspirations of the SRA."
Wednesday, March 02, 2011
SCOTUS opinion in Pepper shows how/when/why courts can reject the FSG
I am quickly working my way through the majority opinion of the Supreme Court in Pepper (basics here), and I am consistently impressed with how Justice Sotomayor's opinion is weaving its way through a range of post-Booker issues and various other aspects of modern federal sentencing law and practice. Of particular note is a section highlighting the appropriateness of rejecting a policy statement within in the federal sentencing guidelines after Booker. This section is set up with this important point that I suspect will become a central part of many future defense sentencing memos:
[O]ur post-Booker decisions make clear that a district court may in appropriate cases impose a non-Guidelines sentence based on a disagreement with the Commission’s views. That is particularly true where, as here, the Commission’s views rest on wholly unconvincing policy rationales not reflected in the sentencing statutes Congress enacted.
SCOTUS rules in Pepper, again stressing sentencing discretion after Booker
The Supreme Court handed down its biggest federal sentencing case of the Term to date, ruling in the Peppercase about the consideration of post-sentencing rehabilitation at a federal resentencing proceeding. The full opinion is available at this link, and here are the (no-so-simple) basics of the ruling in terms of how the Justices voted:
SOTOMAYOR, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which ROBERTS, C. J., and SCALIA, KENNEDY, and GINSBURG, JJ., joined, and in which BREYER and ALITO, JJ., joined as to Part III. BREYER, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment. ALITO, J., filed an opinion concurring in part, concurring in the judgment in part, and dissenting in part. THOMAS, J., filed a dissenting opinion. KAGAN, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.
Here is the key paragraph from the start of the opinion for the Court by Justice Sotomayor:
We hold that when a defendant’s sentence has been set aside on appeal, a district court at resentencing may consider evidence of the defendant’s postsentencing rehabilitation and that such evidence may, in appropriate cases, support a downward variance from the now-advisory Federal Sentencing Guidelines range. Separately, we affirm the Court of Appeals’ ruling that the law of the case doctrine did not require the District Court in this case to apply the same percentage departure from the Guidelines range for substantial assistance that had been applied at petitioner’s prior sentencing.
The ultimate outcome here is not too surprising, but there seems to be a lot of "there there" in this opinion. (For example, the first part of the opinion of the Court stresses the old 1949 Williams ruling and repeats over and over that federal judges even after modern sentencing reforms have broad discretion to consider all factors relating to the defendants.) Blog posts will follow with some quick thoughts and perhaps some deeper thoughts in the hours and days ahead.
March 2, 2011 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack
Saturday, February 19, 2011
Great new article "celebrating" a quarter century of federal sentencing under the SRA
Inspired in part by my recent (serious!?!) post suggesting we ought to consider how IBM's Watson computer could aid sentencing decision-making, a couple of helpful readers pointed out this new article by J.C. Oleson in the University of Richmond Law Review titled "Blowing Out All the Candles: A Few Thoughts on the Twenty-Fifth Birthday of the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984."
There are many aspect of this piece that make in a must-read this long weekend (even though there is something a bit mathematically peculiar about celebrating the 25th birthday of the SRA in 2011). In light of my Watson post, I especially liked the passage spotlighting that "sociologist Max Weber imagined a kind of sentencing computer that would collect relevant facts and dispense a just sentence," and that "Marvin Frankel, the patron saint of sentencing guidelines, acknowledged that computers could be useful in bringing parity and fairness to sentencing." The piece also includes these concluding thoughts:
Instead of basing federal sentences on political intuitions, the Commission could provide sentencing judges with meaningful data about which available sentences are most effective in reducing recidivism. Improvements in risk assessment and technology have made it possible for the Commission to provide judges with data that were scarcely imaginable twenty-five years ago.
Even five years ago, given the acrimonious climate between Congress and the courts, it was difficult to envision a system of this kind. But much has changed. Given the Feeney Amendment, Booker and its progeny, and a growing interest in evidence-based policy, an actuarial sentencing information system is not only intellectually conceivable, but socially and politically viable.
So that, Sara, is my wish for your birthday: an actuarial sentencing information system that allows federal judges to impose data-driven sentences that are effective, efficient, and fair. It is something that, at twenty-five, you might become.
