Thursday, June 13, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 10, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

The many (impossible?) challenges of federal child pornography sentencing

The 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":

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:

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:

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:

March 3, 2013 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Offender Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Jacksons plead guilty and federal prosecutors recommend significant prison terms for both

This 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."

Download Amish sentencing transcript EXCERPT

Related prior posts:

February 19, 2013 in Booker in district courts, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, February 17, 2013

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

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

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

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

Recent related posts:

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

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Second Circuit finds repeat resentencing procedurally unreasonable

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, February 01, 2013

Summary of key USSC findings in its big new Booker report

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recent related post:

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

Thursday, January 10, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 20, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Fascinating Judge Posner concurrence concerning carceration costs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Nails does not get nailed at federal sentencing for bankruptcy fraud

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 04, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 26, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related prior posts on Gupta sentencing:

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

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few prior posts on the Ressam sentencings:

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