Thursday, November 21, 2013
"Have Inter-Judge Sentencing Disparities Increased in an Advisory Guidelines Regime? Evidence from Booker"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper by Crystal Yang now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
The Federal Sentencing Guidelines were promulgated in response to concerns of widespread disparities in sentencing. After almost two decades of determinate sentencing, the Guidelines were rendered advisory in United States v. Booker. What has been the result of reintroducing greater judicial discretion on inter-judge disparities, or differences in sentencing outcomes that are attributable to the mere happenstance of the sentencing judge assigned?
This Article utilizes new data covering over 600,000 criminal defendants linked to sentencing judge to undertake the first national empirical analysis of interjudge disparities post Booker. The results are striking: inter-judge sentencing disparities have doubled since the Guidelines became advisory. Some of the recent increase in disparities can be attributed to differential sentencing behavior associated with judge demographic characteristics, with Democratic and female judges being more likely to exercise their enhanced discretion after Booker. Newer judges appointed after Booker also appear less anchored to the Guidelines than judges with experience sentencing under the mandatory Guidelines regime.
Disentangling the effect of various actors on sentencing disparities, I find that prosecutorial charging is a prominent source of disparities. Rather than charge mandatory minimums uniformly across eligible cases, prosecutors appear to selectively apply mandatory minimums in response to the identity of sentencing judge, potentially through superseding indictments. Drawing on this empirical evidence, the Article suggests that recent sentencing proposals that call for a reduction in judicial discretion in order to reduce disparities may overlook the substantial contribution of prosecutors.
Tuesday, November 19, 2013
Latest USSC publication highlights remarkable "disparities"(?) in federal FIP sentences
I am pleased to see that the US Sentencing Commission now has up on its website another terrific new data document in its series of reader-friendly "Quick Facts" publications. (Regular readers may recall from this prior post that the USSC describes these publications as a way to "give readers basic facts about a single area of federal crime in an easy-to-read, two-page format.")
As I have said before, I think this series is a very valuable new innovation coming from the USSC, and I have already learned a lot and benefited greatly from these publications. This latest document, which "presents data on offenses under 18 U.S.C. § 922(g), commonly called 'felon in possession' cases," includes these notable data details:
In fiscal year 2012, 5,768 offenders were convicted of violating 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)....
One-quarter (25.2%) of offenders convicted under section 922(g) were assigned to the highest criminal history category (Category VI). The proportion of these offenders in other Criminal History Categories was as follows: 11.7% of these offenders were in Category I; 9.3% were in Category II; 21.1% were in Category III; 18.9% were in Category IV; and 13.8% were in Category V.
10.3% were sentenced under the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) (18 U.S.C.§ 924(e))...
The average sentence length for all section 922(g) offenders was 75 months; however, one-quarter of these offenders had an average sentence of 24 months or less while one-quarter had an average sentence of 96 months or more.
The average sentence length for offenders convicted of violating only section 922(g) and who were sentenced under ACCA was 180 months.
The average sentence length for offenders convicted of violating only section 922(g) but who were not sentenced under ACCA was 46 months.
The title of this post has the term "disparities" in quotes followed by a question mark because these basic sentencing data about a pretty basic federal crime could be interpreted in many disparate ways. Given that all the offenders sentenced for FIP likely were engaged in pretty similar conduct (simple possession of a firearm) and all of them, by definition, had to have a serious criminal record in order to be subject to federal prosecution, one might see lots of unwarranted disparity among this offender group given the extraordinary outcome variations documented here -- in FY2012, over 10% of FIP offenders are getting sent away for an average of 15 years, but another 25% are going away for only 8 years, while another 25% are going away for only 2 years.
Then again, given the apparently varied criminal histories of the FIP offenders, the sentencing variation here surely reflects various (reasoned and reasonable?) judicial assessments of different levels of recidivism risk for different FIP offenders. I certainly hope that the those being sentenced to decades behind bars for gun possession are generally those with very long rap sheets, and that those getting sent away only for a couple years are those with much more limited criminal histories.
Finally, in addition to noting the profound significance that past crimes clearly have on current sentencing in FIP cases, I must note that it is these past crimes that itself serves to convert the behavior here in to a federal crime. Indeed, if one takes the Second Amendment very seriously (as I do), the actual "offense behavior" in these cases might often be subject to significant protection as the exercise of a fundamental constitutional right unless and until the person has a disqualifying criminal past. Proof yet again that the past, at least when it comes to criminal sentencing and constitutional rights, is often ever-present.
November 19, 2013 in Booker in district courts, Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Gun policy and sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Second Amendment issues | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack
Wednesday, November 13, 2013
Is sentence disparity reduced if mass murderer Whitey Bulger and drug dealer Sam Hurd get the same LWOP sentence?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by the news of two seemingly very distinct federal sentencings taking place today in which it seems the federal sentencing guidelines are calling for the exact same LWOP sentence.
Regular readers are already familiar with the case involving Whitey Bulger, whose sentencing is taking place today in federal Court in Boston. This new USA Today article, headlined "Victim's son: Mobster Whitey Bulger is 'Satan'," highlights just the latest developments in a case in which I sincerely wonder why there is not more of an effort by pro-death-penalty advocates to have an even tougher punishment than LWOP in the mix.
Somewhat less high profile, except perhaps for hard-core football fans, is the sentencing of former NFL receiver Sam Hurd. This SI.com article, headlined "Former NFL player Sam Hurd hopes to avoid life sentence at hearing," provides some background starting this way:
This afternoon at the Federal courthouse in Dallas, U.S. District court judge Jorge Solis is scheduled to begin the sentencing hearing for former Cowboys and Bears receiver Sam Hurd, who pleaded guilty to a single drug trafficking charge in April. Hurd's attorneys will be allowed to present witnesses and evidence to contest the individual allegations against him. At the end of the hearing Solis will decide whether to take the recommendation of the U.S. Probation and Pretrial Services Department of life in prison without parole or give Hurd a lighter sentence. The only certainty is that Hurd will be going to prison.
Hurd was arrested on Dec. 14, 2011 and indicted on Jan. 4, 2012. For the first 19 months, life in prison was not even in the discussion. Five to 20 years was the sentencing range, with precedent and the informed opinions of more objective onlookers and academics backing up that estimate. Since the life sentence recommendation was made in late July, one comment repeated by sources across the spectrum of partiality has been some version of this reminder: You realize life in prison in the federal system means the next time he comes out of prison it'll be in a coffin.
Hurd, who has been housed in the federal detention center in Seagoville, about a 30-minute drive from the Dallas court building, did not respond to an email from SI Wednesday morning. He may have already been relocated to downtown Dallas and unable to access his prison-controlled email account. He called last Friday night and repeated again that he is "ready to be sentenced for what I did, not this other mess. Our system should not work like this.
I have to assume that Hurd is facing a recommended LWOP sentence because of the quantity of drugs being ascribed to him and a guideline sentencing structure that provides that drugs dealers will often be facing the same guideline sentence as mass murderers.
Hurd is, of course, very fortunate that the federal sentencing guidelines are no longer mandatory, and I think it is unlikely he will get an LWOP term today. But this coincidence of these two very different criminals facing the exact same federal guideline sentence provides a high-profile example of how the guidelines can themselves create disparity and especially revelas how misguided it can often be to assume imposition of within-guideline sentences reduce disparity.
UPDATE: On Wednesday afternoon, as reported here, Sam Hurd received a 15-year federal prison sentence; on Thursday morning, as reported here, Whitey Bulger received two life terms plus 5 years in the federal pen.
November 13, 2013 in Booker in district courts, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack
Thursday, November 07, 2013
"Free at Last? Judicial Discretion and Racial Disparities in Federal Sentencing"The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper by Crystal Yang now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
The Federal Sentencing Guidelines were created to reduce unwarranted sentencing disparities among similar defendants. This paper explores the impact of increased judicial discretion on racial disparities in sentencing after the Guidelines were struck down in United States v. Booker (2005). Using data on the universe of federal defendants, I find that black defendants are sentenced to almost two months more in prison compared to their white counterparts after Booker, a 4% increase in average sentence length. To identify the sources of racial disparities, I construct a dataset linking judges to over 400,000 defendants. Exploiting the random assignment of cases to judges, I find that racial disparities are greater among judges appointed after Booker, suggesting acculturation to the Guidelines by judges with experience sentencing under mandatory regime. Prosecutors also respond to increased judicial discretion by charging black defendants with longer mandatory minimums.
I am always interested in sophisticated analyses of the post-Booker sentencing system, so I am looking forward to finding time to review this article closely. But, as with lots of "disparity" sentencing scholarship, I worry that this article is among those spending lots of time worrying about and trying to figure out whose sentences may be longer after Booker rather than worrying about and trying to figure out if all sentence remain way too long in the federal sentencing system.
November 7, 2013 in Booker in district courts, Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack
Wednesday, October 09, 2013
District Judge Graham gets in a final word on child porn sentencing despite Sixth Circuit reversals
I am about to head off line for the bulk of the day in order to head down to the Queen City in order to watch the full en banc Sixth Circuit consider crack sentencing modification rules in Blewett. (I hope late tonight to report on what I see in the argument, perhaps with a prediction as to the outcome.)
For my last word before I go to watch the Sixth Circuit in action, I am pleased to post a recent opinion by US District Judge James Graham that provides its own kind of last word about the Sixth Circuit's recent sentencing work in a child pornography downloading case that the Sixth Circuit took out of Judge Graham's hands. The opinion in US v. Childs (which can be downloaded below) is relatively brief, and it starts and winds down this way:
This is a disturbing case. Defendant is charged with one count of possession of child pornography. I am called upon to decide whether to accept a plea agreement which requires me to impose a sentence which is roughly only one sixth of the lowest sentence recommended by the United States Sentencing Guidelines (“the Guidelines” or “U.S.S.G.”). This is disturbing not because I disagree with the sentence, but because I am convinced that under the law of the Sixth Circuit announced in United States v. Bistline, 665 F.3d 758, 761-64 (6th Cir. 2012)(“Bistline I”), I would not have been free to select such a sentence without the government’s agreement....
The Sixth Circuit's decision in Bistline I blurs the distinction between mandatory and advisory by requiring more deference to congressionally created guidelines than that accorded to Sentencing Commission-created guidelines. Just what implications this might have under Apprendi was not discussed by the Sixth Circuit.
There have been some very important developments since the Sixth Circuit's decision in Bistline I. In its Report to Congress: Federal Child Pornography Offenses (Dec. 2012), www.ussc.gov/Legislative_ and_ Public_ Affairs/ Congressional_ Testimony_ and_ Reports/ Sex_ Offense_ Topics/ 201212_ Federal_ Child_ Pornography_ Offenses/ (visited October 1, 2013), the Sentencing Commission publicly declared that the existing guidelines for child pornography offenses were flawed and in need of repair. In a letter to Judge Patti B. Saris, Chair of the Commission, dated March 5, 2013, Anne Gannon, National Coordinator for Child Exploitation Prevention and Interdiction, responded to the Commission’s report on behalf of the Department of Justice. See Letter from Anne Gannon, Nat’l Coordinator for Child Exploitation Prevention and Interdiction, Office of the Deputy Attorney General, U.S. Dep’t of Justice, to Honorable Patti B. Saris, Chair, U.S. Sentencing Comm’n (Mar. 5, 2013), available at http://sentencing.typepad.com/files/doj-letter-to-ussc-on-cpreport. pdf (visited Sept. 30, 2013). The Department expressed its agreement with many of the Commission’s conclusions, noting that the report “reflects a significant amount of detailed research and thoughtful analysis" and thanking the Commission for "undertaking the important task of laying the foundation for reforming sentencing practices involving non-production child pornography offenses." Id. at 1.
Nevertheless, on June 27, 2013, four months after the Commission’s report, the Sixth Circuit filed its opinion in United States v. Bistline, 720 F.3d 631 (6th Cir. 2013)(“Bistline II”) reaffirming it's holding in Bistline I, with no mention whatsoever of the Commission’s findings or the extent of the Department of Justice's concurrence. As a judge who has regularly sat on the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals by designation for more than two decades, I find this inexplicable. Many of the Commission’s criticisms of the child pornography guidelines, including criticisms which the Justice Department concurred in, are identical to the ones I expressed in my sentencing colloquy in Mr. Bistline’s case. The Sentencing Commission’s criticism of the crack cocaine guidelines was cited as a reason for diminished deference for those guidelines in Kimbrough, and that part of the Kimbrough decision was cited by the Sixth Circuit in Bistline I to explain why the Supreme Court decided that the crack cocaine guidelines were entitled to less deference. See Bistline I, 665 F.3d at 763. In light of the fact that, in the interim, the Commission had spoken on the child pornography guidelines, why would the court not revisit the applicability of Kimbrough when it decided Bistline II? It seems clear to me that under Kimbrough, the child pornography guidelines should be accorded less, not more, deference than others.
It is a tragic irony that sentencing judges in the Sixth Circuit are required to give enhanced deference to guidelines which the independent Commission, relied upon so heavily by the Supreme Court in upholding the Guidelines, has now declared flawed and in need of reform. It is even more tragic that offenders in this circuit will have to rely on prosecutorial discretion, not judicial discretion, in order to receive a just and fair sentence in these cases.
October 9, 2013 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Kimbrough reasonableness case, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack
Monday, October 07, 2013
Fifth Circuit panel declares substantively unreasonable (and plainly erroneous) an above-guideline child porn sentenceI am always pleased to see examples of post-Booker reasonableness review being given some more teeth in the circuits, and a panel ruling released today by the Fifth Circuit in US v. Chandler, No. 12-30410 (5th Cir. Oct. 4, 2013) (available here), shows that even defendants convicted of child porn offenses can sometimes benefit from appellate judges taking reasonableness review seriously. Here are excerpts from the start and heart of the of the panel opinion in Chandler:
Richard Chandler pleaded guilty to engaging in a child exploitation enterprise. At sentencing, the district court varied upward by 127 months over the recommended Guidelines range to impose 420 months of imprisonment. We find that the district court erred by increasing Chandler’s sentence based on the fact that he was a police officer. We remand for re-sentencing....
The parties agree that the district court correctly calculated Chandler’s Guidelines range as 240-293 months. In the PSR, the probation officer stated that he had not identified any factors warranting a departure or variance from the Guidelines range. Chandler did not file objections to the PSR, but he filed a Motion for Deviation from Sentencing Guidelines, arguing that a significant downward departure from the Guidelines was justified in his case because the sentencing scheme for possession of child pornography is unfair and the circumstances of his offense warranted leniency. The district court rejected Chandler’s motion, noting that Chandler was not a “mere possessor” because he had repeatedly posted child pornography. The district court ultimately imposed a sentence of 420 months of imprisonment, an upward variance of 127 months from the top of the Guidelines range. The district court found that the non-Guidelines sentence was justified by the nature and circumstances of the offense, particularly Chandler’s abuse of his public office as a law enforcement officer, his use of other people’s internet connections to attempt to hide his participation in the scheme, and the fact that he posted child pornography 117 times, mostly with children 8 to 14 years of age. Chandler did not object to the sentence. Chandler filed a timely notice of appeal....
Some of the comments made by the district court here, such as those stating that by being a police officer Chandler has placed himself in a different category and should be held to a higher standard, are similar to those in Stout and could be interpreted to cross the line into impermissible reliance on Chandler’s socioeconomic status as a police officer.
To the extent that the district court’s comments regarding Chandler’s position are findings that Chandler abused his position of trust or that the offense was more serious because of Chandler’s position, the district court likewise erred. Though we are mindful that our review in this case is only for plain error, our circuit precedent is clear that a defendant’s status as a police officer, standing alone, is not a justifiable reason to increase a sentence....
[T]hough the district court stated multiple times that it was varying upwards because Chandler abused his position, the district court did not rely on any facts showing that Chandler acted in his capacity as a police officer in posting child pornography on the internet. There is no evidence in the record that he used or exploited his position as a police officer, or used any knowledge or skills he gained from that position, to commit the offense or attempt to hide it.
The district court’s error was compounded by its mischaracterization of the conduct involved in Chandler “stealing” other people’s “identities” or “internet addresses.” The only description of this conduct in the record is in a sentencing memorandum filed by the government, which states that Chandler used other people’s unsecured wireless connections. Though the government refers to this as “stealing,” it essentially amounts to logging onto an open wireless network. While we agree with the government that such activity could have caused innocent people to be subject to investigation, it clearly is not equivalent to identity theft or any sort of skilled hacking activity, though the district court discussed it as if it required highly technical knowledge that Chandler acquired as a police officer.
Monday, September 30, 2013
How common are DVD submissions as mitigation evidence as part of federal sentencing?The question in the title of this post is prompted by a somewhat amusing discussion toward the end of a Ninth Circuit panel opinion released today in US v. Laurienti, No. 11-50294 (9th Cir. Sept. 30, 2013) (available here). The following passage from the opinion provides the context for the question:
Laurienti claims for the first time on appeal that the district court committed plain error when it did not read the last two pages of his sentencing memorandum or view a DVD he had submitted. We review these contentions under the same plain error standard applicable to his claim that the district court did not listen to his evidence in mitigation. We reject these contentions for two reasons.
First, the court provided Laurienti the opportunity to present the substance of those materials during sentencing. Laurienti did so, and the court listened to his position.[FN7]
Second, and more importantly, the court explained why further considering those materials would not change its decision. The court specifically stated that it had reviewed numerous letters from Laurienti’s family, friends, and business associates. The court did not, however, find these materials persuasive in light of Laurienti’s apparent attempts to avoid making restitution payments. Considering the cumulative nature of the DVD, and the fact that the court allowed Laurienti to discuss his sentencing position at length, Laurienti has failed to establish that the court’s refusal to consider the exhibits amounted to plain error requiring reversal.
[FN7] We note in passing that the time that the attorneys and this court have spent on the issue of the unread two pages and unwatched DVD was, in all likelihood, far more extensive (and, for the parties, expensive) than if the court had simply read and watched what was before it. As Benjamin Franklin astutely observed, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
Under the circumstances, I am not suprised or troubled by the Ninth Circuit's resolution of this issue, though I can understand why a defendant might be both surprised and troubled that a judge at sentencing would report that he had not bothered to watch a DVD the defense team had created for the occassion. This, in turn, leads me to wonder if mitigation DVDs are common submissions by the defense in some federal courts or for some sets of defendants (and also whether judicial disregard of such DVDs submissions might also be common).
A few prior related posts:
- Interesting sign of the modern high-tech sentencing times
- "Documentation, Documentary, and the Law: What Should be Made of Victim Impact Videos?"
September 30, 2013 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Technocorrections, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack
Advice for the US Sentencing Commission from former USDJ Nancy GertnerI am genuinely unsure if the US Sentencing Commission gets to keep working if we end up having a federal government shut-down this week. But I am sure that the USSC starts an official new fiscal year as of tomorrow morning and that any government shut-down is not going to keep federal defendants from being sentenced and that the USSC will be up-and-running in some capacity both sooner and later. For those reasons, I am pleased right now to be able to post these comments sent my way by former federal district judge (and now Harvard law professor) Nancy Gertner about what the USSC ought to be doing as FY 2014 in the federal sentencing system gets underway:
At a time when the “common law of sentencing,” is being shaped in federal district courts, why does the Sentencing Commission only post Circuit Court decisions on its web site? In 2012, sentences that had been appealed on the grounds of unreasonableness were affirmed 95 percent of the time. And that rate has remained steady on the national level: In 2011, the affirmance rate was roughly 94 percent; in 2010 it was approximately 96 percent; and in 2009, 97 percent affirmances. In my circuit, the First Circuit, not a single sentence was deemed unreasonable on appeal in 2011 or 2012, and only a handful of cases qualified in the immediately preceding years. In effect, as with other areas of law where the standards of review are forgiving (think evidentiary appeals on forensic issues which are reviewed for “abuse of discretion” and rarely overturned), the appellate courts are not defining substantive sentencing standards, and imposing only minimal procedural ones.
Clearly most of the meaningful sentencing developments -- the substantive sentencing standards, the guideline analysis and trenchant critique -- are happening at the district court level in the decisions of judges like John Gleeson and Jack Weinstein (S.D.N.Y.), Mark Bennett (N.D. Iowa), Ellen Huvelle (D.C.), Paul Friedman (D.C.) and Lynn Adelman (E.D. Wisconsin). While not all judges take the time to write formal sentencing opinions, those that do should have their work circulated by our “expert” Commission rather than being ignored.
If the Commission is interested in minimizing disparity in sentencing in a post-Booker world (which should be one of its goals -- hardly the only one), what better way than to make certain that the opinions of district court judges are communicated more broadly to the federal bench? When these judges offer a reasoned analysis of the Guidelines or an alternative way of analyzing the cases, why not ensure that other judges see their work and decide whether to follow it? Other judges can look at their reasoning– not as binding precedent, but as a template for the cases they see, e.g. here’s one approach to firearms cases, non violent drug offenders, white collar cases, etc. If a common law of sentencing is ever to evolve -- supplementing (or in some cases supplanting) the Guidelines -- why not assist in its development? In a common law system, decisional law establishes standards. Uniformity is not enforced from above -- as in civil code countries -- but evolves from reasoned judicial decisions. In effect, with advisory Guidelines, we have a hybrid system -- Guidelines and decisional law.
To look at the Commission web site, there is only one orthodoxy -- the Guidelines, and Appellate Court decisions that rarely say much of anything. In fact, the message conveyed by the web site is that the Commission is not interested in uniformity as a general matter, just one kind of uniformity -- the uniform enforcement of its flawed product, the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines. Teach the Guidelines. Describe appellate court decisions affirming whatever the district courts do without meaningful analysis. Ignore the fine work of the judges trying to create meaningful standards where it counts the most, in the sentencing of individuals.
Tuesday, August 06, 2013
Eighth Circuit panel, though requiring more explanation, suggests probation could be reasonable sentence when guideline range was 11-14 yearsBecause the Eighth Circuit has a well-earned reputation for being pretty tough on criminal defendants in sentencing appeals in the post-Booker era, I find especially notable its nuanced ruling today in US v. Cole, No. 11-1232 (8th Cir. Aug. 8, 2013) (available here). The start of the panel opinion in Cole sets out the basics of the ruling:
A jury found Abby Rae Cole guilty of conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1349; tax evasion, in violation of 26 U.S.C. § 7201; and conspiracy to commit tax fraud, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 371. The mail and wire fraud conspiracy conviction stems from her company’s theft of nearly $33 million from Best Buy over a four-year period. The tax fraud conspiracy and tax evasion convictions stem from understating tax liability by more than $3 million between 2004 and 2007 by using various schemes to conceal her company’s true profitability. Cole’s advisory Guideline range was 135 to 168 months imprisonment, but the district court varied downward and sentenced her to three years probation on each count, with all terms to be served concurrently. The government appeals Cole’s sentence, arguing it is substantively unreasonable. Cole cross-appeals, challenging her convictions. We affirm Cole’s convictions but remand her case to the district court to provide a fuller explanation of her sentence.
Co-conspirators much more responsible than Cole for the big fraud here got lengthy sentences (15 and 7.5 years), which seems to help explain why the district court decided to give this defendant such a big break. And, as this final key paragraph of the sentencing discussion reveals, the panel here thinks such a big downward variance could be justified, but needs to be more fully explained:
Because Cole’s probationary sentence represents a “major departure” from the advisory Guidelines range, the court’s brief and contradictory explanation of Cole’s sentence is not sufficient “to allow for meaningful appellate review and to promote the perception of fair sentencing.” See Gall, 552 U.S. at 50. Consequently, we cannot evaluate the government’s claim of substantive unreasonableness at this time, and we remand for the district court to more fully explain the defendant-specific facts and policy decisions upon which it relied in determining that the probationary sentence is “sufficient, but not greater than necessary,” § 3553(a), to achieve the sentencing objectives set forth in section 3553(a).
August 6, 2013 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack
Tuesday, July 02, 2013
Does postponement of Jacksons' sentencing suggest big rulings are in the works?High-profile white-collar federal sentencing proceedings always intrigue me, especially when they involve a cocktail of dynamic doctrinal and policy issues as is the case in the upcoming sentencings of former Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., and his wife Sandi. But , as reported here by the Chicago Tribune, it now appears we will have to all wait a bit longer for the Jacksons' day of sentencing reckoning:
The South Side Democrats had been scheduled to learn their fates Wednesday, until the delay was announced by U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson, who is not related to the pair. A court spokesman said neither the prosecution nor defense asked for the postponement.
"The matter was rescheduled to accommodate the court's schedule and workload — neither side requested a continuance," said Jenna Gatski, a spokeswoman for the U.S. District Court.
Jackson Jr. pleaded guilty to misusing about $750,000 in campaign cash. Sandi Jackson, a former Chicago alderman, pleaded guilty to failing to report about $600,000 on income tax returns over several years.
The postponement was announced after a telephone conference call between the judge and the Jacksons, the court said. Bill Miller, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, said the sentencings would not take place this week.
Jackson Jr., 48, faces 46 to 57 months in prison under federal sentencing guidelines, which are not mandatory. His lawyers want a sentence lower than what the guidelines suggest and assert that Jackson Jr., who reportedly has bipolar disorder, could not get proper medical care in prison. Federal prosecutors want him to serve a four-year sentence and to be placed on supervised release for three years after that.
Sandi Jackson, 49, faces one to two years in prison. Her attorneys want her sentenced to probation, saying the couple's two children, ages 9 and 13, need their mother. Prosecutors want her imprisoned for 18 months and put on supervised release for a year.
The question in the title of this post is my reaction to report that neither side sought a postponement and the indication that the change was "to accommodate the court's schedule and workload." I would be very surprised if Judge Amy Berman Jackson had a trial or lots of other litigation matters crop up in the middle of this summer holiday week; reading these latest tea leaves now has me wondering (and weirdly excited) that this postponement is based in part on the judge's plans to issue a significant written opinion on federal sentencing law, policy and practice along with her sentencing ruling. (Or maybe the judge just has tickets to see Bryce Harper back playing again for the Washington Nationals during their homestand this week, and she decided it was more fitting to catch a baseball game than to deprive liberty right before we all celebrate Independence Day.)
- You be the prosecutor: what federal sentence should be sought for Jesse Jackson Jr. and his wife?
- Jacksons plead guilty and federal prosecutors recommend significant prison terms for both
- Noteworthy new lawyer and now a new judge for Jesse Jackson Jr. sentencing
- Months before scheduled sentencing, lawyers buzzing about Jesse Jackson Jr.'s mental health
- "Will the Jacksons get a slap on the wrist, or will their heads be mounted?"
UPDATE: This local article now reports that the Jacksons' sentencings have now been set for August 14.
Thursday, June 13, 2013
"The Non-Redelegation Doctrine" with post-Booker sentencing in mindNow available via SSRN is this intriguing new article from F. Andrew Hessick III and Carissa Byrne Hessick, which is titled simply "The Non-Redelegation Doctrine." Here is the abstract, which highlights why this article should be of special interest to sentencing fans:
In United States v. Booker, the Court remedied a constitutional defect in the federal sentencing scheme by rendering advisory the then-binding sentencing guidelines promulgated by the U.S. Sentencing Commission. One important but overlooked consequence of this decision is that it redelegated the power to set sentencing policy from the Sentencing Commission to federal judges. District courts now may sentence based on their own policy views instead of being bound by the policy determinations rendered by the Commission.
This Essay argues that, when faced with a decision that implicates a delegation, the courts should not redelegate unless authorized by Congress to do so. The proposed non-redelegation doctrine rests on both constitutional and practical grounds. Constitutionally, because delegation defines how Congress chooses to perform its core function of setting policy, judicial redelegation raises substantial separation of powers concerns. Practically, judicial redelegation is bound to affect the substantive policies that are adopted because the policies that the agent adopts depend on the agent’s unique characteristics and preferences. Although this Essay uses Booker to illustrate the need for the presumption, the presumption would apply equally to the myriad contexts in which Congress delegates its power to make policy and courts have the opportunity to alter that delegation.
Monday, June 10, 2013
Guidelines are "the lodestone" of federal sentencing (as well as "the starting point and the initial benchmark")The title of this post is drawn from the key word in a key paragraph that captured my attention in what is otherwise a straight-forward opinion by the Supreme Court today in Peugh (basics here). Here is the context from a paragraph that effectively summarizes the conclusions of the Peugh majority opinion per Justice Sotomayor:
Major kudos to Justice Sotomayor for adding a fitting new term to the post-Booker federal sentencing lexicon. Kudos also to the majority Court for stressing these enduring modern federal sentencing realities in the course of reaching its conclusions:
"The federal system adopts procedural measures intended to make the Guidelines the lodestone of sentencing. A retrospective increase in the Guidelines range applicable to a defendant creates a sufficient risk of a higher sentence to constitute an ex post facto violation."
When Peugh committed his crime, the recommended sentence was 30 to 37 months. When he was sentenced, it was 70 to 87 months.... Such a retrospective increase in the measure of punishment raises clear ex post facto concerns. We have previously recognized, for instance, that a defendant charged with an increased punishment for his crime is likely to feel enhanced pressure to plead guilty. See Carmell, 529 U.S., at 534, n.24; Weaver, 450 U.S., at 32. This pressure does not disappear simply because the Guidelines range is advisory; the defendant will be aware that the range is intended to, and usually does, exert controlling influence on the sentence that the court will impose....
On the Government’s account, the Guidelines are just one among many persuasive sources a sentencing court can consult, no different from a “policy paper.” Brief for United States 28. The Government’s argument fails to acknowledge, however, that district courts are not required to consult any policy paper in order to avoid reversible procedural error; nor must they “consider the extent of [their] deviation” from a given policy paper and “ensure that the justification is sufficiently compelling to support the degree of the variance,” Gall, 552 U.S., at 50. Courts of appeals, in turn, are not permitted to presume that a sentence that comports with a particular policy paper is reasonable; nor do courts of appeals, in considering whether the district court’s sentence was reasonable, weigh the extent of any departure from a given policy paper in determining whether the district court abused its discretion, see id., at 51. It is simply not the case that the Sentencing Guidelines are merely a volume that the district court reads with academic interest in the course of sentencing.
And kudos also to Justice Thomas for providing a slightly competing vision of the post-Booker world via passages in his dissent like the following that, I suspect, will end up in many more defense sentencing submissions than government ones:
[T]he Guidelines do not constrain the discretion of district courts and, thus, have no legal effect on a defendant’s sentence. Second, to the extent that the amended Guidelines create a risk that a defendant might receive a harsher punishment, that risk results from the Guidelines’ persuasive force, not any legal effect....
Petitioner next argues that the Guidelines limit district court discretion because sentences falling outside the Guidelines are more likely to be reversed for substantive unreasonableness. Brief for Petitioner 25. I doubt, however, that reversal is a likely outcome when a district judge can justify his sentence based on agreement with either of two Guidelines — the old or the new. If a district court calculated the sentencing range under the new Guidelines but sentenced the defendant to a below-Guidelines sentence that fell within the range provided by the old Guidelines, it would be difficult to label such a sentence “substantively unreasonable.” To do so would cast doubt on every within-Guidelines sentence issued under the old Guidelines.
I have long suggested that defense attorneys regularly and in every case calculate, and submit to a sentencing court prior to sentencing, the "old" sentencing ranges that would have applied under the original 1987 version of the federal sentencing guidelines which were first promulgated by the original US Sentencing Commission. The above-quoted passages from Justice Thomas now would enable sentencing courts to feel confident that a sentence within the range suggested by the 1987 guidelines should nearly always be deemed reasonable.
June 10, 2013 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack
SCOTUS concludes Ex Post Facto Clause still limits application of new guidelines after BookerThanks to the fine folks live-blogging at SCOTUSblog, I can provide this summary report (with a few edits) of the one big sentencing ruling handed down by the US Supreme Court this morning:
Justice Sotomayor for the Court in Peugh v. United States....
The decision of the Seventh Circuit is reversed, the case is remanded. The Court is splintered. Justice Sotomayor delivers the opinion of the Court except for one part. The Ex Post Facto Clause is violated when a defendant is sentenced under guidelines promulgated after he committed his acts, and the new version of the guidelines provides for a higher sentence than the one in effect at the time he committed his act.
Justice Sotomayor's opinion is for the Court except for a discussion about the policies underlying the Ex Post Facto Clause. It's another case where Justice Kennedy joins the more liberal members of the Court.
Justice Thomas dissents, joined by the Chief and Scalia and Alito. Justice Alito dissents, joined by Justice Scalia. Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, and Kagan join all of the Sotomayor opinion; Justice Kennedy declines to join Part III-C.
The big fight in the case was whether the Sentencing Guidelines are important enough to trigger Ex Post Facto review given that they are no longer binding -- the majority says they are....
The part of the Sotomayor opinion that Kennedy does not join is a response to the argument by the government and the dissent that the Ex Post Facto Clause is not implicated by this case. The ruling will be significant to the ability of courts to apply tougher new sentencing guidelines to pending cases. It is also a strong reaffirmation of the Ex Post Facto Clause.
The full opinions in Peugh are available here. The opinion for the Court per Justice Sotomayor runs 20 pages, and the main dissent per Justice Thomas is 14 pages.
Kudos to the Court in keep this one relatively brief, as I suspect every sentence from the Justices in this case could end up having some impact on the operation of the post-Booker federal sentencing world. And once I get some time to read these opinions, I will do some follow-up posts on whether Peugh passes the smell test (get it..., I know, pretty lame).
June 10, 2013 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack
Tuesday, March 05, 2013
The many (impossible?) challenges of federal child pornography sentencingThe title of this post is inspired in part by the US Sentencing Commission's recent report, which highlights many of the flaws with the current child porn sentencing guidelines and set forth a number of ideas and needs for effective reform (basics here and here). But what is really driving it is this new local article reporting on a federal sentencing in Maine, headlined "‘There will be no more victims,’ judge tells man at child pornography sentencing." First, here are the basics of the sentencing story:
“There will be no more victims of Walter Mosher,” a federal judge told the 65-year-old convicted sex offender Monday in sentencing him to more than a dozen years in prison for possessing child pornography.
U.S. District Judge John Woodcock sentenced Walter A. Mosher Jr. of Hampden to 12 years and seven months behind bars. The judge also ordered him to remain on supervised release for life when he is released.
Mosher is scheduled to be sentenced Wednesday at the Penobscot Judicial Center on one count of gross sexual assault. Mosher reported to police through his attorney that he molested a boy under the age of 14 between Feb. 1, 2011 and March 1, 2012, according to the sentencing memorandum filed in federal court by his attorney, Jeffrey Silverstein of Bangor. Mosher pleaded guilty to the Class A crime Nov. 21 at the Penobscot Judicial Center.
Under the federal sentencing guidelines, Woodcock was allowed to consider Mosher’s recent guilty plea as “relevant conduct” in connection with the possession of child pornography charge, even though the victim was not depicted in the images found on Mosher’s computer. The federal judge focused on the sexual abuse of the child as he directed his comments at Mosher.
“There are some cases in this court that cry out for justice and yours is one of them,” Woodcock told Mosher shortly before sentencing him. “This was an inexplicable and hideous violation of trust. What we’ve seen today is just the tip of the iceberg of pain you have caused.” A parent of the victim told the judge that Mosher needed “to go away, and go away for a very long time.”
Mosher was required to register as a sex offender because he was convicted in 1986 in Aroostook County Superior Court in Houlton in connection with the molestation or abuse of 15 minors, according to the sentencing memorandum. Since serving 11 years on the 1986 charges, Mosher was not charged with another crime until he was indicted by a federal grand jury on March 15, 2012, according to court documents.
In an emotional statement, Mosher described in graphic detail how he was sexually abused as a child by a female relative. He said that when he committed his earlier crimes, he was going through a divorce and drinking heavily. “I am deeply ashamed and sorry for what I have done,” he told Woodcock. “I don’t know why I have done these things. I have no idea how I got to a place to do these horrible things.”
Mosher has been held without bail since his arrest the day after he was indicted. Mosher pleaded guilty to possession of child pornography in June in federal court. According to court documents, Mosher’s computer contained images of child pornography, specifically digital images and videos that were produced using minors engaged in sexually explicit conduct....
Because of his 1986 convictions, Mosher faced a minimum of 10 years in federal prison and a maximum of 20 years and a fine of up to $250,000. On the gross sexual assault charge, Mosher faces up to 30 years in state prison and a fine of up to $50,000.
Even without knowing any more that these most basic details about the defendant in this case or the particulars of his crime, it is easy to see all the tough questions facing Chief Judge Woodcock: e.g., should the defendant's federal child porn sentence here be longer (or shorter) given that he is surely soon to get a lengthy state sentence for gross sexual assault? should the defendant's recidivism at such an advanced age mean that a federal sentence now should try to ensure Mosher dies in prison, or should the sentence at least offer the defendant a glimmer of hope that he might be able to be free again in his 80s? With the facts of the criminal and the defendants criminal history so troublesome, should the defendant get much (if any) credit for pleading guilty and accepting responsibility?
I could go on and on highlighting all these challenges in this one case, but what really caught my attention when reviewing this article was these notably disparate headlines below the piece noting "similar articles":
- "New Gloucester man sentenced to 25 years on child porn charges"
- "Old Orchard Beach man gets 1 year and 1 day for possessing child porn"
In turn, a quick search for headlines from the same local Maine paper (the Bangor Daily News) revealed these additional sentencing headlines concerning the disposition of child porn charges over just the last 24 months:
- "Berwick man gets 7 years for possessing child pornography"
- "Bangor lawyer suspended from practicing gets six months for child pornography"
- "Former Newport man sentenced to 20 years in federal prison for having child pornography"
- "Fort Fairfield man sentenced to five years in federal prison for possessing child porn"
- "Sanford man gets nearly 30-year sentence on child porn charges"
- "Ex-kindergarten teacher gets 16 years on child porn charge"
- "Ex-state prosecutor sentenced to 16 years for child porn offenses"
A quick click through to a number of these article reveals that there are a number of striking parallels as well as a number of striking differences in the offenses and offenders in these cases. Nevertheless, I still find notable and telling that even in a small and seemingly homogeous federal district like Maine, here is an accounting of the number of months in prison given to 10 child pornography offenders (going from lowest to highest sentence):
6 months; 12 months; 60 months; 84 months; 151 months; 192 months; 192 months; 240 months; 300 months; 340 months
The point of my post here is not to assert or even suggest that any of these referenced sentences is right or wrong or should be higher or lower. Without spending a lot more time looking through the facts of all these cases, I think it is extremely hard to reach even a tentative conclusion about this pattern of sentencing result. But that is my main broader point: there is, of course, a pressing interest and enduring goal for everyone involved to try to determine the "right" sentence in federal child pornography cases not only in each individual case, but also across a range of cases. But, these cases all necessarily raise so many important and challenging issues, I wonder and worry if the goal to get federal child pornography sentencing "just right" is a kind of "fool's gold" that many will pursue at a great cost but ultimately with little of value to show from the pusuit.
Recent related posts:
- US Sentencing Commission releases big new report on federal child porn sentencing
- Doesn't the new USSC report necessarily rebut any appellate "presumption of reasonableness" for within-guideline child porn sentences?
March 5, 2013 in Booker in district courts, Data on sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (26) | TrackBack
Sunday, March 03, 2013
"Should defendants’ age, health issues be sentencing factors?"The question in the title of this post is the sub-heading of this notable article appearing in my own local Columbus Dispatch, which carries the main headline "Seniors argue for less time in prison." Here are excerpts:
Is prison more of a punishment if a defendant is 50 rather than 20? Some defense attorneys are debating that issue in federal court as they seek to minimize prison sentences for defendants 50 or older.
“We’re seeing it a lot,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Deborah A. Solove said. The issue is at the heart of an unprecedented second appeal that Solove has filed over the prison sentence imposed by U.S. District Judge James L. Graham on a Knox County man, Richard Bistline.
Graham originally sentenced Bistline, 70, of Mount Vernon, in 2010. The sentence, for possessing child pornography, was one day in prison plus 10 years of supervised probation. Solove appealed, saying the sentence was too lenient. The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered Graham to resentence Bistline, saying the original penalty “does not reflect the seriousness of his offense.”
In January, Graham ordered the same sentence but added three years of home confinement as part of Bistline’s probation. The judge said he didn’t order more prison time because he was concerned about Bistline’s age and health problems, which included two strokes and a heart attack a year ago. He questioned whether Bistline would get adequate medical care in prison.
Solove, who prosecuted the case, had asked for a five-year prison term, which was a bit less than is called for in the sentencing guidelines determined by the court. Graham maintained that would be “a life sentence, or more accurately, a death sentence,” for Bistline.
Graham said last week that judges can consider age and infirmity in sentencing, and he does that if a defendant is not a danger to the public. “I was completely satisfied in this case that he was not. Your job as a judge is to figure out which one of these defendants are the really bad guys you need to put away.”
In another case, Laura E. Byrum, an assistant federal public defender, is arguing that her 64-year-old client should get a prison sentence that’s shorter than the guidelines call for, in part because of his age and health problems. Robert W. Burke of 767 Bracken Court, Worthington, pleaded guilty to one count of receiving child pornography, and the guidelines call for a 20-year prison term.
Byrum has asked for a 10-year prison term followed by 20 years of supervised release. She argues that the life expectancy of a man Burke’s age is 18 years, and his is likely shorter because he has skin cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Twenty years is a “virtual death sentence,” she wrote in her sentencing memorandum.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Heather Hill said the federal prison system can handle most of the typical health problems associated with aging. “Going to prison isn’t easy for anyone, but that is the consequence of breaking the law,” she said. “We’re not sure that being nearer to the grave gives you license to be a criminal.”
According to a 2012 report by Human Rights Watch, state and federal prisons held 124,440 prisoners who were 55 or older in 2010. That was a 282 percent increase from 1995, at a time when the total number of prisoners rose by 42 percent.
Prior related posts:
- Sixth Circuit finds substantively unreasonable a one-day of lock-up for child porn downloading
- District Judge at resentencing continues to resist federal child porn guidelines even after Sixth Circuit reversal
Thursday, February 21, 2013
Jacksons plead guilty and federal prosecutors recommend significant prison terms for bothThis recent post, titled "You be the prosecutor: what federal sentence should be sought for Jesse Jackson Jr. and his wife?", engendered a lengthy debate over federal sentencing law and practice as applied to a pair of new high-profile federal defendants. Now, this New York Times article, headlined "Jesse Jackson Jr. Pleads Guilty: ‘I Lived Off My Campaign’," reports that federal prosecutor, apparently parroting the recommendations of the federal sentencing guidelines, have already urged significant prison terms for Jesse and Sandi Jackson. Here are the details:
Jesse L. Jackson Jr., the former Democratic representative from Illinois, pleaded guilty on Wednesday to one felony fraud count in connection with his use of $750,000 in campaign money to pay for living expenses and buy items like stuffed animals, elk heads and fur capes.
As part of a plea agreement, prosecutors recommended that Mr. Jackson receive a sentence of 46 to 57 months in prison. The federal judge overseeing the case, Robert L. Wilkins, is scheduled to sentence Mr. Jackson on June 28....
“Guilty, Your Honor — I misled the American people,” Mr. Jackson said when asked whether he would accept the plea deal. Mr. Jackson’s father, the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, his mother and several brothers and sisters accompanied him to the hearing.
Mr. Jackson’s wife, Sandi, also accompanied him, and later in the day she pleaded guilty to a charge that she filed false income tax statements during the time that Mr. Jackson was dipping into his campaign treasury. Prosecutors said they would seek to have her sentenced to 18 to 24 months....
Last summer, Mr. Jackson took a medical leave from Congress and was later treated for bipolar disorder. After winning re-election in November, he resigned, citing his health and the federal investigation into his use of campaign money.
After the hearing, Mr. Jackson’s lawyer, Reid H. Weingarten, said his client had “come to terms with his misconduct.” Mr. Weingarten said that Mr. Jackson had serious health issues that “directly related” to his conduct. “That’s not an excuse, it’s just a fact,” Mr. Weingarten said.
Court papers released by federal prosecutors on Wednesday provided new details about how Mr. Jackson and his wife used the $750,000 in campaign money to finance their lavish lifestyle.
From 2007 to 2011, Mr. Jackson bought $10,977.74 worth of televisions, DVD players and DVDs at Best Buy, according to the documents. In 2008, Mr. Jackson used the money for things like a $466.30 dinner at CityZen in the Mandarin Oriental in Washington and a $5,587.75 vacation at the Martha’s Vineyard Holistic Retreat, the document said.
On at least two instances, Mr. Jackson and his wife used campaign money at Build-A-Bear Workshop, a store where patrons can create stuffed animals. From December 2007 through December 2008, the Jacksons spent $313.89 on “stuffed animals and accessories for stuffed animals” from Build-A-Bear, according to the documents....
Documents released on Friday showed how Mr. Jackson used his campaign money to buy items like fur capes, celebrity memorabilia and expensive furniture. Among those items were a $5,000 football signed by American presidents and two hats that once belonged to Michael Jackson, including a $4,600 fedora.
Because neither Jesse Jr. nor Sandi Jackson would appear to present any threat to public safety whatsoever, I am not quite sure why federal prosecutors believe that imposing a sentence "sufficient but not greater than necessary" to achieve congressional sentencing purposes requires a muti-year prison term for both of them. I fully understand, of course, that the sentences here ought to be severe enough to serve general deterrence purposes. But I am not sure that such extended prison terms are needed, especially if the Jacksons' sentences require them now to pay significant criminal fines and penalities in addition to forfeiting all ill-gotten gains and paying all their tax liabilities.
Former federal prosecutor Bill Otis has said repeatedly in recent threads that federal prosecutors should not have their sentencing recommendations defined by applicable sentencing guidelines. But I surmise that the prosecutors' recommendations here that Jesse Jr. get 46 to 57 months in prison and that Sandi get 18 to 24 months are drawn directly from the guidelines. (We can be quite sure that the defense attorneys in these cases will not draw their recommendations from the guidelines, and I would guess that the defense will end up making full-throated arguments for non-prison sentences for both Jesse Jr. and Sandi.)
Recent related post:
February 21, 2013 in Booker in district courts, Celebrity sentencings, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (44) | TrackBack
Tuesday, February 19, 2013
Judicious judicial views from US District Judge Polster when handing down Amish beard-cutting sentences
As regular readers know, the recent federal sentencing proceedings surrounding Amish defendants convicted for hate crimes generated considerable debate and commentary in this space. I was pleased to learn that, among those following some of the blog discussion, was ND Ohio US Attorney Steven Dettelbach. I know this because USA Dettelbach late last week forwarded me a copy of parts of the sentencing transcript from the proceedings before US District Judge Dan Polster for posting. USA Dettelbach also sent along these comments in response to this earlier guest-post about the sentencing (which I have modified slightly for clarity while preserving the substance and which I have received permission to post along with the sentencing transcript):
"The guest post failed to include any mention whatsoever of the comments that the sentencing Judge made. It is possible that the guest columnist missed that portion of the sentencing, but some mention or discussion of the sentencing Judge's reasons and rulings would have been important in any fair analysis -- much less a critique -- of a sentence handed down by that Judge. Indeed, such comments might also be pertinent in fairly analyzing the actions of the government in a case before that Judge as well. In fact, the exercise of such discretion, and the reasons provided, would be particularly pertinent to those who espouse the opinion that judges should be afforded discretion in sentencing cases that they hear as neutrals."
Related prior posts:
- Ohio Amish hair-cutting incidents now a federal hate crimes sentencing matter
- Stark extremes for forthcoming debate over federal sentencing of Amish beard-cutters
- Interesting defense arguments for sentencing leniency in Amish beard-cutting case
- Feds request LWOP for Samuel Mullet Sr., leader of Amish beard-cutting gang
- Are tough sentences sought in Amish beard-cutting case part of a DOJ "war on religion"?
- "Amish beard-cutting ringleader gets 15 years"
- Guest post on Amish sentencing: "A Travesty in Cleveland":
"Doing Kimbrough Justice: Implementing Policy Disagreements with the Federal Sentencing Guidelines"The title of this post is the title of this newly available piece via SSRN authored by Scott Michelman and Jay Rorty. Here is the abstract:
Federal sentencing law is in the midst of a period of profound change. In 1984, responding to concerns about excessive judicial discretion in sentencing, Congress created the United States Sentencing Commission to promulgate the United States Sentencing Guidelines (Guidelines), a complex and mandatory schedule of federal criminal sentences based on a multitude of offense- and offender-specific factors. The Guidelines were introduced in 1987 and governed federal sentencing for nearly twenty years. But in 2005, the Supreme Court held that the Guidelines, by requiring judges instead of juries to find facts that could increase a defendant's sentence, violated the Sixth Amendment. The Court's remedy was to render the Guidelines advisory only -- a starting point but not necessarily the endpoint for sentencing decisions.
Over the past several years, the Supreme Court and the lower federal courts have had to answer a range of questions about how the new advisory Guideline system would work in practice. Among the most consequential were the procedural question of how a district court should apply the now-advisory Guidelines, and the substantive question of whether a court could vary from the Guidelines on the basis of a policy disagreement with the Guidelines themselves rather than the circumstances of an individual defendant.
The Supreme Court answered these two crucial questions in the Gall and Kimbrough cases in December 2007, yet these two decisions seemed to talk past each other in terms of sentencing procedure. Kimbrough authorized policy-based variances. Gall instructed courts how to apply the advisory Guidelines in individual cases. But neither case explained how or when in the sentencing process courts should apply the policy-based variances the Court had just authorized. The result has been a lack of procedural uniformity among district courts applying policy-based variances, with most courts mingling policy and individualized considerations without specifying the role of each factor in determining sentences. Most courts have not even acknowledged, much less attempted to bridge, the gap between the substantive sentencing considerations authorized in Kimbrough and the procedural roadmap laid out in Gall. Academic discourse has likewise left this issue unaddressed.
This Article urges courts to reconcile Kimbrough and Gall by adding an analytical step to the sentencing process through which courts can explicitly apply policy considerations separately from, and prior to, individualized considerations. The blending of policy- and individual-based factors in sentencing adversely affects both the fairness of individual sentences and the development of the Sentencing Guidelines themselves. When courts blend different types of variances together, it is more difficult for them to exercise fully each type of discretion available under the advisory Guideline regime. Additionally, the Sentencing Commission relies on a continuing dialogue with district courts to fulfill its perpetual responsibility of refining the Guidelines based on empirical data and national experience; a clear articulation of courts' grounds for variance, therefore, provides vital information about how the Guidelines can be improved. The creation of an independent analytical step will ensure faithfulness to Kimbrough and due consideration of each facet of the sentencing court's discretion. The result will be a sentencing process that is more precise, more transparent, and ultimately fairer.
February 19, 2013 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Kimbrough reasonableness case, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Recommended reading | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack
Sunday, February 17, 2013
If you are eager for access to all parts of the new US Sentencing Commission Booker report...
Federal practitioner Mark Allenbaugh has posted via this special page (which is part of his firm website) all the separate parts of the US Sentencing Commission's massive report on the post-Booker federal sentencing system.
Regular readers will recall that I had the honor, via this post, of being the first website to post Part A of the new USSC Booker report (and an accompanying press release) due to the technical difficulties facing the USSC website thanks to the Anonymous scoundrals. I has been hoping, now a full three weeks after the US Sentencing Commission's website was hacked up and taken down, that the USSC would have its on-line home back in working order. But, as of this writing, the USSC's main webpage is still "under construction."
Word among those in the know is that, within the next few weeks, the US Sentencing Commission will also be releasing a big new report about federal child porn sentencing. I remain hopeful that the USSC's website will be back in action by the time the CP report is ready. But I suppose only time will tell.
Recent related posts:
- US Sentencing Commission releases (and provides on-line here only) new Booker report
- Summary of key USSC findings in its big new Booker report
- Wall Street Journal covers USSC's new Booker report (and its unusual coverage)
February 17, 2013 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack
Thursday, February 14, 2013
Second Circuit finds repeat resentencing procedurally unreasonableAn 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.
Friday, February 01, 2013
Summary of key USSC findings in its big new Booker report
As 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]:
 The number of federal offenders has substantially increased, and most federal offenders have continued to receive substantial sentences of imprisonment.
 The guidelines have remained the essential starting point for all federal sentences and have continued to influence sentences significantly.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
Prosecutorial practices have contributed to disparities in federal sentencing.
 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.
 Appellate review has not promoted uniformity in sentencing to the extent the Supreme Court anticipated in Booker.
 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 opinionI 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.
Thursday, December 20, 2012
Three decades and huge (record?) restitution sentence in federal child porn case from TexasA 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.
Tuesday, December 18, 2012
Fascinating Judge Posner concurrence concerning carceration costsAn 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 monthsIn 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.
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.
Tuesday, December 04, 2012
Nails does not get nailed at federal sentencing for bankruptcy fraudSerious 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.
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:
- Any early federal sentencing predictions after quick conviction in Gupta insider trading case?
- Interesting commentary on upcoming Gupta sentencing for insider trading
- Rajat Gupta hoping to get by (federal sentencing) with a little help from his friends
- Gearing up for high-profile sentencing of high-profile insider trading defendant
- Might it hurt Rajat Gupta to get sentencing support letters from the 1%?
- "Rajat Gupta Should Walk Free Wednesday"
- Gupta sentencing memos: feds seeking 97 to 121 months in prison, defense requesting probation and "rigorous community service"
- Rajat Gupta gets 24-month prison term, $5 million fine at sentencing for insider trading
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 prisonAs 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:
- Millennium bomber gets 22 years
- Notable terrorism resentencing results in same sentence
- Ninth Circuit panel reverses "millenium bomber" sentence again
- En banc Ninth Circuit finds Millennium Bomber sentence substantively unreasonable
- After too much previous sentencing success, lawyers for "Millenium Bomber" propose longer prison term
Tuesday, October 09, 2012
Gearing up for high-profile sentencing of high-profile insider trading defendantThe 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.
Friday, September 21, 2012
Stark extremes for forthcoming debate over federal sentencing of Amish beard-cuttersI 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:
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:
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
Thursday, August 30, 2012
Fourth Circuit vacates LWOP sentence for illegal gun possession premised on uncharged murderA 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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."
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...
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:
- Fascinating DOJ testimony to US Sentencing Commission about child porn sentencing
- Highlights from DOJ testimony to US Sentencing Commission about federal sentencing concerns
- "Racial Disparity in Federal Criminal Charging and Its Sentencing Consequences"
- New paper say there "is no need for a 'Booker fix'; Booker is the fix"
- In DC for event on "The Relevancy and Reach of the U.S. Sentencing Commission"
- NPR covers latest debates over post-Booker federal sentencing systems
- Two big public hearings on tap for US Sentencing Commission next week
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.
Wednesday, February 08, 2012
Two big public hearings on tap for US Sentencing Commission next week
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.
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.