Thursday, February 14, 2013

Second Circuit finds repeat resentencing procedurally unreasonable

An interesting reasonableness review decision was handed down by a Second Circuit panel this morning in US v. Desnoyers, No. 11-5194 (2d Cir. Feb. 14, 2012) (available here).  It should be of special interest to anyone involved in resentencing proceedings in federal courts.  Here is how the opinion starts and concludes:
The United States takes this appeal from the sentence imposed following our reinstatement of a count of conviction dismissed by the district court under Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 29.  The re-sentencing has resulted in imposition of the same term of probation and an increase in restitution of about $10,000.

Desnoyers was convicted by a jury in the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York (Hurd, J.) of offenses arising from his malfeasance as an air monitor for asbestos abatement projects in and around Plattsburgh, New York.  The grant of Desnoyers’s post-trial motion to vacate Count I -- the conspiracy charge -- left four substantive violations.

On the government’s initial appeal, we reinstated the jury verdict, and remanded for re-sentencing.  United States v. Desnoyers (“Desnoyers I”), 637 F.3d 105, 112 (2d Cir. 2011).

On remand, the district court imposed the same five-year term of probation and increased the restitution amount to $45,398.  The government now attacks the procedural and substantive reasonableness of the sentence, arguing mainly that the district court improperly excluded new evidence that was not submitted at the initial sentencing. The government also contests the restitution calculation.

For the reasons that follow, we conclude that the sentence was procedurally unreasonable; we therefore vacate and remand to the district court for re-sentencing....

For the foregoing reasons, we AFFIRM in part and VACATE and REMAND in part. We AFFIRM the following: (1) the district court’s refusal to consider newly submitted evidence relating to Counts V and VI; and (2) the district court’s refusal to consider the newly submitted character evidence.  We VACATE the district court’s judgment on the following issues and REMAND for re-sentencing in accordance with this opinion: (1) the district court’s refusal to include the Page Estimate in the loss amount for Count I; (2) the district court’s failure to consider the organizer enhancement at re-sentencing; (3) the district court’s refusal to include payments for pre-abatement sampling and durings in its restitution calculation; and (4) the district court’s entire restitution calculation for Count I.

February 14, 2013 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Friday, February 01, 2013

Summary of key USSC findings in its big new Booker report

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recent related post:

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

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Extended discussion of fast-track sentencing realities in new Seveth Circuit opinion

I have not followed closely of late data or discussions of fast-track sentencing policies in the federal district court, but a new Seventh Circuit opinion brings this always-interesting post-Booker issue to mind again.  Today in US v. Anaya-Aguirre, No. 11-3675 (7th Cir. Jan. 10, 2013) (available here),the Seventh Circuit covers lots of notable ground in the course of rejecting the defendant's complaint he did not prevail on his fast-track disparity argument for a reduced sentence. Here is how the opinion gets started:

Appellant Jose Manuel Anaya- Aguirre violated 8 U.S.C. § 1326(a) by illegally reentering the United States after a prior deportation that had followed a felony conviction in the United States.  He pled guilty and was sentenced to 48 months in prison.  Anaya-Aguirre argued in the district court that he should receive a below-guideline sentence because the Northern District of Illinois did not have a “fast track” program.  Fast-track programs in some districts offer certain categories of defendants — including many in immigration cases — shorter sentences in exchange for very prompt guilty pleas, the waiver of nearly all trial and appellate rights, and other conditions.  While the district court imposed a sentence that was below the guideline range, it is clear that the downward variance was not based on the lack of a fast-track program.  Anaya-Aguirre has appealed his sentence, arguing that the district court erred by rejecting his fast-track mitigation argument.  We affirm. [FN1]

[FN1] At the time of Anaya-Aguirre’s sentencing, none of the districts in the Seventh Circuit had fast-track programs. In January 2012, however, the Department of Justice changed its policy and now requires all districts prosecuting § 1326 violations to institute fast-track programs.  See Memorandum from Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole to All United States Attorneys, Department Policy on Early Disposition or “Fast-Track” Programs (Jan. 31, 2012), available at www.justice.gov/dag/fast-track-program.pdf.

January 10, 2013 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Three decades and huge (record?) restitution sentence in federal child porn case from Texas

A helpful reader alerted me to what seems like a record-setting sentence handed down yesterday in a notable federal child porn prosecution out of Texas.  This local article about the sentencing provides the details:

Misty, a victim of child abuse that began when she was 4 years old, wrote that there is another “little me” being seen on the Internet by child pornography abusers.  Prosecutor V. LaTawn Warsaw read the young woman’s victim impact statement during the sentencing of Robert Hedrick, 61, the former president of Pan American Airways, who was convicted in May of five counts relating to child pornography.

U.S. District Judge Andrew S. Hanen sentenced Hedrick to 30 years in prison and ordered him to pay more than $5 million in restitution to known victims of child pornography whose images of abuse were found on Hedrick’s computer....

The government had asked for a 90-year sentence, but Hanen said because of Hedrick’s age a 30-year sentence was appropriate....

Investigators identified 99 known series of child pornography, along with 549 known images of child victims on Hedrick’s computer — just a fraction of the more than 2,400 images and 18 videos of child pornography it held.  Many of the children in the images are unidentified, Homeland Security Investigations Agent Joseph Baker testified....

Hedrick maintained his innocence.  “I can’t ask the court for anything.  I was framed.  I didn’t do what I was charged and convicted of,” he said, adding that he can’t say he is sorry or show remorse for something he didn’t do. Hedrick plans to appeal....

During the trial, however, evidence showed that Hedrick shared 136 images of adult and child pornography with detectives who were posing as 13- and 14-year-old girls.  According to testimony during the trial, Hedrick contacted the undercover investigators in Louisiana and Wisconsin through Yahoo instant messenger and email more than 20 times.

He also was convicted of asking the agents to provide him with images of themselves in sexually explicit sex acts.  The government introduced a web cam video of Hedrick masturbating for an undercover detective who identified herself as a 14-year-old girl from Louisiana....

Here is a breakdown of the victims to whom Robert L. Hedrick was ordered to pay more than $5 million in restitution....

  • $3,388,417 to the victim of the Misty series;
  • $1,145,300 to the victim of the Jan-Feb series;
  • $803,924 to the victim of the Vicky series;
  • $68,821 to the victim of the Cindy series.

Much can be said, of course, about the imposition of 30 years' in federal prison for a man in his 60s for what he did on the internet.  (Recall that now-infamous child molester Jerry Sandusky got a state sentence of 30-60 years.)  I find even more noteworthy that federal prosecutors could, with a straight face and as officers of the court, assert in this sentencing proceeding that they believed that only a 90-year federal prison term(!) was "sufficient but not greater than necessary" to serve the purposes of punishment set forth by Congress in 18 USC 3553(a).

In addition, the restitution amount imposed here is higher than I can recall seeing in any other child pornography case and thus may set a record for this kind of prosecution.  Moreover, unlike in many other child porn downloading cases, it seems possible that this defendant could pay some or perhaps all of this huge restitution amount. This reality not only raises the stakes for this defendant's planned appeal, but also potentially impacts whether and how the victims in this case will want or need to seek additional restitution awards from other child porn downloaders in future federal prosecutions.

December 20, 2012 in Booker in district courts, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Fascinating Judge Posner concurrence concerning carceration costs

An otherwise unremarkable per curiam Seventh Circuit panel opinion in US v. Craig, No. 12-1262 (7th Cir. Dec. 18, 2012) (available here), affirming a 50-year sentence for the producer of child pornography is blogworthy thanks to a lengthy concurrence by Judge Richard Posner.  The full opinion is today's must-read, and here are snippets from the start and end of Judge Posner's opinion (with cites omitted):
I write separately merely to remind the district judges of this circuit of the importance of careful consideration of the wisdom of imposing de facto life sentences. If the defendant in this case does not die in the next 50 years he will be 96 years old when released (though “only” 89 or 90 if he receives the maximum good-time credits that he would earn if his behavior in prison proves to be exemplary). Maybe 50 years from now 96 will be middle-aged rather than elderly, but on the basis of existing medical knowledge we must assume that in all likelihood the defendant will be dead before his prison term expires.

Federal imprisonment is expensive to the government; the average expense of maintaining a federal prisoner for a year is between $25,000 and $30,000, and the expense rises steeply with the prisoner's age because the medical component of a prisoner’s expense will rise with his age, especially if he is still alive in his 70s (not to mention his 80s or 90s).  It has been estimated that an elderly prisoner costs the prison system between $60,000 and $70,000 a year.

That is not a net social cost, because if free these elderly prisoners would in all likelihood receive Medicare and maybe Medicaid benefits to cover their medical expenses.  But if freed before they became elderly, and employed, they would have contributed to the Medicare and Medicaid programs through payroll taxes — which is a reminder of an additional social cost of imprisonment: the loss of whatever income the prisoner might lawfully have earned had he been free, income reflecting his contribution to society through lawful employment.

The social costs of imprisonment should in principle be compared with the benefits of imprisonment to the society, consisting mainly of deterrence and incapacitation.  A sentencing judge should therefore consider the incremental deterrent and incapacitative effects of a very long sentence compared to a somewhat shorter one....

Sentencing judges are not required to engage in cost-benefit analyses of optimal sentencing severity with discounting to present value.  Such analyses would involve enormous guesswork because of the difficulty of assessing key variables, including one variable that I haven’t even mentioned, because I can’t imagine how it could be quantified in even the roughest way — the retributive value of criminal punishment.  By that I mean the effect of punishment in assuaging the indignation that serious crime arouses and in providing a form of nonfinancial compensation to the victims.

But virtually all sentencing, within the usually broad statutory ranges — the minimum sentence that the judge could have imposed in this case, by making the sentences on all four counts run concurrently, as he could have done, would have been 15 years, 18 U.S.C. § 2251(e), and the maximum sentence, by making them all run consecutively, as he could also have done, would have been 120 years — involves guesswork.  I am merely suggesting that the cost of imprisonment of very elderly prisoners, the likelihood of recidivism by them, and the modest incremental deterrent effect of substituting a superlong sentence for a merely very long sentence, should figure in the judge’s sentencing decision.

December 18, 2012 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Fourth Circuit affirms (stat-max) five year sentence for dog-fighting when guideline range at 0-6 months

In part because so very few sentences get reversed (or even seriously engaged) under modern reasonableness review, I rarely blog on rulings concerning the post-Booker standards of appellate review.  But both the facts and the ruling today by a Fourth Circuit panel in US v. Hargrove, No. 11-4818 (4th Cir. Dec. 12, 2012)(available here), struck me as blog-worthy. Thes snippets  highlights why:

The government describes Hargrove as being a "legend" in the dogfighting community.  By Hargrove’s own admission, he has been involved in dogfighting activity for over four decades, and at one time he had approximately 250 fighting dogs on his property. Information in the record shows that offspring from one of Hargrove’s fighting dogs, Midnight Cowboy, sold for large sums of money across the country because of its aggressiveness and propensity for fighting.  Hargrove advertised his dogs in various dogfighting-related publications, and he is famous in the dogfighting industry for his dogfighting, his breeding activities, his training regimen, and his ability to produce aggressive fighting dogs.  His prior criminal history includes a 1983 Georgia felony dogfighting conviction, a 1993 North Carolina animal fighting misdemeanor conviction, and a 2001 North Carolina animal cruelty misdemeanor conviction.....

The district court announced that it was prepared to sentence Hargrove both under the guidelines and with an upward departure and upward variance.  The court expressed its dissatisfaction with the "irrationality" of the dogfighting guideline provision, noting with respect to the guideline calculation of 0-6 months that Hargrove advocated: "I would say that other than the criminal dog fighters in America, every other person in America would be shocked beyond belief that you could do what [Hargrove] did and come out with a federal sentence of zero to six months. . . . No one could defend that.  No judges.  No legislators. No president." J.A. 135.

The court then heard from Hargrove’s counsel, who emphasized that Hargrove was a highly decorated military veteran who had been changed by his experience in Vietnam. Counsel also noted that in cases cited by the government involving similar activities, the defendants received imprison- ment sentences of between 12 and 24 months....

The court then announced that its guidelines calculations led to a sentencing range of 41-51 months, and it stated that it would sentence Hargrove to 51 months if imposing sentence under that range.  However, the court further stated that an upward departure and an upward variance to 60 months were appropriate....

In short, the court made abundantly clear that even if Har- grove’s sentencing guideline range was 0-6 months, it believed a 60-month sentence was necessary to accomplish the objectives of sentencing.  Given the record before us, we cannot conclude that the court’s exercise of its sentencing discretion in imposing a 60-month sentence is unreasonable.

December 12, 2012 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Is the US Sentencing Commission soon to be dominated by district judges?

The question in the title of this post is prompted in part by this new post at The BLT, which is headline "Senate Questions D.C. Federal Court Nominee on Sentencing Guidelines." Here are snippets from the post providing some background for my question:

At a confirmation hearing this morning before the Senate Judiciary Committee, U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia judicial nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson fielded questions about her views on how she would handle terrorist detainee cases and how she would use federal sentencing guidelines.

Jackson, vice chair of the U.S. Sentencing Commission since early 2010, was nominated by President Barack Obama in September to fill the seat vacated by now-retired U.S. District Judge Henry Kennedy Jr. If confirmed, she would fill the sole open judgeship on the court.

Jackson didn't encounter opposition during today's hearing. Even her introduction was bipartisan: she was introduced by Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), who recommended Jackson to the White House, and Representative Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.), who is related to Jackson and offered his "unequivocal" support. Before her appointment to the sentencing commission, Jackson was of counsel at Morrison & Foerster. She served as a federal public defender from 2005 to 2007 and as an assistant special counsel to the sentencing commission from 2003 to 2005.... Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) asked ... Jackson about sentencing practices in the D.C. court, saying he was under the impression that local judges were frequently issuing sentences the departed from federal guidelines. Jackson said the commission was finishing a nationwide analysis of sentencing data, but added that the commission was "concerned" about the trend of more judges issuing sentences outside of the guidelines in certain types of cases. She didn't speak specifically to the D.C. court.

Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) asked Jackson about the commission's decision in 2011 to retroactively apply reduced sentencing guidelines for cases involving crack cocaine. She said that the commission is required to consider retroactivity whenever it comes out with reduced guidelines and found that it was appropriate for those cases.

Blumenthal then asked about how Jackson would decide whether to depart from sentencing guidelines. Jackson replied that she didn't find any one factor more persuasive than another — the nature of the offense or a defendants' history, for instance — and would individually evaluate each case.

If — and I sincerely hope when — Commissioner Jackson becomes US Distict Court Judge Jackson, the US Sentencing Commission will then have four federal district judges among its six current commissioners. Though I believe the Commission had four judges as Commissioners for a brief period in the early 1990s, I believe one was a Circuit judge and I am sure the USSC has never had two-thirds of its members serving as active sentencing judges.

I do not think it is a huge problem to have so many district judges on the Commission at once, especially because the current crop is a diverse lot both in terms of experience and perspective.  Nevertheless, because it only takes four votes on the seven-member commission to make decisions, and because there are so many different stakeholders who should have a formal voice in USSC decision-making, I hope President Obama will consider seriously a non-judge nominee for the current open spot on the Commission and for future opennings.

IMPORTANT UPDATE:  A helpful reader reminded me (1) that I had totally forgotten that Prez Obama nominated US District Judge Charles Breyer to the open slot on the USSC earlier this year, though he still awaits full Senate confirmation, and (2) that District Judge Howell and Vice Chair Will Carr are now serving now only in hold-over status and will no longer be on the Commission as of the start of the new Congress.

Assuming District Judge Breyer is confirmed to the USSC and Commissioner Jackson is confirmed as a judge in short order, then as of the start of 2013 the US Sentencing Commission will have four district judges among five active members. If neither is confirmed, then the USSC will have three district judges among four active members.

In accord with sentiments above, I hope not only that all the pending nominations get Senate confirmation, but also that Prez Obama will very early in 2013 name new nomination to fill the soon-to-be empty slots in the Commission with some more great folks who are not now federal district judges.

December 12, 2012 in Booker in district courts, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Nails does not get nailed at federal sentencing for bankruptcy fraud

Serious baseball fans my age likely still have the 1986 playoffs deeply etched in their memories even a quarter century later.  (In my case, it helps that I was in Shea Stadium for Game 6 of the 1986 World Series.)  Consequently, the federal sentencing of a member of the 86 Mets has an extra bit of salience.  But, as this Los Angeles Times article highlights, the player nicknamed Nails during his playing days now should be more grateful for Booker than for Buckner.  Here are the reasons why:

Already serving a three-year state prison sentence for auto theft, former New York Mets star Lenny Dykstra was sentenced to an additional 6.5 months on Monday for federal bankruptcy fraud.

Dykstra, who helped the Mets win the 1986 World Series, had pleaded guilty to looting his mansion of valuables before creditors could liquidate them. The defendant, who reportedly scuffled with Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies in April, has racked up numerous criminal charges since his financial empire began to crumble in 2009.

On Monday, U.S. District Judge Dean Pregerson ordered Dykstra to pay $200,000 in restitution and to perform 500 hours of community service in addition to prison time. The 6.5-month sentence was far lighter than the 30 months federal prosecutors had sought....

According to federal prosecutors, Dykstra sold sports memorabilia and household items from his Ventura County mansion, including a $50,000 sink. Dykstra was barred from selling the items.

Nicknamed "Nails" by baseball fans for his aggressive play, the Garden Grove native turned to bankruptcy court in July 2009 to try to save his lavishly furnished Sherwood Country Club estate. He bought the property from hockey legend Wayne Gretzky for $18.5 million, at the height of the last housing boom.

An affidavit filed by FBI Special Agent Ty Thomas lays out how federal investigators allege that Dykstra "sold many items belonging to the bankruptcy estate" and "destroyed and hid other estate items, depriving the estate of a combined $400,000 of assets." Dykstra reportedly transferred dozens of items — including chandeliers, mirrors, artwork, a stove and a grandfather clock — to a consignment store, Uniques, on South Barrington Avenue in West Los Angeles. The owner of the store paid him cash for a U-Haul truckload of goods, according to the agent.

December 4, 2012 in Booker in district courts, Celebrity sentencings, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Sunday, November 04, 2012

"Racial Disparity in the Criminal Justice Process: Prosecutors, Judges, and the Effects of United States v. Booker"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new empirical paper by Professors Sonja Starr and M. Marit Rehavi now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Current empirical estimates of racial and other unwarranted disparities in sentencing suffer from two pervasive flaws.  The first is a focus on the sentencing stage in isolation. Studies control for the “presumptive sentence” or closely related measures that are themselves the product of discretionary charging, plea-bargaining, and fact-finding processes.  Any disparities in these earlier processes are built into the control variable, which leads to misleading sentencing-disparity estimates.  The second problem is specific to studies of sentencing reforms: they use loose methods of causal inference that do not disentangle the effects of reform from surrounding events and trends.

This Article explains these problems and presents an analysis that corrects them and reaches very different results from the existing literature.  We address the first problem by using a dataset that traces cases from arrest to sentencing and by examining disparities across all post-arrest stages.  We find that most of the otherwise-unexplained racial disparities in sentencing can be explained by prosecutors’ choices to bring mandatory minimum charges.  We address the problem of disentangling trends using a rigorous method called regression discontinuity design.  We apply it to assess the effects of the loosening of the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines in United States v. Booker.  Contrary to prominent recent studies, we find that Booker did not increase disparity, and may have reduced it.

November 4, 2012 in Booker in district courts, Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Friday, October 26, 2012

Are criticisms of Rajat Gupta's two-year prison sentence sound or suspect?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this AP piece headlined "Ex-Goldman Exec's 2-Year Sentence Draws Scrutiny."  Here are excerpts, which also includes some highlights from Judge Jed Rakoff's comments about the federal sentencing guidelines:

A two-year prison sentence for insider trading at the height of the 2008 economic crisis, by a man who was once one of the nation's most respected business executives, is a fifth of the 10 years requested by the government and well below sentencing guidelines.  Now, some experts are questioning whether it's a fair punishment.

Judge Jed Rakoff described the sentence and $5 million fine given to former Goldman Sachs and Procter & Gamble Co. board member Rajat Gupta, 63, on Wednesday as sufficient to deter others and properly punish the Westport, Conn., resident.  "At the same time, no one really knows how much jail time is necessary to materially deter insider trading; but common sense suggests that most business executives fear even a modest prison term to a degree that more hardened types might not.  Thus, a relatively modest prison term should be 'sufficient, but not more than necessary,' for this purpose," Rakoff said.

Some legal observers did not agree.  Chicago attorney Andrew Stoltmann said the sentence should have been closer to the 10 years prosecutors had recommended because Gupta's crimes were more serious than those committed by Raj Rajaratnam, the billionaire hedge fund founder he tipped off. Rajaratnam is serving 11 years in prison.

"Gupta intentionally betrayed his duties to Goldman Sachs as a director of the company, refused to take responsibility for his actions and put the government through a long and exhaustive trial costing taxpayers millions," Stoltmann said. "Judge Rakoff should have thrown the proverbial book at Gupta and sentenced him to the higher range of the 97 to 121 months prosecutors were requesting."...

Rakoff criticized sentencing guidelines that he said called for Gupta to serve at least 6½ years behind bars.  Citing information he received under seal, Rakoff said Gupta's crimes may have occurred because Gupta may have "longed to escape the straightjacket of overwhelming responsibility, and had begun to loosen his self-restraint in ways that clouded his judgment."...

Rejecting defense arguments that a community service sentence would be sufficient, Rakoff said a prison sentence was necessary to send a message to insider traders that "when you get caught, you will go to jail."

"While no defendant should be made a martyr to public passion, meaningful punishment is still necessary to reaffirm society's deep-seated need to see justice triumphant," the judge said. "No sentence of probation, or anything close to it, could serve this purpose."...

Rakoff said he could not spare Gupta from prison and only order him to perform community service.  "It's not a punishment. It's what he finds satisfaction doing," the judge said.... In his attack on federal sentencing guidelines that are meant to be advisory, Rakoff said "mechanical adding-up of a small set of numbers artificially assigned to a few arbitrarily-selected variables wars with common sense."

He added: "Whereas apples and oranges may have but a few salient qualities, human beings in their interactions with society are too complicated to be treated like commodities, and the attempt to do so can only lead to bizarre results."

Notably, long-time federal prosecutor and frequent commentator Bill Otis stated in the first comment to a prior Gutpa post that he has "a hard time seeing what interest would be served by giving [Gupta] a sentence longer than he got." In addition to appreciating Bill's candor, his comment spotlight the import and distorting impact of the guidelines even in a post-Booker world.  Though Bill Otis sees Gupta's two-year prison term to be "sufficient" in light of the commands of 3553(a), federal prosecutors in this case argued that a guideline sentence at least four times longer (more than eight years) was necessary to serve congressional sentencing goals. And even post-game criticism of Gupta's sentence reflected in the above-quoted article is quick to assert that the guideline range was a better benchmark for a proper sentence.

For social and psychological reasons, I continue to understand why guideline provisions and ranges has such a huge anchoring effect on federal sentencing decision-making even now eight years after the Booker ruling. But for normative and humanitarian reasons, I continue to be saddened that a big book of sentencing suggestions still dominates analysis of federal sentencing decision-making even now eight years after the Booker ruling.

Related prior posts on Gupta sentencing:

October 26, 2012 in Booker in district courts, Celebrity sentencings, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Third time around, "Millenium Bomber" gets (reasonable?) longer term of 37 years in prison

As reported in this AP piece, the so-called "Millenium Bomber" was sentenced for a third time today after his first two sentences had been reversed by the Ninth Circuit as unreasonable.  Here is what happened:

Algerian terrorist Ahmed Ressam was sentenced Wednesday to 37 years in prison for plotting to bomb Los Angeles International Airport around the turn of the new millennium. Ressam was arrested in December 1999 as he drove off a ferry from Canada into Washington state with a trunk full of explosives. U.S. District Judge John C. Coughenour had twice ordered him to serve 22-year terms, but both times the sentences were reversed on appeal.

Ressam's attorneys had conceded that he should face at least three decades to satisfy the appeals courts, but no more than 34 years. The Justice Department had sought life in prison because of the mass murder he intended to inflict, and because he recanted his cooperation with federal investigators....