February 19, 2011 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack
Monday, January 03, 2011
Start your year by writing a commentary for the Federal Sentencing Reporter
Wearing my hat as an editor of the Federal Sentencing Reporter, I am happy to reproduce a solicitation from the journal below (and I am eager to encourage regular readers to put together their views on federal sentencing ASAP):
Seeking Commentaries for Federal Sentencing Reporter Special Issue to provide “Advice for the U.S. Sentencing Commissioners”
Just before adjourning for the holidays, the U.S. Senate finally confirmed President Barack Obama’s nominee for chair of the U.S. Sentencing Commission, U.S. District Judge Patti B. Saris from the District of Massachusetts. Judge Saris is new to the Commission, and she joins a Commission on which now two-thirds of the members began their service after the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Booker transformed the guidelines from mandates to advice. To welcome the new Chair, the editors of the Federal Sentencing Reporter have decided to create a special Forum Issue to invite judges, lawyers and other sentencing practitioners, legal academics and sentencing researchers, to share “Advice for the U.S. Sentencing Commissioners.”
With the Justice Department recently expressing concern that “federal sentencing practice is fragmenting into ... dichotomous regimes” with some judges regularly following, and some judges regularly disregarding, the guidelines — and with Congress recently reworking drug sentencing through the passage of the Fair Sentencing Act — the new Chair and her fellow Commissioners surely have a sense of the challenges that lie ahead. We hope that contributors to this special issue of FSR can help provide the Commission with many ideas and proposals for how the Commissioners should tackle these challenges and can best approach their responsibilities.
FSR seeks to publish short commentaries — ranging in length from a few paragraphs to a few pages — on federal sentencing topics in a form that provides “Advice for the U.S. Sentencing Commissioners.” Commentaries could tackle big structural issues (such as how the Commission might return to its long-dormant guideline simplification project), smaller technical issues (such as how to revise loss calculation rules in the fraud guideline), or any other topic of interest or concern to modern federal sentencing policy and practice.
FSR hopes to publish in its April 2011 issue all proper commentaries submitted by January 18, 2011, and later submissions will be considered as space permits. Submissions should be sent electronically to sentencinglaw @ gmail.com with a clear indication of the author and the author’s professional affiliation. All judges, lawyers and other sentencing practitioners, legal academics and sentencing researchers, and any others with an informed interest in federal sentencing law and practice are encouraged to submit a commentary.
Monday, December 20, 2010
New law review article on post-Booker disparity makes headlines in Boston
This morning's Boston Globe has this effective new article reporting on this important new academic research just published in the Stanford Law Review about post-Booker sentencing realities in the District of Massachusetts. The Globe article is headlined "Disparity cited in sentence lengths; Analyst studying Hub’s US judges alleges bias risk," and it does a nice job summarizing the basic findings of Professor Ryan Scott's just published article titled "Inter-Judge Sentencing Disparity After Booker: A First Look." Here are excerpts from the Globe coverage:
Since the US Supreme Court struck down mandatory sentencing guidelines five years ago in a landmark ruling, the difference in the average sentences of the most lenient and most severe federal judges in Boston has widened, according to a new study that says the trend threatens to undermine fairness.
Now that the guidelines are only advisory, the three most lenient jurists impose average prison sentences of slightly more than two years for all crimes, said the study in the Stanford Law Review published this week. The two toughest impose average sentences double that.
The findings are troubling, said the author of the study, Ryan W. Scott, an associate professor at Indiana University’s Maurer School of Law, because they raise the specter of defendants getting markedly different punishments depending on the politics and biases of the judges before whom they appear. "It offends our notions of equality and consistency and the rule of law that an offender’s sentence should depend on which judge happens to be assigned to the case," Scott, who analyzed 2,262 sentences imposed by 10 judges in Boston, said in an interview.
Scott uses the letters A through J to identify the judges when comparing sentencing patterns, and declined to identify them by name. But he describes four judges who have increasingly set sentences at below guideline ranges as "free at last judges." He calls two whose sentencing patterns have remained largely unchanged "business as usual judges."
The "free at last judges" sentence defendants below the guideline range three or four times as often as they did before the Supreme Court ruling — as much as 53 percent of the time, he wrote. The "business as usual judges" sentence below the guidelines at essentially the same rate they did before the ruling — as little as 16 percent of the time.
Thus, the effect of a judge on sentence length has increased in importance, Scott said. But it still pales in comparison with other factors, he said, including the crime for which a defendant was convicted, the offender’s criminal history, and what the advisory sentencing guidelines recommend.
Two of the US district court judges whom Scott studied, Nancy Gertner and William G. Young, said they welcomed his analysis, a draft of which has been circulating in legal circles for several months. But both judges, whom Scott thanks in the 68-page article for cooperating, said he gives short shrift to the importance of tailoring sentences to individual defendants....
Chief Judge Mark L. Wolf, the top judge in the Massachusetts district court, said he has no idea which judge he is in the study. But he acknowledged that he has increasingly sentenced some defendants, particularly those accused of dealing crack cocaine, below the guideline ranges since the framework became advisory, he said. Wolf is among many federal judges who have long criticized the disparity between the harsh punishments for dealing crack and the less severe penalties for powdered cocaine, a disparity the federal government has narrowed in recent years.
Although Wolf has sentenced more drug offenders to less than the guidelines recommend in recent years, he said, he has increasingly sentenced white-collar offenders to more than the guidelines advise....
The Supreme Court rulings [in Booker and its progeny] transform[ed] what had been a mandatory framework into an advisory one. But that has caused the difference in the length of the average sentence imposed by the most severe and most lenient judges in Boston to grow, Scott writes.
Before the Booker case in 2005, the difference stood at 15 months, in cases where crimes carried no mandatory minimum sentences, according to Scott’s findings. Since the three Supreme Court rulings, the difference has grown to almost 40 months. "I’m just pointing out that the differences among judges have become more stark since Booker, and that’s a worrying development," Scott said.
Another federal judge in Boston, Patti B. Saris, has been nominated by President Obama to be a member and chairwoman of the Sentencing Commission. The Senate Judiciary Committee recently voted, 18-1, to confirm her nomination. The full Senate is expected to vote shortly.
Even the most casual follower of federal sentencing developments since Booker should not be surprised by the findings in the Scott study. Indeed, Justice Breyer himself candidly acknowledged when he invented the Booker advisory guideline remedy that this system likely would increase disparity, and he stressed that it was up to Congress to decide whether an alternative system to the one he was creating to deal with constitutional problems with sentence-enhancing judicial fact-finding was to be preferred. That Congress has left the Booker advisory system entirely unchanged now for six full years continues to surprise me much more than empirical documentation of increased post-Booker sentencing disparities.
Perhaps one reason Congress has not responded to Booker legislatively is the sense, even among the most ardent fan of mandatory federal sentencing guidelines, the increased disparity since Booker is not really such a bad thing in light of the alternative ways of reforming the federal sentencing system. We got an advisory system in the first place largely because federal prosecutors balked at the prospect of having to comply with the new constitutional requirements for proving up sentence enhancements set out in Blakely, and there has been little evidence in the last six years that federal prosecutors have become bigger fans of Blakely rights. Moreover, as Scott's research shows, even with the effect of a judge on sentence length has increasing after Booker, legally relevant factors like the defendant's crime and criminal history still are the principal drivers of sentence lengths. Thus, to paraphrase Pangloss from Candide, perhaps despite increased disparity, after Booker we may be living in the best of all possible federal sentencing worlds.
December 20, 2010 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in district courts, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack
Sunday, December 19, 2010
Notable new perspective on reasonableness review after Booker
I have long thought that appellate review was a weakest link in the Booker remedy, both jurisprudentially and practically. Thus, this new piece on SSRN by Briana Rosenbaum really caught my eye. The piece is titled "Righting the Historical Record: A Case for Appellate Jurisdiction Over Appeals of Sentences for Reasonableness Under 28 U.S.C. § 1291," and here is the abstract:
This Article is the first to critically analyze the jurisdictional basis for the Supreme Court’s mandate in United States v. Booker, 543 U.S. 220 (2005), that all courts of appeals review the length of criminal sentences for “reasonableness.” In Booker, the Court created a new kind of appellate review: review of all criminal sentences for “reasonableness.” As a result, the availability of appellate review has expanded greatly. Data from the U.S. Sentencing Commission shows that, since Booker, the number of sentence appeals has risen.
Unfortunately, the Court in Booker did not explain the jurisdictional basis for its expanded “reasonableness review.” The omission is not trivial. For decades, federal courts have held that courts of appeals do not have jurisdiction to review the length of criminal sentences. The Supreme Court may not increase the jurisdiction of these courts; the Constitution gives this power to Congress alone. Accordingly, if there is no basis for jurisdiction, the Supreme Court usurped Congress’ power to expand the jurisdiction of the federal courts. Despite this, courts of appeals have unanimously followed the Supreme Court mandate to review sentences for reasonableness, with little more justification than “because the Supreme Court said so.”
This Article, for the first time, examines the historical and legislative underpinnings of appellate review of criminal sentences in an attempt to find a justification, if any, for Booker’s expanded appellate review. The Article concludes that courts of appeals have indeed had jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1291 to review the length of sentences, and have had such jurisdiction since at least 1891. Although courts routinely rejected appeals of the length of sentences for lack of “jurisdiction” before Booker, they did so erroneously, relying on older case law without fully analyzing the basis for those decisions. In fact, this “rule of non-review” was based not on jurisdiction, but on a policy of deference to the sentencing judge -- a policy that can be changed at any point, by either Congress or the Supreme Court. In Booker, the Supreme Court exercised such a power. For the first time, this Article provides the correct jurisdictional basis for the Booker decision, and, at the same time, rights the historical record on jurisdiction over appeals of criminal sentences.
Wednesday, September 29, 2010
"Correcting Mandatory Injustice: Judicial Recommendation of Executive Clemency"
P>In 1987, the United States political and social systems lost trust in the judiciary and severely limited its authority by enacting the mandatory Federal Sentencing Guidelines. During this period, many judges were forced to impose sentences they viewed as unjust. Trust in the judiciary was restored in 2005, when United States v. Booker made the Sentencing Guidelines advisory. Despite the increase in judicial discretion, however, judges are still unable to correct sentences imposed during the intervening eighteen years because Bookerdoes not apply retroactively. Unfortunately, the executive and legislative branches are similarly unable to provide adequate remedies. Congressional action is insufficient because it is inflexible, time consuming, and generally nonretroactive. Executive clemency appears more promising due to a flexible and broad nature that allows the president and state governors to pardon or commute sentences at will. But executives have become unwilling to use their clemency power, making it an inadequate remedy.
This Note proposes a solution that overcomes the limitations of the current system: judicial recommendation of executive clemency. This solution produces three benefits. First, it provides judges with a discretionary tool to reduce disproportionate mandatory sentences. Second, it revitalizes the exercise of clemency by giving it additional legitimacy. Finally, it refocuses clemency grants on the defendant and the facts of the case rather than on political influences. This Note provides eight illustrative criteria for judicial recommendation of executive clemency that, together, combine the characteristics of three modern cases in which the sentencing judges recommended clemency. This Note seeks to explain how and why each criterion might be important, taking into consideration the goals of judicial discretion, executive clemency, and the criminal justice system overall.
Tuesday, September 14, 2010
"Racial Disparity in the Wake of the Booker/Fanfan Decision: An Alternative Analysis to the USSC’s 2010 Report"The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper from a set of criminologists that is now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
The U.S. Sentencing Commission (USSC) released a report in March 2010 concluding that racial disparity in federal sentencing has increased in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court decisions in U.S. v. Booker (2005) and U.S. v. Gall (2007). In light of this USSC report, we provide an alternative set of analyses which we believe provides a more complete and informative picture of racial, ethnic, and gender disparity in federal sentencing outcomes. We first attempt to replicate the USSC’s models. Then we present alternative models of sentencing outcomes across three time periods spanning FY 2000 to 2009.
We find that post-Booker/Gall race/ethnic/gender disparity in sentence length is generally comparable to pre-2003 levels. Our findings mainly diverge from the USSC’s because of: 1) the USSC’s decision to include non-incarceration cases in the sentence length analysis (as sentence lengths of 0), since more racial disparity appears to be manifest in the incarceration decision than in sentence lengths, and 2) the inclusion of immigration offenses in the USSC’s analyses, since comparatively greater disparity affecting black males is observed among immigration offenses. We also extend the USSC report by: 1) presenting analyses that compare post-Booker sentence length disparity with disparity before the 1996 U.S. v. Koon decision, and 2) presenting an analysis of disparity in departures/deviations from the Guidelines.
Wednesday, July 28, 2010
"A Brief and Modest Proposal" ... an original essay from US District Judge Richard Kopf
I am very pleased to be able to reprint a timely e-mail that landed in my in-box this afternoon from Richard G. Kopf, United States District Judge for the District of Nebraska. Here is the Judge's wind-up and pitch:
I read Professors Masur's article entitled "Booker Reconsidered" and your post about his article [available here]. After that reading, a thought occurred to me that has been percolating in my muddled mind for some time. Hence, the following "Brief and Modest Proposal." Feel free to post if you like. Take care.
A Brief and Modest Proposal
Although it has the data and although it releases data on a court-by-court basis, the United States Sentencing Commission has never publicly released information on the extent to which individual federal judges sentence within or outside the Guidelines. I propose that the Sentencing Commission annually release sentencing statistics for each federal judge who sentenced a significant number of offenders during that year.
For much of their history, compliance with the Guidelines was very high. So long as the Guidelines were essentially binding in most cases and aggregate compliance rates remained elevated, one could make a reasoned argument that providing sentencing statistics on individual judges was unnecessary and perhaps unfair. But the Supreme Court has changed all that by significantly increasing the discretion of federal judges when it comes to sentencing.
Since the Supreme Court’s reordering of the federal sentencing process, compliance with the Guidelines is on a steady downward trend, albeit not as drastic as feared. This trend has caused the Attorney General, scholars and some judges to worry (1) that disparities caused by irrelevant factors (race, gender, class and so forth) are increasing and (2) that a fair number of sentencing decisions are driven by idiosyncratic beliefs that, while well-motivated, are not empirically supported or are contrary to reasoned sentencing policy. Indeed, these concerns are finding a public voice. See, for example, the New York Times editorial entitled "Rethinking Criminal Sentences" published on July 28, 2010. ("As a general principle, sentences for the same federal crimes should be consistent. As the Justice Department notes in its report, a sense of arbitrariness — sentences that depend on the luck of getting a certain judge — will 'breed disrespect for the federal courts,' damaging their reputation and the deterrent effect of punishment.").
By making individual sentencing statistics available, federal judges will be held publicly accountable for the exercise of their new found discretion, and that might have the beneficial effect of causing judges to think more deeply about the sentences they impose and explain more clearly the reasons for those sentences. Perhaps more importantly, armed with this data, outside scholars who seriously study these things will be better informed and therefore better able to provide a reasoned critique of the federal sentencing process in this post-Booker world. In short, it is time for federal sentencing judges like me to pay the piper.
Richard G. Kopf, United States District Judge
Monday, July 19, 2010
"In many cases the judges who diverge from the advisory Guidelines ranges will do so for the wrong reasons"The title of this post is a sentence from this intriguing new commentary now on SSRN from Professor Jonathan Masur, which is titled simply "Booker Reconsidered." There is a lot worth saying about this must-read piece, and to start I welcome reader reactions to both the key sentence quoted in the post title and this key paragraph of the author's analysis that immediately precedes this key sentence (with footnotes removed):
The result [of Booker making the guidelines advisory] is a system that is likely to underperform the prior regime in several important respects. There will certainly be cases in which judges will be better able to tailor sentences to fit offenders and their crimes under the advisory Guidelines. This ability to consider penalties on a case-by-case basis is, of course, the principal advantage of charging judges with the task of sentencing. Yet the cost of endowing the federal courts with this modicum of flexibility in sentencing is that racial and ideological disparities are likely to reappear, possibly in even more pernicious form. And that cost may not be balanced by a corresponding benefit from reinvigorating the role of the courts.
I greatly appreciate the effort to bring some cost-benefit analysis into the Booker debate, as well as Professor Masur's focus on the "division of institutional responsibilities" in his analysis. But I find curious and troublesome that the statutory provisions of 3553(a), which Booker preserved as binding sentencing law, get scant attention in this piece. Indeed, this piece strikes me as another example of both Bookerand federal sentencing judges being criticized because Congress appears unwilling to do any of the hard sentencing work that the Blakely and Booker constitutional rulings would now seem to require for the construction of an ideal sentencing system.
And here is what I find especially curious about the sentence I have quoted in my post title: if/when judges are doing their jobs properly after Booker, in all cases the judges who diverge from the advisory Guidelines ranges should and must do so based only on the mandatory considerations set out by Congress in the text of 3553(a). If in fact the "wrong reasons" are being used by district judges in many case in light of the text of 3553(a), circuit judges should be reversing more sentences. Alternatively, if district judges are generally complying with the text of 3553(a) when deciding to vary from the guidelines, there is something peculiar about the assertion that these variances are for the wrong reasons in many cases.
July 19, 2010 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Recommended reading, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack
Sunday, July 18, 2010
Effective press coverage of recent DOJ letter to the US Sentencing CommissionMarcia Coyle has this lengthy and effective piece due to appear in tomorrow's National Law Journal under the headline "Justice Department Calls for Probe of Federal Sentencing Patterns; Prosecutors see disparity in fraud, child pornography punishments." Here is how it begins:
During the past four years, federal judges imposed sentences of one to four years on five defendants in the AIG fraud case that caused more than $500 million in losses; 25 years on Ronald Treadwell for a Ponzi scheme involving a $40 million loss; and 3 1/2 years on former Impath Inc. President Richard Adelson for a $50 million securities fraud.
Those widely disparate sentences don't make sense, ignore federal sentencing guidelines and are a sign of a potentially very big problem, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. The DOJ wants the U.S. Sentencing Commission to investigate, with special attention to guidelines for fraud and child pornography crimes. But some sentencing experts say it may be something that the commission does not want to examine too closely.
The department called for a "comprehensive review" of the state of federal sentencing in its most recent annual report to the commission on June 28. In the five years since a U.S. Supreme Court decision struck down the mandatory nature of federal sentencing guidelines, the department said, prosecutors' experiences and data "suggest that federal sentencing practice is fragmenting into at least two distinct and very different sentencing regimes."
If allowed to go unchecked, the two regimes will lead to unwarranted sentencing disparities, disrespect for federal courts and sentencing uncertainty that could lead to more crime, the department said. "More and more, we are receiving reports from our prosecutors that, in many federal courts, a defendant's sentence will largely be determined by the judicial assignment of the case; i.e., which judge in the courthouse will conduct the sentencing," said Jonathan Wroblewski, director of the Criminal Division's office of policy and legislation, in the report.
Some sentencing scholars agree that judges are "straying off the guideline reservation" more frequently since the 2005 ruling in Booker v. U.S., but they disagree on how big a problem this could be. "I do think they're on to something," said former federal judge Paul Cassell of the University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law. "It's one of the dirty little secrets of federal sentencing now. There are situations where which judge you pull can drive the sentence."
But, he added, the subject for debate is how widespread the problem may be. "Is it isolated to a few here and there ignoring sentencing guidelines or is this a more general phenomenon? That's where analysis by the [Sentencing] Commission is needed."
The fact that some sentences may be below the guidelines does not demonstrate a disrespect for the guidelines, said Ellen Podgor of Stetson University College of Law. "Rather, it recognizes that these are advisory guidelines for consultation and use in determining a sentence," she said. "It is important to remember that judges are sentencing people and it is not a mere mathematical computation that should control."
Recent related posts on the DOJ letter to the USSC:
- Fascinating assessment of federal sentencing in DOJ annual letter to US Sentencing Commission
- Wasn't pre-Booker federal sentencing an "ongoing source of discord, disunity, and criticism"?
- Is DOJ eager for (and obliquely urging) reducing the severity of the federal sentencing guideline for child porn downloading?