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

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Two big public hearings on tap for US Sentencing Commission next week

As reported on its website and in official notices here and here, the US Sentencing Commission has planned two full-day public hearings for next week in DC.

The first day of hearings, slated for February 15 (with the official agenda here), is "for the Commission to gather testimony from invited witnesses regarding the issue of penalties for child pornography offenses in federal sentencing." The second day of hearings, slated for February 16 (with the official agenda here), is "for the Commission to gather testimony from invited witnesses on federal sentencing options pursuant to United States v. Booker."

I have the great honor and privilege of being one of the invited witnesses for the second day of these hearings, and I hope to post my written testimony once I finish writing it.  I also expect the USSC will post the submitted written testimony of other witnesses before long, too.  In the meantime, readers are welcome (and, in fact, encouraged) to make predictions about what various witnesses are likely to say to the Commission on these topics and what member os the USSC might say in response.

February 8, 2012 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in district courts, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

NPR covers latest debates over post-Booker federal sentencing systems

This new piece featured as part of NPR's show Morning Edition, and given the headlined "GOP Seeks Big Changes In Federal Prison Sentences," effectively reviews some of the recent debates in Congress and elsewhere over the current state of federal sentencing.   Drawn from last year's House hearing and a recent ACS panel (in which I had the honor participating), the piece notes that a few folks are vocally complaining about how advisory guidelines are functioning.  Here is how the piece begins:

Every year, federal judges sentence more than 80,000 criminals. Those punishments are supposed to be fair — and predictable.  But seven years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court threw a wrench into the system by ruling that the guidelines that judges use to figure out a prison sentence are only suggestions.

Republicans in Congress say that's led to a lot of bad results. They're calling for an overhaul of the sentencing system, with tough new mandatory prison terms to bring some order back into the process.  Rep. James Sensenbrenner, a Republican from Wisconsin, brought up the subject at a recent hearing.

"A criminal committing a federal crime should receive similar punishment regardless of whether the crime was committed in Richmond, Va., or Richmond, Calif., and that's why I am deeply concerned about what's happening to federal sentencing," Sensenbrenner said.

As astute readers know, the "wrench" thrown into the federal guideline system by the Supreme Court in Booker just happened to be the protections of the Fifth and Sixth Amendments of the Bill of Rights; we could return to the "old" system of mandatory guidelines if and whenever Congress and prosecutors agreed that factors within the guidelines would have to be proven up consistent with the constitutional requirements.  

Sensenbrenner failed to push forward on such a legislative response in Booker (which has been urged by members of the Supreme Court as diverse as Justices Scalia, Souter, Stevens, and Thomas) throughout 2005 and 2006 when the GOP controlled both houses of Congress and the executive branch.  That reality leads me to view much of the recent criticisms as mostly "big bad wolf" huffing and puffing with just false threats to blow down the post-Booker system.

For a more fulsome review of these issues and the broader debate, the extended ACS discussion from which some of this NPR piece is drawn is available at this link.

Some recent related posts about the House hearing and other post-Booker debates:

January 31, 2012 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack

Thursday, January 19, 2012

In DC for event on "The Relevancy and Reach of the U.S. Sentencing Commission"

As detailed in this official notice, I have the honor of being in Washington DC this afternoon to participate in an ACS/ACLU event on federal sentencing.  Here is the set-up by the hosts:

On Thursday, January 19, 2012, at 1:30 p.m., ACS and the ACLU will host The Relevancy and Reach of the U.S. Sentencing Commission.  During the height of the War on Drugs, in 1984, the U.S. Sentencing Commission was created.  The intent behind the Commission was to provide uniformity to the sentences –- many of them drug sentences -- that were imposed upon federal criminal offenders.  However, instead of eliminating racial and other disparities as intended, the mandatory guidelines perpetuated disparities and took away judicial discretion.  Judges’ hands were tied, with many of them forced to render sentences that they felt were unfair and unjust, especially when it came to sentencing for crimes associated with crack cocaine.

In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court deemed these federal sentencing guidelines in violation of the Sixth Amendment in U.S. v. Booker.  While the Commission could continue to advise on proper sentencing, the guidelines would be advisory. In the years that have followed, the Commission has continued to play a prominent role in sentencing, most recently generating attention for its decision this past summer to make federal crack cocaine sentencing guidelines retroactive after the enactment of the Fair Sentencing Act.  In the wake of this controversial decision, questions surround the Commission, namely, does the Commission remain valid and legitimate in purpose today?

And here is a rough sketch of what I am planning to say on the panel:

The US Sentencing Commission remains quite valid and legitimate, but it should, at this important moment in federal sentencing law and policy, shift its focus to worrying much, much more about unwarranted sentencing severity while worrying much, much less about unwarranted sentencing disparity. Indeed, evidence of sentencing disparity is always contestable and often contested, and efforts to reduce disparities through new sentencing rules often will produce unintended consequences (in part because modern prosecutorial discretion likely impacts disparities much more than judicial discretion). Moreover, and perhaps most importantly, unwarranted sentencing severity is usually the root cause of unwarranted sentencing disparity: white-collar, drug and child porn sentencings are the settings where, because the guidelines can often suggest crazy high prison terms, different judges make different judgments about whether and how much to vary below the applicable guideline range. As a practical matter, reducing unwarranted sentencing severity is probably going to be the most effective way to reduce unwarranted sentencing disparity.

January 19, 2012 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

New paper say there "is no need for a 'Booker fix'; Booker is the fix."