Ressam's case has been vexing because he started cooperating after he was convicted and was interviewed more than 70 times by terror investigators from the U.S., Canada, Great Britain, Spain, Italy, Germany and France.  Information he provided helped convict several terror suspects; prompt the famous August 2001 FBI memo titled "Bin Laden determined to strike in U.S.;" and contribute to the arrest of suspected Osama bin Laden lieutenant Abu Zubaydah, who remains in custody without charges at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

However, Ressam subsequently recanted all of his cooperation when it became clear that the prosecutors weren't going to recommend that he serve less than 27 years in prison. The recanting forced the Department of Justice to drop charges against two suspected co-conspirators, Samir Ait Mohamed and Abu Doha.

In previously sentencing Ressam, Coughenour noted that before he went to trial, the government offered him a 25-year sentence if he would plead guilty -- no cooperation necessary. Ressam refused, but Coughenour said that any discount for Ressam's cooperation, while it lasted, should start from that 25-year offer.  The appeals court rejected that rationale.

I suspect that federal prosecutors will be disinclined to appeal yet again, even though based on time already served and time off for good behavior Ressam could possibly be free again not long after 2030. At this stage, I suspect prosecutors recognize it might be very hard to convince the Ninth Circuit that a sentence now 15 years longer is still unreasonable.

A few prior posts on the Ressam sentencings:

October 24, 2012 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Gearing up for high-profile sentencing of high-profile insider trading defendant

MI-BR721_GUPTA_NS_20121009182408The Wall Street Journal has this notable new article, headlined "In Gupta Sentencing, a Judgment Call," about a high-profile federal sentencing of a high-profile white-collar defendant slated for later this month. Here is how the piece gets started:

Former Goldman Sachs Group Inc. director Rajat Gupta is the highest-profile of more than 70 defendants convicted of insider trading in New York federal court in the past three years.

But this month he will likely receive a more lenient sentence than the 11-year-prison term given to Raj Rajaratnam, to whom Mr. Gupta provided his illegal leaks, legal experts say.

The sentence may have reverberations beyond the 63-year-old Mr. Gupta, a former chief of consulting giant McKinsey & Co. It will be widely watched in executive suites nationwide because it will be among the first handed down to a major corporate figure in the recent insider-trading crackdown. Previous sentences have largely involved traders, lawyers, lower-rung corporate employees and others.

Mr. Gupta, who was convicted in June of three counts of securities fraud relating to tips about Goldman and one count of conspiracy, didn't trade or profit directly from his illegal tips. Before the conviction, he had a long and stellar career in corporate America and philanthropy.

All this will be balanced against the nature of the crimes and the need to discourage others from similar offenses when U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff hands down his sentence, scheduled for Oct. 24. Judge Rakoff often imposes sentences further below federal sentencing guidelines than some other judges do, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis.

"It's tough for a judge, because on the one hand, you know you are supposed to deter others to make a statement," said Peter Zeidenberg, a former prosecutor and now a white-collar defense attorney in Washington. "On the other hand, you should be looking at individuals as individuals and not as a poster board."

Federal guidelines could dictate a sentencing range for Mr. Gupta of up to 10 years, if Judge Rakoff agrees that the tips produced an amount approaching what prosecutors said in trial exhibits were at least $10 million in illicit profits earned and losses avoided by the Galleon Group, Mr. Rajaratnam's hedge fund. That would include extra time if Judge Rakoff found Mr. Gupta abused a position of trust as a corporate board member.

The range also could be less if the judge determines the illegal gains were less than $7 million, or based on other factors the defense might put forward. Judges must calculate and consider the guidelines at sentencing but needn't impose them. Judge Rakoff in the past has criticized them as "a mirage of something that can be measured."

Since 2010, Judge Rakoff has imposed an average sentence of 21 months on insider-trading defendants who didn't cooperate with prosecutors—about 38% below the guideline minimum, according to the Journal analysis.

By comparison, U.S. District Judge Richard Sullivan issued seven sentences in that period averaging 6.3% below the guideline minimum. U.S. District Judge Paul Crotty issued three sentences at 20.3% less than the minimum.

And former U.S. District Judge Richard Holwell issued three at 39% under the minimum. Mr. Holwell's 11-year sentence for Mr. Rajaratnam was 100 months below the minimum; he gave 30 months to Danielle Chiesi, Mr. Rajaratnam's co-conspirator, seven months under her range.

October 9, 2012 in Booker in district courts, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Friday, September 21, 2012

Stark extremes for forthcoming debate over federal sentencing of Amish beard-cutters

Amish-attacks-11763351jpg-f6d9699bab380109I have just seen from the start of this Cleveland Plain Dealer article that the basic terms for debating the federal sentencing outcome in the remarkable Amish beard-cutting criminal case are apparently already set at stark extremes. Here is how the article discussing yesterday's convictions describes the case and its forthcoming sentencing prospects:

Amish bishop Samuel Mullet was convicted Thursday of federal hate crimes and conspiracy for exhorting followers to forcibly shear the hair and beards of those who opposed his breakaway Ohio sect.  Mullet’s three sons, his daughter, and 11 other family members and followers from his ultra-strict Amish order 100 miles southeast of Cleveland also were convicted of conspiracy and hate crimes after a trial that attracted international attention.

The 66-year-old bishop could face life in prison for his crimes. U.S. District Judge Dan Aaron Polster scheduled sentencing hearings for Jan. 24.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Bridget Brennan said federal sentencing guidelines recommend a minimum of 17 ½ years for the other 15 defendants given that their crimes involved violence and kidnapping.   But defense attorneys said the judge has the discretion to sentence some of Mullet’s followers to as little as time already served in county jails.

In addition, this new AP article, headlined "Bond at risk for Ohio Amish hate-crime defendants," provides more details on just some of the interesting sentencing issues now joined:

Nine of 16 Amish convicted in beard- and hair-cutting attacks on fellow Amish in Ohio have remained free, but the government asked Friday to have them locked up, which could leave up to 50 children with one or both parents behind bars.

By law, "Detention is mandatory for these defendants," the government said. But prosecutors hedged, saying their strong recommendation for pre-sentence lockup of three of those most involved in the crimes would leave only one family with both parents in jail, not four.

U.S. District Court Judge Dan Aaron Polster, who presided at the Cleveland trial, gave defense attorneys until Thursday to argue for continued bond for the six women and three men.

Polster has scheduled sentencing for Jan. 24.  Ring leader Sam Mullet Sr., 66, faces up to life in prison and the lowest sentencing range for those out on bond is 17 years, the government said....

Brian Pierce, attorney for Elizabeth Miller, 38, the mother of 11 and married to defendant Lester Miller, 37, said he would appeal for leniency in view of her big family and lack of any prior criminal record.  Having both parents in prison poses "an extreme family hardship," Pierce said before the prosecution filing.  "They need to make arrangements in the event she is incarcerated."

Lester Miller, Raymond Miller and Linda Schrock were the three whose continued freedom on bond was opposed by prosecutors.

Jefferson County Sheriff Fred Abdalla, whose office has investigated Mullet's community for years, said Friday he had received calls from relatives outside the community offering to care for the children if their parents go to prison.  "It's Amish wanting to take these kids in. It's their relatives, it's their uncles, it's their aunts," he said.  "That's the Amish, that's their culture.  They are loving people, good people, God-fearing people."

When the 16 rejected lenient plea deals July 30, with some possibly getting probation, Polster quizzed the defendants about their understanding of the consequences of a conviction.  He asked the defendants if they understood possible sentences for a conviction, asked their ages and number of children and whether they knew that, in some cases, they could be locked up to age 50 or 60.  Most are under 40 years old.

All acknowledged an understanding, but one defense attorney said he wasn't sure they were really aware of the consequences. "It's something beyond their imagination," said Joseph Dubyak. His client, Linda Schrock, has 10 children with her husband, who was also convicted, and their 20- and 21-year-olds have been looking after the younger children during the trial.

Asked how the families would fare with long prison terms, Dubyak said, "Who knows? Not that it's a good solution, but the Amish are pretty resourceful and they are a family, the church unit. They all kind of work together."

Based on these stories, I surmise that federal prosecutors fully expect to seek sentences of at least 17-years in federal prison for even the very least culpable of these scary hardened Amish criminals convicted of these unique hate crimes.  And for the ringleader of these crimes, Amish bishop Samuel Mullet, federal prosecutors will apparently be seeking an LWOP sentence (the same sentence now being served by presumably similar federal criminals such as Unibomber Ted Kaczynski and Oklahoma City bombing conspirator Terry Nichols and Olympic Park bomber Eric Rudolph).

In contrast, it sounds as though at least some of the defense attorneys think they may have a reasonable basis to argue for time-served or probation sentences.  Indeed, given that just two months ago, federal prosecutors had apparently offered plea deals with offers of some sentences of straight probation, there is surely a basis to argue under the terms of 3553(a) that a sentence of probation may be "sufficient" to serve federal sentencing purposes.

Related post:

September 21, 2012 in Booker in district courts, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

"Estimating Gender Disparities in Federal Criminal Cases"

The title of this post is the title of this great-looking new paper by Sonja Starr, which is now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

This paper assesses gender disparities in federal criminal cases. It finds large gender gaps favoring women throughout the sentence length distribution (averaging over 60%), conditional on arrest offense, criminal history, and other pre-charge observables.  Female arrestees are also significantly likelier to avoid charges and convictions entirely, and twice as likely to avoid incarceration if convicted.

Prior studies have reported much smaller sentence gaps because they have ignored the role of charging, plea-bargaining, and sentencing fact-finding in producing sentences. Most studies control for endogenous severity measures that result from these earlier discretionary processes and use samples that have been winnowed by them.  I avoid these problems by using a linked dataset tracing cases from arrest through sentencing.  Using decomposition methods, I show that most sentence disparity arises from decisions at the earlier stages, and use the rich data to investigate causal theories for these gender gaps.

I have long found that, in both the classroom and in other settings, discussion of discretion and disparity in the criminal justice treatment of different genders can often foster more dynamic and less polarizing discusson than when the focus is on race. For this reason (and many others), I hope to soon find time to consume this important new article and may well comment on it further.

September 11, 2012 in Booker in district courts, Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Fourth Circuit vacates LWOP sentence for illegal gun possession premised on uncharged murder

A Fourth Circuit panel handed down an an intricate set of opinions today in US v. Horton, No. 11-4052 (4th Cir. Aug. 30, 2012) (available here). The ruling provides yet another reminder that, despite the Supreme Court's work in Blakely now more than 8 years ago, federal defendants still frequently face much longer sentences based on questionable judicial fact-finding by a perponderance of evidence under the federal sentencing guidelines. In Horton, however, the defendant got a break thanks to the Fourth Circuit view of how the guidelines should be applied, as this first paragraph from the majority opinion reveals:

Timothy Tyrone Horton appeals his conviction for possessing a firearm while a convicted felon, in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 922(g)(1) and 924, and also appeals the district court’s imposition of a sentence of life imprisonment.  For the reasons set forth herein, we affirm Horton’s conviction.  We conclude, however, that the district court erred in applying the murder cross-reference provision in United States Sentencing Guidelines Manual ("USSG" or "Guidelines") § 2K2.1(c)(1) and in treating as relevant conduct a murder that occurred during the course of an unrelated and uncharged offense, which error substantially increased Horton’s advisory Guidelines range.  Accordingly, we vacate Horton’s sentence and remand for resentencing.

August 30, 2012 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Monday, July 16, 2012

First Circuit affirms (way-)below-guideline sentence for Big Dig white-collar offenders

Because I am on the road throughout July, I fear I may miss some notable circuit sentencing opinions.  Thus, I am especially grateful that a helpful reader alerted me to the especially noteworthy opinion handed down by the First Circuit late last week in US v. Prosperi, No. 10-1739 (1st Cir. July 13, 2012) (available here). Here is how the lengthy Prosperi opinion starts:

The United States challenges the sentences imposed on appellees Robert Prosperi and Gregory Stevenson after their conviction of mail fraud, highway project fraud, and conspiracy to defraud the government.  Both appellees were employees of Aggregate Industries NE, Inc. ("Aggregate"), a subcontractor that provided concrete for Boston's Central Artery/Tunnel project, popularly known as the "Big Dig."  The government charged that over the course of nine years Aggregate knowingly provided concrete that failed to meet project specifications and concealed that failure by creating false documentation purporting to show that the concrete provided complied with the relevant specifications. Several employees of Aggregate, including Prosperi and Stevenson, were convicted of criminal offenses for their roles in the scheme.

At sentencing, the district court calculated the guidelines sentencing range ("GSR") for Prosperi and Stevenson as 87- to 108-months incarceration.  Then, explaining fully its rationale for a below-guidelines sentence, the court sentenced Prosperi and Stevenson to six months of home monitoring, three years of probation, and 1,000 hours of community service.  The government now appeals, arguing that under Gall v. United States, 552 U.S. 38 (2007), the sentences imposed by the district court were substantively unreasonable and that the appellees' crimes warrant incarceration.

We affirm.  Although the degree to which the sentences vary from the GSR gives us pause, the district court's explanation ultimately supports the reasonableness of the sentences imposed.  The district court emphasized that its finding on the loss amount caused by the crimes, the most significant factor in determining the GSR, was imprecise and did not fairly reflect the defendants' culpability.  Hence it would not permit the loss estimate to unduly drive its sentencing decision.  Relatedly, it found that there was insufficient evidence to conclude that the defendants' conduct made the Big Dig unsafe in any way or that the defendants profited from the offenses.  The court then supplemented these critical findings with consideration of the individual circumstances of the defendants and concluded that probationary sentences were appropriate.  We cannot say that it abused its discretion in doing so.

As this introduction suggests, the (unanimous) Prosperi opinion discusses lots of loss issues and ultimately affirms the district court's desire and decision to give little weight to what it saw as an inflated loss calculation.  For this reason and others, Prosperi is a must-read not just for white-collar federal sentencing practitioners, but for all those still unsure about the scope of sentencing discretion in the post-Booker world.

July 16, 2012 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Friday, May 18, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 17, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

Download 10-cr-10310Gurley Mem

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

Monday, May 14, 2012

Professor Bowman's latest potent pitch for a Booker fix

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Making a full-throated pitch for SCOTUS to again address reasonableness review

Regular readers may know that I am generally underwhelmed with how some circuits have approached reasonableness review, and I have long been troubled with the disinclination of some circuit to review rigorously within-Guideline sentences. Driven in part by those concerns, I have authored an amicus brief support in cert in the US v. Rubashkin case in which I lament the state of reasonableness review and urge SCOTUS involvement. The full amicus (which I filed aided by the fine folks at the Washington Legal Foundation) can be downloaded below, and here are excerpts from the state of the argument:

Problematically, in the half-decade since this Court’s rulings in Rita, Gall, and Kimbrough v. United States, 552 U.S. 85 (2007), the circuit courts have developed inconsistent and sometimes constitutionally suspect approaches to reasonableness review.  Some circuits now regularly reverse sentences as procedurally unreasonable; others almost never do. Some circuits now regularly engage with the statutory factors of § 3553(a) when reviewing for substantive reasonableness; others almost never do.  Accordingly, reasonableness review is not helping to “iron out sentencing differences” nationwide, but rather is exacerbating these differences.  Tellingly, in recent official testimony, the U.S. Department of Justice has lamented the circuits’ disparate approaches to reasonableness review, and the U.S. Sentencing Commission has urged Congress to amend the SRA to resolve circuit splits over the application of reasonableness review.  And many federal judges and commentators have asserted that appellate review of sentences — and all of modern federal sentencing under advisory Guidelines — would benefit significantly from this Court’s further guidance on the contours of reasonableness review.

Reasonableness review has been distinctly dysfunctional in those circuits that have adopted a so-called “presumption of reasonableness” for reviewing within-Guideline sentences.  Curiously, there has yet to be a single appellate ruling that expounds upon — or, for that matter, even discusses — when and how this “presumption” can be rebutted or the legal consequences of any (phantom) rebuttal.  Rather than function as the true “presumption” this Court outlined in Rita, the “presumption of reasonableness” has been used to convert the Guidelines into a sentencing safe-harbor, making all within-Guideline sentences effectively immune from substantive reasonableness review.  (Indeed, despite the appeal of thousands of within-Guideline sentences since Rita, not one single within-Guideline sentence has been found substantively unreasonable in the “presumption” circuits.)  That some circuits treat within-Guideline sentences as per se reasonable not only conflicts with this Court’s clear holding in Rita and Congress’s instructions in § 3553(a), but also raises serious constitutional concerns in light of this Court’s Sixth Amendment jurisprudence in Booker and its progeny....

[D]ue to the Eighth Circuit’s routine of always affirming within-Guideline sentences, the district court approached the sentencing of Mr. Rubashkin as if only the Guidelines mattered; in turn, the Eighth Circuit affirmed an extreme prison sentence for a nonviolent first offender using the rubber-stamp approach to reasonableness review it has adopted only for within-Guideline sentences.  This case thus highlights how some (but not all) district courts are still disregarding the statutory instructions of § 3553(a) that Booker made central to federal sentencing, and how some (but not all) circuit courts are disregarding this Court’s instructions for reasonableness review set forth in Rita, Gall, an Kimbrough.  Absent this Court’s intervention, the rulings below will stand as a high-profile reminder that district and circuit courts can feel free to treat Booker and its progeny as merely a lengthy “tale told by [the Justices], full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” William Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act V, Scene 5.

Download WLF-Rubashkin v United States

May 6, 2012 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Friday, April 06, 2012

Russian arms dealer gets below-guideline federal sentence of 25 years

As reported in this Bloomberg article, which is headlined "Viktor Bout Gets Minimum Prison Term of 25 Years for Weapon Plot," a notorious arms dealer actually got preety nice treatment at his federal sentencing yesterday. Here are the sentencing specifics:

Viktor Bout, the international arms dealer convicted of conspiracy for plotting to sell weapons to a Colombian terrorist group, was sentenced to 25 years in prison, the minimum term he faced.

A former officer in the Soviet Union, Bout, 45, was also sentenced yesterday to five years’ probation and ordered to forfeit $15 million by U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin in Manhattan.... Scheindlin rejected prosecutors’ arguments that Bout be jailed for life, saying he responded to the deal presented in the sting operation and otherwise wouldn’t have sought out an opportunity to sell weapons to be used against Americans....

Scheindlin said that while Bout “has sold weapons to some of the most vicious and violent regimes in the world,” it was unfair to impose an increased sentence applicable to terrorists. The judge said she would recommend that Bout serve his sentence near his lawyers in New York. She also said she would ask the Bureau of Prisons not to put Bout in solitary confinement.

Bout’s lawyer, Albert Y. Dayan, had urged the judge in a letter to refuse to punish Bout and not to become “an unwilling party in his wrongful prosecution.” In the hearing yesterday, he asked Scheindlin to give his client the minimum 25-year term. Federal sentencing guidelines, which are not binding, called for a life sentence, prosecutors said....

At Bout’s trial, Andrew Smulian, an associate who pleaded guilty and cooperated with the government, and two undercover agents testified that Bout offered to sell them millions of dollars in weapons, including surface-to-air missiles, armor- piercing rocket launchers and AK-47 rifles. Prosecutors said Bout, who also worked as an arms dealer in East Africa in the 1990s, controlled a fleet of as many as 50 cargo planes capable of transporting weapons and military equipment to Africa, South America and the Middle East.

During his address to the judge, which was translated by an interpreter, Bout thanked his lawyers and court officers who had shown him respect. He pointed to government agents in the courtroom and said, “Let God forgive you, and you will answer to him, not to me.”

April 6, 2012 in Booker in district courts, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

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

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

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

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

Friday, March 30, 2012

Interesting appeal by federal prosecutors of interesting white-collar sentence

This local press report, headlined "U.S. appeals sentence of Michael Peppel, former MCSi executive," reports on federal prosecutors' decision to appeal an interest white-collar sentence that gave a maximum fine but minimum jail time to a corporate criminal.  Here are the basic details: 

Federal prosecutors are challenging the seven-day jail sentence given last year to Michael E. Peppel, former top executive of MCSi Inc., for his guilty pleas to felony crimes related to the company’s 2003 collapse and insolvency.

Peppel’s sentence failed to reflect the seriousness of his offenses, provide just punishment, promote respect for the law or send a message of deterrence for those who would commit similar crimes, U.S. Attorney Carter Stewart argued in his written arguments filed with the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday.

Stewart asked the Cincinnati-based appeals court to throw out the seven-day punishment and order resentencing by U.S. District Judge Sandra Beckwith, who sentenced Peppel on Oct. 24....  Peppel was also fined the legal maximum of $5 million, must disclose his criminal record to all employers, must submit to random drug testing and must do community service, according to his sentencing terms.  He has already served his seven days behind bars.

His lawyer, Ralph Kohnen, said the defense will fight efforts to impose a longer term of incarceration on Peppel, who was MCSi’s president and chief executive officer. “The government’s decision was unfortunate,” Kohnen said Thursday. “Judge Beckwith’s sentence was thoughtful and appropriate. Her sentence was just, proper and fair.”

Under a court-approved agreement that took effect this month, Peppel has committed to pay $3,000 per month toward his $5 million fine.  At that rate, it would take him 50 years to pay $1.8 million of the fine and 100 years to have paid $3.6 million of it.

Peppel, 44, avoided trial in August 2010 by pleading guilty to willful false certification of a financial report by a corporate officer; money laundering, and conspiracy to commit securities fraud. He could have faced up to 50 years in prison. The government said his crimes helped sink MCSi, a Kettering-based computer and audiovisual equipment company. Its failure cost 1,300 employees their jobs, benefits and retirement income and left investors holding worthless stock.

Beckwith initially determined that, under federal sentencing guidelines, a prison term for Peppel of eight to 10 years would be appropriate.   But after the defense presented 113 letters of support from Peppel’s family and friends, and argued that he had already been publicly humiliated and agreed to a lifetime ban on his ever serving again as a corporate chief executive, the judge imposed the seven-day jail term. Beckwith said she does not believe Peppel is likely to repeat his crimes and does not represent a threat to the public.

For a variety of reasons, in cases like this in which there appears to be no threat to public safety, I see as quite reasonable a judge's decision to impose a huge fine (which makes a defendant essentially an indentured servant to federal taxpayers for life) rather than requiring a lengthy prison term (which requires federal taxpayers to pay for a defendant's room-and-board while he catches up on reading at Club Fed).  But, obviously, federal prosecutors have a different view and I will be very interested to see how this appeal ends up playing out in the Sixth Circuit.

March 30, 2012 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Offense Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Latest USSC quarterly data show slight downtick in within-guideline sentences

I am pleased to report that the US Sentencing Commission, fresh on the heels of releasing lots of complete Fiscal Year 2011 federal sentencing data (as reported here), today has released on its website the latest, greatest, freshest new quarterly sentencing data. The USSC's latest data report, which can be accessed here, is described this way:

First Quarter FY12 Quarterly Sentencing Update: An extensive set of tables and charts presenting fiscal year quarterly data on cases in which the offender was sentenced during the first quarter of fiscal year 2012. The report also provides an analysis of sentencing trends over five years for several key sentencing practices. (Published March 28, 2012)

The new data continue to show the same basic story lines and relatively stability in the operation and application of the advisory federal guideline sentencing system: these data show, yet again, that just under 55% of all federal sentences are within the calculated guidelines range, with prosecutors requesting a below-range sentence in over 25% of all cases. 

Most notably,  after the last two quarters revealed a slight uptick in the total number of within-guideline sentences (mostly as a result of a slight decrease in the number of judge-initiated below-guideline sentences), these 1st Quarter FY12 data shows a new downtick in within-guideline sentences, though mostly as a result of an increase in the number of prosecutor-initiated below-guideline sentences.   

March 28, 2012 in Booker in district courts, Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Friday, March 16, 2012

Eighth Circuit affirms lengthy (but way below-guideline) prison sentence for "inadvertent" illegal possession of "old hunting ammunition"

An otherwise inconsequential sentencing affirmance from the Eighth Circuit today in US v. Anderson, No. 10-3387 (8th Cir. Feb. 16, 2012) (available here), caught my attention because the facts justifying the federal conviction seem so innocuous and because the sentencing realities the defendant faced seem so remarkable.  Here are snippets from the opinion that made me consider this case blog-worthy:

A jury found Defendant-Appellant Craig Leslie Anderson guilty of being a felon in possession of ammunition in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 922(g)(1) and 924(a)(2)....

Concluding that Anderson had perjured himself at trial [by testifying he did not know he possessed the ammunition], the district court applied a two-level enhancement to Anderson's offense level pursuant to United States Sentencing Guidelines § 3C1.1, resulting in an adjusted advisory Guidelines range of 84–105 months.  The court then determined that a traditional departure was appropriate based on overstated criminal history pursuant to U.S.S.G. § 4A1.3(b), and adjusted the advisory Guidelines range downward to 77–96 months.  Finally, the court granted a variance and imposed a sentence of 45 months' incarceration....

In the statement of reasons for the sentence, the district court explained ... "Anderson's crime is among the least serious felon-in-possession offenses that I have seen.  Mr. Anderson possessed old hunting ammunition that appears to have been inadvertently overlooked when law-enforcement officers confiscated his firearms and ammunition in 2005.  There is no evidence that Mr. Anderson could have used, or intended to use, the ammunition. I am not aware of any evidence that Mr. Anderson possessed a gun or any hunting gear....  Mr. Anderson's possession can fairly be described as inadvertent."

I also believe Mr. Anderson when he says that he did not know that his possession of the ammunition was illegal.... The State of Minnesota specifically warns felony-level probationers that they may not possess firearms, but the State does not warn that they may not possess ammunition.  There are logical reasons for this that have to do with the difference between state and federal law as well as the difference between criminal laws versus conditions of probation.  But these types of distinctions may be difficult for a layperson to appreciate....

"I do believe that, if Mr. Anderson had known that he could not possess ammunition, he may not be in the situation that he is in today.  For these reasons, I believe that the Guidelines range in this case is too high to serve the purposes of sentencing and that a downward variance is warranted."

In short, the defendant here was convicted of illegal possession of hunting shells, which he inadvertently possessed and likely did not know was illegal for him to possess.  Long-standing criminal doctrines about ignorance of the law means that his lack of knowledge of federal law does not allow him to escape liability, but even more remarkable is that the federal sentencing guidelines called for 7 to 9 years in federal prison(!) for the crime of "inadvertent" illegal possession of hunting shells.  (Importantly, this high sentencing range was driven up by the defendant's criminal history, though the district judge also concluded that these guidelines also were over-inflated in this case.)

To the district judge's sentencing cre"dit, he decided that he should not send Anderson to federal prison for the better part of a decade for the ghastly crime of "inadvertent" illegal possession of hunting shells.  Still, the judge decided that nearly four years in federal prison was necessary for this crime, and the Eighth Circuit panel required merely two sentences at the very end of its opinion to reach the conclusion that the imoposition of this lengthy federal prison term for this crime was reasonable and thus not an "abuse of discretion."

March 16, 2012 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack

Sunday, March 04, 2012

New TRAC federal sentencing data (with judge identifiers!) highlights post-Booker variations

A potential blockbuster new set of federal sentencing data is emerging this coming week thanks to the folks at TRAC, as first reported in this new AP article headlined "Federal sentences still vary widely." Here are excerpts from this first report on a story which I suspect will garner lots of attention (and posts) in the coming days and weeks:

A new study shows that federal judges are handing out widely disparate sentences for similar crimes 30 years after Congress tried to create fairer results, but the differences don't line up with the party of the president who appointed the judges, despite any impressions that Republicans or Democrats may be tougher or softer on crime.

Sentencing data from the past five years that was analyzed for The Associated Press by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse during this presidential election year show that sentences for the same types of crimes vary significantly between judges in the same courthouse. But the party of the president who picked a judge is not a good predictor of whether a judge will be tough or lenient on a defendant found guilty at trial.

The analysis showed the judges who meted out the harshest average sentences after trials for three of the most common types of crime — drugs, weapons and white-collar charges — were split evenly between the two parties, based on which president appointed them....

The sentencing disparities can be vast, but the study shows they are not partisan. For example, defendants convicted in a drug trial in the Southern District of California got an average sentence of 17 years before Republican-appointed judges, compared with six years before Democratic counterparts.  But a weapons conviction after trial in the Eastern District of Michigan resulted in an average sentence of 21 years before the Democratic-appointed judges and an average of less than 12 from the Republican ones.

Those figures come from TRAC, a research center at Syracuse University that uses the Freedom of Information Act to collect data about federal law enforcement activities.

On Monday, TRAC planned to launch the first publicly available database of sentencing records, sortable by judge, after a 15-year struggle to get records from a reluctant Justice Department.  The center has filed FOIA lawsuits against the department four times, dating to 1998, and combined the hundreds of thousands of records it ultimately obtained with information directly from the federal courts to produce the database.

The database, available to anyone who pays $65 a month for a TRAC subscription, shows how many sentencings each federal judge has handled from the 2007-2011 budget years, the average sentence each issues and how long on average it takes the judge to dispose of a case.  It compares each judge's figures with others in the same district and across the country, as well as the percentage of their cases by type of crime.  That data could be useful to researchers or attorneys trying to gauge the odds their clients face with a particular judge.

TRAC co-director David Burnham said the data raises questions about the extent to which the goal of equal justice under the law is being served in some districts.  He said TRAC doggedly pursued the data because it's vital the public and the courts have evidence that could improve the justice system....

A striking difference jumps out on first glance at the database: The huge variation in workloads between judges. Eleven judges in Southwest border states handled more than 800 cases on average a year, because of the large number of illegal immigrants captured in the region. All of the judges ranked in the top 25 for heaviest caseload are from Southwest border districts, led by U.S. District Judge Robert Brack in New Mexico with 6,331 sentencings over the five years and Judges George Kazen and Micaela Alvarez from the Southern District of Texas with more than 5,750 each.

There is so much of political and practical importance to this story and the data that TRAC has assembled (and I have placed the important data backstory in bold because it merits extra attention).

Most fundamentally, the data TRAC have assembled involve, to my knowledge, the first major compilation of federal sentencing outcomes with specific information about which judges imposed what sentences.  For that reason (and many others), I suspect a lot of folks (myself included) will be looking to buy this valuable data from TRAC and will be eager to figure out (a) how accurately it is assmebled and reported, and (b) how best to utilize this important new data for various purposes. 

Wowsa!  And stay tuned federal sentencing fans...

March 4, 2012 in Booker in district courts, Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (16) | TrackBack

Monday, February 27, 2012

Trio of notable sentencing losses by child porn defendants in Sixth Circuit

The Sixth Circuit has, just in the last two business days, handed down three notable published sentencing opinions in child porn cases.  For a variety of reasons, anyone following this area of federal sentencing ought to find time to review the trio.  But, as explained at the end of this post, such a review will not leave one with much confidence about modern federal sentencing justice in these kinds of cases.

Based on a too-quick review of the trio, the opinion in US v. Robinson, No. 09-1959 (6th Cir. Feb. 27, 2012) (available here), strikes me as the most consequential because it reverses a below-guideline sentence as substantively unreasonable in an opinion that starts this way:

Rufus Robinson pled guilty to knowingly possessing over 7100 images of child pornography on his computer.  Some of the images involved the bondage, torture, and rape of prepubescent children.  Under the Sentencing Guidelines, Robinson’s recommended sentence was 78 to 97 months’ imprisonment.  The district court rejected that recommendation and imposed a sentence of one day in custody, a term of supervised release of five years, and a $100 special assessment.  The United States contends that Robinson’s sentence is both procedurally and substantively unreasonable.  We agree that the sentence is substantively unreasonable, and vacate his sentence.

US v. Cunningham, No. 10-3092 (6th Cir. Feb. 24, 2012) (available here), covers some similar ground in the course of affirming a (within-guideline) sentence in an opinion that begins this way:

Defendant Thomas Cunningham appeals the district court’s judgment sentencing him to concurrent prison terms of 121 months and 120 months after he pleaded guilty to three child pornography offenses, in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 2252(a)(2), 2252A(a)(2), and 2252A(a)(5)(B).  Defendant raises assignments of error with several procedural and substantive aspects of the district court’s sentence.  Because the district court’s imposition of Defendant’s sentence was comprehensive and legally sufficient, we AFFIRM.

US v. Ferguson, No. 10-3070 (6th Cir. Feb. 27, 2012) (available here), involves a similar defendant convicted and sentenced for child porn possession, but the sentencing issues raised (and deemed waived) on appeal concerned conditions of supervised release (perhaps because the defendant worked out a plea deal in which he got only a 30-month sentence for his kiddie porn offenses). 

There is so much that might be said individually about each of these cases and what they reveal about the child porn guidelines and/or appellate review for reasonableness.  But I find most remarkable that these opinion create the impression that defendant Cunningham may have been the most mitigated of these three offenders, even though he had the highest guideline range (121-151 months) and received the longest prison term (121 months). 

Based on points discussed by the Sixth Circuit, defendant Robinson arguably is a much more serious offender than defendant Cunningham, but he faced a much lower guideline range (78-97 months) which means that, even after today's reversal of his one-day prison sentence, on resentencing  defendant Robinson is still very likely to get a much shorter prison sentence than defendant Cunningham. 

Finally, because defendant Ferguson's lawyer was apparently able to put together a sweet plea deal, defendant Ferguson is now likely already out of federal prison even though there are facts set forth in his case which might suggest he could well pose more danger to the public than the others.  I am not sure just how or why 30 months was set at the fixed sentence in his case, but the outcome even on appeal provides further proof that "winning" sentencing arguments at the plea bargain stage may prove much more important and even more enduring in these cases than "winning" at the sentencing stage.

Short summary: sentencing in kiddie porn downloading cases are even more of a mess than one can reasonably assess.

February 27, 2012 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (21) | 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

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Timely discussion of federal judicial concerns with guideline sentences for kiddie porn downloaders

Today's Boston Globe has this notable article on a controversial component of the federal sentencing guidelines.  The piece is headlined "US judges balk at rigid child porn sentences; Say guidelines often demand punishment beyond severity of crime."  Here are excerpts:

In 2010, federal judges deviated below sentencing guidelines in child pornography cases 43 percent of the time, compared with 18 percent for all other crimes, according to data from the US Sentencing Commission, the agency that Congress established to set the guidelines....

Just last month, a federal court judge in Boston sentenced a Dedham man to 21 months in prison for possession of child pornography -- far lower than the 63 months he faced under sentencing guidelines, and even lower than the 30 months prosecutors had recommended as part of a plea deal.  The judge who pronounced the sentence was US District Court Judge Patti B. Saris, who also happens to chair the Sentencing Commission. “As far as I’m concerned, there are some problems with the guidelines," she said in open court in issuing the sentence.

In another example, US District Court Judge Michael A. Ponsor sentenced a man in 2010 in Springfield to four years of probation, though prosecutors asked that he serve the 6-to-8-year sentence called for by the guidelines.

The judges’ persistent departure from the guidelines for child pornography offenses has caused such a stir that the US Sentencing Commission has agreed to examine them again, listing the endeavor as a priority.  A public hearing is set for Feb. 15 in Washington....

Prosecutors acknowledge that the guidelines should be reconfigured to better reflect a defendant’s culpability.  But they maintain that any changes to how the guidelines are calculated should not affect the actual scale of the sentences.  They say Congress -- and society -- have called for the toughened penalties for the crime.

“There’s been recognition nationwide that there’s been an epidemic," said James Lang, chief of the criminal division for the US attorney’s office in Massachusetts. “There is an exploitation [of children] that goes on every time those photos are shared."

Congress has been so aggressive in its efforts to toughen child pornography sentencing guidelines over the last decade that it overrode the Sentencing Commission’s edicts for the first time in its history, in 2003.  The changes effectively doubled what the average sentence for possession of child pornography had been in the two previous years, according to a Sentence Commission study, from 28 to 54 months.

But within the legal community, there has since been a growing chorus of criticism from those who say the punishment is too great, even for such a universally reviled crime. “The sentences are excessive, and the issue is one that could be modified," said former US senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who has also served as a prosecutor.  He co-authored a journal in a law trade magazine in October calling for sentencing reforms.  “It’s important to justice.  But it’s hard to do, because child pornography is so highly emotional."...

Opponents of the guideline argue that the additional penalties -- known as enhancements -- are inherent factors in the crime, and unfairly increase the guidelines.  The guidelines, for instance, call for additional penalties if a computer was used in the crime, and for a further enhancement if the child depicted in the images is prepubescent or under 12 years old -- factors that exist in more than 90 percent of the cases, according to Sentencing Commission data.  Also, anyone using a file-sharing network could fall under the distribution category because their images are open to anyone, even if they do not purposely send them out.

With added enhancements for sadistic or violent images, and for increased penalties when more pictures are involved, a defendant could face a sentence of 20 years in prison for receiving child pornography -- higher than guidelines for crimes involving use of a gun or physical violence or abuse.

Federal prosecutors defend the length of prison time, arguing that it protects the young children who are the victims in such cases.  Lang acknowledged that the sentencing enhancements should be reconfigured to reflect the way the crime is carried out.  A defendant should face tougher penalties for running a chat group, rather than simply being involved in the chats, for instance.  Defendants should also face tougher sentences according to the ages of the victims in the photos.

Prosecutors argue that the public, and judges, should make no distinction between those who possess pictures and those who produce them, pointing to a case out of Milford in which the discovery of child pornography images led to the prosecution of an international child porn production ring.  More than 100 young children have been identified and removed from dangerous environments, according to prosecutors.

This companion piece in the Globe reports on a number of cases in which child porn offenders received sentences well below applicable guideline ranges.  As noted in the main article, the US Sentencing Commission has a big public hearing scheduled for this coming Wednesday to discuss these and related issues concerning the child porn guidelines.  I am especially interest to see what the Justice Department says to the USSC about these matters and how the guidelines might be modified to foster more judicial respect for the sentences recommended in these cases.

February 12, 2012 in Booker in district courts, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (5) | 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

Friday, February 03, 2012

Seventh Circuit reminds federal sentencing judge of obligation to judge at federal sentencing

The Seventh Circuit handed down an intriguing little panel opinion resolving a sentencing appeal yesterday in US v. Pennington, No. 11-1257 (7th Cir. Feb. 2, 2012) (available here). Here is how the opinion in Pennington gets started:

Richie Pennington pleaded guilty to selling a firearm to a felon, distributing ecstasy, and possessing a firearm in furtherance of a drug-trafficking crime. The government recommended a 68-month sentence, the bottom of the applicable sentencing-guidelines range. Pennington argued that 64 months was enough.  The judge rejected Pennington’s argument because the four-month difference between the sentencing recommendations was so little.  He added that although the sentencing guidelines are not binding, “judges are told that [they] are to be followed.”  The judge imposed the 68-month sentence suggested by the government.  Pennington appeals, challenging the procedure the judge used to reach that decision.

We vacate the sentence and remand for resentencing.  The judge appears to have rejected Pennington’s request for a modest below-guidelines sentence simply because it was modest and below the guidelines.  There may have been other reasons why he did so, but as it stands, we cannot be sure the judge gave adequate consideration to Pennington’s argument.

Among other virtues, the court's opinion in Pennington has this nice passage discussing one of my favorite parts of 3553(a):

The first explanation about the negligible difference between the parties’ sentencing recommendations is troublesome for a couple of reasons. To begin, the so-called parsimony provision of § 3553(a) requires that judges “impose a sentence sufficient, but not greater than necessary” to serve the purposes of sentencing.  The judge need not expressly refer to that provision at sentencing,  Abebe, 651 F.3d at 656, but his explanation of the sentence must be consistent with its meaning, see Johnson, 635 F.3d at 988 n.1 (collecting cases).  By characterizing the difference between the recommended sentences as “de minimis,” the judge implicitly accepted that 64 months was sufficient to serve the purposes of sentencing.  If so, the parsimony principle would ordinarily require the more lenient sentence.

February 3, 2012 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Should donating lots and lots of blood justify a below-guideline federal sentence?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this article discussing federal filings in the run-up to the sentencing of a local Pennsylvania politician convicted of multiple corruption charges.  Here are the details:

Federal prosecutors asked a federal judge Tuesday to reject pleas for leniency from former Lackawanna County Commissioner A.J. Munchak, who claims his years of donating blood and other charitable acts should spare him from what could be a life prison sentence.

Mr. Munchak and his fellow former majority county Commissioner Robert C. Cordaro are scheduled to be sentenced Jan. 30 for their conviction on bribery and extortion charges stemming from kickback schemes and illegal cash payments they pocketed while in office.

Mr. Munchak's lawyer, Chris Powell of Scranton, had argued Mr. Munchak deserved a break from a possible sentence of decades in prison based on his "extraordinary charitable, civil and community service" to various organizations, notably the Red Cross, and clubs over the years.

Federal prosecutors disagreed, saying Mr. Munchak "does not elaborate what, if anything, he did for those organizations." The prosecutors added, "his assertion that he has 'given a total of 236 years in services to his community, church and charitable organizations' is unsupported and incomprehensible."...

In an eight-page brief, the prosecutors also seized on Mr. Munchak's references to his "years long practice of donating blood at regular intervals."

"He notes that he has donated approximately 180 pints of blood to the American Red Cross," the prosecutors said. Years of regular blood donation is exceptional to the Red Cross, the prosecutors stated in court papers, summarizing testimony from a Red Cross representative at a court hearing.

The prosecutors described Mr. Munchak's "exceptional" Red Cross blood donations as the legal equivalent of mixing apples and oranges. "What is extraordinary to the Red Cross and what is extraordinary under the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines are entirely different concepts," the prosecutors said. "... the act of donating blood is a relatively brief, non-interactive event and does not constitute a good work of such magnitude to warrant a downward departure," the prosecutors said, adding, "..the regular donation of blood is an impersonal and detached act ..."

January 18, 2012 in Booker in district courts, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Monday, January 09, 2012

Sixth Circuit finds substantively unreasonable a one-day of lock-up for child porn downloading

An interesting and potentially important reasonableness review decision was handed down by a Sixth Circuit panel this morning in US v. Bistline, No. 10-3106 (6th Cir. Jan. 9, 2012) (available here). Folks concerned with the operation of reasonableness review or with child porn sentencing should be sure to read this thoughtful opinion in full. Here is how the opinion gets started along with one of many notable passages from the heart of the opinion:

Richard Bistline pled guilty to knowingly possessing 305 images and 56 videos of child pornography on his computer. Many, if not a majority, of those images and videos depicted 8- to 10-year-old girls being raped by adult men.   Under the Sentencing Guidelines, Bistline’s recommended sentence was 63 to 78 months’ imprisonment.  The district court rejected that recommendation and instead sentenced Bistline to a single night’s confinement in the courthouse lockup, plus ten years’ supervised release.   The United States contends that Bistline’s sentence is substantively unreasonable, arguing that the district court improperly rejected the relevant sentencing guideline as “seriously flawed” and that Bistline’s sentence fails to reflect the factors recited in the sentencing statute.  We agree, and vacate his sentence....

The district court made a number of observations with respect to the seriousness of this offense.  Many of them served to diminish it.   The court did say that the images on Bistline’s computer were “horrendous,” and that the “production of child pornography and the distribution of it is an extremely serious offense, one which should be punished accordingly.”   But notably omitted from that recitation (and virtually unpunished in this case) was the crime of possession of child pornography.   Indeed, the court said there are “significant differences . . . in the degree of culpability in the chain of events that leads to the display of child pornography[,]” with the “most culpable” persons being “those who are involved in actually performing these acts and photographing them.”   We agree with that statement so far as it goes.   That the producers of child pornography are more culpable, however, does not mean that its knowing and deliberate possessors are barely culpable at all.

January 9, 2012 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (31) | TrackBack

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Split Eighth Circuit panel affirms 10-year-max sentence despite guidelines range of 0 to 6 months

Today brings a fascinating split sentencing decision from the Eighth Circuit in US v. Richart, No. 10-1167 (8th Cir. Dec. 8, 2011) (available here).  The majority opinion starts this way:

After a jury found Wanda Richart guilty of one count of conspiracy to make a false statement in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 371 and one count of making a false statement in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1001, the district court sentenced her to sixty months' imprisonment on each count, to be served consecutively, and three years' supervised release.  Richart appeals her sentence, arguing that the district court committed procedural error in imposing a two-level adjustment for her role in the offense, in imposing an upward departure, and in running the two sentences consecutive to each other.  Richart also contends that the district court abused its discretion by imposing a substantively unreasonable sentence and by imposing special conditions of supervised release. For the reasons stated below, we affirm.

Though this starting description from the majority does not make the Richart case sound too exciting, these passages from the start of Judge Bye's dissent highlight why the Richart decision makes for an intersting read:

The district court here varied upward from the 0 to 6 months Guideline range and sentenced Richart to 120 months’ imprisonment—the statutory maximum—for making, and conspiring to make, false statements to an FBI agent....

The record demonstrates the district court’s decision to vary upward from the 0 to 6 months Guideline range, and impose a 120-month sentence, rested largely, if not exclusively, on the court’s desire to correct what it perceived to be an inadequate state sentence for Richart’s second-degree murder conviction. Specifically, the court gave significant weight to the nature of Richart’s state conviction, the length of her state sentence, and the uncertain amount of time she would actually serve in state prison.

December 8, 2011 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (19) | TrackBack

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

"Ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich sentenced to 14 years"

The title of this post is the headline of this local story reporting on the outcome of the highest-profile federal sentencing proceeding in recent months.  Here is how the piece starts:

Disgraced former Gov. Rod Blagojevich was sentenced Wednesday to 14 years in prison after he made a final plea for leniency, acknowledging his guilt and saying, “I am unbelievably sorry.”

“I believe he did, in fact, accept [responsibility],” U.S. District Judge James Zagel said in announcing how long Blagojevich should spend in prison after being convicted of 18 corruption charges that included attempting to sell or trade an appointment to fill the U.S. Senate seat left vacant by the election of President Barack Obama.

But the judge said the entire state suffered from his actions.  “When it is the governor who goes bad, the fabric of Illinois is torn and disfigured and not easily or quickly repaired,” Zagel said.  “You did that damage.”

Blagojevich slightly sunk his head after the sentence was read.  Wife Patti put her hand up to her mouth, but did not cry, as she has done in previous hearings.  Blagojevich walked up to her and asked, “You OK? Stay strong.”  After court was over, the two embraced in the courtroom and she buried her head in his chest.

Blagojevich will have to surrender Feb. 16.  Under federal sentencing rules, Blagojevich will have to serve 85 percent of his sentence, or just under 12 years in prison, at a minimum.  The ex-governor turns 55 on Saturday.

In deciding the sentence, the judge said he had given credit to Blagojevich for accepting responsibility for his crimes in remarks made Wednesday morning.  “It’s clear he is not blaming” the people around him, said Zagel, adding that he also gave Blagojevich credit for his work on behalf of children while governor in creating the state’s All Kids health-care program.

Referring to comments from Blagojevich’s lawyers in asking for a sentence of no more than 3½ years, Zagel said:  “I don’t doubt his devotion to children, but this is not ... exceptional, in my own experience.  I see case after case where good fathers are bad citizens.  There is no question that the innocent children of felons suffer.  This is tragic, but, as he admits, the fault of this lies with the defendant alone.  Now, it is too late.  “If it is any consolation to his children, he does not stand convicted of being a bad father.”

But Zagel noted the damage caused by Blagojevich “is not measured in the value of money and property.  The harm is the erosion of the public trust in government; [people’s] confidence in and trust in government.”

UPDATEThis press release from the US Attorney's Office for the Northern District of Illinois provides a bit of (curious?) explanation for the application of the guidelines by Judge Zagel:

During the sentencing hearing, Judge Zagel agreed with the government that the properly calculated advisory federal sentencing guidelines provided for a sentencing range of 30 years to life.  He also agreed with the government that the range was not appropriate within the context of this case, and found an “effective” guideline range of 188 to 235 months in prison, which was proximate to the government’s recommended sentence of 15 to 20 years.  The judge further reduced the range to 151 to 188 months after finding that Blagojevich accepted responsibility for his crimes at sentencing.

I hope through future media coverage of this case that I come to better understand just how and why Judge Zagel "agreed with the government that the [30 year to life calculated guideline] range was not appropriate within the context of this case, and found an 'effective' guideline range of 188 to 235 months in prison."   Specifically, I wonder (1) if Judge Zagel formally justified this decision on a "traditional" departure ground or on 3553(a) variance concepts (or both), and (2) just how Judge Zagel decided to move down six offense levels on the USSG Sentencing Table in order to settle on the range of 151 to 188 months.  

I also find notable and interesting that, after giving Blago this six-level downward adjustment under the guidelines AND giving him an extra two-point reduction by giving him (surprising?) credit for acceptance of responsibility, Judge Zagel than decided he should give Blago a sentence in the middle of the then-applicable guideline range.  (For those of you math-challenged like me, I used a calculator to figure out that a 14-year sentence equals 168 months.)

December 7, 2011 in Booker in district courts, Celebrity sentencings, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

"Rezko gets 10.5-year sentence; 'Enough is enough,' says judge in ruling that may bode ill for Blagojevich"

The title of this post is the headline of this Chicago Tribune article reporting on a high-profile sentencing that took place in a federal district court on Tuesday.  The article gets started this way:

Even before Antoin "Tony" Rezko's long-awaited sentencing began Tuesday, his teenage daughter appeared anxious, her arms clutching her stomach and her face already in a pained expression. Two hours later, when a judge sentenced Rezko, once a top adviser to former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, to 10.5 years in prison, his daughter, Chanelle, broke down in sobs and collapsed into her mother's arms.

The sentence — one of the toughest ever handed out in the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse for a public corruption conviction — would appear to be bad news for Blagojevich, who is scheduled to be sentenced in two weeks by a different judge.

"Blagojevich could not have been happy when he heard the prison time that Rezko will serve," said former federal prosecutor Jeffrey Cramer. "He could reasonably get 12 to 15 years in prison."

About 40 relatives and friends attended Rezko's sentencing to show their support. At times during the hearing, some bowed their heads or placed their hands over their hearts.

In brief comments to U.S. District Court Judge Amy St. Eve, Rezko apologized and spoke of the guilt and shame he felt for what he has put his family through. "I come to ask for God's forgiveness and the court's mercy," said a pale and thin Rezko.

But St. Eve was not swayed, saying that "the sentence will send a message that enough is enough."

Rezko, 56, made a name for himself as a powerful insider and fundraiser, earning a position as one of Blagojevich's top advisers and confidants from early in his administration. He had a knack for cultivating up-and-coming politicians, including state Sen. Barack Obama, who would become president.

Prosecutors portrayed Rezko as a key member of Blagojevich's "kitchen cabinet" who exercised influence over the appointments made by the governor to state boards and commissions. In return, he expected campaign contributions to be made to Blagojevich, the government alleged.

A jury convicted him in 2008 of using his clout with Blagojevich and scheming with Stuart Levine, a longtime Republican political insider, to extort millions of dollars from firms that were seeking state business or regulatory approval.

November 23, 2011 in Booker in district courts, Celebrity sentencings, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (21) | TrackBack

Thursday, November 17, 2011

"Post-Booker Judicial Discretion and Sentencing Trends in Criminal Intellectual Property Cases: Empirical Analysis and Societal Implications"

The title of this post is the title of this new piece on SSRN authored by Aaron B. Rabinowitz.  Here is the abstract:

As a result of the Supreme Court’s 2005 decision in Booker v. United States that rendered the United States Sentencing Commission’s Sentencing Guidelines non-mandatory, district courts now enjoy significant discretion in determining the appropriate sentence for convicted offenders and can.  Based on data for federal sentencing cases from 1997-2011, this article presents an empirical analysis of how the Booker decision has changed the way in which district courts imposes sentences on offenders convicted of intellectual property crimes, as well as a discussion of how sentences imposed on intellectual property offenders reflect more societal views of intellectual property crimes in general.

The empirical analysis reveals, inter alia, that sentences imposed on intellectual property offenders deviate from the advisory Guidelines in two out of every three cases; prosecutors seek and judges reduce sentences for intellectual property crimes more frequently than for other comparable crimes; and judge-initiated deviations occur after Booker about twice as frequently for intellectual property offenders than for other offenders, whereas such judge-initiated deviations before Booker occurred less frequently than for crimes in general or for other economic crimes.  These findings suggest that prosecutors’ and judges’ views of intellectual property crimes do not align with the sentences prescribed by the Guidelines for intellectual property crimes, and this article accordingly proposes solutions for harmonizing the advisory Guidelines sentences for intellectual property offenders with the sentences that are actually being imposed based on prosecutors’ and judges’ discretion.

November 17, 2011 in Booker in district courts, Data on sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Monday, November 07, 2011

Tenth Circuit elaborates on authority to vary from guidelines based on fast-track disparity

A Tenth Circuit panel has today issued a details opinion discussion a district court's authority to vary from the guidelines based on fast-track disparities.  The opinion in US v. Lopez-Macias, No. 10-1494 (10th Cir. Nov. 7, 2011) (available here), gets started this way:

In the 1990s, federal prosecutors handling large numbers of illegal re-entry and other immigration offenses developed early disposition or “fast-track” programs in states along the United States border with Mexico.  In 2003, Congress endorsed such programs, apparently for border districts and elsewhere, in a broadly-worded provision of the Prosecutorial Remedies and Other Tools to End the Exploitation of Children Today Act (“PROTECT Act”). Pub. L. No. 108-21, 117 Stat. 650 (2003).  Congress specifically instructed the United States Sentencing Commission to promulgate “a policy statement authorizing a downward departure of not more than 4 levels if the Government files a motion for such departure pursuant to an early disposition program authorized by the Attorney General and the United States Attorney.”  Pub. L. No. 108-21, § 401(m), 117 Stat. at 675.  In response, the Sentencing Commission promulgated U.S.S.G. § 5K3.1: “Upon motion of the Government, the court may depart downward not more than 4 levels pursuant to an early disposition program authorized by the [Attorney General] and the United States Attorney for the district in which the court resides.”

This sentencing appeal presents us with two questions related to the presence of fast-track programs in some federal districts, but not others. The first question is whether a sentencing court in a non-fast-track district has the discretion to consider sentence disparities caused by the existence of fast-track programs in other districts, and, based thereon, vary from the applicable guideline range for a defendant charged with an immigration offense. If so, the second issue is whether the apparently nebulous eligibility requirements for fast-track programs relieve a defendant charged with an immigration offense in a non-fast-track district of the burden of showing entitlement, at least in some sense, to sentencing consistent with a fast-track program. We hold that (1) where the circumstances warrant, a district court in a non-fast-track district has the discretion to vary from a defendant’s applicable guideline range based on fast-track sentence disparities, but (2) a defendant bears the initial burden of showing entitlement, in some sense, to a variance based on fast-track sentence disparities. Given the facts presented here, however, we need not now decide the precise extent of a defendant’s burden.

November 7, 2011 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

"Guidelines Gone Awry"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new commentary by Alan Vinegrad and Jason Levine. It appears in today's New York Law Journal and gets started this way:

On Oct. 12, the House Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security held its first hearing on federal sentencing since March 2006.  The title — "Uncertain Justice: The Status of Federal Sentencing and the U.S. Sentencing Commission Six Years After U.S. v. Booker" — apparently reflects the subcommittee majority's views on post-Booker1 sentencing.  Representative James Sensenbrenner, chairman of the subcommittee, stated that he is "deeply concerned" with federal sentencing due to the "increasing frequency of downward departures."  Those who commit child pornography or fraud offenses "are in luck," he added, explaining that these crimes have seen particularly high rates of below-guideline sentences.

Proposals to address these concerns have run the gamut.  One witness recommended that the Sentencing Reform Act be repealed and the Sentencing Commission abolished.  Another proposed that sentencing guidelines once again be presumptively applicable, circumventing Booker by relying on juries to make findings on aggravating factors.   And Judge Patti Saris, chair of the Sentencing Commission and Massachusetts district judge, testified about the problems sentencing courts have encountered in the post-Booker sentencing regime and recommended a more robust system of appellate review.

The commission's proposals, although understandable, did not address the real culprit — the guidelines themselves.  In several areas, the guidelines, primarily as a result of congressional directives, no longer fairly reflect the varied purposes for which they were created.

Some recent related posts about the House Booker hearing: 

November 7, 2011 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Feds want a lot more prison time for corrupt state pol Vincent Fumo

Sentencing briefs for the upcoming resentencing of former Pennsylvania State Senator Vince Fumo were filed yesterday.  Comically, as detailed below, the headlines from various news sources reporting on the filings indicate quite different sentences purportedly being sought by federal prosecutors:

From the Philadelphia Inquirer here, "Prosecutors want Fumo jailed for 15 years"

From Newsworks here, "Prosecutors: Fumo should get at least 17 years for 'astonishing' corruption"

From the Philadelphia Daily News here, "Feds: Fumo should serve up to 21 years"

From Reuters here, "Former Pa. politician should serve up to 27 years: prosecutors"

Here is how the first of these pieces gets started:

Prosecutors Tuesday urged a federal judge to resentence former State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo to at least 15 years in prison, more than triple his current penalty, to properly punish him for "detestable" crimes that cost taxpayers and charities $4 million.

But in a rival filing, Fumo's defense team urged U.S. District Judge Ronald L. Buckwalter to simply reinstate the controversial 55-month sentence he imposed two years ago.  They said Buckwalter should again grant Fumo a break for what the lawyers called his "extraordinary level" of public service, as well as for private acts of generosity.  His attorneys described the 68-year-old Fumo as in poor health, facing the "real chance" of dying in prison, yet still mentoring fellow inmates.

In August, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ordered Buckwalter to resentence Fumo.  Without specifying what new sentence should be imposed, it said Buckwalter's legal reasoning had been shot through with errors, including a badly underestimated figure for the cost of Fumo's crimes.  Buckwalter is to decide after a resentencing hearing Nov. 9.

October 19, 2011 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | 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

Sunday, October 09, 2011

New AP article perpetuates notion (myth?) that federal sentencing is still about luck of the draw

This new AP article, which provides a partial preview of an upcoming high-profile white-collar federal sentencing, has a headline and a theme that suggests that luck of the judicial draw matters more than anything else in modern federals sentencing.  The piece is headlined "Sentencing is a wildcard in busy NYC courthouse," and here are excerpts:

The prison term awaiting a one-time billionaire hedge fund founder convicted of insider trading charges is unpredictable at best in a Manhattan courthouse where judges vary considerably in their assessment of how justice should be dispersed at sentencing.

Raj Rajaratnam, 54, is scheduled to be sentenced Thursday for his conviction at trial earlier this year.  If federal prosecutors have their way, he'll get between 19½ and 24½ years in prison for what they say were more than $72 million in profits for himself and his Galleon Group of hedge funds.  If defense lawyers are persuasive, he'll face between 6½ and 9 years for what they say was about $7 million in illegal profits.

Regardless of the outcome, his fate may have been decided when Judge Richard J. Holwell was selected to hear the case after the Sri Lanka-born Rajaratnam's October 2009 arrest.

"Welcome to the Southern District of New York," said Rita Glavin, a former federal prosecutor who leads the white-collar crime unit at the Manhattan law firm of Vinson & Elkins.   "The judge you are assigned to is critical," Glavin said.  "Having been on the prosecution side, there were certain judges from a government perspective you loved being in front of whether for trial, sentencing or evidentiary issues.  Now that I've moved to the defense side, it's not necessarily the same judges."...

The tone and result in sentencings have varied widely for those charged in the case against Rajaratnam and two dozen co-defendants, all of whom have been convicted, most as a result of guilty pleas.  Most of the sentencings have resulted in prison terms ranging from a few months to a few years.  Besides the sentencing guidelines, judges are supposed to take into account various other factors, including the defendant's personal history and the need to deter others from committing similar crimes.

The longest sentence handed down — 10 years — came from a stern Judge Richard Sullivan, who last month dispensed some finger-wagging words toward Zvi Goffer immediately after telling him that he viewed Goffer's sentencing as "a tragic day," not a day "for lecturing or finger wagging or table pounding."

He told Goffer that he had a gambler's mentality after his arrest. "You decided to double down and gamble on a trial," Sullivan said, adding that Goffer acknowledged his crimes post-trial.  "Had you made that acknowledgement before trial, you might have shaved almost three years off your guideline's sentence," he said as he gave him a sentence near the lower end of the guideline's range....  He added: "I am not saying you are going to be punished for going to trial, but there are consequences that flow from that.  You don't get the benefit of people who accept responsibility."

A few hours later, Winifred Jiau, 43, of Fremont, Calif., was sentenced to four years in prison after her conviction in an insider-trading probe that focused on Wall Street consultants who matched up public company employees willing to divulge secrets about earnings and mergers with hedge fund managers. The investigation was a spinoff of the Rajaratnam-Galleon probe.

Jiau received half the prison term recommended by sentencing guidelines from Judge Jed Rakoff, who had a different view of the effects of going to trial.   "I know judges vary.  It will never be the policy of this court to make a huge difference in sentence between those who exercised their right to go to trial and those who plead guilty, because at that point I think it becomes no longer a recognition of the credit that should justly be given for acceptance of responsibility, it becomes a veiled price of going to trial," he said.  "There should be no price on going to trial."...

Annemarie McAvoy, a Fordham Law professor, said she learned as a young federal prosecutor in Brooklyn from 1989 to 1992 that the judge assigned to each case "makes a huge difference."

"There were clearly judges who were more favorable to the government.  They did longer sentences.  They didn't make it as easy for defendants," she said.  "And there were other judges always trying to do as much as they can for defendants and always trying to give them the lowest sentence they could.  That was luck of the draw."

October 9, 2011 in Booker in district courts, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (21) | TrackBack

Friday, October 07, 2011

House Judiciary subcommittee to hold hearing on post-Booker realities next week

As detailed in this calender entry, next Wednesday morning (Oct. 12, 2011), the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security of the House Judiciary Committee will be conduction a hearing to examine the post-Booker federal sentencing system.   The hearing has been given this telling title: "Uncertain Justice: The Status of Federal Sentencing and the U.S. Sentencing Commission Six Years after U.S. v. Booker."

Not yet listed are the scheduled witnesses for this hearing, but I assume that someone from the US Sentencing Commission (the Chair?) will be testifying.   Usually these kinds of hearings include an invitation to some representative from the US Department of Justice, though that is less certain, especially given that the House Republicans get to run this show and they may want to spend much of their time beating up on DOJ.

Whomever ends up testifying, I am extremely pleased to see that the House is showing some interest in the current state and potential future of both the federal sentencing system and the USSC.   On so many modern federal sentencing fronts — on issues ranging from mandatory minimums for drug and gun offenses, to crack/powder sentencing after the FSA, to fraud sentencing, to child porn sentencing (and restitution), to reasonableness review, to fast-track departures, to acquitted conduct and on and on — there is uncertainty not only as to whether justice is being served, but also as to just what the USSC is doing in response to all this uncertainty.

Though I doubt many members of the House Subcommittee share my perspectives on all federal sentencing issues issues, their eagerness to try to figure out what is really going on in the modern federal sentencing system merits praise and gets me excited.  I eager to see what comes of this hearing, and will post more about it as more information becomes available.

October 7, 2011 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Sensible sentencing alternatives for high-profile defendant involved low-level fraud

I want to praise the district judge involved in this notable federal sentencing story, headlined "Former UCA president avoids prison time for fraud," for saving taxpayer money on wasteful prison costs.   Here are the details:

Former University of Central Arkansas president Lu Hardin said Monday that he was hooked on the slots the first time he played them more than a decade ago, and that his gambling compulsion and mounting debts led him to lie to school trustees to tap into bonus money he had been promised.

U.S. District Judge James Moody sentenced the one-time rising political star to five years of probation and 1,000 hours of community service, but no prison time.  Hardin, 60, pleaded guilty earlier this year to falsifying a document that persuaded trustees to give him early access to a $300,000 bonus so he could pay off gambling debts.

Moody said he was convinced Hardin was "genuinely remorseful and humiliated" by his own actions.  Federal sentencing guidelines suggested a sentence of nine to 12 months in prison, but Moody was not bound by that recommendation.

A major factor in Hardin's reduced sentence was his cooperation on a separate federal investigation. Hardin has spoken to the FBI and agreed to testify if the investigation, which a prosecutor would not detail, leads to any charges.  An FBI spokesman also declined to comment.

After a career as an Arkansas state senator and the state's higher education director, Hardin became president of the Conway university in 2002.  During a six-year tenure, he oversaw dramatic growth in the university's enrollment, endowment and prestige.  Trustees approved the $300,000 bonus in full public view....

Only his wife knew about the thousands of dollars of gambling debts he racked up, Hardin said. To pay them off, he made what he called a "horrendous mistake" by forging letters to persuade trustees that he could draw early on the bonus, which was supposed to have been paid to him over five years, according to federal court documents....

Hardin's attorney, Chuck Banks, said his client is a "model person" who paid back the almost $200,000 he collected from the scheme on his own.  He argued that Hardin's history of public service and his past medical problems, including a melanoma that left him blind in his right eye, merited leniency.

Moody sided with Banks.  Although Hardin's actions were criminal, he had a history of good behavior and he didn't believe Hardin would commit another crime, Moody said.  As part of his community service, Hardin will be required to continue attending Gamblers Anonymous meetings and to teach classes about fraud.

Hardin was president of UCA for six years before he resigned in 2008 after the scandal broke.  He received a much-criticized $670,000 contract buyout, and became president of Palm Beach Atlantic University in June 2009, but resigned from that job a week before pleading guilty in March....  After pleading guilty, he surrendered his law license and lost his right to vote. 

This is a great example of a low-level white-collar offense in which the direct and collateral consequences of the federal prosecution and conviction are themselves likely sufficient punishment in light of the nature of the crime and history of the offender.  I often believe a very big fine and lots of community service would be both adequate and effective punishment for low-level white-collar frauds, and I wonder if any readers have any problems with a non-prison, below-guidelines sentence in a case like this.

September 27, 2011 in Booker in district courts, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Offense Characteristics, White-collar sentencing | 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

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Record-long 50-year prison sentence for Medicare fraud imposed in Florida

As detailed in this Miami Herald article, late yesterday a "federal judge socked a convicted Miami healthcare executive with a 50-year prison sentence, the longest term ever imposed on a Medicare fraud offender."  Here are the notable details:

New York transplant Lawrence Duran once ran a multimillion-dollar mental health company in Miami, lobbied Congress for his industry and tooled around town in a Maserati. His next stop: federal prison — likely for the rest of his life.

On Friday, a federal judge slammed Duran, 49, with a 50-year prison sentence for orchestrating a staggering $205 million scam at his Miami-based chain of mental health clinics.   The sentence may end up being the longest prison term ever imposed on someone convicted of Medicare fraud.

Duran’s lawyer, Lawrence Metsch, had urged the judge to be realistic and give him a sentence between 20 and 25 years, arguing that 50 years means a “death sentence because he would die in prison.”  But the judge, after a three-day sentencing hearing, sided with the government’s push for the extraordinarily high sentence, saying there is a “critical need for deterrence against healthcare fraud” in South Florida, the nation’s capital of Medicare corruption.

Previously, the highest Medicare fraud sentence was 30 years — given in 2008 to a Miami physician, Ana Alvarez-Jacinto, convicted in an HIV-therapy scheme.

After the sentencing, Duran shook his lawyer’s hand and then smiled to tearful relatives, as he shuffled in shackles out of the courtroom escorted by U.S. marshals.  His ex-wife, Carmen Duran, and his only sibling, Kenia Duran Ramirez, said the judge’s sentence was not a “fair assessment” of the former executive’s life, saying his work for the mentally ill was “not all bad.”

This year, Duran and his girlfriend, Marinella Valera, co-owners of American Therapeutic Corp., pleaded guilty to a variety of conspiracy, fraud and money-laundering charges after they failed to reach plea deals with the Justice Department.  

Duran, in custody since his arrest last October, was probably his own worst enemy during the sentencing hearing. Although he showed remorse for running American Therapeutic as a criminal enterprise for eight years, he also admitted he tried to steal as much money as he could from the taxpayer-funded Medicare program.

His company collected $87 million in Medicare payments after submitting $205 million in bogus bills, which he generated by paying kickbacks to recruiters to supply patients suffering from dementia, Alzheimer’s and addictions.  He admitted they could not have benefited from his company’s purported group therapy sessions.  Justice Department attorney Jennifer Saulino called Duran a “cold, calculating man” who exploited both vulnerable patients and the government’s healthcare program for the elderly and disabled....

Duran’s girlfriend, Valera, 40, a therapist, is scheduled to be sentenced Monday. Prosecutors plan to urge the judge to give her a 40-year prison sentence.  A total of 34 people, including American Therapeutic employees, doctors, therapists, nurses and recruiters, have been charged in the massive fraud case, which is being investigated by the FBI and Health and Human Services-Office of Inspector General.

September 17, 2011 in Booker in district courts, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Monday, September 12, 2011

Lawyers spar in briefing before Rajaratnam's sentencing for insider trading

This New York Times piece, headlined "Rajaratnam Lawyers Call Sentence Request ‘Grotesquely Severe’," reports on the last round of briefing before the scheduled sentencing of convicted trader Raj Rajaratnam.  Here are some details:

Federal prosecutors and lawyers for Raj Rajaratnam filed their second round of sentencing briefs on Friday, setting the stage for later this month when a federal judge will announce the former hedge fund manager’s prison term.

Mr. Rajaratnam is set to appear before Judge Richard J. Holwell in Federal District Court in Manhattan on Sept. 27.  The government has requested a term of 19 and a half to 24 and a half years.  “Rajaratnam is arguably the most egregious offender of the insider trading laws prosecuted to date,” federal prosecutors said in their court filing.

Defense lawyers said the government is overreaching by requesting a “grotesquely severe” sentence. “The government asks the court to ignore Raj Rajaratnam the human being and to sentence a caricature instead,” Mr. Rajaratnam’s lawyers said. “This court’s role is not to validate a prosecutorial public relations effort, nor is it to single out one man to serve as the whipping boy for Wall Street misdeeds.”

In May, a jury convicted Mr. Rajaratnam, the co-founder of the Galleon Group hedge fund. He was found guilty of generating illegal gains of $64 million by trading on confidential information about publicly traded companies including Intel and Goldman Sachs.

Mr. Rajaratnam’s lawyers at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld made several arguments in asking Judge Holwell for leniency.  They said that the illegal trades in question accounted for only 1 percent of his trading activity.  They argue that the sentence is disproportionate to the sentences imposed in other insider trading cases, and greater than the average sentence for violent crimes, including kidnapping and sexual abuse.  They also insist that the government’s requested sentence “would guarantee Mr. Rajaratnam’s death in prison” because of the 54-year-old’s medical issues.

The government urged Judge Holwell to reject the arguments presented by Mr. Rajaratnam’s lawyers.  On the issue of the Mr. Rajaratnam’s health, the government challenged the defense to disclose exactly what medical issues would justify a lenient sentence.

I found the defense reply sentencing memo, which runs more than 50 pages, available at this link.  I cannot yet find a link to the Government's filing.

September 12, 2011 in Booker in district courts, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

A Fifth Circuit reminder that not all federal defendants like the guidelines being merely advisory

One (of many) under-discussed aspects of the post-Booker system is that, in percentage terms, the number of above-guideline sentences have gone up more than the number of below-guideline sentences since the guidelines became adviosry.  Roughly speaking, though the number of below-guideline sentences have increased about 50% post-Booker, the number of above-guideline sentences have increased nearly 100% post-Booker.  

Though the absolute number of above-guideline sentences remain relatively small, the decision late last week from the Fifth Circuit in US v. Pizzolato, No. 10-30729 (5th Cir. Sept. 9, 2011) (available here), provides a useful reminder that not all federal defendants benefit from the guidelines now being merely advisory.  Here is how the Pizzolato opinion starts:

Defendant-Appellant Matthew B. Pizzolato pleaded guilty to multiple crimes related to his conduct in running a fraudulent “Ponzi” scheme. The plea agreement recommended an applicable sentencing range of 151 to 188 months under the Federal Sentencing Guidelines (the “Guidelines”).  The district court disregarded the plea agreement’s recommendation and imposed the statutory maximum sentence of 360 months.  Appellant argues that the Government breached the plea agreement by providing the district court with facts and arguments supporting a longer sentence than the parties agreed upon.  We find no merit to defendant’s arguments and affirm.

September 12, 2011 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack