Thursday, May 29, 2014

AG Holder urges fellow prosecutors to back his sentencing reform advocacy

This new NPR piece reports that "Attorney General Eric Holder took his case for overhauling the criminal justice system to an unlikely location on Wednesday — a closed-door conference of prosecutors, who were meeting at their national training center in Columbia, South Carolina." Here is more:

According to a person familiar with Holder's unpublicized remarks, Holder urged an audience of criminal division chiefs from U.S. Attorney's offices to support Smart on Crime initiatives that would reduce some drug sentences and to open up the clemency process to hundreds of inmates with clean records in prison.

Earlier this year, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill that would cut some mandatory minimum penalties for non-violent drug offenders.  But in recent weeks at least three prominent groups have attacked the legislation, including nearly 30 former Justice Department officials who served under Republican administrations; longtime Sens. John Cornyn, R-TX, Charles Grassley, R-IA, and Jeff Sessions, R-AL; and even Holder's own DEA administrator.

The attorney general addressed those concerns by pointing out that the bill, known as the Smarter Sentencing Act, would leave in place tough mandatory minimum sentences for most drug traffickers, with add-ons for people who possess weapons, are repeat offenders, or those who are considered leaders of an ongoing criminal racket.

"These changes represent anything but a softening of our stance against crime and those who perpetrate it, or a relaxing of our unwavering commitment to combat the drug-fueled violence that plagues far too many communities," Holder said, according to a law enforcement source in the audience.  "On the contrary: in all our activities, we remain committed to the robust enforcement of federal anti-drug laws, and to focusing federal resources on the most significant threats to our communities," he said, according to the source.

May 29, 2014 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Friday, May 02, 2014

Family of medical marijuana patients in Washington turn down plea and set up notable federal trial

HarveysThis lengthy new Huffington Post article, headlined "This Entire Family Of Medical Marijuana Patients Could Go To Prison For Growing Pot," spotlights a developing federal criminal case that seems likely to provide a notable criminal justice setting for the on-going national debate over marijuana law, policy and reform. Here are the basics:

Four family members and a close family friend in a rural town in northeastern Washington are facing years in federal prison for growing marijuana for their personal medical use.

Larry Harvey, 70, his wife Rhonda Firestack-Harvey, 55, their son Rolland Gregg, 33, and Rolland's wife Michelle, 35, as well as close family friend Jason Zucker, 38, claim they were individually growing 74 marijuana plants for their own medical use at the Harveys' rural home near Kettle Falls, Washington, as is their right under state law.

"There is no hidden agenda here," Rhonda said Thursday in a statement to the media. "My husband and I are retired, but work hard to live a peaceful, sustainable life in the northeast Washington wilderness.  We both have serious health issues and were told by our doctors that medical marijuana could help. All five of us have qualifying conditions, actually, and the garden was below the limit of 15 plants per patient."

"It's outrageous that the federal government is wasting money prosecuting five patients who were in total compliance with state law," Rhonda added.  The Harvey home was first raided by state authorities in August 2012 after two flybys from Washington state's Civil Air Patrol -- the official civilian auxiliary of the United States Air Force -- reported an apparent marijuana grow near the Harvey residence.

On August 9, according to a motion filed by the Washington state U.S. attorney's office, state law enforcers raided the Harvey property and found 74 plants growing near the home. Under the presumption that the family was growing this cannabis as a collective, rather than individually, officers seized 29 cannabis plants so that the family would be compliant with state law, which limits collective crops to no more than 45 plants. The authorities did not press charges or seize any other assets.

However, days later, on August 16, federal authorities showed up with a new warrant and conducted a more comprehensive raid.  At the time, authorities were enacting a widespread crackdown on medical marijuana providers -- an effort that extended into states like California and Colorado -- at the directive of the Obama administration. During the Aug. 16 raid, Drug Enforcement Administration agents seized the Harveys' remaining marijuana plants, as well as about five pounds of raw cannabis and some marijuana-infused edibles from the freezer.  The feds also seized a 2007 Saturn Vue, $700 in cash, a computer, a motorcycle and an ATV, along with the family's legally owned firearms.

"This is not the kind of spectacular haul that the DEA is typically called in for," the family's attorneys wrote in a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder this February urging him to reconsider the charges. "Just the opposite, the evidence seized is consistent with the type of strict medical dosage that occurs with a doctor's supervision."

In 2013, the five patients were indicted by the Eastern Washington attorney general's office. According to the defendants' attorneys, all of them were growing cannabis in compliance with state law. Still, the federal government has charged each of them with six felonies apiece, including manufacturing, possession and distribution of marijuana, as well as the possession of a firearm in furtherance of drug trafficking, according to the indictment.

Because their trial is being held in federal court, it may not be enough of a defense for the family to argue that they were compliant with state law. In a motion filed Wednesday, Michael Ormsby, the U.S. attorney in eastern Washington state involved in the case, requested that "any evidence of medical purposes as well as the defendants' belief that they were lawfully engaged in marijuana cultivation" be inadmissible in court. Ormsby argued that the family's purpose for growing the marijuana is not the issue. Rather, he said, the "knowing or intentional manufacturing of marijuana" is all that matters in this case....

During pre-trial hearings for the case this week, the family unanimously rejected the plea deals offered by the prosecuting attorneys that would have reduced their maximum sentences to just three years behind bars. Without the plea deal, their maximum sentences range from up to 40 years to life in federal prison.

Washington state law allows for licensed medical marijuana patients to grow up to 15 plants and be in possession of up to 24 ounces of usable cannabis. The law also says that no more than 10 qualified patients can participate in a single collective garden. The patients can grow up to 15 plants each, but the garden cannot exceed 45 plants.

Federal authorities are charging the Harvey family with growing "100 or more" marijuana plants -- a charge that dramatically increases related fines and prison sentencing -- alleging that the family had grown a crop in 2011 similar in size to the one seized in the raids the following year. The charge is based on "numerous" photos, found on a seized computer from the residence, that allegedly depict the defendants in the grow at the same location in 2011, according to the motion filed by the U.S. attorney's office....

In their letter to Holder, the defendants' attorneys argued that there is no proof these five people are "perceived to be violent in any way," and say that the firearms had "absolutely nothing to do with the cultivation of cannabis." "This is a mom and pop on a family homestead near a National Wildlife Refuge in the Northeastern corner of Washington, where the nearest town is 10 miles in any direction," the attorneys wrote.

The family's attorneys argue that there is an "equal justice disparity" created by federal drug laws that directly contradict state laws in Washington, where medical marijuana has been legal for well over a decade. "In the very city where the Harvey family is set to stand trial, an ordinance was recently passed to establish groundbreaking licensing requirements for aspiring entrepreneurs in the existing medical marijuana field, as well as those planning to enter the emerging [recreational] marketplace," the attorneys wrote in their letter to Holder. "These conflicting realities cannot co-exist."...

Now that all five defendants have rejected the plea deals, their federal trial is expected to begin later this month. An official from the U.S. attorney's office in eastern Washington familiar with the matter said that the office cannot comment on ongoing cases.

For individuals and groups concerning about excessive federal government involvement in the activities of individuals out West, the Harvey family would seem to be a much more sympathetic cause célèbre than Cliven Bundy. But I have a feeling Sean Hannity and some of the folks quick to back Bundy in his stand-off with the feds are not likely to be championing family values and states' rights in this setting. And, sadly, that seems too bad and a telling indication that political principles may only go so far once pot is involved.

May 2, 2014 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Offense Characteristics, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Judge Paul Friedman identifies drug defendant who should benefit from Clemency Project 2014

I am intrigued and pleased to have learned that this afternoon District Court Judge Paul Friedman issued an opinion in US v. McDade, No. 13-1066 (D.D.C. Apr. 29, 2014) (available for download below), which in part responds to the Justice Department's recent announcements about its new clemency initiative.  I urge all those wondering about the types of defendants and cases that the new clemency initiative might help to read Judge Friedman's new McDade opinion in full; here is a snippet that provides a sense for why:

On February 25, 2002, after a ten-day trial, a jury found defendant Byron Lamont McDade guilty of conspiracy to distribute and possess with the intent to distribute five kilograms or more of cocaine. Most of the witnesses at trial were his former co-defendants or others involved in the conspiracy who had negotiated pleas with the government involving cooperation and testimony. In fact, McDade was the only one of those charged in this multi-defendant case to have proceeded to trial.  Regrettably, pursuant to the then-mandatory pre-Booker sentencing guidelines, the Court was required to sentence McDade to 324 months in prison, a sentence which the Court described at the time as “much more than sufficiently punitive.”...

At the time the Court sentenced Mr. McDade nearly twelve years ago, on May 31, 2002, he was a 34-year old married man with two young children, one of whom is disabled.  He was a high school graduate who had been employed more or less steadily as a loader for United Parcel Service, as an apprentice for a plumbing company, as a self-employed operator of a company that provided transportation to the handicapped, and as a sanitation truck driver.  He was described by his wife, a hair stylist who suffers from a heart murmur, as a good father to their children and to her son by a prior relationship.   Before his current conviction, Mr. McDade had one prior misdemeanor conviction for which he was ordered to pay a ten-dollar fine. Id. at 10-11. For the instant offense, he faced a ten-year mandatory minimum sentence and, at Offense Level 41, Criminal History Category I, a pre-Booker guideline sentence of 324 months to life.....

In denying Mr. McDade’s first motion to vacate, set aside or correct his sentence pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255, the Court [noted that] ... had Mr. McDade not exercised his constitutional right to a jury trial and instead pled guilty, the likely sentence under even a mandatory Guideline regime would have been approximately 168 months, approximately half the sentence the Court was required to impose after Mr. McDade was found guilty at trial.  [This Court also then noted that] had the Sentencing Guidelines been advisory in 2002, or if Booker were retroactive now, the Court would vary substantially from the Guideline sentence of 324 months....

Earlier this year, Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole previewed a new effort on the part of the Department of Justice to identify individuals who are potential candidates for executive clemency and sentence commutations and whom he hoped, with the help of volunteer lawyers and bar associations, would be encouraged to prepare clemency petitions to the Department of Justice.  He said at the time: “For our criminal justice system to be effective, it needs to not only be fair; but it also must be perceived as being fair. These older, stringent punishments, that are out of line with sentences imposed under today’s laws, erode people’s confidence in our criminal justice system.”  Then, just last week, Deputy Attorney General Cole formally announced a new initiative to encourage qualified federal inmates to petition to have their sentences commuted or reduced by the President, an initiative that will have the assistance of numerous volunteer attorneys and groups under the umbrella Clemency Project 2014.  He noted that the initiative is not limited to crack offenders, but to “worthy candidates” who meet six specific criteria.  He stated that this clemency initiative “will go far to promote the most fundamental of American ideals – equal justice under law.” 

The Court continues to believe that Byron McDade is a prime candidate for executive clemency.  The sentence this Court was required to impose on Mr. McDade was unjust at the time and is “out of line” with and disproportionate to those that would be imposed under similar facts today.  While the Court is powerless to reduce the sentence it was required by then-existing law to impose, the President is not.  The Court urges Mr. McDade’s appointed counsel to pursue executive clemency on Mr. McDade’s behalf so that justice may be done in this case.

Download McDade opinion

April 29, 2014 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Monday, April 28, 2014

Is change at top of The Office of the Pardon Attorney the biggest part of DOJ's new clemency initiative?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by the subheadline of this effective article by Abby Rapoport at The American Prospect. The piece carries the main headline "Pardon Me, Mr. President?", and its subheadline makes this astute observation: "By appointing an advocate for defendants' rights as the new pardon attorney, the Obama administration has signaled it is serious about commuting drug offenses." Here is a snippet from the piece (with a few links preserved, which merits a full read:

The Department of Justice (DOJ) announced the start of a new initiative on clemency, encouraging thousands of inmates — particularly those convicted during the Drug War crackdown of the 1990s — to send in petitions to have their sentences commuted.  The new initiative offers six new criteria by which petitioners will be judged, including the following: prisoners must have served 10 years of their sentence, must not have lengthy criminal records or gang convictions, and show that they would have gotten off with a lighter sentence had they been tried today. In his more than five years in office, Obama has been the stingiest president in history when it comes to granting pardons; the new program could make him one of the most generous.

But the biggest news for criminal-justice reformers has been the administration’s appointment of a new pardon attorney to oversee the program: Deborah Leff, who spent her years at DOJ working on the Access to Justice Initiative, an agency meant to help low-income defendants get a fair hearing in court.  “Poor people often do not have access to counsel, and when they do get an attorney, that lawyer is often overworked, undertrained, undercompensated, and placed in a system that encourages a quick plea bargain and discourages carefully listening to the needs of clients,”  she wrote in an article with Melanca Clark for the American Bar Association. Those who come from the prosecutorial side of things — which is most everyone at the Department of Justice — tend to be more skeptical of the idea that convicted criminals can be reformed. But Leff's background makes her more likely to be sympathetic to requests for clemency.

“One thing about law and particularly this kind of law is that almost always people are more important than rules,” says Mark Osler, a law professor at St. Thomas University and founder of the nation’s first federal clemency clinic (I recently profiled his story in our most recent print issue). “Leff’s work within the DOJ has largely been about making sure that people who have a petition or grievance have a way to have it heard fairly.” For those hoping to see a robust clemency push, her background bodes well. The administration’s clemency criteria have plenty of wiggle room, which makes the selection of a new pardon attorney all the more significant.  The department wants petitions from applicants who are “non-violent, low-level offenders without significant ties to large scale criminal organizations, gangs or cartels.”  Depending on how the U.S. pardon attorney exercises her discretion, an offender who grew up with gangs and was loosely affiliated with them could either be an ideal candidate for clemency or excluded altogether. Similarly, petitioners must have “demonstrated good conduct in prison”—a criterion that could include or exclude prisoners with one or two black marks on their records depending on the pardon attorney’s views....

Ron Rodgers, the U.S. pardon attorney until this week, was known for his opposition to clemency requests. Rodgers and David Margolis, the Department of Justice assistant deputy attorney general, both got blasted in a 2012 report for the dramatic mishandling of one particular petition during the Bush regime: Clarence Aaron, who received a triple life sentence for his role a drug conspiracy.

Leff’s appointment helps send a clear signal that this new initiative isn’t just lip service to the reform community, which until now hasn’t seen much action from the Obama administration.  Despite rhetoric in the 2008 election about the casualties of America’s War on Drugs, in his tenure the president had done little to help those still serving decades-long sentences.

A few of many recent and older posts concerning federal clemency practices:

April 28, 2014 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Saturday, April 26, 2014

"Not just clemency, but smarter sentencing: Congress must act to make criminal justice more just"

The title of this post is the headline of this recent Washington Times op-ed authored by Craig DeRoche who is president of Justice Fellowship. Here are excerpts:

President Obama’s decision to grant clemency to a large number of nonviolent offenders in federal prison has ignited a much-needed national discussion on criminal justice reform, but voices on both sides are missing some key underlining problems.

Over the past several decades, Congress has passed disproportionate mandatory-minimum sentences for nonviolent offenses that infringe upon the moral and constitutional duties of judges to ensure fair and equitable justice.  As the head of a faith-based organization guided by the Christian values of redemption and transformation, I am called to advocate for a system that values compassion and mercy as necessary policy counterweights to justice.

Justice is giving someone what they deserve, based on the harm they have caused, whereas mercy is extending leniency that is undeserved.  Clemency was designed to be an instrument of mercy, while lawmaking is an exercise of justice.

If the aim of Mr. Obama’s clemency initiative is to correct unjust policy rather than extend mercy in specific cases, then it does nothing to address systematic problem plaguing America’s burgeoning criminal justice system; namely, the disproportionate and ineffective sentencing laws for nonviolent crimes that have led to a federal prison system at 38 percent above capacity.

This unacceptably high level of overcrowding is dangerous for both prison guards and prisoners.  It also diminishes the capacity for faith-based nonprofits such as ours to provide effective programming that helps transform prisoners into law-abiding citizens when they return to our communities.  Not to mention that paying for the skyrocketing federal prison population is essentially accomplished by theft from budgets that formerly went toward victims’ services, prosecutors, investigations and crime-prevention tools.

Some on the political right, in particular members of Congress, object to what Mr. Obama is proposing on the grounds that this is yet another executive action by an imperial president who they think is interfering with the constitutional prerogatives of lawmakers to make policy.

While there is no doubt that both the current and previous occupants of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue have governed — sometimes questionably — through executive action, the Constitution clearly assigns the power of both clemency and pardons to the chief executive.  This is, in fact, a presidential prerogative inherited by way of ancient English constitutional law, which has always held the head of state to be the lead in executing prosecution, punishment and mercy.

The issue is not whether the president has the power to grant clemency, but rather whether Mr. Obama will overreach with that power in a way that undermines the long-term policy changes that can only be established through Congress’ lawmaking power.  Instead of using clemency as a blunt instrument to fix the broken policies and laws governing the criminal justice system, all three branches of government must work together to rebalance the scales of justice and restore a system that is no longer working for anyone....

Congress and the president have the opportunity to fulfill their constitutional obligations with two pieces of pending legislation that have attracted strong bipartisan support and affirm the growing consensus in support of reforming the criminal justice system.

One of the bills is the Smarter Sentencing Act, which has attracted the co-sponsorship of two polar opposites in the Senate: Mike Lee, a Tea Party Republican from Utah, and Richard J. Durbin, a liberal Illinois Democrat. The other is the Recidivism Reduction and Public Safety Act, co-sponsored by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, an unabashed liberal Democrat from Rhode Island, and John Cornyn, a Texas Republican conservative, which passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee on a 15-2 vote.

This rare consensus should not be taken for granted. Discussions and hearings alone are lip service. If Congress wants to avoid an executive-dominated approach to the challenges facing our criminal justice system, it must take the lead in not only proposing, but passing, long-term solutions. All three branches of government working as our Founding Fathers envisioned will not only show the American public that our democracy still works, but that our society has become a more just one.

April 26, 2014 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Thursday, April 24, 2014

How many of current federal prisoners satisfy all six of the new DOJ clemency guidelines?

As reported here, yesterday the US Department of Justice announced more formally its plans and criteria for its Clemency Initiative, and this memo by Deputy AG Cole there set forth "six criteria the department will consider when reviewing and expediting clemency applications from federal inmates":

Under the new initiative, the department will prioritize clemency applications from inmates who meet all of the following factors [numbering added]:

  • [1] They are currently serving a federal sentence in prison and, by operation of law, likely would have received a substantially lower sentence if convicted of the same offense(s) today;
  • [2] They are non-violent, low-level offenders without significant ties to large scale criminal organizations, gangs or cartels;
  • [3] They have served at least 10 years of their prison sentence;
  • [4] They do not have a significant criminal history;
  • [5] They have demonstrated good conduct in prison; and
  • [6] They have no history of violence prior to or during their current term of imprisonment.

This BOP page indicates that, as of April 24, 2014, there are 216,614 total federal prisoners, and this BOP accounting of sentences imposed indicates that the majority of federal prisoners are serving sentences of less than 10 years. Moreover, I suspect that less than half of the roughly 45,000 federal inmates current serving prison terms of 15 years or more have already served at least 10 years of their prison sentence. In other words, clemency criteria #3 above alone probably cuts the number of possible "priority clemency applicants" down to around 20,000.

In a sound and cautious sentencing system (and likely in most state sentencing systems), there would be relatively few among the group of inmates serving over 10 years in prison who were "non-violent, low-level offenders" who lacked a "significant criminal history" and also have "no history of violence prior to or during their current term of imprisonment."  Nevertheless I fear that in the federal sentencing system under old-mandatory guidelines, there may be thousands of crack offenders and many other drug offenders (and perhaps even some white-collar offenders?), who have been imprisoned for a decade for non-violent, low-level offenses.  

Thanks to the Fair Sentencing Act, many of the crack offenders should be able to state that "by operation of law, [they] likely would have received a substantially lower sentence."  But can any lower-level non-violent drug offender also reasonably make this claim if she was sentenced before Booker? Could these drug defendants point to the now pending drug guideline amendments (as well as Booker) to claim they meet clemency criteria #1?

Long story short, I suspect there may well be perhaps 5000 or more federal prisoner who can make a plausible claim that they meet all six of clemency criteria.

April 24, 2014 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (22) | TrackBack

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Round-up of some reactions to/reports on today's notable sentencing developments

My blogging cup runneth over today as I try to find time to read and process the Supreme Court's big child porn restitution in Paroline (basics here) and DOJ's new clemency guidelines (basics here).  Before I find time to share some of my reactions and perspectives (which may take a couple of days as I head on the road), I figured I can and should round-up here some of the reactions and perspectives of others of note:

Reactions to Paroline child porn restitution ruling:

Reactions to/reports on DOJ's new clemency guidelines:

April 23, 2014 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Monday, April 21, 2014

Is Prez Obama likely to grant clemency to "hundreds, perhaps thousands" of imprisoned drug offenders?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable new and lengthy Yahoo News article headlined "Obama plans clemency for hundreds of drug offenders: Barbara Scrivner's long quest for mercy tests a president's will — and her own faith." The article begins with focus on a woman deep into "serving a 30-year sentence in federal prison for selling a few ounces of methamphetamine," but goes on to discuss drug sentencing more generally. And these excerpts quoting a "serious administration official" really caught my attention:

Now, in his final years in office, Obama has trained his sights on prisoners like Scrivner, and wants to use his previously dormant pardon power as part of a larger strategy to restore fairness to the criminal-justice system. A senior administration official tells Yahoo News the president could grant clemency to "hundreds, perhaps thousands" of people locked up for nonviolent drug crimes by the time he leaves office — a stunning number that hasn't been seen since Gerald Ford extended amnesty to Vietnam draft dodgers in the 1970s.

The scope of the new clemency initiative is so large that administration officials are preparing a series of personnel and process changes to help them manage the influx of petitions they expect Obama to approve. Among the changes is reforming the recently censured office within the Justice Department responsible for processing pardon petitions. Yahoo News has learned that the pardon attorney, Ronald Rodgers, who was criticized in a 2012 Internal watchdog report for mishandling a high-profile clemency petition, is likely to step down as part of that overhaul. Additional procedures for handling large numbers of clemency petitions could be announced as soon as this week, a senior administration official said, though it could take longer....

When it came to using his only unfettered presidential power — to pardon felons and to reduce the sentences of prisoners — Obama was incredibly stingy in his first term. Vanita Gupta, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, calls his record on mercy "abysmal." He pardoned just 22 people — fewer than any modern president — and commuted the sentence of just one. An applicant for commutation like Scrivner had just a 1-in-5,000 chance of getting a reduced sentence with Obama in his first term — compared with a 1-in-100 chance under Presidents Reagan and Clinton, according to an analysis by ProPublica.

According to former and current administration officials, the fault for this lay mostly at the feet of the Office of the Pardon Attorney, a small corner of the Justice Department that sifts through thousands of pardon and commutation petitions each year. The pardon attorney, former military judge Ronald Rodgers, sends his recommendations of whether or not to grant the petitions to the Deputy Attorney General’s office, which then sends them on to the White House. The pardon attorney was recommending that the president deny nearly every single petition for a pardon or a reduced sentence, according to one senior official in the Obama administration....

But even though the president was almost certainly aware that the pardon process was deeply flawed, he took no steps to fix it. In 2009, Obama’s top lawyer, Gregory Craig, drafted a proposal urging a more aggressive use of the presidential pardon and clemency power, and calling the current system broken. One of Craig's recommendations was to take the pardon attorney's office out of the Department of Justice entirely, so that the people vetting clemency petitions were not so close to the system that put prisoners away in the first place. "I was of the belief that the current system for making pardon decisions was broken and it needed to be reformed," Craig said. His suggested reforms weren't implemented, and he left the White House that year....

Near the end of his first term, Obama expressed his frustration with how few positive clemency petitions were landing on his desk. He began meeting with White House Counsel Kathy Ruemmler and Holder to discuss how his pardon power could fit into his larger strategy of making the criminal-justice system fairer. (In mid-December, Holder followed up with a memo to Obama laying out his priorities for a second term in which he endorsed a more robust use of the pardon power as part of a broader criminal-justice reform initiative.) Over a series of five or 10 discussions, the president said he wanted more recommendations for pardons and commutations getting to his desk. The president complained that the pardon attorney's office favored petitions from wealthy and connected people, who had good lawyers and knew how to game the system. The typical felon recommended for clemency by the pardon attorney was a hunter who wanted a pardon so that he could apply for a hunting license....

[In] February, the Justice Department announced a new push for clemency for nonviolent drug offenders — an initiative that came out of Obama's meetings with Ruemmler and Holder. Deputy Attorney General Jim Cole solicited private defense attorneys around the country for more petitions for mercy from prisoners serving lengthy sentences for drug crimes that would most likely be prosecuted differently today, due to changes in the law. A group of advocates have created "Clemency Project 2014" to organize the petitions and send them to the Justice Department — they expect thousands to pour in....

But questions still remain about whether the pardon attorney's office is actually capable of fairly and quickly processing Scrivner's and the thousands of other expected petitions. Holder has asked for seven additional staffers for the office in his 2015 budget request, but it's unclear when they would start.

Meanwhile, more than a year after pardon attorney Rodgers was called out by the Justice Department for misrepresenting Aaron's petition to the White House, the former prosecutor and military judge is likely to finally be pushed out and replaced, a senior administration official tells Yahoo News. Rodgers was not present in a March meeting of the Justice Department, White House officials and advocates about "Clemency Project 2014," suggesting that he was already being internally marginalized.

Advocates have long been skeptical that a significant number of clemency petitions will actually get processed quickly if the current pardon attorney remained in place, given the entrenched culture there. A former pardon attorney's office employee said he believes the office could try to run out the clock on the petitions, knowing full well that the president has only a few years left. New leadership could change that....

Last month, the president walked into the East Room to greet dozens of U.S. attorneys who traveled to the White House to discuss criminal-justice issues. The president told them he was expecting an influx of clemency applications for his new push, and warned that he wanted them to personally examine them all and not "reflexively" deny them. "I take my clemency authority very seriously," he told them.

With just a few years left of Obama's presidency, Scrivner, and others, will soon find out if he means it.

A few of many recent and older posts concerning federal clemency practices:

UPDATE: Though balky blogging software precluded adding comments and updating this post, I can finally now post this link to an official statement from the Justice Department and AG Holder about still-emerging clemency plans. here is how it starts:

In an important step to reduce sentencing disparities for drug offenders in the federal prison system, Attorney General Eric Holder on Monday announced that the Justice Department will soon detail new, more expansive criteria that the department will use in considering when to recommend clemency applications for President Obama’s review.

In anticipation of the increase of eligible petitioners, the Justice Department is preparing to assign lawyers -- with backgrounds in both prosecution and defense – to review the applications. “The White House has indicated it wants to consider additional clemency applications, to restore a degree of justice, fairness and proportionality for deserving individuals who do not pose a threat to public safety,” said Attorney General Holder in a video message posted on the department’s website. “The Justice Department is committed to recommending as many qualified applicants as possible for reduced sentences.”

Later this week, Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole is expected to announce more specific details about the expanded criteria the department will use and the logistical effort underway to ensure proper reviews of the anticipated wave of applications.

April 21, 2014 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Monday, March 03, 2014

"Holder and Republicans Unite to Soften Sentencing Laws"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new New York Times article, which includes these excerpts:

Shortly after Senator Rand Paul filed suit last month against the Obama administration to stop its electronic dragnet of American phone records, he sat down for lunch with Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. in his private dining room at the Justice Department.

Mr. Paul, a Kentucky Republican, is one of the Obama administration’s most vocal critics. But their discussion focused on an issue on which they have found common cause: eliminating mandatory-minimum prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenders.

The Democratic attorney general and the possible Republican presidential candidate are unlikely allies. But their partnership is crucial to an alliance between the nation’s first African-American attorney general, who sees his legacy in a renewed focus on civil rights, and some of Congress’s most prominent libertarians, who have accused the Obama administration of trampling on personal freedom with drones, wiretaps, tracking devices and too much government.

Together, they could help bring about the most significant liberalization of sentencing laws since President Richard M. Nixon declared war on drugs. In 2010, Congress unanimously voted to abolish the 100-to-1 disparity between sentences for crack cocaine offenses and those for powdered cocaine, a vestige of the crack epidemic. Now, the Obama administration and its allies in Congress are pushing to go even further. Mr. Holder wants to make prisoners eligible for early release if they were sentenced under the now-abolished crack guidelines. And he wants judges to have more discretion when it comes to sentencing nonviolent drug offenders....

Libertarian-minded Republicans see long prison sentences as an ineffective and expensive way to address crime. “This is the definition of how you get bipartisan agreement,” Mr. Paul said in an interview. “It’s not splitting the difference. It’s finding areas of common interest.”

Mr. Paul is backing a sentencing overhaul bill, also supported by Mr. Holder and the Obama administration, that he predicts will pass the Senate with support from up to half of its Republicans. The bill’s sponsors include Democratic stalwarts such as Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois and Senator Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the Judiciary Committee chairman, as well as Republicans with strong Tea Party credentials like Senator Mike Lee of Utah and Senator Ted Cruz of Texas

Similar legislation is pending in the House, where libertarians and Tea Party conservatives will be crucial to determining its fate if it comes up for a vote. That is the same group that bucked the Obama administration and nearly succeeded in passing legislation prohibiting the National Security Agency from seizing the phone records of millions of Americans.

Some Republicans say that they are the ones being consistent on matters of protecting liberties, and that Mr. Holder’s push for changes to the sentencing laws is a step in their direction, not the other way around. “I would say Eric Holder supports me and my civil liberties bill,” said one of the House bill’s sponsors, Representative Raúl R. Labrador, an Idaho Republican who once demanded Mr. Holder’s resignation over the botched gun-trafficking case called Operation Fast and Furious....

Mr. Holder noted that a third of the Justice Department’s budget is spent running prisons. That resonates with fiscal conservatives like Representative Jason Chaffetz, Republican of Utah. Mr. Chaffetz once suggested that Republicans might have Mr. Holder arrested for contempt. But Mr. Holder recently had him for breakfast at the Justice Department....

Mr. Chaffetz said his conversations with Mr. Holder represented “one of the few instances I can point to where we’re starting to make some kid steps forward” toward bipartisan collaboration.... “I think there’s a realization that we’re not actually solving the problem with some of these drug crimes,” Mr. Chaffetz added. “But on the other side of the coin, there’s no trust with the Obama administration. None.”...

Representative Trey Gowdy, a South Carolina Republican and a former federal prosecutor, joined Mr. Chaffetz for breakfast at the Justice Department and described Mr. Holder as a gracious host. “The fact that he’s taking the time to talk to two backbenchers, he certainly didn’t have to do that,” Mr. Gowdy said.

Mr. Gowdy said he was convinced that mandatory sentences made little sense for minor offenses. But he doubts that a sentencing bill can pass the House, in part because voters in Republican districts oppose so many of the Obama administration’s policies. Mr. Holder’s push for same-sex marriage does not make it easier, he said.

Mr. Paul was more optimistic. He said conservatives and liberals would join in support of changing sentencing laws, just as they have joined in opposition of the N.S.A.'s domestic surveillance programs.... As the meeting concluded, they agreed to work together and said their goodbyes. Then Mr. Paul wryly added, “I’ll see you in court.”

Some old and newer related posts about AG Holder and the "new politics" of sentencing reform:

March 3, 2014 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (26) | TrackBack

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Notable emphasis on CJ reform in AG Holder speech to National Association of Attorneys' General

In Washington DC this morning, Attorney General Eric Holder delivered these remarks at the National Association of Attorneys General Winter Meeting. Here are sections that should be of distinct interest to sentencing fans:

In recent years, no fewer than 17 states — supported by the Department’s Justice Reinvestment Initiative, and led by state officials from both parties — have directed significant funding away from prison construction and toward evidence-based programs and services, like supervision and drug treatment, that are proven to reduce recidivism while improving public safety.  Rather than increasing costs, a new report — funded by the Bureau of Justice Assistance — projects that these 17 states will save $4.6 billion over a 10-year period.  And although the full impact of our justice reinvestment policies remains to be seen, it’s clear that these efforts are bearing fruit — and showing significant promise across the country.

From Georgia, North Carolina, Texas, and Ohio — to Kentucky, Arkansas, Pennsylvania, Hawaii, and far beyond — reinvestment and serious reform are improving public safety and saving precious resources.  And I believe that the changes that have led to these remarkable results should be carefully studied — and emulated.

That’s why, last August — in a speech before the American Bar Association in San Francisco — I announced a new “Smart on Crime” initiative that’s allowing the Justice Department to expand on the innovations that so many states have led; to become both smarter and more efficient when battling crime, and the conditions and choices that breed it; and to develop and implement commonsense reforms to the federal criminal justice system.

Under this initiative, we’re ensuring that stringent mandatory minimum sentences for certain federal, drug-related crimes will now be reserved for the most serious criminals. We’re taking steps to advance proven reentry policies and diversion programs that can serve as alternatives to incarceration in some cases.  And as we look toward the future of this work, we’ll continue to rely on your leadership — and close engagement — to keep advancing the kinds of data-driven public safety solutions that many of you have championed for decades.

This also means making good on our commitment to provide formerly incarcerated people with fair opportunities to rejoin their communities — and become productive, law-abiding citizens — once their involvement with the criminal justice system is at an end.  With the Justice Department’s strong support, the ABA has done important work in this regard, cataloguing tens of thousands of statutes and regulations that impose unwise collateral consequences — related to housing, employment, and voting — that prevent individuals with past convictions from fully reintegrating into society.  As you know, in April 2011, I asked state attorneys general to undertake similar reviews in your own jurisdictions, and — wherever possible — to mitigate or eliminate unnecessary collateral consequences without decreasing public safety.  I’ve made the same request of high-ranking officials across the federal government.  And moving forward, I’ve directed every component of the Justice Department to lead by example on this issue — by considering whether any proposed rule, regulation, or guidance may present unnecessary barriers to successful reentry.

Two weeks ago, at Georgetown University Law Center, I called upon state leaders and other elected officials to take these efforts even further — by passing clear and consistent reforms to restore voting rights to those who have served their terms in prison or jail, completed their parole or probation, and paid their fines.  I renew this call today — because, like so many other collateral consequences, we’ve seen that the permanent disenfranchisement of those who have paid their debts to society serves no legitimate public safety purpose. It is purely punitive in nature.  It is counterproductive to our efforts to improve reentry and reduce recidivism.  And it’s well past time that we affirm — as a nation — that the free exercise of our citizens’ most fundamental rights should never be subject to politics, or geography, or the lingering effects of flawed and unjust policies.

I applaud those — like Senator Rand Paul, of Kentucky — who have already shown leadership in helping to address this issue.  And I encourage each of you to consider and take up this fight in your home states.

February 25, 2014 in Collateral consequences, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Curious racial politics omission in otherwise astute analysis of Prez Obama's criminal justice reform record

New York Times big-wig Bill Keller has this interesting final column headlined "Crime and Punishment and Obama," which discusses his transition to a notable new job in the context of a review of Prez Obama's criminal justice record.  Here are excerpts of a piece which should be read in full and which, as my post title suggests, does not discuss racial politics as much as I would expect: 

[W]hen the former community organizer took office, advocates of reform had high expectations.

In March I will give up the glorious platform of The Times to help launch something new: a nonprofit journalistic venture called The Marshall Project (after Thurgood Marshall, the great courtroom champion of civil rights) and devoted to the vast and urgent subject of our broken criminal justice system.  It seems fitting that my parting column should address the question of how this president has lived up to those high expectations so far....

In his first term Obama did not make this a signature issue; he rarely mentioned the subject....

In practice, the administration’s record has been more incremental than its rhetoric.

By the crudest metric, the population of our prisons, the Obama administration has been unimpressive.  The famously shocking numbers of Americans behind bars (the U.S., with 5 percent of the world’s people, incarcerates nearly a quarter of all prisoners on earth) have declined three years in a row.  However the overall downsizing is largely thanks to California and a handful of other states.  In overstuffed federal prisons, the population continues to grow, fed in no small part by Obama’s crackdown on immigration violators.

Obama is, we know, a cautious man, leery of getting ahead of public opinion and therefore sometimes far behind it.  And some reform advocates argue that it made sense for Obama to keep a low profile until a broad bipartisan consensus had gathered.  That time has come. Now that Obama-scorners like Senators Rand Paul and Mike Lee and even Ted Cruz are slicing off pieces of justice reform for their issue portfolios, now that red states like Texas, Georgia, South Carolina, Missouri and Kentucky have embraced alternatives to prison, criminal justice is one of those rare areas where there is common ground to be explored and tested.

The Obama presidency has almost three years to go, and there is reason to hope that he will feel less constrained, that the eight commutations were not just a pittance but, as he put it, “a first step,” that Holder’s mounting enthusiasm for saner sentencing is not just talk, but prelude, that the president will use his great pulpit to prick our conscience.

“This is something that matters to the president,” Holder assured me last week.  “This is, I think, going to be seen as a defining legacy for this administration.”  I’ll be watching, and hoping that Holder’s prediction is more than wishful thinking

This column covers a lot of modern criminal justice ground quite well, and gets me even more excited for Keller's forthcoming new journalistic venture called The Marshall Project. But I find curious and notable that this commentary does not directly address the racialized political dynamics that necessarily surrounds the first African-American Prez and AG if and whenever they prioritize criminal justice reform.

I have heard that Thurgood Marshall, when doing advocacy work with the NAACP before he became a judge, was disinclined to focus on criminal justice reform because he realized the politics of race made it hard enough for him to garner support for even law-abiding people of color. Consequently, while important federal elections in which Prez Obama is the key player still loom, I suspect the Prez and his team have made a very calculated decision to only move very slowly (and behind folks like Senator Rand Paul) on these matters.

And yet, just as Thurgood Marshall could and did make criminal justice reform a priority when he became a judge and Justice insulated from political pressure, so too am I expecting that Prez Obama will prioritize criminal justice issues once he in the last two lame-duck years of his time in the Oval Office. Two years is ample time for the Prez to make federal criminal justice reform a "defining legacy for this administration," and there is good reason to think political and social conditions for bold reform work will be in place come 2015 and 2016 (even with the inevitably racialized realities surrounding these issues).

February 25, 2014 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Curious DOJ clemency campaign continues through meeting with defense groups

This notable NPR story, headlined "Justice Dept. Asks For Help Finding Prisoners Who Deserve Clemency," reports on the latest development concerning the curious (though encouraging) new DOJ push for clemency candidates.  Here are the details:

The second-in-command at the Justice Department met Tuesday with defense lawyers and interest groups to identify the cases of worthy prisoners who could qualify for clemency.

The initiative by Deputy Attorney General James Cole follows a speech he gave last month suggesting the White House intends to make more use of the president's power to shorten prison sentences for inmates who have clean records, no significant ties to gangs or violence, and who are serving decades behind bars for relatively low-level offenses.

Cole wants to enlist lawyers to help solicit and prepare clemency requests. It's part of a broader effort to stop spending so much money incarcerating people that it squeezes the public safety budget. A Justice Department spokesman says Cole "wants to ensure that individuals like the eight whose sentences the president commuted in December have access to attorneys to help them present their cases."

Longtime followers of the pardon power have criticized President Obama's relatively stingy approach over five years in office.  They also suggest that backlogs in the Justice Department's Office of Pardon Attorney might get worse if the call for more prisoner petitions takes hold. But the Justice spokesman says Cole has made this effort a top priority and that he's instructed the pardon attorney to do the same, taking some steps to handle any influx of clemency requests in the months ahead.

Representatives from the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Federal public defender program and Families Against Mandatory Minimums had been scheduled to attend the meeting at Justice Department headquarters.  Mary Price of FAMM, one of the attendees, says she came away feeling "really encouraged."

"We look forward to working together with them and others to help identify potential commutation cases and ensure prisoners have trained pro bono counsel to submit focused petitions for the meaningful consideration the Deputy Attorney General has pledged they will receive," Price says.

Some recent and older posts concerning federal clemency practices:

February 19, 2014 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

"Eric Holder makes case for felons to get voting rights back"

The title of this post is the headline of this new Washington Post report on the latest policy advocacy by the US Attorney General concerning criminal justice reform. Here are the notable details:

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. on Tuesday called on states to repeal laws that prohibit ex-felons from voting after their release from prison, urging reforms that could allow millions more former convicts across the country to cast ballots.

In a speech at Georgetown University Law Center, Holder said: “It is time to fundamentally reconsider laws that permanently disenfranchise people who are no longer under federal or state supervision.” Current laws forbidding felons from voting make it harder for them to reintegrate into society, he said.

Holder said that current laws forbidding felons from voting make it harder for them to reintegrate into society. He pointed to a recent study, which showed that felons in Florida who were granted the right to vote again had a lower recidivism rate. “These restrictions are not only unnecessary and unjust, they are also counterproductive,” Holder said. “By perpetuating the stigma and isolation imposed on formerly incarcerated individuals, these laws increase the likelihood they will commit future crimes.”

Holder does not have the authority to force states to change their laws, but his request could influence the debate to restore voting rights. His appeal is part of a broader effort currently underway by the Justice Department to reform the criminal justice system, which U.S. officials say often treats minority groups unfairly.

The attorney general said that after the Civil War, laws that prohibit ex-felons from voting were a way for post-Reconstruction states to keep blacks from casting ballots. Today, an estimated 5.8 million Americans are not allowed to vote because of current or previous felony convictions. Of those, nearly 38 percent are black.

The Justice Department said that 23 states since 1997 have enacted voting-rights reforms. They include Nebraska, Nevada, Texas and Washington state.

The Justice Department said that 11 states, including Florida and Kentucky, restrict voting rights for ex-felons. Holder said that 10 percent of Florida’s population is disenfranchised.

Voting-rights activists are trying to change the law in that state to make it easier for “returning citizens” to vote. The push could become a campaign issue in Florida’s gubernatorial election this year. In Kentucky, a bill to restore felon voting rights to those not convicted of certain lascivious or violent crimes gained momentum last month in the state legislature. “These laws deserve to be not only reconsidered, but repealed,” Holder said.

There is even more of note in the full speech given today by AG Eric Holder at Georgetown University Law Center, the text of which is available here. I now have to go teach, so I will not be able to comment further until late tonight, but here are parts of the discussion of voting rights referenced above:

These laws deserve to be not only reconsidered, but repealed. And so today, I call upon state leaders and other elected officials across the country to pass clear and consistent reforms to restore the voting rights of all who have served their terms in prison or jail, completed their parole or probation, and paid their fines. I call upon experts and legislators to stand together in overturning an unfortunate and outdated status quo.

And I call upon the American people – who overwhelmingly oppose felony disenfranchisement – to join us in bringing about the end of misguided policies that unjustly restrict what’s been called the “most basic right” of American citizenship.

I applaud those who have already shown leadership in raising awareness and helping to address this issue. Later today, this conference will hear from Senator Rand Paul, who has been a leader on this matter. His vocal support for restoring voting rights for former inmates shows that this issue need not break down along partisan lines.

Bipartisan support will be critical going forward because, even in states where reforms are currently taking hold, we need to do even more. And we need to make sure these positive changes are expanded upon – and made permanent.

Some prior related posts:

February 11, 2014 in Collateral consequences, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (35) | TrackBack

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Reflecting on Obama Administration's latest "half-way" approach to clemency

Mark Osler authored this effective commentary concerning the recent comments coming from the Department of Justice concerning a new focus on granting clemency.  The piece carries the headline "Only half-way there on mercy," and here are excerpts:

In an extraordinary speech to the New York State Bar Association earlier this week, Deputy Attorney General James Cole did two significant things.

First, he announced that when President Obama used the pardon power in December to commute eight lengthy federal sentences for narcotics trafficking, this was only a “first step,” and that there is “more to be done.”  Second, he outlined how a much more extensive round of commutations might happen.  The first of these was historic, remarkable, and right. The second part is more problematic.

The good news is that this administration, unlike its most recent predecessors, intends to use the pardon power in a vigorous and principled way....

The method Cole outlined to produce more commutations is where the problem lies.  The administration intends to have the Bureau of Prisons spur inmates to seek commutations and then encourage state bar associations to direct their members to prepare petitions for those inmates.

Cole made this appeal to deputize lawyers in a very direct way during his New York speech  — telling the bar association there that “this is where you can help.”  The hope is that, in the end, this will produce a wave of good candidates for commutation.

Unfortunately, this solution doesn’t address the actual problem with federal clemency. No one has suggested that what is broken with the pardon power is that there aren’t enough petitions in the system — to the contrary, there is a backlog of some 3,500 clemency petitions awaiting a decision.

The problem is that the process doesn’t work.  The pipeline is clogged, and the solution can’t be simply to jam more things into it.  The present structure for consideration of these often-complicated petitions has done a terrible job handling the workload it has now; it’s unclear how giving the pardon attorney and the others who consider these petitions even more work is supposed to solve the problem. Increasing the size of the clog does nothing to clear out a pipe....

Critics hailing from such diverse corners as the Heritage Foundation and the American Constitution Society have called for wide-ranging reform of the pardon process.  This might be the time to implement significant changes, such as removing many levels of review and giving the person or committee charged with making recommendations on clemency much more frequent and direct access to the president.

Even if systemic reform of the process isn’t undertaken or doesn’t take immediate effect, a shorter-term solution is available.  Obama could empanel a presidential clemency board for a period of 12 to 18 months to consider the mass of petitions that may be generated through the process Cole described.

This pop-up agency would push through the egg in the snake, make its recommendations, and disband.  Their efforts would be revenue-positive (because of savings in incarceration costs), further an important policy goal that has been embraced by members of both parties and all three branches of government, and avoid the dangers presented when a new, permanent bureaucracy is established. What’s not to like about that?

Some recent and older posts concerning federal clemency practices:

February 4, 2014 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Friday, January 31, 2014

Are "hundreds of career prosecutors" (or mainly just Bill Otis) now in "open revolt" over AG Holder's support for the Smarter Sentencing Act?

The very serious question and inquiry in the title of this post is prompted by this notable recent post by Bill Otis that I just saw over at Crime & Consequences.  Bill's post is titled "Hundreds of Career Prosecutors Revolt Against Holder," and here is how the post gets started and its main points:

I spent 25 years [at DOJ], split between Main Justice in Washington and the US Attorney's Office.  Today something happened that, in my experience, is unprecedented.  Hundreds of career lawyers broke into open revolt against the Attorney General on a matter of prepossessing importance to federal sentencing.   If something like that had happened in the Bush Administration, I guarantee you it would be a Page One story. Whether it gets any coverage at all in the present Administration remains to be seen.

The Attorney General announced last week that he would support the Durbin-Lee bill pending in the Senate. That legislation would drastically cut back on mandatory minimum sentences for drug pushers -- not just for pot, but for all drug offenses, including major and repeat trafficking in heroin, meth, PCP and other extremely dangerous, and often lethal, drugs....

When the Attorney General decided to join the effort to kneecap mandatory minimums, career attorneys could remain silent no longer... [and] a letter [was sent by] the National Association of Assistant United States Attorneys [to] Mr. Holder three days ago....

[T]he fact that hundreds of career prosecutors -- not political appointees, but the men and women in US Attorney's Offices across the country hired on merit -- have revolted against the Attorney General is a development whose importance is difficult to overstate.

Career prosecutors, I can tell you from experience, are uncomfortable taking any role in what could be portrayed as a political issue. They are Republicans, Democrats and Independents, and generally have all the differences of opinion one would expect from a group so large and diverse. They view divorcing themselves from politics as essential. That they have spoken up here, and done so publicly, is a testament to how dreadfully damaging they know the Durbin-Lee bill would be.

I concur completely with Bill's claim in this post that it would be huge "Page One" news if, in fact, there were hundreds of federal prosecutors who "broke into open revolt against the Attorney General."  But I must question whether the mere fact that a letter signed by Robert Gay Guthrie, the President of the National Association of Assistant United States Attorneys, and sent to Attorney General Holder concerning these matters really is evidence of an "open revolt" by hundreds of federal prosecutors.

I believe the letter referenced by Bill Otis above is available at this link via the website of the National Association of Assistant United States Attorneys.  The only "open" name on the letter that I see is Robert Gay Guthrie.  The letter does use the term "we" consistently, so I surmise this letter represents the views of more than just Mr. Guthrie.  But, unless and until I see the names of other Assistant United States Attorneys who openly signed onto this letter (or unless we hear other public reports of public complaints coming from AUSAs), I have a hard time seeing this two-page letter as proof of an on-going open revolt.  Indeed, the tone and text of the letter does not even strike me as a "revolt" as much as an expression of a viewpoint.

In addition, I cannot help but notice that a lot of the concepts (and even some phrases) in the NAAUSA letter sound like comments often made by Bill Otis here and in other writings he has done in support of the existing system of federal mandatory minimums.  I have heard rumors that Bill serves as a lobbyist for the National Association of Assistant United States Attorneys, and thus I must wonder aloud whether the only person really in "open revolt" right now against AG Holder is Bill Otis.  That said, if Bill helped ghost-write this letter for the National Association of Assistant United States Attorneys and Robert Gay Guthrie, even Bill's own efforts to revolt is not really all that "open."

I raise these matters not because I am troubled that Bill Otis and Robert Gay Guthrie and other past and present federal prosecutors might weigh in on this important on-going federal sentencing reform debate.  But I am truly puzzled by Bill's assertion that there is now an "open revolt against the Attorney General" involving hundreds of federal prosecutors and by his surprise that a simple two-page letter from NAAUSA has not become a "Page One story."

I hope that Bill will use the comments here to explain just why he sees this letter as evidence of an "open revolt" and perhaps he can also name some of the "hundreds" of federal prosecutors who he may know to be a formal part of this "open revolt."  I also hope, if in fact there is now an on-going "open revolt against the Attorney General on a matter of prepossessing importance to federal sentencing" as Bill Otis asserts, that some current federal prosecutors (1) will openly state here or elsewhere that they signed off on this letter and did so as part of an effort to revolt against AG Holder, and (2) will openly discuss any other activities planned as part of this revolt.

I know Bill Otis feels very strongly that the current federal mandatory minimum sentencing provisions should not be reformed.  But, until reading Bill's post, I was not aware that "hundreds" of current federal prosecutors shared his perspective.  And, of course, yesterday 13 of 18 Senators on the Senate Judiciary Committee voted in favor of drug sentencing reform, and I now wonder if they were fully aware of what Bill calls an "open revolt against the Attorney General."  Finally, my own assessment of the prospects of the Smarter Sentencing Act becoming enacted law is sure to be impacted by the nature and dynamics of any on-going  "open revolt against the Attorney General" by hundreds of federal prosecutors.

A few recent related posts:

January 31, 2014 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (45) | TrackBack

Professor/practitioner perspective on DAG Cole's puzzling clemency conversation

Nearly everyone I know invested in the modern debate over federal clemency policies and practice have been intrigued and puzzled by the clemency comments made by Deputy Attorney General James Cole yesterday at the New York State Bar Association Annual Meeting (basis here and here). Helpfully, Professor Mark Osler agreed to write up his thoughts for posting here in order to provide a thoughtful perspective on that DAG Cole's comments might mean and portend:

Since starting a federal commutations clinic a few years ago, I’ve become fascinated by the clemency process. For those of us who care deeply about the constitutional pardon power, the speech by Deputy Attorney General Jim Cole in New York was a bombshell. In short, Cole announced that President Obama’s grant of eight commutations in December was just a “first step,” and that “there was more to be done.”  This isn’t subtle signaling; it is a bold and admirable announcement that the administration plans to use the pardon power systemically to address over-incarceration in narcotics cases. This is great news for those serving such sentences, sure, but it also is a remarkable moment for the pardon power itself, which has not played such an important and principled role in the justice system for decades.

There are some open questions, though. Cole said the December commutations were a “first step,” and outlined generally what the second step will be — an apparent move to funnel many more cases through the existing process. Cole described three parts of this process. First, the Bureau of Prisons will advise inmates of their right to petition for clemency and then direct inmates who respond to bar associations that are willing to help prepare petitions. Second, bar associations will then coordinate the preparation of these petitions. Third, a member of Cole’s staff will coordinate all of this.

If it works, this will result in a flood of petitions being sent to the federal pardon attorney, a DOJ functionary. Therein lies the rub. The pardon attorney, and the rest of the process between the pardon attorney and the President, has hardly been a model of efficiency. In December, those eight commutations and thirteen pardons that were granted were dwarfed by what currently clogs the pipeline — over 3,500 petitions for clemency are currently unresolved. Presumably, these new petitions will take their place at the bottom of that large pile.

At best, this will all work out somehow — there might be a plan to improve the process that we don’t know about. At worst, Cole is waving more traffic onto a jammed freeway, without first clearing the wrecks and opening the exit ramps.

Generating more clemency petitions is a good thing, but it needs to be accompanied by an administration plan to process and grant more petitions. Gerald Ford did this efficiently by creating a Presidential Clemency Board, which evaluated thousands of clemency petitions from Vietnam-era draft evaders and Army deserters. Ford’s Board did this in exactly one year, at low cost. That model should be used here. If the freeway isn’t moving, adding more cars won’t help much.

January 31, 2014 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Though Prez Obama ignores sentencing reform in State of the Union, AG Holder talks it up to Senate Judiciary Committee

I was disappointed, but not at all surprised, that during last night's State of the Union address, President Obama showed his distinct unwillingness to be a real leader in the arena of federal sentencing reform.  I had heard rumors that some mention of sentencing reform was possible in SOTU, but I surmise that Prez Obama cares too little about this issue to give it even a brief mention in an hour-long speech about his vision and priorities for the nation.  (In sharp contrast, as highlighted here, President George W. Bush made some quite progressive criminal justice reform comments in both his 2004 and 2005 State of the Union address.)

But while Prez Obama apparently is disinterested in these matters (or thinks they make for bad politics), his Attorney General seems to remain committed to move forward with needed federal sentencing reforms.  Specifically, consider these closing paragraphs in this prepared statement delivered today by AG Eric Holder to the US Senate Committee on the Judiciary:

[O]ur commitment to integrity and equal justice in every case, in every circumstance, and in every community ... is also reflected in the new “Smart on Crime” initiative I announced this past August — to strengthen our federal criminal justice system; to increase our emphasis on proven diversion, rehabilitation, and reentry programs; and to reduce unnecessary collateral consequences for those seeking to rejoin their communities. As part of the “Smart on Crime” approach, I mandated a significant change to the Justice Department’s charging policies to ensure that people accused of certain low-level federal drug crimes will face sentences appropriate to their individual conduct — and that stringent mandatory minimum sentences will be reserved for the most serious criminals.  Alongside other important reforms, this change will make our criminal justice system not only fairer, but also more efficient.  And it will complement proposals like the bipartisan Smarter Sentencing Act — introduced by Senators Dick Durbin and Mike Lee — which would give judges more discretion in determining appropriate sentences for people convicted of certain federal drug crimes.

I look forward to working with Chairman Leahy, distinguished members of this Committee, and other leaders who have shown a commitment to common-sense sentencing reform – like Senator Rand Paul — to help advance this and other legislation.  I thank you all, once again, for your continued support of the Department of Justice.  And I would be happy to answer any questions you may have.

A few recent related posts:

January 29, 2014 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Clemency christmas miracle?: Prez Obama communiting 8 pre-FSA crack sentences and granting 13 pardons

ALittleChristmasMiracleAs reported in this new article from the New York Times, "President Obama, expanding his push to curtail severe penalties for drug offenses, is expected on Thursday to commute the sentences of eight federal inmates who were convicted of crack cocaine offenses. Each inmate has been imprisoned for at least 15 years, and six were sentenced to life in prison."  Here is more about this interesting and exciting news:

It would be the first time retroactive relief was provided to a group of inmates who most likely would have received significantly shorter terms if they had been sentenced under current drug laws, sentencing rules and charging policies. Most of the eight would be released in 120 days.

In a statement prepared for release when the commutations are announced, Mr. Obama said that each of the eight men and women had been sentenced under what is now recognized as an “unfair system,” including under a 100-to-1 sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenses that was significantly reduced by the Fair Sentencing Act of 2011.

“If they had been sentenced under the current law, many of them would have already served their time and paid their debt to society,” Mr. Obama said. “Instead, because of a disparity in the law that is now recognized as unjust, they remain in prison, separated from their families and their communities, at a cost of millions of taxpayer dollars each year.”

The recipients include several high-profile inmates who have received news media attention as examples of the effects of earlier tough-on-crime drug sentencing policies, in which the quantities of crack involved sometimes resulted in severe punishments. Many of them were young at the time of their offense and were not accused of violence.

Clarence Aaron of Mobile, Ala., for example, was sentenced to three life terms in prison for his role in a 1993 drug deal, when he was 22. Mr. Aaron’s case has been taken up by congressional critics of draconian sentencing and by civil rights groups, and has received significant media attention. Last year, the Justice Department’s inspector general issued a report criticizing the department’s pardon office for mishandling his clemency petition.

Margaret Love, a former Justice Department pardon lawyer who represents Mr. Aaron, said she received a call informing her of the decision on Thursday morning and called her client, who along with his family was “very grateful.”

“He was absolutely overcome,” she said. “Actually, I was, too. He was in tears. This has been a long haul for him, 20 years. He just was speechless, and it’s very exciting.”

Mr. Obama, who has made relatively little use of his constitutional clemency powers to forgive offenses or reduce sentences, is also expected to pardon 13 people who completed their sentences long ago. Those cases involved mostly minor offenses that resulted in little or no prison time, in line with previous pardons he has issued.

But the eight commutations opened a major new front in the administration’s criminal justice policy intended to curb soaring taxpayer spending on prisons and to help correct what the administration has portrayed as unfairness in the justice system. Recipients also include Reynolds Wintersmith, of Rockford, Ill., who was sentenced in 1994 to life in prison for dealing crack when he was 17, and Stephanie George of Pensacola, Fla., who received a life sentence in 1997, when she was 27, for hiding a boyfriend’s stash of crack in a box in her house. In both cases, the sentencing judges criticized the mandatory sentences they were required to impose by federal law at the time, calling them unjust.

In December 2012, The New York Times published an article about Ms. George’s case and the larger rethinking of the social and economic costs of long prison terms for nonviolent offenders. Mr. Obama mentioned the article in an interview with Time magazine later that day and said he was considering asking officials about ways to do things “smarter.”

Around that time, a senior White House official said, Mr. Obama directed Kathryn Ruemmler, his White House counsel, to ask the Justice Department to examine pending clemency petitions to assess whether there were any in which current inmates serving long sentences would have benefited from subsequent changes to sentencing laws and policy. The deputy attorney general, James M. Cole, returned the eight cases with positive recommendations from the department about six weeks ago, the official said....

Legislation pending in Congress, including a bill co-sponsored by Senators Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, and Mike Lee, Republican of Utah, would make the Fair Sentencing Act retroactive for some offenders, and it would build into the system a process for inmates to apply to a judge for case-by-case review of whether a reduced sentence would be appropriate. The Obama administration supports that bill, the White House said, as a more orderly and regular way to ensure individualized analysis in addressing the broader inmate population.

According to the group Families Against Mandatory Minimums, about 8,800 federal inmates sentenced for crack offenses before the Fair Sentencing Act would be eligible to apply for a reduced sentence were the bill to become law. “Commuting the sentences of these eight Americans is an important step toward restoring fundamental ideals of justice and fairness,” Mr. Obama said. “But it must not be the last. In the new year, lawmakers should act on the kinds of bipartisan sentencing reform measures already working their way through Congress. Together, we must ensure that our taxpayer dollars are spent wisely, and that our justice system keeps its basic promise of equal treatment for all.”

I am quite pleased Prez Obama is finally, finally, finally using his constitutional clemency powers in a truly consequential and meaningful way, and I am especially pleased that there are now eight more defendants (and families) who get some relief from the unfair 100-1 pre-FSA crack sentences that nobody ever seeks to defend substantively. However, the numbers reported above highlight that for every new bit of post-FSA fairness achieved by these commutations, a thousand other defendants (and families) must continue to live with the consequences of a reform that has been interpreted only to prevent future injustices and not fix past ones.

More broadly, though I do not want to turn a praiseworthy act by Prez Obama into an excuse for more criticism, there is a cynical voice in my head that is not only eager to fault the limited reach of this new round of clemency, but also its timing. Perhaps intentionally, these grants could (and perhaps should) be marginalized as just a holiday tradition, not as a bold statement of executive priorities. Even more worrisomely, as there is on-going talk of statutory sentencing reforms in Congress, these grants might provide some basis for opponents of broader reforms to contend that truly troublesome cases can and should be just handled and remedied by the executive branch.

Better summing up my cynicism is a response to this news from Professor Mark Osler: "Good news... But just one lifeboat off the titanic. With no structural change, the ship is still sinking."

December 19, 2013 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (13) | TrackBack

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

"20% Of Obama’s Pardons Have Gone To Turkeys"

Presidential-pardonsThe title of this post is the fitting headline devised by Andrew Sullivan for this post from The Dish. The post links to this longer lament of the entire turkey pardon ritual by Brad Plummer, which winds down this way:

It's a mockery of the presidential pardon, which is an all-too neglected issue. Maybe this isn't surprising, since the turkey pardon was basically invented as a way of mocking presidential pardons. Still, it's worth mentioning.

After tomorrow, Obama will have "pardoned" 10 turkeys in all (turkeys that, as best we can tell, haven't actually committed any crimes). By contrast, he will have only pardoned or commuted the sentences of 40 actual living human beings.

The latter is a record low for modern-day presidents.  At the same point in his presidency, Ronald Reagan had pardoned 313 people.  Harry Truman had pardoned 1,537 people.

Last year, Sam Morrison, an official who spent 13 years in the Justice Department's Office of the Pardon Attorney before retiring in 2010, described the prevailing attitude toward pardons this way: "They tend to view any grant of clemency not as a good thing, as a criminal justice success story, but almost as a defeat — that you're taking away something from what some good prosecutor achieved." (The Justice Department disputed this characterization.)

Over at National Journal, Ron Fournier pointed out that, at the bare minimum, Obama could grant clemency to all the people still serving extra time in prison under the old crack-sentencing guidelines — guidelines that Obama himself opposed as excessive and which Congress reduced for all new prisoners in 2010.  So far, however, there's no sign that the White House will do this.

Of course, comparing Prez Obama's pitiful clemency record to the records of prior presidents like Ronald Reagan or Harry Truman is quite unfair — to Reagan and Truman. The federal criminal justice system and the federal prison population (not to mention the negative consequences of a federal record) were all much, much smaller when Reagan and Truman were President, and thus the number of federal offenders and prisoners formally seeking clemency was much lower. Indeed, these official clemency statistics reveal that Prez Obama gets about 10 times as many formal commutation requests than Prez Reagan got each year (which, is not so surprising given that the federal prison population is nearly 10 times larger now than it was when Reagan first became President).

Indeed, if we focus on only commutations, President Obama's record looks even more revolting.  As Jacob Sullum notes here at Forbes, Obama has only commuted a single federal prison sentence.  Thus, as the Forbes headline states, "Judging From His Clemency Record, Obama Likes Turkeys 10 Times As Much As People."

November 27, 2013 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Could GOP Senator John Cornyn be the next big advocate for reducing federal prison terms?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this very interesting new piece by Greg Sargent via the Washington Post under the headline "Where are Republicans on sentencing reform?." Here are excerpts:

When Eric Holder announced recently that he is pursuing an ambitious package of sentencing reforms, including proposals to reduce “mandatory minimum” sentences, there was a widespread sense it could attract broad bipartisan support. The thinking was that agreement cuts across party lines that our decades-long experiment in mass incarceration has been a huge policy failure.

Now Dem Congressional aides are asking: Will leading Republicans step forward and support reform?...

I can report a new development on this front. I’m told GOP Senator John Cornyn is working on a separate but related package of prison-reform legislation that could help bring more attention to the overall debate.  According to his office, Cornyn is developing proposals designed to reduce recidivism rates and time served in prison. The ideas are not sentencing reform and would not reduce the sentences themselves — as would Holder’s proposals — but instead would give prisoners ways to reduce already-doled-out sentences.

The policies, which are modeled on similar reforms in Texas, would allow certain types of non-violent prisoners to do various programs — such as recidivism reduction programming, work programs, or other productive activities.  Prisoners at low risk of recidivism could trade in the time they do in such programs to convert their remaining time in prison into time in halfway houses or home confinement.

While these ideas don’t attack the problem in precisely the same way the ideas pushed by Holder and Dems do, there is overlap. As Cornyn’s office notes, their goal would be to reduce the amount of time people spend in prison, reduce recidivisim, and reduce costs. Cornyn’s office says he will try to round up Republican and Democratic support for them and possibly introduce them this fall.  If that happens, it could help ignite a conversation on the broader set of issues here....

But we have yet to hear from leading Republicans whose support would be required to push this debate forward, such as Senators Orrin Hatch and Jeff Sessions, both of whom are on the Judiciary Committee and (to my knowledge) have not seriously weighed in on Holder’s push.  The question is whether establishment Republicans are going to have a real voice on this issue this fall.  Let’s hope so.

I am pretty sure there are more than a few folks within the Justice Department who have advocated (both formally and behind the scenes) for expanding "good time" credits and creating "earned time" credits in order to make it much easier for nonviolent federal prisoners "to reduce already-doled-out sentences."  Consequently, it is not so much the specifics of Senator Cornyn's working plan that are such a big deal, but rather that someone without a obvious Tea Party history is working on a federal prison reduction plan at all.  Kudos to Senator Cornyn, and I hope joins the ever-growing chorus of GOP voices calling for federal criminal justice reforms.

Some old and newer related posts about AG Holder's speech and the "new politics" of sentencing reform:

September 11, 2013 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack