Thursday, October 06, 2016

Prez Obama commutes 102 more federal prison sentences

I just saw via various news sources that President Obama issued 102 more commutations this afternoon.  This blog post by the White House counsel reports the basics, and here is how it gets started:

Today, President Obama granted commutations to another 102 individuals who have demonstrated that they are deserving of a second chance at freedom.  The vast majority of today’s grants were for individuals serving unduly harsh sentences for drug-related crimes under outdated sentencing laws. With today’s grants, the President has commuted 774 sentences, more than the previous 11 presidents combined.  With a total of 590 commutations this year, President Obama has now commuted the sentences of more individuals in one year than in any other single year in our nation’s history.

While he will continue to review cases on an individualized basis throughout the remainder of his term, these statistics make clear that the President and his administration have succeeded in efforts to reinvigorate the clemency process. Beyond the statistics, though, are stories of individuals who have overcome the longest of odds to earn this second chance.  The individuals receiving commutation today are mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, and in some cases grandparents.  Today, they and their loved ones share the joy of knowing that they will soon be reunited.

October 6, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

"Why Nobody's Talking About the Supreme Court"

The title of this post is the headline of this timely and interesting post-debate Bloomberg View piece by Noah Feldman. Here are excerpts:

The U.S. Supreme Court didn’t come up Monday in the first presidential debate, and so far, it hasn’t been an important campaign issue. Given the unprecedented vacancy during an election season, that seems weird. But there is an explanation: The election’s consequences for the court are asymmetrical for the two political parties.

If the Democrat, Hillary Clinton, is elected, it will change the court’s balance, either through the confirmation of President Barack Obama’s nominee, Judge Merrick Garland, in the lame-duck session or with the appointment of Garland or another liberal after she takes office.  If the Republican, Donald Trump, is elected, all he can do is replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia with another conservative. That won’t change the court’s political balance.  For that to happen, Trump would need Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg or Justice Stephen Breyer to be unable to serve, which won’t happen voluntarily for either in the first four years of a Trump presidency.

The result of this asymmetry is that neither candidate has much reason to put the Supreme Court front and center.  Clinton can try to appeal to her base by promising to reshape the Supreme Court, which is an inspiring vision for some liberals, to be sure.  But it isn’t good politics for her to trumpet a liberal transformation of the court when she’s trying to win over the median voter, who may well be skeptical of more judicial activism.

What’s more, Clinton lacks a signature constitutional issue that would make liberals excited about a progressive majority.  That’s because much of the liberal constitutional agenda has been achieved in the last two years, courtesy of Justice Anthony Kennedy.  He wrote the gay-marriage decision in 2015. In 2016, he delivered an opinion protecting affirmative action in higher education. He also provided the deciding vote in the Texas abortion case, safeguarding the abortion right for another generation.  With these decisions, Kennedy effectively took away the sense of constitutional fear and desperation that might otherwise be haunting liberals alongside the possibility of a Trump presidency....

For Trump, the calculus is a little different.  He can’t credibly promise to be a change agent when it comes to Supreme Court appointments. All he can do is say he will hold the line by appointing a conservative -- and indeed he has by releasing the names of 21 possible nominees.  That might have been enough to win over Texas Senator Ted Cruz, if you take Cruz’s word for his flip-flop on endorsing Trump.  But Trump doesn’t really like to depict himself as a movement conservative trying to preserve the status quo. His message is all about how things are broken.  Even if he chose to say that the Supreme Court got it wrong on gay marriage, abortion rights and affirmative action, he can’t say that he would be able to appoint justices who would change those results.

Furthermore, diehard conservatives who care about the Supreme Court are sophisticated enough to understand that they’ve lost on the big-ticket issues that have mattered most to them over the last 20 years. They know the court won’t immediately reverse itself.  Activist legal conservatives are focused mostly on preserving religious liberty in the aftermath of the gay-marriage decision, a position that is essentially defensive and operates on the (correct) background assumption that the culture war has already been lost.

The upshot is that for Trump, making the Supreme Court an election issue doesn’t hold much appeal as a way to energize the right or to capture new voters from the center. He can certainly criticize the courts when it’s convenient, or dismiss their holdings as “anti-police” the way he did during the debate.  So don’t expect much more on the Supreme Court during this election season.  When the dust has settled, however, the Supreme Court will return to the front pages very quickly indeed, and the question of who will succeed Scalia will be one of the most pressing issues facing the new president, whoever it is.

As long-time readers know, and as this prior post explains, I would add to this analysis the important fact that Prez Obama picked a nominee that is a relative political "yawner" for both parties.  As I have explained before, I thought back in March and continue to think today that the current politics around SCOTUS would be much different if Prez Obama made a ground-breaking rather than just a moderate pick, and that would be especially so if he had selected the only woman of color who was seriously vetted for this open SCOTUS spot, US District Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson.  Though I dislike discussion that focus on "playing the race card" or "playing the gender card," I like to be honest when highlighting that it is the personnel and not just the politics at the heart of this "non-issue" reality. 

If the GOP Senate was blocking even a hearing for the first woman of color nominated to the Supreme Court, I am certain Clinton would now be seeking to appeal to her base (and also to moderates) by promising to not let the GOP Senate continue to push Judge Brown Jackson to the back of the bus.  Actually, I suspect Hillary Clinton may be much too cautious politically to actually try to play a race/gender card at the same time via a Rosa Parks reference, but I am certain some of her surrogates (as well as some Dems seeking to wins seats in the Senate) would not be afraid to make this kind of pitch.

Prior related posts on new SCOTUS nominee possibilities:

September 27, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8)

Friday, September 16, 2016

Detailing interesting sentencing dynamics in the latest batches of "term" commutations by Prez Obama

091416-Obama-commutations-online_1USA Today has this great new article highlighting an especially interesting aspect of the most recent clemency work by President Obama.  The piece is headlined "For Obama, a shift in clemency strategy," and here are excerpts:

For 126 federal inmates who received presidential clemency last month, the good news might have come with a dose of disappointment. President Obama had granted their requests for commutations, using his constitutional pardon power to shorten their sentences for drug offenses. But instead of releasing them, he left them with years — and in some cases, more than a decade — left to serve on their sentences.

As Obama has begun to grant commutations to inmates convicted of more serious crimes, Obama has increasingly commuted their sentences without immediately releasing them. These are what are known as "term" commutations, as opposed to the more common "time served" commutations, and they represent a remarkable departure from recent past practice. Unlike a full pardon, commutations shorten sentences but leave other consequences of the conviction in place.

A USA TODAY analysis of Obama's 673 commutations shows a marked change in strategy on his clemency initiative, one of the key criminal justice reform efforts of his presidency. Before last month, almost all of the inmates whose sentences were commuted were released within four months, just long enough for the Bureau of Prisons to arrange for court-supervised monitoring and other re-entry programs. But in the last two rounds of presidential clemency in August, 39% of commutations come with a long string attached: a year or more left to serve on the sentence.

The strategy has also allowed Obama to commute the sentences of even more serious offenders. Before last month, 13% of inmates receiving clemency had used a firearm in the offense. For those granted presidential mercy last month, it was 22%. Through lawyers in the Justice Department and the White House Counsel's Office, the president is effectively recalculating the sentences using the federal guidelines in effect today — as opposed to the harsher penalties mandated by Congress in the 1980s and '90s.

While previous presidents have granted term commutations on a case-by-case basis — President Bill Clinton required a Puerto Rican nationalist convicted of seditious conspiracy to serve five more years, and President Richard Nixon made a Washington, D.C. murderer serve another decade — Obama appears to be the first to employ them as a matter of policy. "There are a number of cases where it’s a genuine re-sentencing. It’s unprecedented,” said former pardon attorney Margaret Love, who served under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Clinton. “That signals to me that the power is being used in a way it’s never been used before.”

There may also be a political calculation to the new clemency strategy, reflecting a general understanding that there's no guarantee that a President Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump would continue Obama's signature clemency initiative. While it's not entirely settled, most scholars believe a commutation warrant cannot be revoked by a future president once it's granted, delivered and accepted.

Explaining his philosophy on commutation power at a press conference last month — the day after he set a single-day clemency record by granting 214 commutations — Obama gave the example of an inmate who has already served a 25-year sentence but would have only served 20 if sentenced under today's laws. "What we try to do is to screen through and find those individuals who have paid their debt to society, that have behaved themselves and tried to reform themselves while incarcerated, and we think have a good chance of being able to use that second chance well," he said.

But increasingly, recipients of Obama's mercy are years away from paying their debt to society.

White House Counsel Neil Eggleston, who's the last stop for a clemency application before it goes to the president, acknowledged the change in strategy on Aug. 3, the day Obama issued 214 commutations. "While some commutation recipients will begin to process out of federal custody immediately, others will serve more time," he wrote in a blog post. "While these term reductions will require applicants to serve additional time, it will also allow applicants to continue their rehabilitation by completing educational and self-improvement programming and to participate in drug or other counseling services."

Critics say Obama is no longer reserving his clemency power for extraordinary circumstances, but instead substituting his own judgment for that of Congress and the courts. "To impose these things, and to have the commutation take effect after he leaves office — and even after the presidency of someone who succeeds him — seems inappropriate to me," said Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.

But Goodlatte also acknowledged that the power to "grant reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States" is one of the Constitution's most ironclad powers, and amending the Constitution would be difficult....

"He has effectively set himself up as a judge, reviewing thousands of cases where they’ve been prosecuted, convicted, sentenced and appealed beyond the district court level. And he's undercut all that work by commuting their sentences," Goodlatte said. "I think the president is taking a misguided approach to this issue when he tries to set himself up as a super-judge who would oversee the actions of a separate branch of government."

Mary Price, who has represented drug offenders seeking presidential clemency, said the president is the only person who can act under present law. "In our system, there's a heavy emphasis on finality of judgment," said Price, chief counsel for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, which advocates for changes in drug laws. "The court has no jurisdiction to go back and change that sentence." For inmates with one or two years left on their Obama-shortened sentence, the president's clemency could motivating them to prepare for reentry into society, Price said. One drug treatment program gives inmates an additional year off their sentence if they complete it.

While Obama's re-sentencing strategy is a departure from recent practice, experts note that presidents have granted term commutations before. For example, any commutation of the death penalty to life imprisonment would fit the definition of that the Justice Department calls a "term commutation," as opposed to the more typical "time served" commutation.

And if recent presidents haven't done it that way, it's more because they've granted so few commutations to begin with. As the White House is quick to note, Obama has now commuted the sentences of more prisoners than the previous 10 presidents — that's Dwight Eisenhower through George W. Bush — combined. "Is Obama doing it at some unprecedented level? I don't know. Maybe," said P.S. Ruckman Jr., a political scientist who has analyzed data on presidential clemency back to George Washington. "But I am not so sure what to make of that either," he said. "That's what checks and balances are all about."

September 16, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Does anyone want to speculate about SCOTUS politics if Prez Obama had nominated, say, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson?

I am prompted to prompt the question in the title of this post after review of this interesting Washington Post article, headlined "Did Obama squander an opportunity by nominating Merrick Garland?". Here are a few notable excerpts from the lengthy piece:

No Democratic Senate candidates are talking about Garland in paid television ads.  No one mentioned Garland during the Democratic National Convention in July, including Barack Obama.

Hillary Clinton has not committed to re-nominate Garland if she’s elected. While she talks about the Supreme Court, she almost never talks about him.

Some Democrats privately fear that Obama blew an opportunity to help re-activate the coalition that elected him twice by not picking a more progressive nominee — especially a minority candidate — to replace the late Antonin Scalia. Had Obama nominated someone who really ginned up the Democratic base, perhaps Clinton and the party would have more whole-heartedly embraced him or her....

The National Organization for Women signed onto an open letter urging Obama to appoint an African American woman to the court after Scalia died. When Garland was announced, the group expressed concern that he is “more or less a blank slate” on core women’s issues like reproductive rights.

NOW President Terry O'Neill wants the Senate to confirm Garland but she also thinks about how different the dynamic might be right now had the president gone with a more progressive black woman instead of a 63-year-old moderate white man. “I’m not going to say there wasn’t some disappointment,” she said in an interview last night. “I am very positive that the progressive community would be extremely active in promoting a more left-leaning appointment.”

O’Neill posited that an African American woman might have provided a clearer contrast. “Suppose he had nominated an African American woman,” she said. “No matter how moderate she might be, Republicans would say she’s way too out there and way too radical. The same way they talked about President Obama. … I don’t think you can eliminate race from understanding what these senators are doing. There’s no white president that’s ever been treated so disrespectfully.”

She lamented the paucity of media coverage about the vacancy. “Any African American woman who might have been nominated would have been viciously attacked,” O’Neill added. “It’s possible, if those vicious attacks would have happened, then the American public would have been much better informed of the outrageousness of what the Republicans are doing.”

Many of the same progressives who are not enthusiastic about Clinton are also not enthusiastic about Garland. Bernie Sanders said this spring as he campaigned for the Democratic nomination that he would ask Obama to withdraw Garland if he got elected so he could pick someone more liberal.

“We saw some of the highest grassroots energy in our eight year history in the run up to the president's Supreme Court nomination, and when the choice was Merrick Garland that energy completely plummeted,” said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee.

Leaders in the African American community have called for a vote on Garland, but a lot of the key groups were also less than thrilled with his selection. Other liberal organizations like Democracy for America, which was founded by Howard Dean, said when Garland was nominated that it was “deeply disappointing that President Obama failed to use this opportunity to add the voice of another progressive woman of color to the Supreme Court.”

As readers may recall, the only woman of color who was seriously vetted for this open SCOTUS spot was US District Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson. I thought back in March and continue to think today that the politics around SCOTUS would be much different if Prez Obama made a ground-breaking rather than just a moderate pick. In addition, as I highlighted in this post in February, GOP House Speaker Paul Ryan spoke in glowing terms abut Ketanji Brown Jackson at her confirmation hearing to become a US District Judge: as he put it, "she is clearly qualified. But it bears repeating just how qualified she is.... Now, our politics may differ, but my praise for Ketanji's intellect, for her character, for her integrity, it is unequivocal."

I think it quite likely that, had Prez Obama nominated Judge Brown Jackson, we would be seeing Democratic Senate candidates talking about her in TV ads. I am certain that a number of folks would have mentioned her during the Democratic National Convention in July, and I suspect Hillary Clinton would commit to re-nominate her if she’s elected. Speculating even further, I imagine lots of Democratic senators and House members would be pressing Speaker Ryan to voice support for giving Judge Brown Jackson at least a hearing. And, to really go for it, I could even imagine Colin Kaepernick saying, when asked when he will stand again for the National Anthem, that he will get off his knee if the US Senate moves forward on the SCOTUS nomination of Judge Brown Jackson.

Prior related posts on new SCOTUS nominee possibilities:

September 13, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Former AG Eric Holder brags about his "too little, too late" approach to dealing with federal sentencing's myriad problems

Holder-covington-feature-heroEric Holder, who served as attorney general of the United States from 2009 to 2015, has this notable New York Times op-ed that I ultimately find more frustrating than encouraging. The article is headlined "Eric Holder: We Can Have Shorter Sentences and Less Crime," and here are excerpts that prompt my frustration (based on the dates I highlighed above, and related dates highlighted below, and a bit of inserted commentary):

The financial cost of our current incarceration policy is straining government budgets; the human and community costs are incalculable. Today, a rare bipartisan consensus in favor of changing drug-sentencing laws presents an opportunity to improve the fairness and efficiency of America’s criminal justice system. But to build on this coalition for reform, which includes senior law enforcement officials, we need action in Congress.

In February 2015, President Obama convened a group of lawmakers — including the Republican senators Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Rand Paul of Kentucky and the Democratic senators Dick Durbin of Illinois and Cory Booker of New Jersey — to build support for sweeping reforms. But the momentum has slowed thanks to opposition from a small group of Republican congressmen using language dredged from the past. One, Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, even claimed recently that “we have an under-incarceration problem.”

The Republican presidential nominee, Donald J. Trump, is now fanning fears about the level of crime in America, which is actually at historic lows [Ed Note: crime was at historic lows in 2014 and has recently been going up]. Such pandering is a reminder of how we got here in the first place....

Controlling for other factors, the United States Sentencing Commission found that between December 2007 and September 2011, black male defendants received sentences 20 percent longer than their white counterparts. From 1983 to 1997, the number of African-Americans sent to prison for drug offenses went up more than 26-fold, compared with a sevenfold increase for whites. By the early 2000s, more than twice as many African-Americans as whites were in state prisons for drug offenses....

The Justice Department has pioneered reform.  Three years ago, as attorney general, I established the Smart on Crime initiative to reduce draconian mandatory minimum sentencing for low-level drug offenses and encourage more investment in rehabilitation programs to tackle recidivism. The preliminary results are very encouraging. Over the last two years, federal prosecutors went from seeking a mandatory minimum penalty for drug trafficking in two-thirds of cases to doing so in less than half of them — the lowest rate on record. The initiative may not be solely responsible, but 2014 saw the first consecutive drop in the federal prison population in more than three decades, coinciding with a falling crime rate.

Those who argue that without the hammer of a mandatory minimum sentence defendants won’t cooperate are wrong — in fact, the rate of cooperation held steady under the initiative, and the rate of guilty pleas remained constant. The system remained effective and became fairer. Reform has not made us less safe....

Mandatory minimum sentences should be eliminated for many offenses, and where they are still applied, their length should be reduced. The legislative proposals necessarily reflect a compromise, but we must ensure that they go far enough: The judiciary needs greater discretion in imposing mandatory minimums, as do our prosecutors in seeking them. Given the absence of parole in the federal system, we should increase the amount of sentence-reduction credit available to inmates with records of good conduct. And all offenders, regardless of their designated risk level, should get credit for participating in rehabilitation programs....

There is still a disparity in sentencing for offenses relating to crack and powder cocaine, chemically identical substances. Given the policy’s differential racial impact, which erodes confidence in the justice system, this disparity must go. In the light of recent events, we can’t afford criminal justice policies that reduce the already fragile trust between minority communities and law enforcement agencies....

Whatever the outcomes of the bills before Congress and the presidential election, the Justice Department existing reforms must be preserved. Important as they are, all these initiatives have a bearing only on the federal justice system, which houses about 10 percent of the prison population.  For the federal effort to be a template for reform in the states, where most prisoners are detained, Congress must lead.

The nation’s lawmakers must stiffen their spines, ignore divisive language and schedule votes in this congressional session on reform legislation.  An opportunity like this comes once in a generation. We must not miss it.  The over-reliance on mandatory minimum sentences must come to an end.

I have emphasized dates here because I consider former AG Eric Holder (and his boss President Obama) to be among those who really should bear much responsibility if federal policy-makers miss what Holder calls a "once in a generation" opportunity for federal sentencing reform.  Tellingly, much of the incarceration data Holder stresses were well known and widely discussed when he assumed office in early 2009. (For example, in this Harvard Law & Policy Review piece from Fall 2008, I stressed the problems of modern mass incarceration and urged progressives to "mine modern movements in Constitutional and political theory to make new kinds of attacks on mass incarceration and extreme prison punishments" and to "be aggressively reaching out to modern conservatives and libertarians in order to forge new coalitions to attack the many political and social forces that contribute to mass incarceration.")  And yet, as Holder notes, he did not establish DOJ's Smart on Crime initiative until August 2013, and Prez Obama did not convene a group of lawmakers to push for reform in Congress until February 2015.

In other words, both Prez Obama and AG Holder fiddled while the federal sentencing system was still burning with tough-on-crime, mandatory-minimum "over-reliance" from 2009 to 2013 during the entire first Obama Administration Term.  And, critically, we should not lose sight of the important reality that Prez Obama's party controlled both houses of Congress until early 2011 and contolled the Senate until early 2015.  Moreover, the enduring and continued (misguided) opposition of Prez Obama and the Justice Department to mens rea reforms supported by the GOP establishment has arguably been the most critical roadblock to getting sweeping reform legislation enacted even now.

Last but not least, and as Holder reveals in this op-ed, federal prosecutors are still charging mandatory minimum drug sentencing provisions in near half of all drug cases (including in many crack cases where there is still a major, race-skewing sentencing disparity).  I suspect that when Holder says "mandatory minimum sentences should be eliminated for many offenses," he is largely referencing drug offenses in which no guns or violence were involved (where other mandatory minimums are applicable).  If Holder really believed that it would be sound and sensible to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences in such cases, he could have on his own included provisions in his Smart on Crime initiaitve to require line prosecutors to avoid charging under these statutes in all but the rarest drug cases rather than continuing to have these statutes still be applied in nearly half of all drug cases.

Sadly, I could go on and on and on about all the things former AG Holder could have and should have done while serving as U.S. Attorney General for six full years to deal with all the problems he now is quick to lament in the pages of the New York Times.  (Here it bears noting that he gets to write about these problems now from the safety of a corner office at a big DC firm where he is, according to this article, likely making more than $5,000,000/year, well over 20 times more than the hardest working federal prosecutors and federal defense attorneys make.)  Holder's closing sentiment urging federal lawmakers to "stiffen their spines" really gets my goat when his own spine struck me as so soft for his six years as Attorney General, and especially now that he gets to enjoy cashing in on the inside-the-Beltway privileges of allowing one's spine to blow back-and-forth with the prevailing political winds. 

August 14, 2016 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8)

Thursday, August 11, 2016

If you really want to fully understand what DEA has done/what is changing and not changing about federal marijuana law and policy...

2000px-US-DrugEnforcementAdministration-Seal.svgyou have to check out these two new posts and materials linked therein from Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform for all the nuanced details:

If you do not have the time or inclination to read those posts, the DEA has this press release explaining these basics:

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) announced several marijuana- related actions, including actions regarding scientific research and scheduling of marijuana, as well as principles on the cultivation of industrial hemp under the Agricultural Act of 2014....

DEA has denied two petitions to reschedule marijuana under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). In response to the petitions, DEA requested a scientific and medical evaluation and scheduling recommendation from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which was conducted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in consultation with the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Based on the legal standards in the CSA, marijuana remains a schedule I controlled substance because it does not meet the criteria for currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States, there is a lack of accepted safety for its use under medical supervision, and it has a high potential for abuse.

In his letter to the petitioners, DEA Acting Administrator Chuck Rosenberg offered a detailed response outlining the factual and legal basis for the denial of the petitions.....