The quote in this title of this post comes from the end of the abstract of this new paper by Amy Baron-Evans and Professor Kate Stith entitled "Booker Rules."  Here is the full abstract:

For the first time, this paper examines the fateful 1987 statutory amendment that was interpreted by the Supreme Court to authorize the Sentencing Commission to make its guidelines, policy statements, and commentary binding on sentencing judges. The mandatory nature of the Commission's product ultimately led the Court to hold in United States v. Booker (2005) that the guidelines were unconstitutional.

The advisory guideline system wrought by Booker has brought balance to federal sentencing and has reduced unwarranted disparity.  The proposal of Judge (and former Commission Chair) William K. Sessions for Congress to reenact mandatory guidelines raises substantial constitutional issues, including separation-of-powers issues not previously addressed by the Supreme Court.  The recent proposals of the Commission to establish more tightly constraining Guidelines would appear to violate Booker and subsequent cases.  The purported bases for these proposals, in particular a Commission study concluding that racial disparity has increased, are unproven and methodologically flawed.  There is no need for a "Booker fix"; Booker is the fix.

January 19, 2012 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Monday, December 12, 2011

"No Change in Sight for Sentencing Guidelines"

The title of this post is the headline of this recent piece by Professor (and former federal prosecutor) Wes Porter appearing in the legal newspaper The Recorder.  Here are excerpts:

The past decade has brought dramatic and progressive change to criminal sentencing in federal court. The continued utility of the United States Sentencing Commission and its sentencing guidelines miraculously survived this change.  The Supreme Court, in its 2005 decision in U.S. v. Booker, rescued the guidelines from obscurity in order to continue to promote the sentencing policy goals of uniformity and proportionality.  However, the next important change needed is the least likely to occur — the Sentencing Commission itself must steward the "evolution" of its guidelines.

District judges routinely reject certain provisions of the guidelines as unhelpful.  The Sentencing Commission must reinvent itself by reshaping its guidelines post-Booker.  To start, the commission should remove the provisions in the guidelines that courts regularly exercise their discretion to disregard.  And examples of routinely disregarded guideline provisions are not hard to find.

For example, the guidelines still require district judges to calculate and consult artificially enhanced punishments based upon often uncharged — and sometimes acquitted — conduct called "relevant conduct."  The guidelines still require courts to consult its recidivism (re-)classifications such as the "career offender" provision.  Here, the judge has all the details of the defendant's criminal history and resulting (already severe) sentencing range, yet the guidelines require the court to consider a more severe sentence because of its recidivism label.  The guidelines still require parties to litigate, and judges to find, whether conduct qualifies for other guideline-created labels, such as whether it is "serious," "violent" or "sophisticated."...

[Since] Booker, district judges generally have embraced the sentencing policy goals, consulted the guidelines and imposed "reasonable" sentences.  Congress fortunately has not attempted to legislate a fix to a sentencing process that is not yet broken.  The federal sentencing process has played out as intended by the Supreme Court and as well as could have been expected for the Sentencing Commission.  Yet, with respect to these unhelpful guideline provisions, district judges are required to make findings about them and consult the resulting calculation, but they then may exercise their discretion to ignore the provisions when imposing a sentence....

Many provisions in the guidelines do not provide any helpful information to the court at sentencing.  Only the resulting calculation is helpful to the court as an "anchoring" reference for its sentence....

There are many explanations for the lower sentences since Booker.  Many believe that the guidelines were skewed too high. Others argue that district judges, particularly guideline-era judges, have gained greater comfort with sentencing discretion and accounting for individual circumstances. The explanation, however, also may reflect the district judges' exercise of their discretion to disregard unhelpful provisions in the guidelines.  The sentencing commission should review these trends and remove generally disregarded provisions of the guidelines to promote continued uniformity and proportionality....

Many provisions in the guidelines involve wholly unhelpful manipulations and recategorizations of information already available to the court.  In fact, certain problematic provisions skew the "anchoring" guideline calculation and mislead the district court's sentencing decision. The Sentencing Commission should endeavor to weed these provisions out of the guidelines....

The Sentencing Commission should appreciate that only a meaningful guideline calculation assists the court when exercising its discretion, and that only a meaningful anchoring reference continues to promote uniform and proportional sentences in federal court.  The anchoring guideline calculation could have sustained meaning in the post-Booker sentencing process if the Sentencing Commission evaluated trends and trimmed the guidelines back.  Without a dramatic change, the post-Booker sentencing process will become increasingly inefficient and largely a waste of time and resources.

December 12, 2011 in Advisory Sentencing Guidelines, Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

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:

  1. Prosecutors share responsibility for different guideline adherence rates among districts
  2. Different federal districts are just that: different
  3. Flawed guidelines, not flawed judges, drive variance rates
  4. 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.

Download Letter to Lanny Breuer from defenders

November 28, 2011 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

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:

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:

October 12, 2011 in Blakely in Legislatures, Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in district courts, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

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:

  1. Congress should make reasonableness review tougher, especially for non-guideline sentences
  2. Congress should clarify statutory directives that are in tension
  3. 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...

October 12, 2011 in Advisory Sentencing Guidelines, Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in district courts, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

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:

  1. Crime rates are at historic low levels and have been continuing to trend down since Booker (basics blogged here and here);
  2. 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);
  3. 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.

September 26, 2011 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

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.

July 11, 2011 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

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:

March 4, 2011 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

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."    

March 3, 2011 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (15) | TrackBack