DEA announced a policy change designed to foster research by expanding the number of DEA- registered marijuana manufacturers. This change should provide researchers with a more varied and robust supply of marijuana. At present, there is only one entity authorized to produce marijuana to supply researchers in the United States: the University of Mississippi, operating under a contract with NIDA.  Consistent with the CSA and U.S. treaty obligations, DEA’s new policy will allow additional entities to apply to become registered with DEA so that they may grow and distribute marijuana for FDA-authorized research purposes.

August 11, 2016 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)

"The Obama Criminal Justice Reforms That Trump Could Undo"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new Marshall Project piece by Eli Hager.  Here is how the piece sets up its "rundown of Obama’s efforts on criminal justice and how each of them could or could not be unraveled by a President Donald Trump":

Donald Trump has not said much about how he would handle matters of criminal justice if he is elected president.  Beyond a promise in his speech at last month’s Republican National Convention that “safety will be restored” in America — and a suggestion in December that he would seek the death penalty for anyone convicted of killing a police officer — the candidate has not articulated a policy agenda on issues such as the drug war, federal sentencing guidelines, community policing or clemency.

Yet Trump has made it clear what he will undo: the Obama administration’s executive actions and regulations, including those having to do with criminal justice.“You know, the great thing about executive orders is that I don’t have to go back to Congress,” he said at a campaign rally in Manassas, Va., on Dec. 2, according to the Daily Caller.

Experts on executive authority say the next president could absolutely — and immediately — rescind any and all executive orders made by President Obama during his eight years in office, including those tightening background checks, “banning the box” on federal job applications and banning the solitary confinement of juveniles in federal prisons.  “They can be overturned in one day, with the stroke of a pen,” said Susan Dudley, a professor of public policy at George Washington University and an expert on regulatory procedure.

Trump could also opt to slow-walk Obama’s policies — either by appointing cabinet officials who will not enforce them or by instructing his Justice Department to reprioritize which laws it will prosecute.  The department could also reach weakened, out-of-court settlements in the investigations that the Obama administration has launched into local police departments.

But other moves of Obama’s, from his pardons and commutations to his attempts to ease sentencing guidelines for drug offenders, will be harder to roll back.  “Trump could say he doesn’t want to pursue a certain policy anymore, but he can’t take away benefits and rights that have already gone out to people,” said Stephen Vladeck, a law professor at the University of Texas and an expert on constitutional law and the federal system.

August 11, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Eager for practitioner views (and others) on how the "Obama judiciary" may be transforming sentencing jurisprudence and practice

The request for comments, particularly from federal court practitioners, appearing in the title of this post is prompted by this recent Politico article headlined "Did Obama win the judicial wars? Liberals say he shied away from too many battles and ran into GOP roadblocks. But the result is still a transformation of U.S. courts." Here is one excerpt from the article highlighting its themes:

It’s not yet clear whether Obama’s judicial legacy will include a Justice Garland, who could swing the direction of the highest court for decades.  But even if the Garland nomination stalls, Obama has already reshaped the judiciary, not only the Supreme Court but the lower courts that hear more than 400,000 federal cases every year.  And the unprecedented move by Senate Republicans to deny Garland a hearing is just the most intense skirmish in a larger battle over Obama’s nominees, a battle that has transformed the politics of the judiciary in ways that will reverberate long after his presidency.

Ultimately, most of those battles over judges have really been about Obama, a nasty front in the larger partisan war that has raged throughout his presidency.  And as with most of the foreign and domestic policy battles of the Obama era, the result, after a lot of bellicose rhetoric and political brinksmanship, has been a lot of change.  Obama has already appointed 329 judges to lifetime jobs, more than one third of the judiciary, and they’re already moving American jurisprudence in Obama’s direction.  He got two left-leaning women onto the Court: Sonia Sotomayor, the first Hispanic justice, and Elena Kagan, his former solicitor general.  He also flipped the partisan balance of the nation’s 13 courts of appeals; when he took office, only one had a majority of Democratic appointees, and now nine do.  Just last week, two Obama appointees to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down some of North Carolina’s strict new election law, calling it a discriminatory effort to stop blacks from voting.

Obama is a political pragmatist and a public advocate of judicial restraint, so he hasn’t nominated the dream judges of the left.  But he certainly hasn’t appointed the kind of Federalist Society conservatives that George W. Bush favored, so liberal activists — who have indeed put aside their misgivings and supported Garland — have mostly approved of his impact on the justice system.  His appointees have already taken the progressive side in cases involving issues like gay marriage and transgender bathroom choices, as well as cases involving his own health reforms and carbon regulations.  And they really are diverse; 43 percent of Obama’s judges have been women, shattering the old record of 29 percent under Bill Clinton, and 36 percent have been non-white, surpassing Clinton’s record of 24 percent.  Obama has appointed 11 openly gay judges, when before him there was only one.

I have a lot of thoughts about a lot of aspects of Prez Obama's likely judicial legacy, but I am disinclined to discuss this legacy at length until we find out in the coming months if Merrick Garland becomes the next Justice. In the meantime, though, I would be eager to hear views from criminal justice practitioners who spend any time in the federal courts as to how big a different the 327 judges Obama has appointed to lower courts have impacted sentencing jurisprudence and practice. As the Politico article details, the federal judiciary looks a lot different thanks to the diversity of Prez Obama's appointment, and I am now eager to hear from informed persons whether it also feels a lot different when it comes to sentencing decision-making.

August 10, 2016 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, August 08, 2016

Broad perspectives on the narrowness of recent federal clemency and sentencing reform efforts

Two of my favorite lawprof colleagues, Erik Luna and Mark Olser, remind me why they are among my favorites through this new Cato commentary titled "Mercy in the Age of Mandatory Minimums." Here are excertps:

Recently, we stood in a backyard eating barbecue with a man named Weldon Angelos.  He was only a few weeks out of federal prison, having been freed some four decades early from a 55-year sentence for selling a small amount of marijuana while possessing firearms.  Weldon was not among the 562 inmates whose sentences were commuted by President Obama, including Wednesday’s historic grant of commutation for 214 nonviolent prisoners. Instead, Weldon’s release was made possible through a negotiated motion by the government that, alas, cannot be replicated in other cases.

For a dozen years, Weldon had been the poster boy of criminal justice reform for liberals and conservatives alike. His liberation is cause for celebration for those who believed the punishment did not fit the crime.  Nonetheless, the Angelos case remains a cautionary tale about both the inherent ruthlessness of “mandatory minimum” terms of imprisonment and the ineffectiveness of the Obama administration’s clemency initiative.

Mandatory minimum laws bar the consideration of facts upon which a sentencing judge would normally rely.  In Weldon’s case, the law compelled a 55-year sentence.  It didn’t matter that Weldon was a first-time offender with no adult record or that he was the father of three young children.  Nor did it matter that he never brandished or used the firearms and never caused or threatened any violence or injury....

Most of all, it did not matter that the sentencing judge — a conservative Bush appointee known for being tough on crime — believed that the punishment was “unjust, cruel, and irrational.”  Ultimately, the judge was bound not only by the mandatory minimum statute but also the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence, which largely acquiesces to prosecutors’ charging decisions while providing almost no check on excessive prison terms.

Absent a doctrinal reversal by the Supreme Court (don’t hold your breath), any meaningful safeguard against misapplication of mandatory minimums will have to come in the form of legislation from Congress or from the president through the application of the clemency power.  As for the former, lawmakers are considering several [reform] bills... [that] are entirely laudable, but they are also quite modest.  Indeed, the Senate bill passed in April expands some mandatory minimum provisions and adds a couple of new ones to the federal code....

The positive aspects of the reform bills should be supported all the same.  Sadly, legislative efforts appear to be mired in an intramural fight among Republicans, as well as hindered by Democratic intransigence toward another worthy reform, namely, a requirement that law enforcement prove a culpable mental state rather than holding defendants strictly liable.  Until lawmakers can agree on a means to prevent draconian sentences, clemency will remain the only remedy for such miscarriages of justice.

Unfortunately, the federal clemency system is also dysfunctional.  Weldon’s petition for clemency was filed in November 2012 — and it then sat, unresolved one way or another, for three-and-a-half years.  The support for the petition was unprecedented, spanning activists, academics and experts from every political camp imaginable.  While Weldon is not wealthy and could not afford high-priced lobbyists or attorneys, the facts of his case drove the story onto the pages of leading news outlets.  Yet nothing happened.  Even when the Obama administration launched the “Clemency Project 2014” and Weldon’s case was accepted into that program, he languished in prison as the petition slogged through the seven vertical levels of review any successful clemency case must navigate.

Clemency is meant for cases like Weldon’s, where the requirements of the law exceed the imperatives of justice.  The fact that a case like his cannot receive clemency from an administration dedicated to expanding the use of this presidential prerogative lays bare the root problem we face — too much process and bureaucracy coursing through a Department of Justice that bears a built-in conflict of interest....

It was thrilling to see Weldon free, eating off of a paper plate in the light of a Utah evening.  He is just one of many, though, and systemic reform of both mandatory minimums and the clemency process should be an imperative for this and the next administration.

August 8, 2016 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Examples of "over-punishment", Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, August 07, 2016

Two midsummer New York Times editorials lamenting federal sentencing nightmares

In Act 1 of Scene 1 of The Bard's famous summer comedy, Lysalnder notes that "The course of true love never did run smooth."  And in Act 4 of Scene 1 of his play set in a watery city, Portia explains that "The quality of mercy is not strained."  These two literary references came to mind after I saw these two New York Times editorials, which might be headlined "The course of sentencing reform has not run smooth" and "The Justice Department has strained to show quality mercy."  Here are the editorial's true headlines and key passages:

"Holding Sentencing Reform Hostage"

An opportunity to pass the most significant federal criminal justice reform in a generation may be slipping away — despite the tireless efforts of many top Republicans and Democrats in Congress, as well as a rare exhortation from President Obama during last month’s State of the Union address....

The sentencing reform legislation is not perfect, but it represents remarkable progress in what is often a harsh, oversimplified debate about crime and punishment in America.  It should not be weakened, either by narrowing its reach or by sneaking in an unrelated mens rea provision.

Throughout all of this, red and blue states around the country continue to take big, bold steps to reduce state prison populations by shortening sentences and giving inmates returning to society a real chance to succeed.  Congress should be racing to catch up. 

"Mercy Is Far Too Slow at the Justice Department"

The country needs a variety of mechanisms for reducing unreasonably long sentences.  And the Justice Department, which has considerable latitude in these matters, needs to do more within the course of its regular operations to deal with the legacy of sentencing policies that have been recognized as destructively unfair....

The Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 authorizes the bureau to ask a federal judge to reduce an inmate’s sentence when there are “extraordinary and compelling” reasons for doing so.

That provision is typically used for elderly or gravely ill inmates. But the bureau has the ability to define the term as it sees fit, which means that the program could cover people who were unfairly sentenced as well. The agency has, however, done virtually nothing on this front.  The Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General was sharply critical of the bureau in a 2013 report, noting that the agency did not “have clear standards on when compassionate release is warranted,” which led to ad hoc decisions.

The United States Sentencing Commission took up this issue in April, when it broadened compassionate-release criteria.  Under the amended policy, federal inmates may be eligible for compassionate release for reasons of age, medical condition, family circumstances or “other extraordinary and compelling reasons.”  The commission also urged the prison bureau to take cases back to court when the defendant meets the criteria laid out in the new policy.

A more broadly conceived compassionate-release mechanism would not by itself cure the problem of unfair sentencing.  But the Justice Department should be using every tool it has to mitigate unfair sentences.  A system that funnels this problem to the president’s office is not enough.

August 7, 2016 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, July 29, 2016

Is it lack of conviction, lack of courage, or just lack of cleverness that leads Dems to be so weak on criminal justice reform advocacy?

In this post on Monday, I predicted we would hear a lot more this week about criminal justice reform from leading Democrats during the DNC than we had heard last week from leading Republicans during the RNC.  I suppose that prediction was not entirely mistaken, as both Prez Obama on Wednesday and Prez candidate Clinton on Thursday each had a few lines about criminal justice reform in their speeches.  For those who missed the brief mentions of criminal justice in their two+ hours of speechification, here is what was said:

I suppose I was foolish for thinking and really hoping that Democratic leaders would have much more to say than this relative pablum about criminal justice reform circa 2016. And the deliberative decision to prioritize polite CJ reform pablum over actual CJ reform advocacy prompts the (frustration-filled) question in the title of this post.  Let me briefly unpack what I mean by this question, hoping to generate some serious and sober discussions on this front:

A lack of conviction?:  In light of Prez Bill Clinton's "tough-on-crime" legacy and Prez Obama's milquetoast efforts to reverse course, I am growing ever more convinced that leading Democrats are perhaps just not all that troubled by modern mass incarceration, the aggressive drug war, marijuana prohibition, private prisons, felon disenfranchisement, overcriminalization, inadequate defense funding, wrongful convictions, prosecutorial misconduct or a host of other persistent criminal justice problems that have nothing to do with the hot-button (dog-whistle?) topics of race or guns.

A lack of courage?:  I sincerely want to believe that leading Democrats (as well as leading Republicans and independents) really are troubled by modern mass incarceration, the aggressive drug war, marijuana prohibition, private prisons, felon disenfranchisement, overcriminalization, inadequate defense funding, wrongful convictions, prosecutorial misconduct and a host of other persistent criminal justice problems.  But if leading Dems do want to see real reform in these arenas, why do they lack the courage to encourage serious discussion of serious reforms?  Why thoughout the election season to date has (independent) Bernie Sanders been the only major candidate with the courage to keep talking forcefully about the probems of mass incarceration and to advocate for specific reforms like ending federal marijuana prohibition and the use of private prisons?

A lack of cleverness?:  I am never sure if I am comforted or further depressed when thinking that leading Dems genuinely care about criminal justice reform but ultimately lack the ability to speak about these issues in clever and politically shrwed ways to build on (now bipartisan) political interest in significant reforms.  For example, Prez Obama could have (and I think should have) added to his statement that he has been pleased to see many more "mayors and sheriffs and state's attorneys and state legislators" in red states as well as blue states committed to innovative justice programming seeking to reduce our nation's over-reliance on incarceration.  Similarly, Prez candidate Clinton could have (and I think should have) added to her statement that she would be eager to draw on the work and wisdom of both Republican and Democratic Governors and Attorneys General to identify state-level reforms that have proved most effective at rebuilding needed "trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve."


July 29, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (18)

Thursday, July 07, 2016

"Can Obama Pardon Millions of Immigrants?"

The question in the title of this post is the headline of this notable New York Times commentary authored by Peter Markowitz. Here are excerpts:

When the history of President Obama’s legacy on immigration is written, he will not go down as the president who boldly acted to protect millions of families from the brutality of our nation’s unforgiving immigration laws. The Supreme Court made sure of that last month, when it deadlocked on the legality of his program to defer the deportation of parents of American citizens and residents. Instead, he will be judged on what he actually did: deport more immigrants than any other president in American history, earning him the moniker “deporter in chief.”

However, President Obama can still act to bring humanity and justice to an immigration system notoriously lacking in both. He can do so by using the power the Constitution grants him — and only him — to pardon individuals for “offenses against the United States.”

The debate over the deportation deferral program has been framed as a question of the division of powers. Both sides agree that Congress is the only entity that gets to define offenses against the United States.... There is one area, however, where the president’s unilateral ability to forgo punishment is uncontested and supported by over a hundred years of Supreme Court precedent: the pardon power. It has been consistently interpreted to include the power to grant broad amnesties from prosecution to large groups when the president deems it in the public interest....

It’s a common assumption that pardons can be used only for criminal offenses, and it’s true that they have not been used before for civil immigration violations. However, the Constitution extends the power to all “offenses against the United States,” which can be interpreted more broadly than just criminal offenses.

A pardon could not achieve everything the deferred deportation program aspired to — notably, it could not deliver work permits. However, it has a certain operational elegance to it that would avoid many of the political battles surrounding the deferral program....

President Obama has plenty of time left to issue such a pardon. There is solid historical and legal precedent for him to do so. And although it would probably bring about legal challenges, opponents could not use the legal system to simply run out the clock, as they have with his deferred deportation program. A deferred deportation program could be undone by a President Trump. Unconditional pardons, in contrast, are irrevocable.

Finally, some would surely argue that a pardon protecting a large category of immigrants from deportation would, just like the deportation deferral program, effectively amount to a repeal of laws enacted by Congress. However, pardons do nothing to alter the law. They protect certain past offenders from punishment and prosecution, but leave the law unchanged as applied to any future violators.

President Obama has deported around 2.5 million people. That is about the same number as were deported in the entire 20th century. His apparent strategy was to demonstrate his bona fides on enforcement in order to persuade recalcitrant Republicans to work with him on immigration reform. It didn’t work. It turns out that you don’t convince people to be more humane on immigration by deporting immigrants hand over fist. We are left with a brutal legacy of millions of families torn apart, many simply for doing what they needed to do to protect and feed their children. President Obama will not be judged on his intentions or his attempts on immigration, but rather on his real impact. This is his last chance to establish a legacy of pragmatic compassion.

July 7, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Saturday, July 02, 2016

Can and will big data help reduce mass incarceration?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this intriging Wired piece headlined "The White House Is on a Mission to Shrink US Prisons With Data." Here are excerpts:

The Obama administration believes better data within the criminal justice system could [help address mass incarceration. Last week,] the White House announced its new Data-Driven Justice Initiative, through which 67 cities and states will work with each other, as well as with leading tech companies like Amazon and Palantir, to find new ways to use data to shrink the size of their local prison populations.

“What we’ve seen as we’ve engaged with state and local leaders across the country is that there are people who simply do not need to be in our jails,” Valerie Jarrett, senior advisor to the President, said on a call with journalists today.  Taking a closer look at the data, she said, can help identify who those people are.  In some cities, that’s already starting to happen. The White House pointed to one example in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, which began diving into its own data back in 2014 to find low-risk people in jail who could be released early.  That intervention led to a 40 percent reduction in the county jail population.  “That’s 40 percent, and they have had no increase in reported crime,” Jarrett said. “Pretty amazing.”

Of course, data mining is not the forte of most local law enforcement, which is why the White House is also asking for the tech industry’s help.  As part of the announcement, Amazon is convening a consortium on data interventions in criminal justice that will be attended by companies like Palantir and organizations like Code for America.  The goal of the summit, according to Lynn Overmann, senior policy advisor to the U.S. Chief Technology Officer, is to convene the country’s top data scientists, technologists, and developers together with local governments to figure out “the solutions most likely to work as broadly as possible.”

Some tech companies are donating their existing tools to the member cities and states. For instance, RapidSOS, a company that allows people to submit their exact location data to emergency personnel, is offering its product to five cities for free for the next 10 years. Several research institutions like New York University and the University of Chicago are also partnering with cities and states to research their data strategies.

In a time when Republicans and Democrats can’t seem to agree on anything, prison reform has become an unlikely unifier.  Recently, House speaker Paul Ryan has become an outspoken advocate for sentencing reform. That type of across-the-aisle support could help these data efforts spread more quickly.  Already, among the seven states that signed on to the Data-Driven Justice Initiative, three have Republican governors.  As part of the commitment, they promise to merge criminal justice and health system data to identify people who are most at risk, create new protocols for first responders dealing with mental health issues, and inform pre-trial release decisions.

Of course, using technology to decide whether someone stays behind bars or not is sure to be fraught with controversy as these programs roll out all over the country.  After all, if people are concerned about algorithms deciding the news they see, what happens when algorithms decide a person’s freedom?

July 2, 2016 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Data on sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, July 01, 2016

With SRCA now "officially" dead ... send your "thanks" to (failings of) Prez Obama and bipartisan bungling

This Real Clear Politics article, headlined "Hopes Fade for Criminal Justice Reform This Year," serves essentially as an obituary for the effort to get significant statutory federal sentencing reform done before the end of the Obama Administration. Unsuprisingly, Bill Otis is dancing on the grave of these efforts via this post at Crime & Consequences titled simple "Victory." And Scott Shackford at has this helpful post mortem titled "Federal Criminal Justice Reform May Fail, and Everybody’s Blaming Everybody Else," highlighting all the finger-pointing now taking place:

The Sentencing and Reform Act modestly updates federal mandatory minimum sentences to make them less brutal in non-violent drug cases and allows federal judges to invoke "safety valve" exceptions to sentence less than the mandatory minimum in certain cases. Probably the most important component of the law is that it would make the Fair Sentencing Act, which lowered the mandatory minimums for crack cocaine-related crimes to those of powder cocaine, retroactive. According to Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) this could help somewhere around 5,800 people currently serving sentences in federal prison. You can read FAMM's analysis of what's good and bad about the current incarnation of the Sentencing and Reform Act here.

 So thousands of prisoners could be stuck serving outdated sentences for cocaine crimes that no longer even apply if this law is not passed. In response to frustration that the bill isn't going anywhere there's a chain of blaming that weaves throughout RealClearPoltics' report:

  • Grassley merely says he's "disappointed" because he worked hard to get more Republicans on board supporting the law.

  • Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who wrote the bill, blames Republicans, particularly Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) for offering him "little to no hope" that the legislation would move forward. (He is undoubtedly also referring to conservatives like Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton.)

  • Sen. John Corbyn (R-Texas) blames the House of Representatives for not moving more quickly, which he said would have created "momentum" in the Senate for passing the law.

  • Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) says the refusal to add reform to mens rea is holding back the legislation. "Mens rea" is the legal concept that convicting a person of a crime should require proving that they had criminal intent to do so. Not all federal laws have this mens rea requirement, and some Republicans want to add it. This has angered some Democrats and the Department of Justice because they believe it would make it harder to convict people (or more accurately, to force settlements) in white-collar criminal cases or cases of corporate misconduct.

  • Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) blames the Koch brothers for helping push the mens rea reform, calling it a "fatal poison pill." Cornyn, however, pointed out that the current Senate bill does not even contain this reform. There are concerns that it will be attached later on.

As the title of this post is meant to suggest, I think the main individual who should be blamed here is President Barack Obama, although lots of other blame can and should be spread around to all the folks who failed to fully appreciate that a series of small "smart on crime" bills would have been far superior and far more likely to become law than the mega-reform bill that was too complicated with too many controversial parts to make passage ever likely.

I will now likely use the long weekend (which I am about to start by going off-line for a while) to reflect on the current federal sentencing reform "big picture" circa mid-2016. I also think this news provides an approrpriate opportunity to begin a series of commentary posts about criminal justice reform during the Obama era, which I will be calling "Missed Opportunities: The Failure of Prez Obama to bring real Hope and Change to Federal Sentencing." Stay tuned.

July 1, 2016 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Campaign 2008 and sentencing issues, Campaign 2012 and sentencing issues , Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11)

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Open letter from large group of reform advocates urges Prez Obama to "accelerate the process" for granting clemency

As reported in this new USA Today piece, headlined "Experts warn White House that time is running out for clemency initiative," an impressive group signed on to this open letter to Prez Obama discussing his clemency activities.  Here are excerpts from the USA Today reporting providing some pf the leteer's context and content:

Thousands of federal inmates could be eligible to have their sentences reduced under the Obama administration's initiative to free non-violent offenders from prison, but experts are warning the White House that time is running out for the president to take action.

A record-setting number of clemency petitions, lack of resources and a confusion over eligibility have hampered President Obama's plan to use his constitutional pardon power to shorten sentences, particularly for low-level drug offenders serving mandatory minimum sentences.  If those inmates are going to have any hope, President Obama needs to personally intervene in the process, a group of advocates, law professors and attorneys said in a letter to the president Tuesday.

"The initiative has been plagued by bureaucratic inefficiencies that have kept petitions that meet all of your stated criteria from reaching your desk," the letter said.  "We are concerned that as your days in office diminish, the clemency initiative is moving too slowly to meet the goals you set when you announced it in 2014."

The letter was signed by 41 people, led by Julie Stewart of Families Against Mandatory Minimums and including and law professors from Harvard, Yale, Georgetown, Berkeley, Columbia, Northwestern, New York University and others. Also notable: former White House special adviser Van Jones and former U.S. District Judge Nancy Gertner.

In response, the White House said Obama "has demonstrated a commitment to the commutations process not seen by any other president in the modern era."  He's issued more commutations than the past seven presidents combined, written personal letters to clemency recipients and met with recipients to urge society to give them second chances.

"As we have said, the president will continue to issue additional commutations throughout the remainder of his time in office," said Assistant White House Press Secretary Brandi Hoffine.  "The clemency process alone, however, will not address the vast injustices in the criminal justice system resulting from years of unduly harsh and outdated sentencing policies."

Obama has stepped up the pace of commutations in his last year in office, no longer waiting until the end of the year to announce clemency decisions. Obama granted 61 commutations in March, 58 in May and 42 this month — part of what White House Counsel Neil Eggleston said was a deliberate attempt to grant clemency on a more regular basis. In all, Obama has commuted the sentences of 348 people, more than any president since Franklin Roosevelt.  (He's also granted just 70 pardons, fewer than any full-term president since 1800.)

But according to the Office of Pardon Attorney, 11,861 commutation petitions were still pending as of June 6, fueled largely by the Judtice Department's call for more applications from volunteer defense attorneys in 2014. And this isn't the first time there have been warnings of a backlog in the process.  A year ago, former Pardon Attorney Deborah Leff told defense lawyers that "the clock is running," and that petitions weren't coming in quickly enough.  There were questions about the eligibility criteria, and many cases required a complete re-examination of court and prison records.  Then in January, Leff resigned, citing a lack of resources and interference from Deputy Attorney General Sally Quillian Yates that prevented her recommendations from reaching the president's desk.

I had the honor of being asked to sign on to this open letter, and I agree with nearly all of its sentiments.  But, as I stressed in this post a few months ago, I have been clamoring for clemency reform since Prez Obama's first day on the job, and I remain deeply disappointed and troubled that there seems to have been no serious interest or commitment to any kind of structural/institutional reform in this space.  As a result, I did not feel I could comfortable sign this letter because it includes a sentence stating that, in th clemency arena, the signers "believe [Prez Obama's] leadership will bring lasting change to the country and set the table for further reforms in future administrations."

I certainly do not want to unduly criticize Prez Obama's (still very important) efforts in this arena, and I am especially pleased to see this open letter getting press attention.  But, unless Prez Obama does something more than just grant a few hundred more commutations (which is what I am expecting to see in the coming months), I am still going to view his Presidency in terms of a unique missed opportunity to create a criminal justice reform legacy in this historically and constitutionally important arena.

June 21, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, June 03, 2016

"Conservatives should celebrate Obama’s commutations"

Institute_for_Policy_Innovation_1313374The title of this post is the headline of this new Dallas Morning News commatary.  The piece is authored by Tom Giovanetti, president of the Institute for Policy Innovation, a group that explains its focus to be "on approaches to governing that harness the strengths of individual liberty, limited government, and free markets." Here are excerpts:

The White House recently announced that 58 federal inmates, mostly non-violent drug offenders, would have their sentences shortened through commutation.  This brings the total number of commutations during the Barack Obama years to 306, more than any recent administration.  And word out of the White House is that there will be more to come during President Obama’s final months in office.

Many conservatives will be initially inclined to see Obama’s commutations as the act of a liberal who is soft on crime.  But conservatives should celebrate President Obama’s commutations. In fact, as people who prize liberty and individual rights, and who are skeptical about government power, conservatives need to do a rethink on criminal justice.

It’s becoming clear that something has gone very wrong with the justice system in the United States.  Today, the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world.  Too many crimes have been federalized, as opposed to being handled more locally by state and local courts.  Excessive punishments are being meted out for non-violent crimes because of mandatory sentencing requirements.  And it’s dawning on people that the justice system is plagued by the same careerism and corruption that characterize other branches of government....

Taking reasonable discretion away from judges was a mistake, and it caused a shift in power from judges to prosecutors, who can select and “stack” charges involving mandatory minimums.  While judges are appointed or elected to consider both sides of a case, prosecutors are hired to convict.  It should trouble conservatives that the government side of the equation has been awarded such disproportionate power, which has clearly led to abuses.

Consider the case of Weldon Angelos, who at age 24 was arrested in Utah for selling marijuana and possessing a firearm.  Because of stacked charges with mandatory minimums, Federal Judge Paul Cassell had no choice but to sentence him to 55 years in prison.  Judge Cassell has ever since been pleading for a commutation to Angelos’ sentence, pointing out that far worse crimes, such as hijacking, rape, and second-degree murder, have lighter sentences.  But the judge, who clerked for Antonin Scalia, was appointed by President George W. Bush, and who favors the death penalty, was powerless in the face of a prosecutor armed with federal mandatory minimum sentences.

Yes, our justice system should be about public safety first. But all too often it is about careerism, government revenue and corruption.  Stephanos Bibas, professor of law and criminology at the University of Pennsylvania, reminds us that “the criminal justice system and prisons are big-government institutions.  They are often manipulated by special interests such as prison guard’s unions, and they consume huge shares of most states’ budgets.”

Social conservatives should understand the need for criminal justice reform, since we believe that every human life has inherent dignity and value, and we believe in the possibility of redemption.  Non-violent offenders can be punished and make restitution while keeping families intact and offenders productive.  Economic conservatives should recognize that non-violent offenders are better deployed working in the private sector than incarcerated in expensive government facilities.  And libertarians — well, libertarians already get it.

There are many pieces to the justice reform movement, including giving judges more sentencing leeway, eliminating civil asset forfeiture, and prioritizing drug treatment and in-home monitoring of incarceration.  But commuting sentences for non-violent offenders that are far in excess of the crime is a great place to start.

June 3, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, May 05, 2016

Prez Obama commutes 58 more federal drug sentences

As detailed via this terse White House press release, "On May 5, 2016, President Barack Obama granted commutation of sentence to 58 individuals." The release lists the 58 new recepients of executive clemency, and a quick scan reveals that all appear to be drug defendants and most involving cocaine and/or crack.

This press release from NACDL adds these notable particulars: "In his second set of clemency grants in under six weeks, President Barack Obama commuted the sentences of 58 prisoners today, 28 of whom were applicants whose petitions were supported by Clemency Project 2014."

UPDATE:  I just saw that Prez Obama now has this new Medium entry headlined "A Nation of Second Chances." Here are excerpts:

Earlier this spring, I met with a group of individuals whose sentences were commuted either by President Bush, President Clinton, or myself. They were all at different stages of a new chapter in their lives, but each of their stories was extraordinary.

Take Phillip Emmert. When he was 27, Phillip made a mistake. He was arrested and convicted for distributing methamphetamines and received a 27-year sentence. So, by the time he was released, he’d have spent half his life behind bars. Unfortunately, while in prison, his wife was paralyzed in an accident. So while he was in prison, Phil learned everything he could about fixing heating and air conditioning systems — so he could support his wife when he got out. And after his sentence was commuted by President Bush, he was able to do just that. Today, he’s gainfully employed. He’s a caregiver for his wife, an active father, and a leader in his community.

Like so many nonviolent offenders serving unduly harsh sentences, Phillip is not a hardened criminal. He’s taken responsibility for his mistakes. And he’s worked hard to earn a second chance.

Today, I commuted the sentences of an additional 58 individuals just as deserving as Phillip — individuals who can look to him as inspiration for what is possible in their lives.

As President, I’ve been working to bring about a more effective approach to our criminal justice system, particularly when it comes to drug crimes. Part of that effort has been to reinvigorate our commutations process, and highlight the individuals like Philip who are doing extraordinary things with their second chances. To date, I will have commuted 306 individual sentences, which is more than the previous six presidents combined....

As a country, we have to make sure that those who take responsibility for their mistakes are able to transition back to their communities. It’s the right thing to do. It’s the smart thing to do. And it’s something I will keep working to do as long as I hold this office.

May 5, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (23)

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

"Roadmap to Reentry: Reducing Recidivism Through Reentry Reforms at the Federal Bureau of Prisons"

Roadmap_to_reentry_slide-2The title of this post is the title of this new programming publication from the US Department of Justice.  Here is part of its "Overview":

Each year, more than 600,000 citizens return to neighborhoods across America after serving time in federal and state prisons.  Another 11.4 million individuals cycle through local jails.  And nearly one in three Americans of working age have had an encounter with the criminal justice system — mostly for relatively minor, non-violent offenses, and sometimes from decades in the past.  Federal prisoners are held at the Bureau of Prisons (BOP), a law enforcement agency of the U.S. Department of Justice and the country’s largest and most complex prison system — housing nearly 200,000 prisoners in 122 federally-operated correctional institutions, 13 privately-operated secure correctional facilities, and a network of more than 175 community-based centers around the country....

The long-term impact of a criminal record prevents many people from obtaining employment, housing, higher education, and credit — and these barriers affect returning individuals even if they have turned their lives around and are unlikely to reoffend.  These often-crippling barriers can contribute to a cycle of incarceration that makes it difficult for even the most wellintentioned individuals to stay on the right path and stay out of the criminal justice system.  This cycle of criminality increases victimization, squanders our precious public safety resources, and wastes the potential of people who could be supporting their families, contributing to the economy, and helping to move our country forward.

Under the Obama Administration, the Department of Justice has already taken major steps to make our criminal justice system more fair, more efficient, and more effective at reducing recidivism and helping formerly incarcerated individuals return to their communities.  In 2011, the Department established the Federal Interagency Reentry Council, a unique Cabinet-level effort to remove barriers to successful reentry.  The Reentry Council, which now includes more than 20 federal departments and agencies, has developed significant policies and initiatives that aim not only to reduce recidivism, but also to improve public health, child welfare, employment, education, housing, and other key reintegration outcomes.

To ensure that all justice-involved individuals are able to fulfill their potential when they come home, Attorney General Lynch has launched a major effort to support and strengthen reentry programs and resources at BOP. These principles of reform — known as the Roadmap to Reentry — will be implemented throughout BOP, deepening and further institutionalizing the Department’s commitment to reentry.  These efforts will help those who have paid their debt to society prepare for substantive opportunities beyond the prison gates; promoting family unity, contributing to the health of our economy, and sustaining the strength of our nation.

The Department has also established full-time positions to promote reentry work at BOP, the Executive Office for United States Attorneys, and the Office of Justice Programs; this includes hiring the first-ever Second Chance Fellow — a formerly incarcerated individual with deep expertise in the reentry field — to assist in development of reentry policy initiatives. BOP established a new Reentry Services Division to better equip inmates with the tools needed for success outside the prison walls, including expanded mental health and substance abuse treatment programs and improved work and educational opportunities.  Through the community of U.S. Attorneys, the Department participates in reentry and diversion courts in more than 50 judicial districts nationwide. And the Department supports state, local, and tribal reentry efforts by providing resources under the Second Chance Act of 2007: the Department’s Office of Justice Programs has made nearly 750 Second Chance Act grants totaling more than $400 million, and established a National Reentry Resource Center that serves as a one-stop resource for returning citizens, advocates, and stakeholders.

April 26, 2016 in Collateral consequences, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, April 22, 2016

"Department of Justice to Launch Inaugural National Reentry Week"

The title of this post is the title of this official US Department of Justice press release.  Here are excerpts from the release and details on a few of the planned events of the week that I am especially interested in:

As part of the Obama Administration’s commitment to strengthening the criminal justice system, the Department of Justice designated the week of April 24-30, 2016, as National Reentry Week. Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro will travel to Philadelphia on MONDAY, APRIL 25, 2016, to hold events as part of National Reentry Week with public housing advocates, legal services providers and community leaders where they will announce new efforts to improve outcomes for justice-involved individuals including youth.

Later in the week, the Attorney General will visit a Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) facility in Talladega, Alabama, to highlight reentry programs in prison. Similarly, Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates will visit a federal women’s prison in Texas and will later hold a media availability at Santa Maria Hostel, a specialized residential substance abuse, mental health and trauma facility. Acting Director Thomas Kane of the Bureau of Prisons will accompany both Attorney General Lynch and Deputy Attorney General Yates on their visits....

The Obama Administration has taken major steps to make our criminal justice system fairer, more efficient and more effective at reducing recidivism and helping formerly incarcerated individuals contribute to their communities. Removing barriers to successful reentry helps formerly incarcerated individuals compete for jobs, attain stable housing, and support their families. An important part of that commitment is preparing those who have paid their debt to society for substantive opportunities beyond the prison gates, and addressing collateral consequences to successful reentry that too many returning citizens encounter.

Leadership from across the Administration are traveling during National Reentry Week in support of these many events and are encouraging federal partners and grantees to work closely with stakeholders like federal defenders, legal aid providers and other partners across the country to increase the impact of this effort. National Reentry Week events are being planned in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. U.S. Attorney’s Offices alone are hosting over 200 events and BOP facilities are holding over 370 events....

• On Monday, April 25, 2016, the White House will hold an event with the Brennan Center on the costs of incarceration.

• On Monday, April 25, 2016, Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates will deliver remarks before a screening of “Pull of Gravity” a documentary that follows returning inmates as they encounter reentry obstacles, hosted by the Justice Department as part of National Reentry Week. Assistant Attorney General Leslie R. Caldwell of the Criminal Division will also participate....

• On Wednesday, April 27, 2016, the White House will host the Fair Chance Opportunities Champions of Change event in South Court Auditorium. Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch will deliver remarks and Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates will moderate a panel at the event....

• On Thursday, April 28, 2016, the head of the Civil Rights Division, Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta of the Civil Rights Division will deliver remarks at a reentry event at Mickey Leland Transitional Housing Facility, sponsored by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia....

April 22, 2016 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thursday, April 07, 2016

Disconcerting report on the (declining?) state of federal statutory sentencing reform efforts in Congress

This new New York Times report on the status and fate of federal statutory sentencing reform has me getting ever closer to asserting that the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act will not get to President Obama's desk before election day.  The piece is headlined "Garland Fight Overshadows Effort to Overhaul Sentencing Laws On Washington," and here are excerpts:

A bipartisan overhaul of criminal justice laws was supposed to be a defining issue of this Congress, a rare unifying moment for Republicans, Democrats and President Obama. Instead, the members of the Judiciary Committee who wrote the criminal justice package are at war over whether to consider Mr. Obama’s nominee to the Supreme Court, Judge Merrick B. Garland.

This feud over the nomination has overshadowed the effort to reduce mandatory minimum sentences and ease the transition from prison. Now supporters of an overhaul are worried about its fate, especially with the Senate about to turn to a series of time­consuming spending bills and the electionyear calendar approaching a point where little gets done that is not absolutely necessary.

“If this is going to happen along with 12 appropriations bills, we are going to have to elbow our way into the queue,” said Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, one of the chief Democratic authors of the bill. “The ball is now on the Republican side of the net.”

Before the death of Antonin Scalia in February created a Supreme Court vacancy, the criminal justice measure had already run into trouble from skeptical Senate Republicans, notably Tom Cotton of Arkansas. He contended that the proposed sentencing changes would result in the premature release of violent felons. And there were whispers about Willie Horton, the furloughed inmate who committed a rape while on release from a state prison in Massachusetts, a case that Republicans used in 1988 to portray Michael S. Dukakis, then the state’s governor and the Democratic nominee for president, as soft on crime.

The internal turbulence led Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, to urge Republican authors of the measure to consider changes to win over some doubters and ease party divisions. They have retooled the legislation, decreasing the chances of felons who carried guns in their crimes qualifying for lighter sentences, among other expected revisions. The changes have won the backing of at least one Republican senator, Thad Cochran of Mississippi, whose aides say will support the reworked bill.

One of its top Republican supporters says they are making progress. “We continue to do work on criminal justice reform, to try to meet some of the concerns that have been previously stated and to shore up support and show additional support both inside and outside the Capitol for those important reforms,” Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Senate Republican, said Tuesday.

One problem backers of the bill have run into is that senators are questioning the political risk of supporting it when the measure might not go anywhere before the November elections. At the same time, some on the left contend that the measure has been too watered down.

Hoping to restore momentum, leaders of the U.S. Justice Action Network, a coalition of conservative and liberal groups behind the legislative effort, plan to bring leading advocates from around the country to Washington next week. They will meet with undecided senators and House members to make the case for the measure. The group has also scheduled a briefing for Senate staff members on Friday with former senior law enforcement officials to try to build support and ease doubts among Senate Republicans....Other backers of the measure, including some in the Senate, are expected to step up their push for the legislation next week as well, and new endorsements could be coming.

In the House, Speaker Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin recently reaffirmed his support for a criminal justice overhaul, calling himself a late convert to the cause and promising to move forward with legislation. “We’re going to bring criminal justice reform bills, which are now out of the Judiciary Committee, to the House floor and advance this,” he said in a recent question-­and-­answer session....

Some see a potential upside in the Supreme Court fight. Mr. McConnell could be more motivated to bring the criminal justice measure to the Senate floor to show that Republicans, who are under withering criticism from Democrats on a daily basis over the Garland nomination, can work in a bipartisan way and produce some accomplishments.

“Senator McConnell has one of the bigger incentives to work on this particular bill because it is one of the few, if not the only, things that the left and right agree on,” said Inimai M. Chettiar, director of the justice program at the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan policy institute affiliated with the New York University School of Law.

What happens in the next few weeks will determine if the criminal justice effort has a chance this year.  Failure to find consensus would represent a major defeat not just for President Obama and congressional backers of the legislation, but also for the unusual coalition of disparate political forces that united behind it as an overdue course correction from the tough­-on-­crime approach of the 1990s.

I am starting now to worry that more than a few folks on the left may be disinclined to encourage Democratic Senators like Dick Durban to elbow the SRCA into the queue based on the hope that a big Democratic victory in November would enable a push for a more robust and far-reaching reform bill.  Moreover, as every day passes, it seem to me increasingly easy given various 2016 election timelines for any and every fence-sitting Senator to urge leadership to postpone a vote on federal sentencing reform at least until the 2016 lame duck sesssion or in the next Congress.

A few 2016 related posts:


UPDATE: I just came across this recent Roll Call piece striking similar themes and headlines "White House Eager to Rekindle Criminal Justice Effort: Cornyn 'optimistic' but GOP fissures, floor time posing problems."

April 7, 2016 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Prez Obama commutes the sentence of 61 more federal drug offenders

As reported in this Washington Post piece, "President Obama commuted the sentences of 61 inmates Wednesday, part of his ongoing effort to give relief to prisoners who were harshly sentenced in the nation’s war on drugs." Here is more on this notable clemency news:

More than one-third of the inmates were serving life sentences. Obama has granted clemency to 248 federal inmates, including Wednesday's commutations.  White House officials said that Obama will continue granting clemency to inmates who meet certain criteria set out by the Justice Department throughout his last year....  Since the Obama administration launched a high-profile clemency initiative, thousands more inmates have applied.  Another 9,115 clemency petitions from prisoners are still pending....

But sentencing reform advocates said that many more prisoners are disappointed they have not yet heard from the president about their petitions. “Sixty-one grants, with over 10,000 petitions pending, is not an accomplishment to brag about,” said Mark Osler, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota and an advocate for inmates petitioning for clemency.  “I know some of those still waiting, men who were grievously over-sentenced, who have reformed themselves, and never had a record of violence.  My heart breaks for them, as their hope for freedom — a hope created by the members of this administration — slips away.”

The White House has argued that broader criminal justice reform is needed beyond the clemency program. “Despite the progress we have made, it is important to remember that clemency is nearly always a tool of last resort that can help specific individuals, but does nothing to make our criminal justice system on the whole more fair and just,” said White House counsel W. Neil Eggleston. “Clemency of individual cases alone cannot fix decades of overly punitive sentencing policies.  So, while we continue to work to resolve as many clemency applications as possible — and make no mistake, we are working hard at this — only broader criminal justice reform can truly bring justice to the many thousands of people behind bars serving unduly harsh and outdated sentences.”

Among those granted clemency on Wednesday was Byron Lamont McDade, who had an unusual advocate in his corner.  The judge who sent McDade to prison for more than two decades for his role in a Washington-area cocaine conspiracy personally pleaded McDade’s case for early release. U.S. District Judge Paul L. Friedman said McDade’s 27-year punishment was “disproportionate” to his crime, but that he had no choice but to impose the harsh prison term in 2002 because of then-mandatory sentencing guidelines. Over the years, the judge had urged the Bureau of Prisons and the White House to reduce McDade’s sentence to 15 years.  He received no response until now....

On Thursday, the White House will hold an event called Life after Clemency that will include former inmates and their attorneys, along with some prison reform advocates. The president’s senior adviser, Valerie Jarrett, is meeting with advocates, former inmates and family members of prisoners Wednesday at the White House for an event about women and the criminal justice system.

This White House Press release provides basic details on the full list of 61 offenders who today learned that they now have a "prison sentence commuted to expire on July 28, 2016." Many of those listed appear to have been involved in a crack offense, though other drug cases sentenced both before and after Booker can be found in the group.  Notably, this NACDL press release reports that "25 of [these 61 offenders] were applicants whose petitions were supported by Clemency Project 2014."  This White House blog post authored by White House counsel W. Neil Eggleston provides more details and context concerning these grants:

Today, the President announced 61 new grants of commutation to individuals serving years in prison under outdated and unduly harsh sentencing laws.  More than one-third of them were serving life sentences.  To date, the President has now commuted the sentences of 248 individuals more than the previous six Presidents combined. And, in total, he has commuted 92 life sentences.

Underscoring his commitment not just to clemency, but to helping those who earn their freedom make the most of their second chance, the President will meet today with commutation recipients from both his Administration and the previous administrations of Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton.  During the meeting, the commutation recipients will discuss their firsthand experiences with the reentry process and ways that the process can be strengthened to give every individual the resources he or she needs to transition from prison and lead a fulfilling, productive life. 
Building on this conversation, tomorrow the White House will host a briefing titled Life After Clemency with advocates, academics, and Administration officials to discuss and share ideas on the President’s clemency initiative and ways to improve paths to reentry. In addition to officials from the White House and the Department of Justice, experts, academics, and commutation recipients will share their expertise and insights on returning to society after years behind bars.  To watch the briefing live, tune in tomorrow, Thursday, March 31, at 2:00 PM EDT at

March 30, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

After a month, Prez Obama makes ("consensus"?) pick of DC Circuit Chief Judge Merrick Garland for SCOTUS opening

Still0316_00037_1458141169766_1031097_ver1.0Color me deeply disappointed by this big SCOTUS news.  A president who campaigned on a promise of hope and change and who indisputably was elected to the Oval Office twice thanks to the strong support of minority and younger Americans has now decided to nominate to the Supreme Court to replace Justice Antonin Scalia, an old white guy who graduated from Harvard Law School and worked for the Justice Department before serving on the DC Circuit, none other than Chief DC Circuit Judge Merrick Garland, another old white guy who graduated from Harvard Law School and worked for the Justice Department before serving on the DC Circuit. 

In this prior post, I (apparently foolishly) suggested that Prez Obama might be leaning to appointing a former federal defense lawyer to the Supreme Court given his comments about looking for a nominee with "a keen understanding that justice is not about abstract legal theory, nor some footnote in a dusty casebook [but who has] life experience earned outside the classroom and the courtroom."   But Chief Judge Garland, like far too many of the current Justices in my view, is a career "inside-the-Beltway" lawyer having served in the Justice Department during the Clinton Administration and having spent the last two decades serving on the most insulated and isolated of all the US Circuit Courts.  Notably, at a time when American voters on both sides of the aisle have shown an interest in changing "politics as usual" in Washington DC, the President has decided to nominate the most "old-school" SCOTUS candidate I could imagine.

Readers will not be surprised to hear that what really has me irked about this SCOTUS choice is that it provides yet more proof that President Barack Obama is never actually willing to "walk the walk" on criminal justice reform when he has a real opportunity to use his power and platform to engineer real change.  Appointing someone with a public defender background would be a powerful statement that lawyers who defend those accused of crimes have a critically important perspective on the operation and application of the rule of law.  Instead, Prez Obama has nominated a former Criminal Division DOJ lawyer who supervised the Oklahoma City bombing case and the case against the Unabomber.  Tellingly, in his announcement this morning, Prez Obama stressed Chief Judge Garland's "sterling record as a prosecutor" and expressed admiration for his prosecutorial efforts to avoid the possibility that the  Oklahoma City bomber "might go free on a technicality."

On the criminal justice front, here is part of what SCOTUSblog had to say about Judge Garland back in 2010 when he was on a prior short-list concerning a replacement for Justice Stevens:

On a number of issues, particularly those related to criminal law, Judge Garland is the least likely to adopt a liberal position....

The most significant area of the law in which Judge Garland's views obviously differ materially from those of Justice Stevens is criminal law. Judge Garland rarely votes in favor of criminal defendants' appeals of their convictions....

Most striking, in ten criminal cases, Judge Garland has disagreed with his more-liberal colleagues; in each, he adopted the position that was more favorable to the government or declined to reach a question on which the majority of the court had adopted a position favorable to a defendant. Because disagreement among panel members on the D.C. Circuit is relatively rare, this substantial body of cases is noteworthy.

In the end, and perhaps ironically, I suspect that Prez Obama has made this selection because he does not believe the Senate will move forward with any nominee, and because Chief Judge Garland at age 63 may be uniquely willing now to be the focal point of the already on-going battle royale over the current empty SCOTUS seat.  Also, Prez Obama is sure to have fun making much of the fact in 2010 Senator Orrin Hatch had urged Prez Obama to nominate Judge Garland as "a consensus nominee" who would "be very well supported by all sides."  (Of course, left out of this analysis is that critical Senators Mitch McConnell and Charles Grassley voted against confirmation of Judge Garland back in the 1990s and that Judge Garland's record on gun control seems very likely to be a focal point of criticism from many GOP officials and advocacy groups.)  

Maybe it was true in 2010 that Chief Judge Garland would be "very well supported by all sides," but I seriosuly doubt this will prove true in 2016.   Moreover, in light of both Chief Judge Garland's judicial record and the unique opportunity and open SCOTUS seat presents to diversify perspectives and backgrounds on this Court, I am now thinking I will be rooting for the Senate to refuse to move forward with his nomination. 

Prior related posts on new SCOTUS nominee possibilities:

March 16, 2016 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (31)

Monday, February 22, 2016

Highlighting that, despite lots of talk and a little action, Prez Obama remains a clemency grinch

Over at his blog Pardon Power, political scientist PS Ruckman does a terrific job tracking and placing in historical context the latest date concerning the use of presidential clemency powers.  And these three recent posts highlight effectively that, despite lots of talk from the Obama Administration about a big clemency initiative, the current President the most notable story to date concerning Obama's clemency record is how stingy it is:

As long-time readers know, I have been urging Prez Obama to live up to his hope and change rhetoric in this arena since the day he was inaugurated seven year ago, as highlighted by these two posts from January 20, 2009: Inaugural rhetoric about freedom and liberty in prison nation and Is it too early to start demanding President Obama use his clemency power?.  (The extensive comments to the second of these posts are especially interesting to review with the benefit of seven years of political hindsight.)  In addition, way back in 2010, I authored this law review article titled "Turning Hope-and-Change Talk Into Clemency Action for Nonviolent Drug Offenders," which closed with this recommendation:

President Obama ought to seriously consider creating some form of a "Clemency Commission" headed by a "clemency czar."...  Though a "Clemency Commission" headed by a "clemency czar" could be created and developed in any number of ways, my vision and goals here are meant to be fairly basic.  The idea is for President Obama to create a special expert body, headed by a special designated official, who is primarily tasked with helping federal officials (and perhaps also state officials) improve the functioning, transparency, and public respect for executive clemency.  Though the structure, staffing, and mandates of a Clemency Commission could take many forms, ideally it would include personnel with expertise about the nature of and reasons for occasional miscarriages of justice in the operation of modem criminal justice systems — persons who possess a deep understanding that, in the words of James Iredell, "an inflexible adherence to [severe criminal laws], in every instance, might frequently be the cause of very great injustice.

The Clemency Commission could and should study the modem causes of wrongful conviction, "excessive" sentences, and overzealous prosecutions, and then make formal and public recommendations to the President and other branches about specific cases that might merit clemency relief or systemic reforms that could reduce the risk of miscarriages of justice.  In addition, the Commission could be a clearinghouse for historical and current data on the operation of executive clemency powers in state and federal systems.  It could also serve as a valuable resource for offenders and their families and friends seeking information about who might be a good candidate for receiving clemency relief. Though the creation of a Clemency Commission would be an ambitious endeavor, the effort could pay long-term dividends for both the reality and the perception of justice and fairness in our nation's criminal justice system.

I have reprinted this suggestion here because, though I made the pitch in print more than half a decade ago, it still strikes me as timely and relevant to the on-going discussions about federal criminal justice reform.  Indeed, given this latest data marshalled by PS Ruckman and the seemingly limited success and limited basis for optimism as of February 2016 surrounding "Clemency Project 2014," I think Prez Obama and the rest of the federal criminal justice reform discussion might benefit now more than ever from the creation of some form of a "Clemency Commission" headed by a "clemency czar."  And, especially with US District Judge John Gleeson now only a few weeks away from stepping off the federal bench, there is an obvious candidate for the ideal first clemency czar.

As regular readers (and my students know), I could go on and on and on about this subject and especially about President Obama's unique missed opportunity to create a criminal justice reform legacy in this historically and constitutionally important arena.  But rather than repeat myself, I will just link to just a few of my prior Obama-era posts while starting to wonder in the wake of recent election results whether President Hillary Clinton or President Donald Trump might have the interest and ability to really bring hope and change to a very sorry modern federal clemency history.

Just a few of many recent and older posts concerning the modern ugly realities of federal clemency:

February 22, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (12)

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

"Why we must rethink solitary confinement"

The title of this post is the headline of this new Washington Post commentary authored by the President of the United States Barack Obama.  Here are excerpts from the piece, which concludes with a pitch for broader sentencing reforms:

Solitary confinement gained popularity in the United States in the early 1800s, and the rationale for its use has varied over time.  Today, it’s increasingly overused ... with heartbreaking results — which is why my administration is taking steps to address this problem.

There are as many as 100,000 people held in solitary confinement in U.S. prisons — including juveniles and people with mental illnesses.  As many as 25,000 inmates are serving months, even years of their sentences alone in a tiny cell, with almost no human contact.

Research suggests that solitary confinement has the potential to lead to devastating, lasting psychological consequences.  It has been linked to depression, alienation, withdrawal, a reduced ability to interact with others and the potential for violent behavior.  Some studies indicate that it can worsen existing mental illnesses and even trigger new ones.  Prisoners in solitary are more likely to commit suicide, especially juveniles and people with mental illnesses.

The United States is a nation of second chances, but the experience of solitary confinement too often undercuts that second chance.  Those who do make it out often have trouble holding down jobs, reuniting with family and becoming productive members of society.  Imagine having served your time and then being unable to hand change over to a customer or look your wife in the eye or hug your children.

As president, my most important job is to keep the American people safe.  And since I took office, overall crime rates have decreased by more than 15 percent.  In our criminal justice system, the punishment should fit the crime — and those who have served their time should leave prison ready to become productive members of society.  How can we subject prisoners to unnecessary solitary confinement, knowing its effects, and then expect them to return to our communities as whole people? It doesn’t make us safer.  It’s an affront to our common humanity....

The Justice Department has completed its review [on the use of solitary], and I am adopting its recommendations to reform the federal prison system.  These include banning solitary confinement for juveniles and as a response to low-level infractions, expanding treatment for the mentally ill and increasing the amount of time inmates in solitary can spend outside of their cells.  These steps will affect some 10,000 federal prisoners held in solitary confinement — and hopefully serve as a model for state and local corrections systems.  And I will direct all relevant federal agencies to review these principles and report back to me with a plan to address their use of solitary confinement.

Reforming solitary confinement is just one part of a broader bipartisan push for criminal justice reform.  Every year, we spend $80 billion to keep 2.2 million people incarcerated.  Many criminals belong behind bars.  But too many others, especially nonviolent drug offenders, are serving unnecessarily long sentences.  That’s why members of Congress in both parties are pushing for change, from reforming sentencing laws to expanding reentry programs to give those who have paid their debt to society the tools they need to become productive members of their communities.  And I hope they will send me legislation as soon as possible that makes our criminal justice system smarter, fairer, less expensive and more effective.

In America, we believe in redemption.  We believe, in the words of Pope Francis, that “every human person is endowed with an inalienable dignity, and society can only benefit from the rehabilitation of those convicted of crimes.”  We believe that when people make mistakes, they deserve the opportunity to remake their lives.  And if we can give them the hope of a better future, and a way to get back on their feet, then we will leave our children with a country that is safer, stronger and worthy of our highest ideals.

January 26, 2016 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Disconcerting backstory apparently explains quick departure of DOJ's Pardon Attorney

I had seen news late last week that the Justice Department’s relatively new pardon attorney had announced she was resigning her post, and this new Washington Post article about the departure provides some of the backstory. The piece is headlined "Attorney overseeing clemency initiative leaving in frustration," and here are excerpts:

The Justice Department’s pardon attorney — charged with overseeing the review of clemency petitions from federal inmates — is stepping down at the end of January because she is frustrated by a lack of resources for one of the president’s centerpiece criminal-justice initiatives, according to people close to her.

The departure of Deborah Leff, who has been in her role since 2014, comes as the Obama administration struggles to process a backlog of more than 9,000 pending clemency petitions. As the president approaches the end of his second term, time is running out for his high-profile effort to offer clemency to certain nonviolent federal drug offenders harshly sentenced in the nation’s war on drugs.  

The Justice Department said it is confident that Leff’s departure will not delay the administration’s clemency initiative, and it hopes to find a replacement quickly.  Justice spokeswoman Emily Pierce also said the department is asking Congress to more than double the number of lawyers assigned to the pardon office, from 22 to 46.

Leff could not be reached for comment but released a statement saying that she has known President Obama for more than 20 years and that she thinks “his commitment to reinvigorating the clemency process — and the promise that holds for justice — can change the lives of a great many deserving people.” But Leff added: “It is essential that this groundbreaking effort move ahead expeditiously and expand.”

A former trial lawyer, senior television producer and president of the Public Welfare Foundation, Leff was highly respected by sentencing reform advocates. “She never got the staffing she needed,” said one friend. “She was very frustrated.” Other people close to Leff said that she was passionate about making the clemency initiative work but had been unhappy for quite some time about not having enough resources.

Obama has commuted the sentences of 184 federal inmates. White House Counsel Neil Eg­gleston said in December that Obama has commuted the sentences of more individuals than the past five presidents combined and that the president will grant more commutations and pardons this year. But advocates of sentencing reform are disappointed that the clemency process has not moved more quickly and that more of the thousands who have submitted clemency petitions have not had their sentences commuted....

A senior Justice Department official said that the clemency initiative is of the highest priority for the department and that those involved have been working tirelessly to move petitions along as quickly as they can with a limited budget and legal restrictions....

“To lose the head of the office that’s running the clemency initiative is concerning,” said Kevin Ring, vice president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. “We hope she is replaced by someone who is as dedicated, smart, passionate and committed as she was to getting these petitions through.”

Pierce said the department has been constrained by law in terms of how many resources and how much of its budget it can devote to the clemency initiative. Pierce said the department has “provided additional funds to the pardon office within the confines of our budget and has detailed dozens of additional full- and part-time attorneys over the course of the clemency initiative.” Despite the constraints, a Justice official said that lawyers are reading each of the thousands of clemency petitions that have been submitted and have prioritized the ones that best meet the new criteria set out by the administration....

Justice officials said that they expect to name a replacement before Leff leaves Jan. 31. “A new pardon attorney will be named in the near future and we expect the work of the pardon attorney’s office to continue apace as we identify and vet potential candidates for the president’s clemency priorities,” Pierce said. “The Justice Department is dedicated to the goals of the clemency initiative and is steadfastly committed to doing all it can to ensure fairness in the criminal-justice system.”

I find this story disconcerting because it seems to me just another manifestation of the problems Prez Obama has himself created by having ignored his clemency powers during his first six years in office and then deciding he should try to make up for lost time on his way out of the Oval Office.  I had (foolishly?) hoped Prez Obama would have been a lot smarter in this important space in the wake of the ugly last-day clemency doings of Prez Clinton back in 2001 and especially with out-going Prez Bush telling in-coming Prez Obama on Inauguration Day 2009 that clemency matters should garner his attention.  But here we are seeing, yet again, that by ignoring these matters until essentially the last minute, Prez Obama's record in this space will be marked by various missteps and frustrations (although I remain hopeful that even his "last-minute" efforts will still result in a notable improvement on the work of many of his recent predecessors in the clemency arena).

January 20, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Justified criticisms of Prez Obama's not-so-justified criticisms of proposed mens rea reform

This new National Review commentary authored by James Copland and Rafael Mangual, headlined "On Criminal-Justice Reform, Obama Should Practice What He Preaches — Civility," levels complaints at the Obama Administration for complaining about mens rea reform efforts in Congress.  Here are excerpts:

In his final State of the Union address, President Obama expressed his hope to reach across the aisle on what he described as a “priority” issue: criminal-justice reform. Although we strongly agree with the president that reforming the federal approach to criminal justice should be a priority, he has unfortunately jeopardized such reforms with an uncompromising hostility to Republicans’ — and other Democrats’ — reform ideas....

Following the lead of left-wing advocacy groups including Public Citizen and Think Progress, the White House and the Justice Department almost instantly came out against both criminal-intent bills [introduced in the House and Senate]. A White House official told the Huffington Post that these bills would “enable defendants charged with a range of offenses — including violent crimes, terrorism, and sexual offenses — to potentially escape liability for egregious and harmful conduct.”

These claims are pure poppycock and completely at odds with the president’s State of the Union call for a “rational, constructive,” and “more elevated debate.”  To be sure, there might be reasonable critiques of the draft legislation and possible amendments that could create different definitions or standards — just as the sentencing reforms supported by President Obama ought to be vetted to make sure that they are not releasing violent criminals back onto the streets.  But by drawing a line in the sand against Republican priority reforms — and by suggesting that Republican and Democratic legislators who support criminal-intent standards are somehow soft on terrorism or sexual assault — the president is hardly being constructive or elevating the debate on criminal-justice reform.

In essence, the bill so vehemently opposed by the White House would merely require Congress to be explicit whenever it wishes to criminalize conduct without regard to the intent of the actor.  It would prevent courts from assuming from congressional silence that Congress meant to send unknowing violators of a law or regulation to jail, as opposed to merely hitting them with an often-hefty civil fine or penalty.

Democrat stalwarts on the House Judiciary Committee, including John Conyers (D., Mich.) and Shelia Jackson Lee (D., Texas), are supporting this reform because they understand it’s a matter of fundamental fairness. They also understand that it is small businesses and individuals, disproportionately minorities and those less well off, that tend to get unknowingly entangled in the labyrinthine federal code; big businesses and their executives have teams of lawyers to advise them.

The fact is that 15 states have explicit “default” standards for criminal intent like those in the bipartisan task force’s bill. Michigan enacted such a reform most recently, in December 2015. The Michigan ACLU spoke in favor of the law, and it passed both houses of the legislature unanimously.

If President Obama really does care about getting something done on the issue of criminal-justice reform, he ought to heed his own advice and take a more civil tone in his own contributions to that debate. It’s hardly “constructive” to demonize others’ positions and adopt a “my way or the highway” negotiating stance. With Republicans enjoying majorities in both chambers, the criminal-intent piece of the reform effort — a product of more than two years’ effort by a bipartisan task force — is especially important if the president truly hopes to achieve meaningful progress toward criminal-justice reform in his remaining year in office.

Some recent and older related posts:

January 20, 2016 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Might misguided mens rea reform concerns derail federal sentencing reform's momentum?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new Atlantic piece headlined "A New Hurdle in the Push for Criminal-Justice Reform: A disagreement between a House Republican and the Obama administration creates a challenge."  Here is how the article starts:

The stars seem to have aligned.  An unlikely coalition of liberals and conservatives has coalesced around criminal-justice reform, as the public appears to be paying more attention to fatal police shootings and mass incarceration. President Obama has worked to gin up momentum for reform, and is expected to press for action during his final State of the Union address Tuesday evening.

Even with that common ground, however, tensions are bubbling up.  A debate over the burden of proof for criminal convictions now threatens to throw a wrench into the effort to overhaul the nation’s criminal-justice system.  That debate was on full display Tuesday during a conversation between House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte and The Atlantic’s Washington Editor-at-Large Steve Clemons at an Atlantic Exchange event.  The Republican chairman suggested that the House of Representatives won’t approve a criminal-justice deal without changes to the way the U.S. criminal code determines criminal intent, despite the fact that the White House opposes the changes.

“A deal that does not address this issue is not going anywhere in the House of Representatives,” Goodlatte said when asked if he would oppose a deal that did not include such a provision.  “It has to be overcome.  This is a critical element to doing justice in this country.”

The disagreement points to the possibility that negotiations will break down.  It highlights the challenges, and potential pitfalls, of assembling a left-right coalition, and raises the question of how much various interests at play will be willing to compromise.  The dispute also threatens to stall sentencing reform, an issue that the president has elevated as a top priority in his second-term.

At stake is a question of fairness.  Goodlatte, along with conservative and libertarian organizations, support legal changes that they say would protect citizens from being unfairly charged with crimes they unknowingly committed. The White House, along with liberal organizations, believe that altering the burden of proof could make it more difficult to prosecute criminal activity.  Critics also fear the proposal could let big business off the hook for illicit activities that lawyers could claim a company didn’t know were illegal.

That conflict could derail sentencing reform.  Goodlatte indicated Tuesday that he would not support an effort to deal with criminal-intent and sentencing reform separately as a way of bolstering the odds of passing legislation to cut down on mandatory minimums for certain offenses.

As the question in the title of this post suggests, I think Rep. Goodlate is 100% right that a provision clarifying that nobody should face serious federal criminal charges without federal prosecutors having to prove the accused had a significantly culpable mens rea is "a critical element to doing justice in this country."  Indeed, one of the reasons I stopped considering myself a "liberal" as that term is now understood is because of these kinds of issues where so-called "liberals" seem eager to deny a premise I consider fundamental in a liberal society, namely that one should not be treated like and branded a serious criminal by the government unless and until that government can prove an individual has acted and thought like a serious criminal.

Notably, I know that at least one serious criminal justice reform group, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers is supportive of mens rea reform.  Consequently, I suspect and fear the "liberal organizations" against this kind of reform are the same type that were cheerleading the laws contributing to mass incarceration passed during the Clinton era when Democrats were eagerly trying to earn political points by being even tougher on crime than their political adversaries.  Blah. 

Some recent and older related posts:

January 13, 2016 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Unless Prez Obama goes off script, do not expect much SOTU talk about criminal justice reform

The White House has now released here the "Remarks of President Barack Obama – As Prepared for Delivery State of the Union Address." And, despite much early buzz that criminal justice reform was going to get some serious attention, it seems that the only part of the speech that even gets close to mentioning this topic comes at the very outset:

Tonight marks the eighth year I’ve come here to report on the State of the Union.  And for this final one, I’m going to try to make it shorter.  I know some of you are antsy to get back to Iowa.

I also understand that because it’s an election season, expectations for what we’ll achieve this year are low.  Still, Mr. Speaker, I appreciate the constructive approach you and the other leaders took at the end of last year to pass a budget and make tax cuts permanent for working families.  So I hope we can work together this year on bipartisan priorities like criminal justice reform, and helping people who are battling prescription drug abuse.  We just might surprise the cynics again.

Given Prez Obama's so far uninspired record in this space, I suppose I should not be too surprised or disappointed that all the criminal justice buzz leading up to this speech was just more smoke and mirrors. And, if Prez Obama ends up walking the walk on what some have called "mass clemency," I will not be troubled that he did not talk the talk about criminal justice issues in this final SOTU. Still, I am now far less excited to hear him deliver the speech.

January 12, 2016 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Expecting (too?) much crime and punishment talk at Prez Obama's last State of the Union

DownloadLong-time readers know that I am always hopeful that the annual State of the Union events will address criminal justice issues, and also that Prez Obama has been consistently disappointing in this respect with his prior SOTUs.  But this year, for lots of reasons, I am expecting crime and punishment to play a big role in the final SOTU to be delivered by Prez Obama.  One reason is because of a notable guest who will be there as reported in this BuzzFeed News piece headlined  "Meet The Ex-Convict President Obama Will Host At The State Of The Union." Here is how the article gets started (with links from original):

On Tuesday, President Obama may include a renewed promise to change the way the criminal justice system deals with suspects, offenders, and convicts in his final State of the Union address.  In the audience will be woman who has seen all sides of the justice system — and all after her 57th birthday.  Sue Ellen Allen, who spent nearly seven years as an Arizona inmate in the state’s women’s prison near Goodyear will be among the president’s guests at the speech. Allen was raised middle class, lived wealthy, and lost it all on her way to being convicted in absentia of securities fraud while an international fugitive on the run with her husband who also served time for the crime.

After she got out of prison, in 2009, Allen did everything she could to get back in and offer resources to women still behind bars that she believes will help them escape the recidivism cycle that traps many inmates in the justice system for years.  Now she regularly returns to the prison that held her to run education and jobs programs for the women there.  She says the experience of seeing another side of America was “a blessing” and that her new calling is part of making good on the lessons she learned behind bars.  “I was well educated, I was privileged because I have white skin — I’m a white woman and that’s a privilege,” Allen told BuzzFeed News. “If you had told me what I was going to see and experience in prison, I would have said, ‘Not in my country. We don’t treat people that way.’ I was wrong.”

When Obama delivers the State of the Union speech, Allen will be there, seated in the House chamber in the Capitol. Presidents regularly use their guest list to highlight issues and policy goals, and Obama’s seventh address will be no different. (Obama is breaking the mold a little next week — one of his “guests” will be a seat intentionally left empty to highlight the Americans lost during his presidency to gun violence.)

But White House aides say the focus of the speech is different than other State of the Union speeches. Instead of the standard list of policy ideas and applause lines, senior administration officials say this State of the Union will be about the broad changes Obama promised in his first campaign and how they play into his presidential legacy.

Criminal justice is set to be a huge part of that legacy, and get a prominent place in the speech.  The Obama administration has linked up with conservatives and liberals to push changes to the justice system aimed at reducing the number of people put in prison, the length of time nonviolent offenders spend there, and reducing the costs associated with a system that houses more inmates than any other country on earth.  The Obama administration has attempted to address longstanding goals of criminal justice advocates at the highest levels — the administration has supported dramatic changes in the war on drugs and called for an end to many mandatory minimum prison sentences — and the lowest.  Obama has taken interest in prison life, becoming the first president to visit a federal prison last July. He’s called for new anti-recidivism programs and more efforts to offer education and other assistance to people behind bars.  Changing the way prisons work, the president has said, can reduce the number of people who go in, out and back into the system.

In addition to expecting Prez Obama to talk about criminal reform during his SOTU speech, perhaps we could hear mention of crime and punishment in the GOP response.  At the very least, folks at FreedomWorks are suggested it should via this recent commentary headlined "Republicans Should Promote Justice Reform in State of the Union Response."

January 10, 2016 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Curious Cato commentary attacks Obama Administration for failing to change prosecutorial charging policies that have been changed

As regular readers know, I have often bashed the Obama Administration for too much talk and too little action in the arena of criminal justice reform.  But because I always try to ground my criticisms in facts and to give credit to the Administration for its actions, I must call out as misinformed and misguided this new Cato commentary by  Nat Hentoff headlined "Obama Ignores Judge’s Plea for Justice Reform."

The Hentoff commentary properly notes that the "charging policies that federal prosecutors are forced to follow are the one area of criminal justice reform that the president of the United States has the authority to impose unilaterally." But the commentary suggests, wrongly in my view, that through the 2010 Holder memorandum (first discussed here) the Obama Administration failed to change federal charging policy for the better.  

In addition, and even more troublesome, the Hentoff commentary completely fails to mention the important 2013 Holder memorandum (first discussed here) and a 2014 Holder follow-up memo (discussed here) concerning charging of mandatory minimums and recidivist enhancements in federal drug cases.  Also, and not to be overlooked in the context of federal charging policies, the Obama Administration has been quite bold when issuing a series of major charging directives that encourage federal prosecutors largely to keep their noses out of state-level marijuana reform efforts.  Collectively, these major charging directives from the Obama Administration's Department of Justice to line prosecutors have marked a significant shift in charging policies, and various federal sentencing statistics suggest these changed DOJ charging policies have been having a significant impact on federal criminal justice outcomes. 

This all said, though I am troubled by the particulars in this Cato commentary, I see much merit in Hentoff's final critical sentence: "Obama continues to pay lip service to criminal justice reform by enacting half-hearted half-measures."  Though I believe the Obama Administration has actually been quite effective and astute in the modification of federal prosecutorial charging policies, I also believe that it has been far less effective and astute in moving forward with an array of other badly needed federal criminal justice reform efforts.

December 17, 2015 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Monday, December 14, 2015

Will Senate leader ever bring latest federal sentencing reform bill up for a full Senate vote?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable inside-the-Beltway report from the New York Times headlined "Mitch McConnell Demurs on Prospects of Criminal Justice Overhaul."  Here are excerpts:

Despite a concerted push from a broad right-left coalition, Senator Mitch McConnell said he had not determined whether he would bring a bipartisan criminal justice overhaul to the Senate floor next year.  “I haven’t decided yet,” Mr. McConnell, the Kentucky Republican and majority leader, said in an interview on Thursday as he began looking toward 2016.

The Senate leader definitely seemed open to the idea.  He said the proposal, which would reduce some mandatory minimum sentences, lead to early release for thousands of nonviolent offenders and set up new programs to help them adjust to life after prison, seemed to meet his criteria for allocating precious Senate floor time.

“It seems to have pretty broad bipartisan support,” Mr. McConnell said of the criminal justice legislation approved by the Judiciary Committee in October.  “This is the kind of thing, when you look at it, you have principals on both sides who are interested in it.  That makes it worthy of floor time.”

However, the legislation, while endorsed by both conservative and progressive interest groups, could present a sticky election-year vote for some Republicans who typically see themselves as law-and-order politicians.  And the issue could get very complicated should Senator Ted Cruz of Texas become the Republican presidential nominee.  Mr. Cruz voted against the plan in the Judiciary Committee and was outspoken in his criticism.  So if the Republican-led Senate moved forward, it could conceivably be pushing legislation opposed by its candidate for the White House.

It is critical to recall that just a few years ago when Democrats still controlled the Senate, then-Senate leader Harry Reid never brought the Smarter Sentencing Act up for a full Senate vote ever after the SSA passed through the Senate Judiciary Committee with bipartisan support and even though there was good reason to believe the SSA would have garnered majority support from the full Senate.  Thus, as this article spotlights, the passage of the Sentencing and Correction Reform Act through the Senate Judiciary Committee provides no certainty that even the full Senate will get a chance to vote of this reform bill.

As reported earlier, it is clear that the first few months of 2016 now constitute the next critical period for federal statutory sentencing reform.  I remain cautiously optimistic that the broader political and social forces that have so far propelled bipartisan support for reform to this point will help carry some bill through both houses of Congress in some form in 2016.  But I am not counting any sentencing reform chickens anytime before they completely hatch out of Congress and find their way to the desk of the President.

December 14, 2015 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, December 07, 2015

Extended account of much Obama executive ado so far still amounting to nearly nothing

Images (6)This past weekend, the Washington Post had this extended account of how and how long Prez Obama and former Attorney General Eric Holder have been talking about working toward significant criminal justice reform.  I recommend the entire piece, and here are some extended excerpts:

Thee summer after President Obama began his second term in office, he and then-Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. were relaxing and watching fireworks from a porch on Martha’s Vineyard. Holder was about to interrupt his family vacation to fly to San Francisco and deliver a speech unveiling their plans to make the most significant changes in the country’s criminal justice system in decades.

“I’m the only one who hasn’t seen your speech,” Obama said teasingly to Holder... But the president really already knew what Holder planned to say.

The text was the culmination of countless conversations over the years between Holder and Obama about how this country prosecutes and incarcerates its citizens. Obama had seen the racial disparities of the decades-long war on drugs close up as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago; Holder experienced them as a former D.C. judge and prosecutor.  The two men met in 2004 at a small Washington dinner party shortly after Obama was elected to the Senate, and there was an instant connection. “We share a world view,” Holder said recently. “We kind of feel each other.”

Now, they were finally ready to act....

Laying out a three-part plan he called “Smart on Crime,” Holder said that he was directing his prosecutors nationwide to stop bringing charges that would impose harsh mandatory minimum sentences, except in the most egregious cases.  He called for more compassionate release of aging and ill inmates, more drug diversion programs as alternatives to prison and spoke of “shameful” sentencing disparities, a hint of Obama’s plans to use his clemency power to correct the disparities and release certain drug offenders early....

Nearly 2-1/2 years later, the administration’s major criminal justice overhaul has yielded mixed results.  Obama and Holder helped launch a national conversation about mass incarceration.  Last year, federal prosecutors pursued mandatory minimum sentences at the lowest rate on record — and sentencing reform legislation with bipartisan support has been introduced in Congress.

But some prosecutors are continuing to resist changes to mandatory minimum sentencing.  The initiative has also not yet made a significant dent in the number of inmates crowded into federal prisons.  Only 25 of the 531 elderly inmates who have applied for compassionate release under the new policy have received it.

And in the key executive action that Obama can take to undo unfair sentences, he has only granted clemency to 89 inmates of the thousands of federal drug offenders who have applied.  The president is expected to grant clemency to about another 100 prisoners in the coming weeks.

But Holder said he initially thought that as many as 10,000 of the federal prison’s nearly 200,000 inmates “were potentially going to be released” under the new clemency initiative.  Other Justice officials say the number is closer to 1,000 or 2,000. Criminal justice reform advocates are criticizing the president for moving too slowly and are calling on him to speed up the clemency process before his administration runs out of time.

“Given the president’s repeated concern about the numbers of people in prison serving excessive sentences, he has done little to alleviate the problem through clemency,” said Julie Stewart, president and founder of Families Against Mandatory Minimums.  “The president has all the constitutional authority he needs to do the right thing. Failure here cannot be blamed on partisanship in Congress.  If the president wants to correct past injustices, he can.”...

The real planning for how to unwind the country’s war on drugs began the summer before Holder’s speech. He and Obama anticipated a successful second-term election....  “Let’s go big,” Holder recalls Obama saying that August, again on the Vineyard.  “It’s gutsy.  It’s risky.  But it’s something we ought to do.”

A few months later, in January 2013, Holder directed his senior Justice officials to break into groups and bring him recommendations.  Holder and Obama were concerned about the backlash.  Could they pull off this huge reversal of drug policy and sentencing?  Would they be accused by Republicans of being soft on crime?

The pushback did come — but it was from within Holder’s own department.  In U.S. attorneys’ offices around the country, some prosecutors were supportive of the new policy, but others grumbled that Holder was taking away their most effective tool to get cooperation from drug offenders.  The organization representing line prosecutors wrote a letter to Holder and then went over his head and sent letters to top congressional leaders, urging them not to change the sentencing rules.

Regular readers know that I have been a persistent supporter of the Obama Administration's efforts to refocus criminal justice energies away from the war on drugs, and both Prez Obama and former AG Holder merit credit for helping to change the modern criminal justice reform conversation in the US. But I find quite frustrating and aggravating to hear that Obama and Holder were interested in doing something "big" and "gutsy" concerning the drug war given how little they have done so far that would merit the label big or gutsy.

Big and gutsy would involve granting thousands of commutations, not just dozens; big and gutsy would involve pushing hard on Congress and the Sentencng Commission to move away from drug quantities as the basis for long prison sentences; big and gutsy would involve advocating for bringing back parole eligibility for at least nonviolent drug offenders; big and gutsy would involve creating executive task forces with mandates to lower the federal prison population by at least 25% and to study how best to reform federal marijuana prohibtion; big and gutsy would involve tasking past and present GOP Govs who have championed state sentencing reform to propose possible reforms for the federal system.

Especially because Prez Obama still has a final year to make good on his desire to do something "big" and "gutsy," I am disinclined to give up hope that he can still bring more significant change to the most troublesome part of the nation's criminal justice systems.  In addition, when thinking of Prez Obama's likely sentencing legacy, he surely merits credit for appointing SCOTUS Justices and USSC Commissioners that have been pushing forward significant jurisprudential and doctrinal changes.  But as of this writing, the size, scope and operation of the federal criminal justice system in late Fall 2015 is practically speaking not very much different at all from what the system looked like in late Fall 2008.  Prez Obama has a lot of work ahead if he really wants things to truly be different in this space when he leaves the Oval Office.

December 7, 2015 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, December 03, 2015

Federal statutory sentencing reform not going to happen until 2016 ... if at all

This TPM DC report, headlined "Criminal Justice Reform Is Quickly Running Out Of Time," provides a Capitol Hill update that confirms what I had heard from another source: the full Congress is unlikely this year to get to the criminal justice reform bills that have made it through the House and Senate Judiciary committees. And, as the TPC article goes on to explain, the enduring GOP uncertainty on this front combine with a Prez campaign to perhaps diminish the prospects that any reform gets done anytime soon:

It was supposed to be the rare bipartisan bright spot in the Senate, but a crowded legislative calendar and the looming election year are endangering the last best hope for criminal justice reform while President Obama is still in office. With roughly three weeks left until the holidays, the Senate is prioritizing passing a tax extenders bill, a reconciliation package to defund Obamacare and Planned Parenthood, a transportation bill, and legislation to fund the government. That means time has run out for criminal justice reform in this calendar year.

"No chance it can be done between now and Christmas," Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA) said Monday evening as he darted off the Senate floor clutching his list of the Republican senators he still intended to convince to sign onto his bill, his handwritten notes scrawled underneath each of their names.

Advocates and outside observers have long anticipated that the best chance for passage of criminal justice reform would be before the practical realities of electoral politics intruded in 2016. With the remainder of the year taken up by other matters, reformers will have to wait until the Senate gavels back in in the new year, in the midst of presidential primary season.

The prospects of pushing forward with the Senate bill just as the Republican presidential primary in particular is in full swing -- with the expected tough-on-crime appeals to the conservative base -- is daunting. Primary season is hardly the time for the Republicans back in Washington to be giving up on the well-honed GOP attack lines on crime and pushing forward a progressive new position on incarceration....

Grassley and supporters are now running short on time to get their bill on the floor especially if Republican frontrunner Donald Trump stays on top. Trump's attempts to tie illegal immigration and criminality have prompted fellow Republican presidential candidates to follow suite. In a race to out-flank one another, the GOP contenders have backed away from the new wave of conservative thinking on criminal justice reform and reverted to echoing the talking points that were cornerstones of the party in the 1980s and 1990s. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) voted against the criminal justice reform bill in committee in October even as he once billed himself as a pro-reform Republican....

While momentum had been building for the Senate's criminal justice reform bill, there are still deep divisions in the Republican Party to contend with. The tug of war is between traditional tough-on-crime Republicans who believe reductions in sentences would lead to a spike in crime and a new generation of conservatives who see an economic argument for reducing mandatory minimums and slashing the costs associated with incarceration.

Grassley and other sponsors like Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) are working to convince senators like Cory Gardner (R-CO), Shelley Moore-Capito (R-WV) and Steve Daines (R-MT) to sign on, but there are some outspoken opponents who may prove to be immovable. “I think the bill needs more work. I think it needs to be connected with the reality of criminal justice and crime in America," said Jeff Sessions (R-AL) "I would not favor bringing it up and just zipping it through. A number of members in our conference, I think share those concerns.” Freshman Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) replied "no comment" when TPM asked him about his position. Former Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-UT) said he was concerned the bill would "let out a lot of people who don’t deserve to be let out [of prison.]"

While Democratic sponsors of the bill are publicly optimistic that the legislation can get a vote on the floor even in an election year, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) admits the lack of GOP unity does put the legislation in some jeopardy. Republican leadership will want to ensure they have buy in from most of their conference if they are going to risk bringing the bill up in an election year and giving President Barack Obama a domestic legislative victory. “I think this is an issue that needs to be wrangled out on the Republican side so the Republicans on the bill need their own leadership to get it some votes," Whitehouse says. "It's not unanimous so the Jeff Sessions and people like that would be out of the floor pushing back the same way they did on the committee."

Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC) says he's familiar with the process of selling criminal justice reform to a skeptical audience. Tillis was speaker of the North Carolina House when the legislature passed the Justice Reinvestment Act, which made back-end reforms to reduce recidivism. "I know that a lot of people get concerned with it," Tillis said. “It’s not really a soft on crime bill. It is the typical arguments that get used for these sorts of things, but I think the more that we educate people, the broader base of support we will get for it."

Tillis recognizes, however, that the problem is that on the campaign trail, candidates don't have time to explain complicated or new policy proposals. “If candidates on either side of the aisle exploits it for what it is not, yeah it could slow things down," Tillis said." You only get to operate in 15 and 30 second soundbites, and you cannot explain the merits of this bill in that time frame so yeah going on into the early primaries, it could be difficult and they have to stake themselves out.”

I am not yet giving up all hope that Prez Obama could get to sign a federal sentencing reform bill before he leaves office. But, as I have long been saying, an array of political, policy and practical challenges lead me always to be mostly pessimistic about the prospects of significant congressional action on this front.

December 3, 2015 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, November 02, 2015

Prez Obama takes criminal justice reform tour to New Jersey, but Gov Christie not pleased by visit

This Reuters article, headlined "Obama pitches help to ex-criminals, draws N.J. governor's ire," details notable talk from notable officials about criminal justice reform today in the Garden State.  Here are the particulars:

President Barack Obama announced new measures to smooth the integration of former criminals into society but his visit to New Jersey on Monday irked the state's governor, a struggling Republican presidential candidate.

Obama, a Democrat who has made criminal justice reform a top priority of his final years in office, praised organizations in Newark for their efforts to help those who have served prison terms to reintegrate into civilian life. "We've got to make sure Americans who have paid their debt to society can earn their second chance," Obama said in a speech at Rutgers University in Newark, a city of about 280,000 that has grappled for decades with poverty and high rates of violent crime.

Obama said he was banning "the box" that applicants had to check about their criminal histories when applying for certain federal jobs. He praised companies such as Wal-Mart, Target, Koch Industries, and Home Depot for taking similar measures in the private sector. The president noted that Congress was considering similar measures.

But New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who is failing to gain traction in his bid for the Republican Party's nomination to run for the White House in the November 2016 election, said Obama's policies had hurt police departments nationwide. "(Obama) does not support law enforcement. Simply doesn't. And he's going to come today to New Jersey in a place where, under my tenure, we have reduced crime 20 percent and reduced the prison population 10 percent," Christie said on MSNBC TV. "It's a disgrace that he's coming to New Jersey today to take credit for this stuff when he's been someone who's undercut it."

The new steps unveiled by the White House included up to $8 million in federal education grants over three years for former inmates as well as new guidance on the use of arrest records in determining eligibility for public and federally assisted housing....

White House spokesman Josh Earnest questioned the reasoning behind Christie's less friendly welcome on Monday. “Governor Christie’s comments in this regard have been particularly irresponsible, though not surprising for somebody whose poll numbers are closer to an asterisk than they are double digits. Clearly this is part of the strategy to turn that around,” Earnest said.

For more on the specific proposals annouced by President Obama today, this official White House Fact Sheet provides lots of details under the heading "President Obama Announces New Actions to Promote Rehabilitation and Reintegration for the Formerly- Incarcerated."  

Some analysis of the Prez's proposals can be found in this Atlantic piece with this lengthy headline: "Obama's Plan to Help Former Inmates Find Homes and Jobs: Between 40 and 60 percent of ex-offenders can’t find work. Will the president’s new initiative help?"

November 2, 2015 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Prez Obama talking up (yet again) sentencing reform

As reported in this New York Times piece, "President Obama made his case on Tuesday for an overhaul of the nation’s sentencing laws, telling a gathering of top law enforcement officials here that putting large numbers of nonviolent drug offenders in prison was neither fair nor an effective way of combating crime." Here is more:

While insisting that he did not harbor a “bleeding­heart attitude toward crime and justice,” Mr. Obama said the country should face up to the fact that policing priorities needed to shift away from locking up millions of nonviolent drug offenders — especially young black and Latino men.  “That’s not a sustainable situation,” Mr. Obama said.  “It is possible for us to come up with strategies that effectively reduce the damage of the drug trade without relying solely on incarceration.”...

The president received a warm response from the law enforcement officials in the crowd, many of whom have said that more robust gun control measures would help keep police officers safe.  On Monday, many police leaders at the conference called on Congress to pass universal background checks for firearm purposes, one of many proposals that failed to pass after the mass school shooting in Newtown, Conn. “It’s too easy for criminals to buy guns, and that makes your already dangerous job far more dangerous than it should be,” Mr. Obama said. “And it makes the communities so fearful that it’s harder for them to be a good partner for you.”

October 28, 2015 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Friday, October 23, 2015

Perspectives on new law enforcement sentencing reform group and Prez Obama's engagement

In addition to the Senate's work on SRCA 2015 (basics here and here), the other big sentencing reform news this week has been the emergence of the new group Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration (basics here), and President Obama's re-engagement with criminal justice reform matters (basics here).  These developments connected on Thursday through events at the White House involving The Marshall Project and well-reported in these pieces:

Excitingly, among the persons involved in all this important activity is FOB (Friend Of Blog) Mark Osler, and Mark late yesterday provided this exclusive insider view for reporting here:

I am one of the 130 members of a new group Doug recently wrote about, the Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration. That said, I suspect that I am (once again) the admission department's mistake, as nearly all of the others involved were or are now the head of some sort of law enforcement agency. The group includes the current police chiefs for New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Washington DC, Dallas, Denver, San Francisco, Seattle, San Diego, Salt Lake City, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Miami, Fresno, and Richmond (both Virginia and California) along with dozens of other current and former police chiefs, District and U.S. Attorneys, and sheriffs. Each has signed on to a common mission: reducing incarceration while continuing to reduce crime.

At its core, this represents a rejection of what many assume: That more incarceration necessarily and uniformly operates to keep us safe. Those on the front lines of crime-fighting in America's cities now are beginning to reject that idea and move towards more creative and effective techniques such as community policing and mental health treatment.

The public launch of the group this week included discussion sessions and a meeting with President Obama at the White House, coordinated by the Brennan Center.

Over the course of the two days, I was struck by the general unanimity of the group on the core issues of incarceration and crime control. Certainly, there is a recognition among the members that different cities present distinct challenges, and that there is no "one-size-fits-all" solution, yet there is broad agreement that this is the moment to move away from incarceration as a primary metric for success. A man in jail does not always represent a problem solved.

In his remarks, President Obama was focused and surprisingly informed on the state of criminal law at both the state and federal level. It's no secret that these issues have increasingly captured his attention, and he seemed to relish talking about it with an audience partly composed of police chiefs in uniform. Much of what he said was of specific interest to this group; for example, he noted the importance of changing the incentives for prosecutors away from simply obtaining high sentences, and (in response to a question) noted that going forward the collection and use of data is going to only become more important. He also argued that long terms of incarceration offer diminishing returns, even with violent offenders.

He challenged the audience on racial issues, too, saying that the Black Lives Matter movement raises "a legitimate issue that we have to address."

What happens next for this group will be crucial. Its very existence, though, represents a shifting of tectonic plates on the landscape of criminal justice.

October 23, 2015 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Prez Obama talking again about talking some more about criminal justice reform

As reported in this USA Today piece, headlined "Obama launches criminal justice tour: 'Something I’ll keep fighting for'," President Obama devoted his weekly radio address Saturday morning to talking about his plans to travel the nation and talk more about criminal justice reform. Here are the basics:

President Obama said Saturday that he'll launch a nationwide criminal justice tour next week, an effort that he says will "highlight some of the Americans who are doing their part to fix our criminal justice system."

"Much of our criminal justice system remains unfair," Obama said in his weekly radio address Saturday morning. "In recent years, more of our eyes have been opened to this truth. We can’t close them anymore. And good people, of all political persuasions, are eager to do something about it."

The first stop in the tour will be in Charleston, W.Va. next Wednesday, where he'll host a town-hall-style meeting on the prescription drug abuse and heroin epidemic.The White House says Obama will talk about local, state and federal efforts as well as private sector initiatives addressing the crisis. Obama said he'll also meet in coming weeks with police chiefs and former prisoners. Details on those tour stops are expected to be released next week.

In his radio address, Obama threw his support behind bipartisan proposals in Congress to shorten mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenses and reward convicts who participate in prison programs with shorter sentences.

I am always pleased when the leader of our nation brings attention to the criminal justice reform issues that are the focus of my professional work. But I remain frustrated that Prez Obama seems to continue to be content to talk about the need for more action rather than actually take more action.

In addition to lots more clemency grants (especially because he remains way behind all modern presidents on pardons), Prez Obama could create more task forces to examine existing evidence on the most successful local and state-level reforms. In particular, with all the continuing local and state-level marijuana reform activity, I think it is long overdue for Prez Obama to show some leadership in this criminal justice reform space through some significant executive action.

October 18, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Education Secretary calls on state and local governments to "put a new emphasis on schools rather than jails"

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan today gave this notable speech at the National Press Club.  The lengthy speech covers a lot of ground, but it is especially focused on the "linkage between education, or a lack thereof, and incarceration" and calls upon government to reorient funding to prioritized education over criminalization. Here are excerpts from the speech, which merits a read in full:

I want to lay out an idea today that will strike some as improbable or impractical, but which I think is essential.  It's about setting a different direction as a society, a different priority — one that says we believe in great teaching early in our kids' lives, rather than courts, jails and prisons later....

The bet we're making now is clear.  In the last three decades, state and local correctional spending in this country has increased almost twice as fast as spending on elementary and secondary education.  Ask yourself, "What does that say about what we believe?"

Leaders at the state and local levels have the power to change that — to place a bet on getting it right with kids from the start, and on the power of great teaching in particular.

I'm not pretending for a second that schools can do this alone — that they can replace efforts to deal with poverty, hunger, homelessness, or other ills that affect our young people.  But the facts about the impact of great teaching are too powerful to ignore....

The linkage between education, or a lack thereof, and incarceration is powerful.  More than two-thirds of state prison inmates are high school dropouts.  And an African-American male between the ages of 20 and 24 without a high school diploma or GED has a higher chance of being imprisoned than of being employed.

Today, our schools suspend roughly three and a half million kids a year, and refer a quarter of a million children to the police each year.  And the patterns are even more troubling for children of color — particularly boys — and for students with disabilities.

We cannot lay our incarceration crisis at the door of our schools.  But we have to do our part to end the school to prison pipeline.  That's going to force us to have difficult conversations about race, which I'll get to in a moment.

But I want to start by talking about bold new steps our states and cities can take to get great teachers in front of our neediest kids.  It's hardly a secret that it's challenging to recruit and keep fantastic teachers in the schools where the needs are greatest.  The rewards of that work are extraordinary — but it's an incredibly hard job.

So here's an idea for how you put a new emphasis on schools rather than jails.  If our states and localities took just half the people convicted of nonviolent crimes and found paths for them other than incarceration, they would save upwards of $15 billion a year.

If they reinvested that money into paying the teachers who are working in our highest-need schools and communities — they could provide a 50 percent average salary increase to every single one of them.  Specifically, if you focused on the 20 percent of schools with the highest poverty rates in each state, that would give you 17,640 schools — and the money would go far enough to increase salaries by at least 50 percent.

I've long said great teachers deserve to be paid far more.  With a move like this, we'd not just make a bet on education over incarceration, we'd signal the beginning of a long-range effort to pay our nation's teachers what they are worth.  That sort of investment wouldn't just make teachers and struggling communities feel more valued.  It would have ripple effects on our economy and our civic life. ...

There are lots of ways to go about this, and ultimately, local leaders and educators will know what's best for their community.  But the bottom line is that we must do more to ensure that more strong teachers go to our toughest schools.

Right now, in far too many places, glaring and unconscionable funding gaps create all the wrong incentives.  To take just one example — and there are many — the Ferguson-Florissant school district in Missouri spends about $9,000 per student. Eleven miles away, in Clayton, funding is about double, at $18,000 per student. How is that a plan to give kids a fair start?...

Let's invest more in the adults who have dedicated their professional careers to helping young people reach their full potential.  And let's place a new emphasis on our young people as contributors to a stronger society, not inmates to pay for and warehouse.

I'm not naïve about doing all of this overnight.  And for those already in the system, we can't just walk away from them — we also have to invest in education, career training, treatment, and support programs that help young people who are already involved in the criminal justice system become contributing members of our society.  That's why we are starting the Second Chance Pell program, to give those who are incarcerated a better chance at going to college.

To be totally clear, I'll repeat that we are talking about savings that come from alternative paths that involve only nonviolent offenders.  This is not about being soft on dangerous criminals — this is about finding ways, consistent with wise criminal justice policies, to reapportion our resources so we prevent crime in the first place....

 I'm convinced that making a historic bet on getting it right from the start would pay massive returns for our families, our communities, our society and our nation's economy. According to a 2009 McKinsey report, the achievement gap between us and other top-performing nations is depriving the U.S. economy of more than $2 trillion in economic output every year.

A separate study found that a 10 percent increase in high school graduation rates would reduce murder and assault arrest rates by approximately 20 percent.  And a one percent increase in male graduation rates would save up to $1.4 billion in the social costs of incarceration.  So you don't have to be a liberal romantic to like the idea of investing up front in our kids.  A hard-nosed look at the bottom line will take you to the same place.

I recognize that what I've just laid before you is ambitious.  But, if we're serious about eliminating the "school to prison pipeline," a shift in funding is only part of what we need to do. In truth, there's a lot more we need to get right....

Taking the essential steps to expand what we know works in education should be a no-brainer.  But there's more to it than just budgets and policies.  Perhaps the hardest step of all is taking an unsparing look at our own attitudes and decisions, and the ways they are tied to race and class. In the wake of Ferguson, Baltimore and elsewhere, this has become a central discussion for many in America, and rightly so — if belatedly.  Those of us in education cannot afford to sit back.

Let's recognize, up front, that this is among the hardest conversations we can have in education.  People enter this field out of love for students and the genuine desire to see them excel and thrive.  Yet we also know that suspension, expulsion and expectations for learning track too closely with race and class.

As the author Ta-Nehisi Coates recently pointed out, our high rates of incarceration, our high numbers of high school dropouts, and our high rates of child poverty are not unrelated problems....

It's difficult work, challenging centuries of institutionalized racism and class inequality. But I firmly believe a hard look at ourselves is an essential part of becoming the nation we strive to be — one of liberty and opportunity, regardless of the circumstances of your birth.

September 30, 2015 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, July 27, 2015

"Mr. Chairman, the president’s clemency power is beyond dispute"

The title of this post is the headline of this new commentary published in The Hill authored by Samuel Morison, who formerly served as a staff attorney in the Justice Department’s Office of the Pardon Attorney.  The piece responds to the curious letter sent by House Judiciary Committee Chair Bob Goodlatte and fellow Republican committee to AG Lynch (discussed here) expressing "deep concern" for how the President has (finally) started to make serious use of his constitutional clemency powers.  Here are excerpts (with links included):

Goodlatte and his colleagues are certainly entitled to take issue with Obama’s decision to grant a measure of relief to persons sentenced under a set of laws that are widely viewed to have been, in practice if not by design, racially discriminatory and unjust.  But their constitutional claims are so illiterate that it is difficult to tell whether they expect the attorney general to take them seriously. 

The chairman’s criticism ignores settled practice stretching back to the beginning of the Republic.  Throughout American history, presidents have granted executive clemency to “specific classes of offenders” on dozens of occasions, from George Washington’s pardon of the Whiskey Rebels in 1795 to George H.W. Bush’s pardon of the Iran-Contra defendants in 1992.  Perhaps more to the point, in the early 1960s, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson commuted the sentences of several hundred prisoners serving mandatory minimum sentences under the Narcotics Control Act of 1956, without objection by Congress.

The historical lack of controversy shouldn’t be surprising.  Under our tripartite system of government, an act of executive clemency in no sense “usurps” legislative or judicial authority.  Rather, in the words of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, it “is a part of the Constitutional scheme.  When granted it is the determination of the ultimate [executive] authority that the public welfare will be better served by inflicting less than what the judgment fixed.”  The president’s pardoning authority is therefore limited only by the text of the Constitution itself, not by the transitory terms of the criminal code.  Indeed, that was the Framers’ point in giving the power to the president in the first place, to act as a check on the other branches.

To be sure, the president’s systematic exercise of the pardon power to benefit “specific classes of offenders” has not gone entirely unchallenged by Congress.  But the Supreme Court long ago resolved this dispute in favor of Obama’s authority to redress the injustices entrenched by the current federal sentencing regime.  In the aftermath of the Civil War, President Andrew Johnson issued a series of amnesty proclamations that restored the civil rights of former Confederate sympathizers.  This was enormously controversial at the time, not least because it undermined the Radical Republican’s designs for the post-war reconstruction of Southern society.

In the ensuing legal battle, the Supreme Court repeatedly struck down Congress’s attempts to constrain the president’s pardoning authority.  In 1866, the Court held, without qualification, that “[t]his power of the President is not subject to legislative control.  Congress can neither limit the effect of his pardon, nor exclude from its exercise any class of offenders.  The benign prerogative of mercy reposed in him cannot be fettered by any legislative restrictions.” 

The Court also rejected the effort to draw a false distinction between pardons granted to specific individuals on a case-by-case basis and a pardon granted to a class of persons by means of an amnesty proclamation, precisely the claim that House Republicans are making against Obama.  The president is therefore authorized to grant a general amnesty without congressional sanction, protestations to the contrary notwithstanding.

Finally, there is no reason to doubt that the president can grant clemency because of his own policy judgment about a particular law.  As one conservative federal judge recently opined, it is a “settled, bedrock principle of constitutional law” that “the president may decline to prosecute or may pardon because of the president’s own constitutional concerns about a law or because of policy objections to the law.” 

The historical irony, of course, is that a presidential power forged in a bitter political dispute over the property rights of Confederate rebels is now being used to afford a measure of justice to federal drug offenders, who are disproportionately African-American.  Turnabout, I suppose, is fair play.  But the president’s power is beyond dispute.

A few prior recent related posts:

July 27, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, July 24, 2015

Many notable passages in recent sentencing reform speech by DAG Yates

Images (5)Earlier this week in this post, I noted that US Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates has been saying a lot of interest and import in support of federal sentencing reform efforts.  Of particular note, DAG Yates on Wednesday delivered these significant remarks at the Bipartisan Summit on Fair Justice.  The full speech should be read by all those interested in federal sentencing reform debates, and these passages struck me as worth highlighting:

[I]t’s because I’m a prosecutor that I believe so strongly in criminal justice reform.  I have seen firsthand the impact that our current system and particularly our federal drug sentencing laws, can have on communities, families, the public fisc and public confidence in our criminal justice system.  And it’s because of that I believe that we can and we must do better....

I’ve been a prosecutor for 26 years.  I believe in holding people accountable when they violate the law and I believe that some people are dangerous and need to go to prison, sometimes for a very long time.  But our system of justice must be capable of distinguishing between the individual that threatens our safety and needs to be imprisoned, versus the individual for whom alternatives to incarceration better serve not only that individual, but also make our communities safer....

While the country’s population has grown by about a third since 1980, our federal prison population has grown by 800 percent, due in large part to the influx of drug defendants. And today, under the current sentencing regime, our mandatory minimum laws do not calibrate a defendant’s sentence to match the threat that he or she poses to our safety.  At its core, one of the basic problems with our mandatory minimum system is that it’s based almost exclusively on one factor — drug quantity.  And so we have a hard time distinguishing the cartel leader who needs to be in prison for a long time from the low level mope who doesn’t.  As a result, we have some defendants serving far more time in prison than necessary to punish and deter and instead, in the words of former Attorney General Holder, sometimes we warehouse and forget.  This comes with great costs.  Costs to operate our prison system, costs to our families and communities and costs to the public’s confidence in their system of justice.

From a dollars and cents standpoint, prisons and detention now account for roughly one-third of the department’s budget.  Every dollar that we spend incarcerating non-violent drug offenders is a dollar that we can’t spend investigating today’s emerging threats, from hackers to home-grown terrorists.  These costs are swallowing up funds that would otherwise be available for state and local law enforcement, victims of crime and prevention and reentry programs....

Some states have been great innovators in criminal justice reform.  I met just yesterday with the National District Attorneys Association and I learned of many programs, from drug courts to recidivism reduction programs going on across the country designed to shift from incarceration as the only answer to prevention as the first response.  And many states, red states and blue states, like Texas, Ohio, North Carolina and my home state of Georgia, faced with exploding prison costs, have enacted bold criminal justice reform not only reducing the size of their prison populations, but also and this is the important part, reducing crime rates as well.  In the 29 states that have enacted laws limiting mandatory minimum sentences, shifting funds from incarceration to prevention, virtually every state has experienced a reduction in violent crime as well.

Despite all of this, there are some who want to keep things as they are.  One of the most common concerns that I hear expressed about eliminating or reducing mandatory minimums is that long sentences for low level defendants is the only way to secure cooperation against the worst criminals.  Not only is this inconsistent with my personal experience as a prosecutor, it is inconsistent with the data we have gathered since the Department of Justice recalibrated our drug charging policy two years ago.  As I expect you know, under former Attorney General Holder’s smart on crime policy, prosecutors were directed not to charge mandatory minimums for lower level, non-violent drug offenders and our use of mandatory minimums decreased by 20 percent.  Although some feared that defendants would stop pleading guilty and stop cooperating, our experience has been just the opposite. In fact, defendants are pleading guilty at the same rates as they were before we instituted the new policy.  So the fear that not charging mandatory minimums would prevent us from being able to work our way up the chain just hasn’t been borne out....

I am here in part because I believe that sentencing reform will make prosecutors and law enforcement officers more effective, not less.  Our ability to do good in this world — to advocate for victims, to hold wrongdoers accountable, to seek justice in all its forms — depends on public confidence in the institutions we represent.  It’s based on a hard-earned reputation for fairness, impartiality and proportionality that has forever been the bedrock of our criminal justice system.

As prosecutors, it is our obligation to speak out against injustices and to correct them when we can.  That’s why the Department of Justice is so engaged on this issue and I why I look forward to working with members of both parties as we seek a more proportional system of justice. Our nation and its citizens deserve nothing less.

Related recent prior posts:

July 24, 2015 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Prez Obama makes history, and reflects, as he visits federal prison in Oklahoma


This New York Times article, headlined "Obama, in Oklahoma, Takes Reform Message to the Prison Cell Block," provides a report on the President's historic visit to a federal corrections institute, FCI Reno:

They opened the door to Cell 123 and President Obama stared inside.  In the space of 9 feet by 10, he saw three bunks, a toilet with no seat, a small sink, metal cabinets, a little wooden night table with a dictionary and other books, and the life he might have had.

As it turns out, there is a fine line between president and prisoner.  As Mr. Obama became the first occupant of his high office to visit a federal correctional facility, he said he could not help reflecting on what might have been.  After all, as a young man, he had smoked marijuana and tried cocaine. But he did not end up with a prison term, let alone one lasting decades. “There but for the grace of God,” Mr. Obama said after his tour. “And that is something we all have to think about.” ...

Mr. Obama came here to showcase a bid to overhaul America’s criminal justice system in a way none of his predecessors have tried to do, at least not in modern times. Where other presidents worked to make life harder for criminals, Mr. Obama wants to make their conditions better.

With 18 months left in office, he has embarked on a new effort to reduce sentences for nonviolent offenders; to make it easier for former convicts to re-enter society; and to revamp prison life by easing overcrowding, cracking down on inmate rape and limiting solitary confinement.

What was once politically unthinkable has become a bipartisan venture.  Mr. Obama is making common cause with Republicans and Democrats who have come to the conclusion that the United States has given excessive sentences to too many nonviolent offenders, at an enormous moral and financial cost to the country.  This week, Mr. Obama commuted the sentences of 46 such prisoners and gave a speech calling for legislation to overhaul the criminal justice system by the end of the year.

He came to the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution on Thursday to get a firsthand look at what he is focused on.  Accompanied by aides, correctional officials and a phalanx of Secret Service agents, he crossed through multiple layers of metal gates and fences topped by concertina wire to tour the prison and talk with some of the nonviolent drug offenders he says should not be serving such long sentences.

The prison was locked down for his visit.  He was brought to Cell Block B, which had been emptied for the occasion.  Only security personnel were outside on the carefully trimmed grass yards.  The only inmates Mr. Obama saw were six nonviolent drug offenders who were selected to have a conversation with him recorded by the news organization Vice for a documentary on the criminal justice system that will air on HBO in the fall.

But those six made an impression.  “When they describe their youth and their childhood, these are young people who made mistakes that aren’t that different from the mistakes I made and the mistakes that a lot of you guys made,” Mr. Obama told reporters afterward.  “The difference is, they did not have the kind of support structures, the second chances, the resources that would allow them to survive those mistakes.”

He added that “we have a tendency sometimes to take for granted or think it’s normal” that so many young people have been locked up for drug crimes. “It’s not normal,” he said.  “It’s not what happens in other countries. What is normal is teenagers doing stupid things.  What is normal is young people who make mistakes.” If they had the same advantages he and others have had, Mr. Obama added, they “could be thriving in the way we are.”

Still, he made a distinction between nonviolent drug offenders like those he was introduced to here and other criminals guilty of crimes like murder, rape and assault. “There are people who need to be in prison,” Mr. Obama said. “I don’t have tolerance for violent criminals; many of them may have made mistakes, but we need to keep our communities safe.”

More than 2.2 million Americans are behind bars, and one study found that the size of the state and federal prison population is seven times what it was 40 years ago. Although the United States makes up less than 5 percent of the world’s population, it has more than 20 percent of its prison population. This has disproportionately affected young Hispanic and African-American men. And many more have been released but have convictions on their records that make it hard to find jobs or to vote.

In visiting El Reno, Mr. Obama got a look at a medium-security prison with a minimum-security satellite camp, housing a total of 1,300 inmates. He said the facility was an “outstanding institution” with job training, drug counseling and other programs, but had suffered from overcrowding. As many as three inmates have been kept in each of the tiny cells he saw.

“Three full-grown men in a 9-by-10 cell,” Mr. Obama said with a tone of astonishment. Lately, the situation has improved enough to get it down to two per cell. But, he said, “overcrowding like that is something that has to be addressed.”

Advocates said no president had ever highlighted the conditions of prisoners in such a fulsome way. “They’re out of sight and out of mind,” Cornell William Brooks, the president of the N.A.A.C.P., said in an interview. “To have a president say by his actions, by his speech, by his example, ‘You’re in sight and in mind of the American public and of this democracy,’ it’s critically important.”

But the president is not the only one these days. Republicans like Senators John Cornyn of Texas, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Charles E. Grassley of Iowa and Mike Lee of Utah have been working with their Democratic counterparts to develop legislation addressing such concerns.

Though I am not really expecting it, I would love for this kind of presidential visit to a prison to become a regular habit and something of a tradition. As President Obama stressed in his recent speech to the NAACP, most of the persons behind bars "are also Americans" and all presidents should be committed to serving all Americans, even those who are incarcerated.

July 16, 2015 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Monday, July 06, 2015

Did Justice Department during AG Eric Holder's tenure really do "as much as [they] could" on criminal justice reform?

The question in the title of this post is my (somewhat muted) reaction to a key quote from this newly published Q&A interview with former Attorney General Eric Holder.  Let me quote the Q&A passage of interest here and then provide a somewhat less muted reaction thereafter:

Q: Back to the criminal side, during your tenure, you made criminal justice reform a big priority. Are you frustrated with how far you got or didn't get, and is that something you can work on at Covington also?

A: I'm actually kind of satisfied with where we got.  The job's not done.  You know, I think we did as much as we could using executive branch discretion, but now it's up to Congress to put in place measures that will last beyond this administration.  We made a sea change from the policies that I inherited and consistent with kind of my own experience as just a line lawyer at the Justice Department for 12 years.  Put more discretion in the hands of those line lawyers, who I have great respect for.  But now Congress needs to act.

I am happy and eager to credit former AG Holder for doing significant criminal justice reform work while heading the Justice Department through "executive branch discretion" on topics ranging from mandatory minimum charging policies to marijuana enforcement to drug sentencing reform advocacy.  But the claim that DOJ under AG Holder did "as much as we could" genuinely leads me to wonder, if being a bit intemperate, "What the **%&$^# are you talking about or smoking, Eric!?!?!?!?."  On "executive branch discretion" fronts ranging from implementing the Fair Sentencing Act to DOJ clemency policies and practices to executive branch advocacy in other branches, Holder's Justice Department could have (and, in my view, should have) done so much more to transform the modern structures and systems that have produced modern mass incarceration.

I am inclined to agree with former AG Holder that a "sea change" on criminal justice policies has transpired, but I believe AG Holder and his Justice Department were, generally speaking, much more content to ride along with the changing tides rather than taking a leading role in directing this change.  Consequently, in my view, a more fitting and honest statement from former AG Holder would have had him saying something like: "Given the limited political capital I was willing to spend on significant criminal justice reforms, especially during Prez Obama's first Term, and my own disinclination to lead on this front until I decided exactly when I wanted to resign, I think we ended up getting more done than some people might have expected and we effectively avoided stirring up too much political backlash (except from folks like Bill Otis)."

July 6, 2015 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Friday, June 26, 2015

Bipartisan SAFE Justice Act with array of federal sentencing reforms introduced by House leaders

SS-602x399As this report from The Hill details, a notable and significant group of Representatives are backing a notable and significant new federal criminal justice reform bill.  Here are the basics:

A bipartisan pair of lawmakers on Thursday unveiled a comprehensive criminal reform bill aimed at reducing the federal prison population.  The Safe, Accountable, Fair, and Effective (SAFE) Justice Act from Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) and Bobby Scott (D-Va.) calls for new rehabilitation methods and sentencing reforms.  The bill is the result of the House Judiciary Committee's over-criminalization task force which examined ways to reform federal prisons....

Sensenbrenner said the bill was intended to reverse the staggering increase in the prison population, which has quadrupled in the last 30 years.  Despite increased incarceration and spending on prisons, recidivism still remains a problem, he also noted.  The bill applies mandatory minimums only to major crimes, and “expands recidivism reduction programming to incentivize and reward those who are working to make a change,” Sensenbrenner said....

Scott said the bill would encourage innovate approaches to criminal justice reform. “We were not interested in playing politics with crime policy,” said Scott.  He noted that 32 states had been able to reduce both crime and incarceration rates over the past five years. Calling those states "laboratories of democracy," he said the bill adopted many of those tested practices.

Scott lamented the high incarceration rate in the U.S. He said the bill aims to “direct non-violent low level, first time offenders from prison" and better acknowledge the conditions that lead to crime.  “If you address those underlying issues, you will have a better return rate than just from locking them up,” he said.

The bill also garnered support from major groups across the political spectrum. Leaders and representatives from Koch Industries, the ACLU, the NAACP, the Washington D.C. Police Foundation, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, and the Center for Criminal Justice Reform at the American Conservative Union have expressed support for the bill.

The bill is co-sponsored by Reps. Doug Collins (R-Ga.), Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), Raul Labrador (R-Idaho), Judy Chu (D-Calif.), Mia Love (R-Utah), and Scott Rigell (R-Va). “Too many of our children have gotten caught into a cycle that they can not get out of,” said Love, explaining the bill's appeal.

Rep. Rigell touted the broad coalition backing the bill, which includes Koch Industries, owned-by the Koch Brothers, who are major conservative donors. “If you think of those as two gate posts, “ he said, noting Koch Industries and the ACLU, “that’s an awfully wide gate.”

I am struggling to find on-line the full text of this important new federal sentencing reform proposal, but this summary from FAMM leads me to believe that this new SAFE Justice Act may go significantly farther (and be more politically viable) that the Smarter Sentencing Act and the Justice Safety Valve Act proposals that failed to move forward in the last Congress.  Indeed, these passages from this new Vox article, which provides the most detailed media account of the SAFE Justice bill's specifics, is prompting me to think all would-be federal reformers — including Prez Obama and his Justice Department, and especially Senators Cruz and Paul and other reform-minded GOP Prez candidates — should think seriously about giving up on the SSA and other reform bills now in the Senate in order to put all their advocacy efforts behind getting SAFE Justice passed through the House ASAP:

While Senate efforts at criminal justice reform have exposed a generational split in the Republican Party, in which young reformers like Senators Mike Lee and Rand Paul face off against old-school, tough-on-crime conservatives like Senators Chuck Grassley and Jeff Sessions, the House's bill was written by one of those old-school Republicans — Rep. James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin — as well as Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA).

Sensenbrenner and Scott think of the Safe Justice Act as a federal version of the criminal justice reform bills that have been taken up in state after state over the past several years, many of them under the mottos of "justice reinvestment" and "smart on crime." In their minds, they're building on what's worked in the states and are in line with reformers' emphasis on "data-driven" and "evidence-based" criminal justice policymaking.

The Safe Justice Act is a collection of dozens of different reforms. Most of them aren't terribly big on their own, but many of them overlap. That makes it really hard to estimate exactly how much the federal prison population would shrink if the bill became law. But its effect would be bigger than anything that's been introduced in Congress so far.

Many of the reforms would cut sentences for drug crimes — which reflects a growing consensus that nonviolent drug offenses aren't as bad as violent crimes. Drug prisoners are about half of all federal prisoners (unlike in states, where violent crime is the biggest cause of incarceration). That means that many of the Safe Justice Act's biggest reforms would target the largest slice of the federal population....

Most changes to prison sentences in Congress have focused on cutting mandatory minimum sentences, which force judges to sentence people to five, 10, or 20 years for certain drug crimes. But across-the-board cuts to mandatory minimums have been met with serious resistance from old-school Republicans, including Senate Judiciary Chair Chuck Grassley (R-IA). The House's solution, via the Safe Justice Act, isn't to reduce the mandatory minimums themselves — but to narrow the range of people who they apply to. Instead of someone who's convicted of trafficking a certain amount of cocaine being automatically sentenced to 10 years, for example, he'd only trigger the 10-year minimum if he were also a leader or organizer of an organization of five or more people. And even then, the bill says that judges can override the mandatory minimum if the defendant doesn't have much of a criminal history, or has a serious drug problem.

The bill would also make it possible for more people to be sentenced to probation instead of getting sent to prison. It would allow drug offenders to get probation if they'd been convicted of low-level drug crimes before. It would encourage judges to give probation to first-time low-level offenders. And it would encourage districts to start up drug courts and other "problem-solving courts"; some states have found these are better ways to treat some addicts than prison is....

Current prisoners whose sentences would have been affected by the bill's front-end reforms could apply to get their sentences reduced that way. But the Safe Justice Act would also give them another way to reduce their sentences: by getting time off for rehabilitation. Under the bill, every federal prisoner would get an individual case plan, based on what particular prison education, work, substance abuse, or other programs are the best fit for his needs. For every month a prisoner follows the case plan, he'd get 10 days off his prison sentence — meaning a prisoner with a perfect behavior record could get his sentence reduced by a third. (Prisoners serving time for homicide, terrorism, or sex crimes aren't eligible for time off, but that's a very small slice of the federal prison population.) The logic is that prisoners who want to rehabilitate themselves, and whose good behavior shows they're succeeding, shouldn't be forced to spend extra time in prison just for prison's sake.

The bill goes even further when it comes to probation — which affects many more people than prison. For every month of perfect behavior on probation, the offender would get 30 days off the end of his sentence — essentially cutting the probation term in half. If the offender violated probation, on the other hand, there would be a set of gradually escalating punishments, instead of an automatic ticket back to prison....

In the year 2015, it is extremely hard to get any sort of bill through Congress. And Sensenbrenner, Scott, and their fellow reformers have a narrow window before the presidential campaign saps Congress of any will to act it has left. So the barriers are pretty high. But this isn't, in itself, supposed to be a polarizing bill. The presence of Sensenbrenner and other old-school Republicans reflects that. And this is something that both houses of Congress have been debating for some time.

If House leadership decides to snatch up the Safe Justice Act and bring it to the floor quickly, it might give the Senate enough time to act. Maybe they'll be interested in the provisions that would make it a little harder for the federal government to treat regulatory violations as crimes; that's a pet cause of conservatives, even those who aren't otherwise committed to reforming criminal justice.

Still, House leadership might not be interested. But this is the broadest bill that's been introduced during the current wave of criminal justice reform, and it's a marker of just how much consensus there is among reformers in both parties when it comes to reducing federal incarceration.

June 26, 2015 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Circa mid-2015, Clemency Project 2014 will go down as an abject failure if it does not submit more petitions before 2016

This notable new USA Today article, headlined "'The clock is running' on Obama clemency initiative," reports that the various administrative and practical difficulties encountered (and self-created?) by those trying to get Prez Obama more good clemency case are now seemingly at risk of completely "screwing the pooch" on the whole clemency push.  Here are the discouraging details:

The Obama administration is urging lawyers for federal inmates to move more quickly in filing petitions for presidential clemency, reminding them that "the clock is running" on the Obama presidency. The new urgency from the Justice Department comes more than a year into a program intended to shorten the sentences to federal inmates who would have gotten less time under current law.

That clemency initiative was coupled with the Clemency Project 2014, an outside consortium of lawyers working on those cases. But the Clemency Project filed only 31 petitions in its first year, leading to criticism from some proponents of criminal justice reform that the process is moving too slowly.

"If there is one message I want you to take away today, it's this: Sooner is better," U.S. Pardon Attorney Deborah Leff told volunteer lawyers in a video seminar last week. "Delaying is not helpful." Leff is the Justice Department official who provides recommendations on commutations and pardons to the president, who under the Constitution has the power to shorten sentences for federal crimes and to restore other civil rights....

The Clemency Project has set a goal of Jan. 20, 2016, for all petitions to be filed, to give the Obama administration a full year to consider them and send them to the president's desk for a decision before his term ends. Leff said any petitions that come in after that date could be left to Obama's successor. "So if we receive an enormous number of petitions at the last minute, yes, they will be reviewed. But a lot of them will not be reviewed during this administration," she said.

She also suggested that attorneys were spending too much time on cases. "While I greatly admire your legal skills, this is not the time to prepare a treatise of hundreds of pages," she told the lawyers.

Another problem is paperwork. The Office of the Pardon Attorney requires the pre-sentence report for every inmate, but that can involve a complicated process of court approval. "It's been a real bottleneck to get these documents into the hands of the lawyers," said James Felman, a Tampa attorney who chairs the criminal defense committee of the American Bar Association. So the Clemency Project has now streamlined that process, allowing the Bureau of Prisons to supply that document unless a judge objects.

Felman said lawyers also need to understand that they're asking the president for mercy, and so need to be forthright about the strengths and weaknesses of the case. "Aggressive lawyering is not necessarily going to pay off," he said. The cases don't have to be perfect. Felman said the Justice Department has signaled a willingness to consider cases that don't meet all of the criteria. "Some of the criteria are less definite than others. Like, for example, a clean record in prison. Nobody has a perfect record in prison," he said.

And the Justice Department said that even cases that aren't appropriate for the clemency initiative — which is intended for people who have already served at least 10 years — will still get consideration. "In addition to the president's clemency initiative, he continues to consider commutations under the traditional criteria for clemency," said Justice Department spokeswoman Dena Iverson. "Every applicant for clemency receives an individual review."

Margaret Love, a Washington attorney who had Leff's job in the Clinton administration, said she worries that an emphasis on the volume and speed of cases could compromise the ability of attorneys to make the best argument for their clients. "What I heard was hurry up, hurry up, deliver as many cases as quickly as you possibly can," she said. "If it's true that there were only 31 cases submitted by the project by the end of May, that's surprising given the number of lawyers they have working on them."

Regular readers know that, ever since Prez Obama and his Aministration started talking up an effort to get serious about using the clemency power seriously, I have been regularly expressing concerns about how structurally peculiar and procedurally belabored this new (and now not-so-new) clemency push has been. My particular worry, which is exacerbated by articles like this one and other similar reports, has been that a robust effort by defense lawyer groups to (1) review the complete files of, and (2) provide trained lawyers for, and (3) present a complete and extensive argument/application for, any and every federal prisoner who might want to pursue a clemency application could create a whole lot of costly and time-consuming busy work with few real substantive benefits. This is especially so given that, as all serious federal clemency advocates should know, the Pardon Attorney's Office has historically always taken its sweet time to assemble and review the files of any clemency application and will always (and justifiably) be wary of relying on just the information and representations made by a clemency applicant and is lawyer.

That all said, I remain hopeful that all the hard work being done by all the groups and lawyers involved in Clemency Project 2014 will prove meaningful and valuable and will ultimately enable Prez Obama to live up to his promises to get serious about using the clemency power seriously before he leave office in January 2017. But that might now require those working on Clemency Project 2014 to get serious about getting their applications submitted ASAP rather than continuing to spend time letting the perfect be the enemy of the good enough in this arena.

Some prior related posts:

June 25, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

"I know there needs to be [sentencing] reform,” Sen. Chuck Grassley says. “We need this.”

Secondary_150623_chuck_grassley_gty_1160The title of this post is the (slightly modified) subheadline of this lengthy new Politico report, headlined "Riots spur Senate look at sentencing reform." Here are excerpts:

After the Baltimore and Ferguson riots ignited nationwide discussions of race and criminal justice, a bipartisan group of top Senators is making headway on a sentencing reform compromise to release well-behaved prisoners early and reduce some mandatory-minimums.

But the fledgling proposal — yet to be committed to paper — faces potential resistance from the wings of both parties: Liberals and libertarians who want it to go further, and tough-on-crime conservatives who fear that it lets convicts off the hook.

The group, led by Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), is writing legislation to allow convicts with low risks of recidivism to earn time off their sentences. They’re also contemplating reductions to some nonviolent drug-related mandatory minimums — and maybe even increasing others on white-collar crime in the name of sentencing equality. Talks are ongoing.

The path forward is uncertain, however. Grassley must thread the needle between his colleagues like Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) — who say the war on drugs is dead and want to ditch mandatory minimums completely — and lawmakers like Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), who are leery of ditching all such sentencing requirements and still back a tough-on-crime mindset that dominated the GOP in the 1980s and 1990s. It also marks a transition for Grassley, who’s never been a big advocate for reducing mandatory minimums and has been labelled an arch-nemesis of criminal justice reform by newspapers back home in Iowa.

“I have different views than Paul and those guys,” Grassley said in a short interview. “They’d make you believe [people are incarcerated] for smoking one pot or one ‘roach’ … But they’re not; they’re in for a lifetime of violent crime.” “But I know there needs to be reform,” he quickly added. “We need this.”

It’s a political gamble. On the one hand, the group risks being accused of writing a watered-down overhaul; on the other, lawmakers don’t want to be accused of letting convicts off too easily. Striking a balance between those two positions has been difficult in the past — and one of the reasons such legislation hasn’t been enacted in previous congresses.

“You’ve got to be very careful,” said Sessions, a former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Alabama who’s already skeptical of the burgeoning deal. He launched into a lecture: “Historic criminal justice reform in the early 1980s has led to this dramatic drop in the crime rate. I mean, the murder rate is less than half of what it was — and so [mandatory minimums were] a fundamental component… I don’t want us to go further than we should in reducing sentences.”

The new compromise package comes amidst heightened inter-racial tensions following the deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of police officers. And when a young white man murdered nine black churchgoers in Charleston, S.C., because of their skin color, the nation was again plunged into discussions of race relations. “My hope is that in light of what happened in South Carolina, we think beyond the symbolism of the [confederate] flag, to changes that really show we’re committed to fairness when it comes to racial equality,” said Democratic Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who is part of the compromise group.

For supporters of sentencing reform, reform is needed in the name of equality. Many mandatory minimums disproportionately affect African Americans because they are used for sentencing drug-related crimes that plague predominately lower-income, urban populations. “We’re housing too many of our citizens who are committing nonviolent crimes,” said civil rights activist Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.). “So many people, especially, low-income people who can’t hire lawyers — and it’s not fair.”...

Over the past few years, reform negotiations have been dominated by people like Paul and more libertarian-type Republicans, as well as Democrats such as Leahy. The pair have teamed up on legislation that effectively eliminates mandatory minimums by allowing judges to override them. But the idea of eliminating mandatory minimum makes people like Grassley and his co-Republican negotiator, Sen. John Cornyn, nervous.

“Having been a judge for 13 years and attorney general, my observation is we have to be careful,” Cornyn said during a Tuesday interview in his Senate office. “Even though people may be well intentioned, there could be very negative consequences.”

The package marries provisions of two bills that passed the Judiciary panel last Congress. The first, sponsored by Cornyn and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), another member of the group, focuses on the back end of sentencing reform by letting inmates out early and giving them tools to assimilate back to normal life. The program would only be offered for prisoners considered to have a low risk of re-offending and who do not have prior convictions. Those who have committed more serious crimes such as rape, murder or terrorism wouldn’t be eligible.

“The people coming out of prison are better prepared to re-enter society and be productive as opposed to regressing back into their life of crime,” under the program, said Cornyn, who notes that states have found positive results by implementing these sorts of programs. In Texas, Cornyn’s home state, such reductions have allowed them to close three prisons, he says. The deal would also take a page out of a bipartisan bill called “Smarter Sentencing” that would reduce mandatory minimums for drug crimes.

The compromise would leave intact mandatory minimums on violent offences as well as convictions that involve the use of firearms (an important exception for Cornyn), importing heroin and cocaine (a requirement of Grassley’s), gang involvement and terrorism, among others. “It’s narrow category of drug sentencing… but it would have a dramatic impact on the population in our federal prisons,” Durbin said.

Critics like Leahy, however, are bound to have reservations because the bill likely won’t go far enough. “Passage of mandatory minimum sentencing laws has not made us safer, but it has driven our federal prison population to historic highs — a nearly 800 percent increase in 30 years,” the former Judiciary chairman said in late April, speaking to The Constitution Project. “I oppose all mandatory minimums.”

Leahy, one of the Democrats’ lead voices on this issue, also isn’t a fan of the Cornyn bill — ultimately abstaining from voting on the measure last year because he believes it will just exacerbate racial disparity with its “high risk,” “low” designations. Paul’s office would not weigh in on the package that’s still in the works.

Other lawmakers are taking the opposite tack. When asked about such a package, Sessions on Monday ranted about “safer streets … where children can be raised,” and likened the debate to a “pendulum that tends to swing.” Rubio has also written op-eds expressing reservations about getting rid of certain minimum sentence requirements. And Grassley, whose committee staff is taking the lead on the matter, is sympathetic to those worries. In fact, it’s ironic that Grassley — who was not invited to the White House when Obama hosted Republicans to discuss this issue — is taking the lead on the compromise. Back home, the Des Moines Register called him a “stumbling block remains stubbornly in place.”

But Grassley says he’s always favored reducing some minimum sentences. He also wants to increase others, however — placing him at odds with some Democrats he’s currently negotiating with. He’d like to increase mandatory minimums on white color crimes like fraud, he says.

While they applauded the idea of allowing prisoners to earn more time off their sentences, several Congressional Black Caucus members engaged in the criminal justice reform talks threw cold water on that particular pitch. “That’s not the way to do it,” said Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.). “I would oppose that for the same reason I’m opposed to mandatory minimums on other crimes: They take discretion away from the judge and put too much discretion in the hands of the prosecution.” Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) said the idea would “clearly” addresses the question of equal treatment for black and white offenders, but he has “an objection to mandatory minimums beyond the equity question.”...

Other pieces of the package still up in the air include provisions limiting asset seizures, or funding police body cameras — but Grassley worries bringing those into the negotiations at this point may hinder talks.

Cornyn suggested the group would be open to changes in committee and on the floor — so long as they don’t take the bill too far off course from the direction it’s headed, he added. And despite potential pitfalls to come, Whitehouse seemed confident they could deliver: “There’s a sweet spot for people who support reconsideration of mandatory minimums… there is a sweet spot in the middle.”

June 24, 2015 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, June 15, 2015

Perspectives on Clemency Project 2014 from federal prisoners and an advocate for them

Regular readers know I have given lots of space recently to coverage and criticism of federal clemency efforts.  I am pleased to continue now with a guest post via Beth Curtis, a prisoner advocate who runs the website Life for Pot.  Beth sent this extended commentary my way under the heading "Inspired by the Dialogue between Margaret Colgate Love here and Mark Osler here on Douglas Berman’s Blog Sentencing Law and Policy":

At the launch of Clemency Project 2014 [CP-14], Craig Cesal, a non-violent marijuana offender on the Life for Pot site and his cell mate Samuel Edmonson a non-violent cocaine offender were both talking about and working on petitions for commutation.  Both Craig and Samuel had sentences of life without parole and had nothing to lose.

The two cell mates had a discussion about whether or not they should file their own petitions just in case there were going to be commutations before attorneys from The Clemency Project 2014 could prepare one for them.  Craig argued that the project had said there was no reason for filing on your own, as the criteria was different and it would probably have to be done again.  Samuel on the other hand decided that he should be sure he had a petition in the Pardon Attorney’s office and in February of 2014, he filed a brief petition for commutation that he did himself.

Very early in the process both of these offenders were assigned pro bono attorneys from the same law firm.  Samuel and Craig had initial contacts with their pro bono attorneys, but after that contact they were not contacted again and did not know if any work was being done.  

In March of 2015 Samuel received a commutation for his life sentence from President Barack Obama based on the petition he filed himself.

We were interested in this because there were only three life for pot inmates that we knew of who had been assigned pro bono attorneys and they only had initial contacts.  We contacted inmates and suggested that they begin preparing their own Clemency Petitions and file them, we don’t know if CP-14 will be able to overcome the cumbersome procedure.

In March of 2015 Larry Duke, a 68 year old non-violent marijuana offender with a sentence of life without parole was released.  Larry’s immediate release was pursuant to 18 USC 3582(c)(1)(A)(i).  The “extraordinary and compelling reasons” for the release was Larry’s status as an elderly inmate.  Although Larry is over 65 he is also the healthiest of those on the Life for Pot site.  Larry had a contact from a pro bono attorney through Clemency Project 2014.  We called his attorney who did not know he had been released.

We started getting questions about the process for Reduction in Sentence [RIS] from non-violent marijuana offenders.  They wanted to know if they should file for sentencing relief even though they had filled out a survey to request an attorney through Clemency Project 2014.

These are not legal questions, but questions about procedure and we sought answers from an attorney with CP–14.  It was their considered opinion that the elder inmates should not file for RIS until CP–14 had completed the process as clemency might be held up until the (CR/RIS) was resolved.

Inmates found that BOP facilities were not aware of the elderly, over the age of 65, criteria for applying for RIS.  This remedy has seldom been used and “extraordinary and compelling reasons” were interpreted by the BOP as being almost lifeless chained to a hospital bed.

How much hope should we have for this process?  Was Larry Duke’s release singular, or will this be the beginning of an accelerated process?  We would like to know.

The hope and promise of Clemency Project 2014 is like a breath of air for these nonviolent inmates who will be behind bars till they die if no one exercises compassion, mercy and justice.  We’re listening carefully to the dialogue between Mark Osler and Margaret Love about the hope and promise for relief.

We are in the 18th month since the launch of the project and yet only two inmates have been released through this apparently clogged tunnel to freedom.  Much has been written in support of clemency and its use to address serious facility overcrowding and sentencing disparity.  Information about progress is scant and prisoners, their families and advocates worry about the progress and the will of the Administration.

Lately these public discussions by well-known clemency advocates pondering the most effective way to deal with the over incarceration gives us hope.  Margaret Colgate Love and Mark Osler’s point counter point about it on the blog Sentencing Law and Policy by Douglas Berman gave us insight. I believe these discussions are helpful but not a substitute for more transparency and concrete information given to the inmates, their families and advocates about procedure and progress.  We need to respect these vulnerable non-violent citizens.

It would be an insensitive travesty if this program that was announced with such fanfare and gave such hope to thousands of inmates, their family and friends and advocacy groups did not fulfill the promise of compassion and mercy.  These non-violent incarcerated people are accustomed to broken promises, but this one can be easily fulfilled by a bold administration with the courage of their stated convictions.  For years, nonviolent inmate advocates have felt that bi-partisan support would be the key to this realignment of positions and lead to fiscal responsibility and compassion.  Bipartisan support has arrived and we have the promise, it just needs to be fulfilled.

Some prior related posts:

June 15, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (9)

Friday, June 05, 2015

Former Pardon Attorney: "A Modest Proposal to Expedite the Administration's Clemency Initiative"

Love_margaret_02_crop2_MA31053191-0003Regular readers know I have given lots of space this week to coverage and criticism of federal clemency efforts.  I am pleased to continue now with a guest post via former Pardon Attorney Margaret Love, which she sent my way under the title "A Modest Proposal to Expedite the Administration's Clemency Initiative":

Mark Osler’s post in this space on June 4 ("Another View on Clemency Project 2014") recounts his unsuccessful efforts several years ago to persuade the Administration to establish a presidential commission, similar to the one that handled cases of Vietnam draft evaders and deserters during the Ford Administration, to review and recommend clemency relief for the thousands of prisoners serving prison sentences imposed more than a decade ago that are now generally considered far too severe.  He suggests that the reason the Administration chose not to follow this path relates to its doubt that Congress would fund such an effort. Instead, the Justice Department chose to address the problem of excessive sentences by asking a consortium of private organizations to manage it through the volunteer efforts of the private bar.

We will never know whether Professor Osler’s commission idea would have worked, or whether lack of funding was the reason it was rejected.  But it does appear that the structure put in place instead to manage the Administration's clemency initiative has (in his words) “struggled with the overwhelming number of cases (over 30,000) referred to it.”

It did not help that the Administrative Office for U.S. Courts sharply limited the role that Federal Public Defender Organizations could play in the clemency initiative, by declaring that CJA funds could not be spent on clemency representations.  Many, including myself, believe that the sentencing expertise and advocacy of the Federal Defenders is critical to implementing the sort of large scale program of sentence reduction the Administration evidently had in mind.

But there is another approach that might have been taken by the Administration that would have ensured a central role for the Federal Defenders.  This approach, which might still be taken, would make extraordinary sentence reduction the responsibility of the federal courts as well as of the President.  Bringing cases back to court would not require new legislation or new funds, since there is already on the books a judicial sentence reduction authority that could achieve the same result as executive clemency, through court proceedings where CJA appointments are clearly authorized.  And, because a large scale sentence reduction program is already underway in the federal courts, economies of scale are possible.

Specifically, 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A)(i) provides that a court may at any time reduce a sentence upon motion of the Bureau of Prisons for “extraordinary and compelling reasons.” The Sentencing Commission is authorized under 28 U.S.C. § 994(t) to establish policy for courts considering BOP motions under § 3582(c)(1)(A)(i), which it has done under USSG ¶ 1B1.13.  Under this policy guideline, “extraordinary and compelling reasons” that may justify sentence reduction include terminal illness, a physical or medical condition that diminishes a person’s ability to provide self-care in a prison environment, the death or incapacitation of a child’s only caregiver, and any other reason that may be determined to be “extraordinary and compelling” by the Director of BOP. It is noteworthy that several of the organizations represented on the Clemency Project 2014 steering committee are on record with the Sentencing Commission as favoring a more expansive menu of “extraordinary and compelling reasons” warranting sentence reduction, including one that now seems prescient: “the defendant would have received a significantly lower sentence under a subsequent change in applicable law that has not been made retroactive.”

Less than two years ago BOP issued a new policy statement with a list of circumstances in which it may seek a sentence reduction, a list that is evidently not intended to be exhaustive. See Program Statement 5050.46, as amended (August 12, 2013).  Accordingly, there is no reason why BOP could not determine, with or without an amendment to ¶ 1B1.13, that “extraordinary and compelling reasons” exist in any case meeting the criteria set forth by the Deputy Attorney General as warranting a grant of clemency. The coincidence of the standards in the two contexts would be particularly fitting in light of the fact that the judicial sentence reduction authority in § 3582(c)(1)(A)(i) was originally enacted in 1976, at the Justice Department’s instance, to expedite sentence reductions that previously had required a clemency application to be submitted to the President through the Office of the Pardon Attorney.

There are in addition other reasons why it would be appropriate to supplement the clemency initiative with a statutory sentence reduction initiative implemented through the courts, including a general preference for a judicial decision-maker under federal sentencing law and policy, and for a congressionally authorized approach over an extra-legal use of executive power. Most scholars agree that clemency ought always to be a second choice where the law provides a remedy for sentencing unfairness or undue severity, as it does in this case.  See, e.g., Daniel J. Freed & Steven L. Chanenson, Pardon Power and Sentencing Policy, 13 Fed. Sent. Rptr. 119, 124 (2001) (“Wherever a rule can be structured to guide the discretion of judges or administrative agencies in determining – with reasons – whether to mitigate the sentences of similarly situated offenders, we think such a system should ordinarily be accorded priority over one that relies exclusively upon the unstructured, unexplained discretion of a president to grant or deny individual pardons or commutations.”)

Traditionally, the Federal Defenders have played a central role in proceedings involving judicial consideration of sentence reduction under § 3582(c)(2) where guideline ranges have been lowered, even though there is no constitutional right to counsel in such proceedings.  They are key players in the massive effort to reduce sentences now underway under the so-called “Drugs Minus Two” guidelines amendment. There is no reason why the Defenders should not play a similar role in judicial sentence reduction proceedings under § 3582(c)(1).  There does not appear to be any relevant difference between the two types of proceedings as far as the discretionary appointment power in 18 U.S.C. § 3006A(a)(2) is concerned. In the interests of judicial economy, these proceedings might even be combined.

All it would take to make this happen would be a resolve on the part of the Department of Justice to use this statute for the purpose it was originally intended.

Augmenting the Administration’s sentence reduction program through broader use of a judicial sentence reduction mechanism, which the Justice Department’s own Inspector General has repeatedly criticized as underutilized (most recently for aging prisoners), would accomplish the Administration’s goals in reducing unduly severe sentences, while at the same time regularizing sentence reduction through the courts pursuant to statute.  It would put sentence reduction on a sounder long-term footing that is more consistent with the principles of determinate sentencing, be more predictable and accountable as a practical matter, and respond to any concerns about the unaccountable use of executive power.

Many years ago, when I was serving as Pardon Attorney, then-Deputy Attorney General Philip Heymann asked me why we should ask the President to commute the sentence of an elderly prisoner when (he said) "we can do the job ourselves."  Now I would ask the new DAG the same question.

Some prior related posts:

June 5, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Monday, June 01, 2015

Has the approach and administration of Clemency Project 2014 actually made the federal clemency process worse?

Download (10)The depressing question in the title of this post is prompted by this depressing new USA Today article headlined "Obama administration clemency push gets slow start."  I have long tried to avoid being too pessimistic about what has been unfolding on the federal clemency front over the last 18 months, in part because I sincerely believed it would be nearly impossible to make the modern federal clemency process and products even worse. But this USA Today piece has me fearing that my own pessimistic instincts perhaps should now turn even darker (based on the statements and data points I have highlighted below):

A Justice Department push to shorten long drug sentences through President Obama's clemency powers has gotten off to a slow start: Obama has commuted the sentences of just two of the tens of thousands of federal inmates who have applied through the program.  Lawyers involved in the effort say the year-old clemency initiative has been hampered by the complexity of the cases and questions about the eligibility criteria, which may still be too strict to help most of the prison population.

The result is a system that appears even more backlogged than it was before the initiative began.  "The criteria basically suggest that a whole bunch of good citizens who committed one little mistake got significantly more than 10 years in prison, and fortunately that's pretty rare," said Johanna Markind, a former attorney-adviser in the Office of Pardon Attorney who left in March.  "I think they've kind of belatedly realized that people are doing their jobs, and those perfect cases they think are there don't really exist," she said.  "For all the sound and fury about the commutations, the clemency initiative has only come up with a handful of cases that fit" the criteria.

The clemency initiative was intended to help federal inmates who would have received shorter prison terms had they been sentenced today.  That applies mostly to drug offenders after Congress shortened sentences for crack cocaine in 2010.  To be eligible, inmates must have already served 10 years of their sentence.

Last year, a record 6,561 federal prisoners — three times the usual number — filed petitions with the Justice Department's Office of Pardon Attorney, which advises the president on all requests for clemency.  Under the constitution, the president has the absolute power to grant pardons and commute sentences.

More than 30,000 federal inmates applied for representation through the Clemency Project 2014, a consortium of lawyers who have volunteered to help eligible inmates through the often complicated and time-consuming process of seeking a commutation. But 13 months later, those lawyers have submitted just 31 petitions. And while Obama has used his pardon power to shorten the sentences of 43, most of those cases predate the clemency initiative.  Over six years, Obama has granted just 0.2% of the commutation petitions submitted.

The Justice Department says it expects to recommend more commutations to Obama as it reviews the petitions.  But that could take a while: In its 2016 budget request to Congress, the department said the deluge of clemency applications is too much for the current staff to manage.  "As OPA's existing staff has discovered, expending the substantial resources required simply to manage such a volume of clemency requests significantly decreases those available for analyzing and evaluating the merits of individual applications and preparing the appropriate letters of advice to inform the president," the Justice Department said in its congressional budget justification.

Obama has proposed a 66% budget increase for the Office of Pardon Attorney in 2016, and is seeking twice as many lawyers to process all the paperwork.  And that paperwork can be daunting, requiring an examination of trial transcripts, the pre-sentence report (which is often sealed) and Bureau of Prisons files.

To be eligible under the program, inmates must be low-level offenders with no ties to gangs or cartels.  They must have demonstrated good conduct in prison, have no significant criminal history and no history of violence.  "There are gray areas, What is 'demonstrated good conduct in prison,' for example? Is that a pristine record?" said Cynthia Roseberry, a career public defender who now manages the Clemency Project 2014.


Without knowing how the Obama administration will apply those vague criteria, it's impossible to know how many could be eligible.  "My hope is that thousands of those will meet the criteria, but I just can't speculate." Roseberry said.  She said she expects the numbers to increase as the Clemency Project continues to screen for likely candidates for commutation.  A Clemency Project screening committee has already notified more than 3,000 inmates it won't be accepting their cases.  Once a case is accepted, it's parceled out to a volunteer attorney such as Mary Davis.

Davis represents Byron McDade, a Washington man sentenced to 27 years for cocaine trafficking even as his co-conspirators — who testified against him — got no more than seven. In 2009, after McDade had served his first seven years, the judge who sentenced him urged Obama to commute his sentence.  "While the Court is powerless to reduce the sentence it was required by then-existing law to impose, the president is not," U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman wrote in another opinion last year,

So Davis assembled a 168-page petition with the help of two West Virginia University law students — Laura Hoffman and Amanda Camplesi — who spent a combined 122 hours on the case, collecting paperwork and visiting McDade at a federal prison in Pennsylvania. Davis said the work was complicated, even as a veteran federal defense attorney specializing in sentencing appeals.  "I know there were attorneys signing up for this who don't do criminal defense work, and I would think it would be extremely difficult," she said.

McDade is an unusual case: Before being convicted in 2002, his only offense was a minor misdemeanor with a $10 fine.  Markind, who worked on commutation cases as a Justice Department lawyer, said the clemency initiative did not relax Obama's "three strikes" policy making anyone with three or more criminal convictions ineligible for clemency. "Criminals with a record do not make the most appealing poster children," she said....

Mark Osler, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis and a former prosecutor ... said the clemency process is already too bureaucratic and too distant from the ultimate decision-maker: the president.  The Clemency Project hopes to cut through the process by helping to provide the Justice Department with better, more complete case files to review.  But that solution has also led to criticism from Capitol Hill, where Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, says that the administration is outsourcing a government responsibility.

"We've failed the same way through different kinds of administrations, and the problem isn't the administration, it's the process," Osler said. "The sad thing is, every president recently has gotten to the end of their term and said, 'Hey, where are all the good clemency cases?' I sure hope that will change, but it's going to be a furious last year as these things start to come in even greater numbers."

It is hard to fault, and I am very disinclined to criticize excessively, all of the well-meaning and dedicated lawyers and administrators operating now in a system taking on Rube-Goldberg-quality with seemingly too many elements, criteria and moving parts.  Still, by now having so many more people applying for clemency, along with so many more lawyers trying to figure out the meaning and importance of so many vague criteria, it is not surprising that the clemency push/project has been most successful in producing a lot more paperwork and so many more questions about what this system is seeking to achieve.

I have long believed that President Obama could and should create an independent commission or task force or working group that would be tasked with making federal clemency reform a priority in a very short period of time.  Notably, as highlighted here, such a proactive approach to policing reform achieved a whole lot in just a matter of months:

On December 18, 2014, President Barack Obama signed an Executive Order establishing the President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing.  The Task Force Members sought expertise from stakeholders and input from the public as they worked to identify best practices and make recommendations to the President.  The Task Force submitted an initial report to the President on March 2, 2015 and released the final report on May 18, 2015.

Especially in light of all the new troubles and costs that the current approach is generating, I would urge the President to sign an Executive Order ASAP establishing the President's Task Force on 21st Century Clemency.  The Task Force Members could seek expertise from stakeholders and input from the public as they worked to identify best clemency practices and make recommendations to the President no later than December 1, 2015. That would still give Prez Obama a full year to implement an improved clemency process and would leave truly helpful legacy and structure in place from whomever becomes his successor.

Some prior related posts:

June 1, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Could new DEA chief significantly change realities of federal war on drugs?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this Huffington Post article, headlined "Lawmakers Encourage Obama To Select A Progressive New DEA Chief," reporting on this recent letter sent by a group of Representatives to Prez Obama. Here are the details: 

In a letter sent Friday, a group of lawmakers are urging President Barack Obama to select a more progressive head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, following the Department of Justice's announcement that the embattled current chief will resign in May. "We encourage you to use this as an opportunity to reshape the DEA's direction to reflect your administration's enforcement priorities," the letter reads.  The letter was signed by Reps. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) and Democratic California Reps. Barbara Lee, Sam Farr, Zoe Lofgren and Eric Swalwell.

While the lawmakers say they appreciate the Obama administration's efforts to allow states to forge their own marijuana policies, they said that current DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart "leaves behind a legacy of strident opposition to efforts to reform our nation's drug policy."  The letter urges the president to nominate a new DEA chief who will be willing to work with state and federal officials to craft more flexible marijuana policies....

With just a little more than two weeks before Leonhart steps down, it remains unclear who the Obama administration could nominate who would both be approved by a Republican-controlled Senate and be a good fit for the DEA.

Leonhart came to head the DEA as acting administrator in 2007, under President George W. Bush.  She was made administrator in 2010 during Obama's first term, but has long seemed out of step on drug policy, clashing with the administration over the legalization of recreational marijuana in Colorado and Washington and with efforts to lower the mandatory minimum sentences for those convicted of federal drug crimes.

In their letter, the lawmakers argue that under Leonhart the DEA placed "far too great an emphasis on prosecuting state-legal marijuana activity, as opposed to prioritizing more dangerous drug-related activity," adding that her "misplaced priorities" exacerbated problems with the criminal justice system and put a strain on "legitimate marijuana businesses operating under state law."

May 5, 2015 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Timely (but incomplete) report on political debates as de facto moratorium on federal executions continues

The New York Times this morning has this new front-page article discussing a remarkable national death penalty story that seems never to get nearly as much attention it merits.  The article is headlined "Obama Adminintration Steps Back From Effort to End Federal Death Penalty," and here are excerpts:

For a moment last year, it looked as if the Obama administration was moving toward a history­-making end to the federal death penalty.  A botched execution in Oklahoma brought national attention to the issue, public opinion polls began to shift and President Obama, declaring that it was time to “ask ourselves some difficult and profound questions,” directed Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. to review capital punishment.

At the Justice Department, a proposal soon began to take shape among Mr. Holder and senior officials: The administration could declare a formal moratorium on the federal death penalty because medical experts could not guarantee that the lethal drugs used did not cause terrible suffering.  Such a declaration would have pressured states to do the same, the officials reasoned, and would bolster the legal argument that the death penalty is unconstitutionally cruel punishment.

But the idea never gained traction, and Mr. Obama has seldom mentioned the death penalty review since.  Now, as the Supreme Court considered arguments Wednesday over whether lethal injection, as currently administered, was unconstitutional, the obstacles the Obama administration faced provide vivid examples of just how politically difficult the debate remains.

“It was a step in the right direction, but not enough of a step,” said Charles J. Ogletree Jr., a Harvard professor and a death penalty opponent who met with administration officials as part of the review.  The Justice Department, he added, has been refusing to say what he thinks senior officials there believe: “We’ve had too many executions that didn’t work and killing somebody’s not the answer.”

In remarks last May after a prisoner in Oklahoma regained consciousness and writhed and moaned during a lethal injection, Mr. Obama, who has supported the death penalty, seemed to raise expectations for a policy change.  He lamented its racial disparities and the risk of executing innocent people.  He referred the matter to Mr. Holder, a liberal stalwart who opposed capital punishment. But privately the White House was cautious, sending word to the Justice Department to keep its focus narrow, administration officials said.    

Mr. Obama called for the review at a time when there had not been a federal execution since 2003, when Louis Jones Jr. was killed for raping and murdering a 19-­year-­old female soldier. Since 2010, the federal government has effectively had a moratorium on executions — all are carried out by lethal injection — because manufacturers in Europe and the United States refused to sell the government the barbiturates used to render prisoners unconscious. States, however, found alternatives, including the sedative midazolam, which was used in the gruesome execution of Clayton D. Lockett in Oklahoma last year.

As the Justice Department sought advice from experts on both sides of the issue, opposition to the idea came from unexpected corners.  Some of the most outspoken voices against the death penalty also urged the most caution, fearful that a federal announcement would actually do more harm than good. “From my view, we’re better off with things bubbling up in the states,” said Henderson Hill, the executive director of the Eighth Amendment Project and one of several people consulted by the administration last year....

Advocates in particular worried that having Mr. Obama and Mr. Holder as the faces of the anti-­death penalty movement would stoke conservative support for capital punishment at a time when some libertarian­-minded Republicans, Christian conservatives and liberal Democrats appeared to be finding common ground in opposition to it. “I’m not sure that what the administration would have to say would be inherently influential in Nebraska,” Mr. Hill said.

Opposition to the death penalty was growing in Nebraska last year and lawmakers voted overwhelmingly this month to replace it with life in prison, setting up a veto fight with Gov. Pete Ricketts, a Republican.

Advocates were further worried that if lethal injections were eliminated, states would bring back older methods of execution, a concern borne out in Utah, where officials said they would bring back firing squads if lethal drugs were not available.  Other states are reviving plans to use the electric chair or gas chambers.

Inside the Justice Department, some officials opposed a formal moratorium because it would eliminate the option for the death penalty in terrorism cases like the one against Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who faces a possible death sentence for the 2013 bombings at the Boston Marathon.  Others worried that eliminating the death penalty would make it harder to persuade Congress to move terrorist suspects from the island prison at Guantánamo Bay to the United States for trial. There were also logistical hurdles.

Advocates and administration officials asked what would happen to the roughly five dozen people on federal death row. Would Mr. Obama, who has said the death penalty was appropriate in some cases, commute the sentences of men who raped and murdered people? There were no clear answers.

In the end, the question never made it to Mr. Obama’s desk. Last fall, Mr. Holder announced plans to resign, and officials said it would be inappropriate to recommend a major policy change on his way out of office, then leave it up to his successor to carry it out. In January, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case of three convicted murderers who challenged the lethal injection drugs. Now with the issue before the justices, the review at the Justice Department has come to a halt because any administration action could be seen as trying to influence the court.

Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch, who was sworn in this week, told senators during her confirmation hearing that the death penalty “is an effective penalty.” But she did not elaborate. Emily Pierce, a Justice Department spokeswoman, said the review continued. “And we have, in effect, a moratorium in place on federal executions in the meantime.” 

The last line in this excerpt highlights for me the federal death penalty story that continue to fail to get nearly as much coverage, legally, politically and practically, as I think it should. The feds have, I believe, a significant number of capital murderers on federal death row who have completed all their appeals but who have been escaping their imposed punishment since 2007 because of all the state lethal injection litigation that resulted in the Supreme Court's Baze ruling and all the subsequent uncertainty that has followed.  

I have long been troubled that the Bush Administration starting in 2007, and the Obama Administration in the years that have followed, have made no apparent effort to try to carry out existing federal death sentences.  Whatever the reasons for a nearly-decade-long de facto executive moratorium on the federal death penalty, I believe federal prosecutors should feel some obligation to defendants, victims and the general public to provide some public explanation about what the heck is going on with the actual administration of the federal death penalty.

April 30, 2015 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack