Sunday, May 24, 2015

"Before sentencing, Ulbricht begs for leniency: 'please leave me my old age'"

This new ars technica posting provides the title of this post and it provides background and links to a high-energy effort by a high-profile defendant to get a lower sentence for his high-tech drug dealing crimes for which he will be sentenced in the coming week.  Here are excerpts:

Convicted Silk Road founder Ross Ulbricht and no less than 97 of his friends and family members have written to a judge just days prior to sentencing, asking her to impose the most lenient sentence possible. (Ars has posted the letters online along with the court filing of photos of Ulbricht and many family and friends.)

 Under federal mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines, Ulbricht faces at least 20 years in prison and possibly as long as life behind bars.  “Silk Road turned out to be a very naive and costly idea that I deeply regret,” he wrote in his own 1.5 page letter to United States District Judge Katherine Forrest filed on Friday.

Ulbricht’s own letter marks the first time he has shown any public remorse during the entire saga, during which he did not testify. His attorney, Joshua Dratel, spun unsubstantiated theories that while Ulbricht created Silk Road, unnamed mysterious others took over the site and should be the ones prosecuted for the crime. Dratel previously vowed to appeal the verdict.

In February 2015, Ulbricht was convicted of seven charges including three drug counts: distributing or aiding and abetting the distribution of narcotics, distributing narcotics or aiding and abetting distribution over the Internet, and conspiracy to violate narcotics laws. He was also convicted on a fourth count of conspiracy to run a "continuing criminal enterprise," which involves supervising at least five other people in an organization. In addition, Ulbricht was convicted on conspiracy charges for computer hacking, distributing false identification, and money laundering.

Prior related posts:

May 24, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Friday, May 22, 2015

"Federal Sentencing Error as Loss of Chance"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new piece available via SSRN authored by Kate Huddleston. Here is the abstract:

Federal courts have taken the wrong approach to discussing sentencing error.  Circuit court opinions in career offender cases have framed the debate over collateral review of federal sentencing error as a conflict between finality and fairness.  This Comment contends that disagreement over the cognizability of such claims is actually a dispute about the nature of the harm in sentencing error.  What federal courts are actually asking, in effect, is whether the lost probability of a lower sentence is itself a cognizable injury.

The Comment draws on an analogy to tort law to argue that sentencing debates are, at their core, about loss of chance.  Part I highlights the role that probability plays in recent sentencing opinions.  It argues that, as an empirical matter, loss of chance is an accurate way to describe sentencing error given the anchoring effect of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines on sentencing practices.  Part II makes the structural case for conceptualizing Guidelines sentencing error as a problem of probability, arguing that failure to recognize the probability dispute has obscured an underlying debate about the continued vitality of the Guidelines system.  After United States v. Booker, the Sentencing Guidelines are advisory in principle and influential in practice. Part II argues that treating Guidelines error as loss of chance — and a loss that may constitute a fundamental miscarriage of justice — is necessary in order to enforce a Guidelines regime that is neither too rigid nor wholly indeterminate.

May 22, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Debate over harms of online drug market now at center of upcoming sentencing of Silk Road creator Ross Ulbricht

As reported in this Wired piece, headlined "Ahead of Sentencing, Ulbricht Defense Argues Silk Road Made Drug Use Safer," the defense in a notable drug sentencing case is making a notable new claim about the nature and consequences of the defendant's drug dealing methods.  Here are the details:

When a jury convicted Ross Ulbricht three months ago of running the Silk Road, it closed the legal question of whether he was guilty of masterminding that billion-dollar online black market for drugs. But as Ulbricht’s sentencing approaches, his defense is opening another ethical question that may be far more societally important: Did the Silk Road’s newly invented method of narcotics e-commerce actually reduce the risks of drug use?

In a memo to judge Katherine Forrest filed Friday afternoon, Ulbricht’s defense has asked her to consider the Silk Road’s potential for “harm reduction” when she determines Ulbricht’s sentence in less than two weeks.  The memo argues that the Silk Road’s community provided drug users a more reliable way to buy untainted drugs, that Ulbricht had expressly tried to encourage “safer” drug use on his black market site, and that the digital nature of the site’s commerce may have protected users from physical interactions that in the traditional drug trade often lead to violence.

“In contrast to the government’s portrayal of the Silk Road web site as a more dangerous version of a traditional drug marketplace, in fact the Silk Road web site was in many respects the most responsible such marketplace in history, and consciously and deliberately included recognized harm reduction measures, including access to physician counseling,” writes Ulbricht’s lead defense attorney Joshua Dratel in the filing.  “In addition, transactions on the Silk Road web site were significantly safer than traditional illegal drug purchases, and included quality control and accountability features that made purchasers substantially safer than they were when purchasing drugs in a conventional manner.”

The memo argues that the Silk Road’s community provided drug users a more reliable way to buy untainted drugs.  One of the Silk Road’s innovations, after all, was to bring an eBay-like system of ratings and reviews for online drug sales.  That system gave buyers a way to quickly weed out dealers selling lower quality or less pure substances. The site maintained a section of its user forum devoted to safer drug use, where users could ask each other for advice and help with health problems.  And Ulbricht’s defense points to archived messages showing that Ulbricht even offered at one point to pay $500 a week to a Spanish doctor, Fernando Caudevilla, who frequented the forum and answered users’ questions.  Ulbricht also asked Caudevilla if he’d be willing to chemically test drugs on the site for quality, though it’s not clear if that testing scheme was ever put into practice.

Regardless, Ulbricht isn’t likely to receive a light sentence.  The 31-year-old Texan was convicted of seven felony charges in February that include conspiracies to traffic in narcotics and money laundering, as well as a “kingpin” statute reserved for the leaders of organized criminal operations, which could add another decade to his prison time.  In all, he faces a minimum of 30 years in prison and a maximum of life.  Ulbricht’s defense team has already said it plans to appeal the case.

The prosecution in Ulbricht’s case has revealed that it plans to present at Ulbricht’s sentencing hearing six cases of individuals who died from overdoses of drugs bought on the Silk Road.  But in its Friday filing, the defense addressed and rebutted each of those examples. In a grisly section of a separate memo, it goes through the details of those six deaths, in each case arguing that the deceased suffered from earlier health conditions and questioning whether the death-inducing drugs had actually been bought from vendors on the Silk Road. “It is simply impossible for the government to prove that drugs obtained from Silk Road ‘caused’ death, and in certain cases, the government cannot even establish to any degree of certainty that any of the drugs ingested came from Silk Road,” Dratel writes....

To bolster its argument about the societal benefits of the Silk Road, the defense includes in its filing sworn statements from a series of experts, including Tim Bingham, the administrator of an addiction-focused non-profit known as the Irish Needle Exchange Forum, and Meghan Ralston, the former director of harm reduction for the Drug Policy Alliance.  Bingham, for instance, published three studies in the International Journal of Drug Policy about the Silk Road based on surveys of users.  He writes in his statement that he “concluded that Silk Road forums…appeared to act as an information mechanism for the promotion of safer and more acceptable or responsible forms of recreational drug use.”

The full text of this Ulbricht Sentencing Defense Letter can be accessed at this link.

Prior related posts:

May 19, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Monday, May 18, 2015

DC Circuit on child porn and sentencing manipulation and nonfrivolous arguments (aka departures and variances and Booker, oh my!)

I sometime consider Washington DC to be a land like Oz where weird, and sometimes magical, sometimes scary, sometimes bizarre, events can transpire.  Thus, when reading the DC Circuit's recent  opinion in US v. Bigley, No. 12-3022 (DC Cir. May 15, 2015) (available here), I kept hearing Dorothy's voice as the opinion twisted and turned through a variety of notable sentencing issues in the dark Booker forest.  Here is how the per curiam opinion gets started:

Before United States v. Booker, 543 U.S. 220 (2005), rendered the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines advisory, we forbade district courts from relying on sentencing manipulation as a basis for mitigation.  See United States v. Walls, 70 F.3d 1323, 1329–30 (D.C. Cir. 1995).  But Booker and its offspring fundamentally changed the sentencing calculus, requiring courts to now consider any mitigation argument related to the sentencing factors contained in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a) when imposing a sentence within the statutory range of punishment. See Pepper v. United States, 131 S. Ct. 1229, 1241–48 (2011); Kimbrough v. United States, 552 U.S. 85, 101–02 (2007); Rita v. United States, 551 U.S. 338, 357 (2007). A sentencing court, post-Booker, must consider nonfrivolous arguments for mitigation, even if those arguments were previously prohibited under the mandatory guidelines regime. Because the district court failed to consider a nonfrivolous claim of sentencing manipulation when it pronounced its sentence, we vacate the sentence and remand.

Notably, the full opinion for the DC Circuit panel here does not quite say that a district court always has an obligation to address expressly a nonfrivolous argument raised by the defendant. Judge Rogers concurs separately to advocate such a holding by the circuit:

“Sentencing is a responsibility heavy enough without our adding formulaic or ritualized burdens.” United States v. Cavera, 550 F.3d 180, 193 (2d Cir. 2008).  I am not indifferent to concerns about saddling busy district courts with more procedural loads and I appreciate this court’s reluctance.  But the burden of providing a brief explanation is small and the advantages great.  “Most obviously, [an explanation] requirement helps to ensure that district courts actually consider the statutory factors and reach reasoned decisions.” Id. at 193; see also In re Sealed Case, 527 F.3d 188, 192 (D.C. Cir. 2008) (“The requirements that a sentencing judge provide a specific reason for a departure and that he commit that reason to writing work together to ensure a sentence is well-considered.”).  It also promotes the “perception of fair sentencing,” Gall, 552 U.S. at 50, and “helps the sentencing process evolve by informing the ongoing work of the Sentencing Commission,” Cavera, 550 F.3d at 193. When a sentencing court responds to a defendant’s arguments, it “communicates a message of respect for defendants, strengthening what social psychologists call ‘procedural justice effects,’ thereby advancing fundamental purposes of the Sentencing Reform Act.” See Michael M. O’Hear, Explaining Sentences, 36 FLA. ST. U. L. REV. 459, 472 (2009). The requirement also assures an adequate record with which we can conduct “meaningful appellate review.” Gall, 552 U.S. at 50. I would join the majority of circuits in holding district courts should address a defendant’s nonfrivolous argument for a variance from the Guideline range.

Though the formal ruling and the discussion of sentencing procedural are surely the most consequential aspects of this Bigbey ruling, I cannot overlook or fail to comment on the case facts and on how the remarkable severity of the federal child porn guidelines shaped the entire sentencing dynamic of this case. Here is the sad and remarkable (guideline) tale: The defendant in this case was charged and pled guilty to "one count of interstate travel with intent to engage in illicit sexual conduct with a minor" after he drove to DC to hook up with a (fictional) 12-year-old daughter of a friend of an (undercover) agent chatting on-line. At the suggestion of the agent, the defendant bought a digital camera with him on his trip to DC for taking pictures of the girl, which had this impact in the calculation of the guideline range:

When the probation office calculated his advisory sentencing guideline range, it employed the Section 2G1.3(c)(1) cross-reference guideline provision, which requires the application of Section 2G2.1 when an offense involves “causing, transporting, permitting, or offering . . . a minor to engage in sexually explicit conduct for the purpose of producing a visual depiction of such conduct.” U.S.S.G. § 2G1.3(c)(1). By applying Section 2G2.1, Bigley’s base offense level increased from 24 to 32, which, when the other guideline calculations were made, boosted his sentence guideline range from 46 to 57 months to 135 to 168 months of imprisonment.

In other words, because (and only because) the defendant was talked into bringing a digital camera on his illegal child booty-call trip, his recommended guideline sentence shot up from 4-5 years to 12-14 years. I have heard of some severe gun-possession sentencing enhancements, but I have never seen such a severe camera-possession sentencing enhancement.  Perhaps the NRA (the Nikon Rights Association) should consider filing an amicus brief at the resentencing.

May 18, 2015 in Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Ninth Circuit finds procedural error in teen's 30-month federal sentence for laser beam prank

A Ninth Circuit panel today handed down a notable sentencing opinion in US v Gardenhire, No. 13-50125 (9th Cir. April 30, 2015) (available here).  This unofficial summary of the ruling provided by court staff highlights why federal sentencing fans will want to check out the full ruling:

The panel vacated a sentence imposed for knowingly aiming the beam of a laser pointer at an aircraft in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 39A, and remanded for resentencing, in a case in which the district court applied an enhancement for reckless endangerment under U.S.S.G. § 2A5.2(a)(2)(A).

The panel held that the district court erred in concluding that the defendant acted recklessly when he aimed his laser beam at the aircraft, where the record is devoid of evidence, let alone clear and convincing evidence, that the defendant was aware of the risk created by his conduct.

The panel could not say that the error was harmless, and instructed that the matter be assigned to a different district judge on remand.  The panel observed that the district court’s statements show its commitment to the idea that, regardless of the evidence presented, the defendant’s conduct was reckless, and that it would likely impose the same sentence on remand, regardless of this court’s rulings.

In light of the extremely steep sentencing regime dictated by the recklessness enhancement for wide-ranging conduct covered by § 2A5.2, the panel wrote that it is particularly important that the government is held to its burden of proof and that the enhancements are supported by clear and convincing evidence.

April 30, 2015 in Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Senator Grassley yet again says he is open to some federal sentencing reforms

As reported in this new Washington Times article, "Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley on Monday said he supported looking into sentencing reform." Here is more of this (not-quite-new) news:

Mr. Grassley, Iowa Republican, has long opposed reducing mandatory minimums, and was seen as a barrier to advancing any sort of sentencing reform legislation while at the committee’s helm. “Over the last several months, I’ve been accused of being a roadblock to sentencing reform. Let me be clear. I have told my colleagues and the White House that I’d like to sit down and talk about how we can move forward,” Mr. Grassley said in prepared remarks Monday, where he laid out his committee’s priorities for the session. “I’m ready to address some of these issues.”

He reiterated that he wasn’t willing to do “an across-the-board cut in mandatory minimums,” but did agree that some should be cut, and perhaps some should be raised, such as for those who commit white-collar crimes. Mr. Grassley also spoke about the need for his committee to look into indigent defendants who are not provided with legal counsel, as the Constitution requires, when they are arrested on misdemeanors and may face jail time....

Mr. Grassley’s stance aligns him with more liberal and libertarian groups, who have long advocated civil justice reforms. In February, Koch Industries, which is led by the billionaire conservative kingmaker Charles Koch, formed a coalition with the Center for American Progress — a bitter adversary on economic and tax issues — to champion proposals to reduce prison populations, reform sentencing guidelines and reduce people’s lapses back into criminal behavior....

The effort has been building traction in Congress with libertarian-leaning republicans such as Utah’s Mike Lee, and Kentucky’s Rand Paul, joining with liberals including Sens. Dick Durbin and Patrick Leahy. Those efforts were expected to face an uphill climb with Mr. Grassley, who took to the Senate floor this year to say the system wasn’t sending a huge uptick of nonviolent drug offenders to prison under lengthy mandatory minimums, and criticized the Senate proposal to change sentencing laws as possibly reducing sentences for terrorists who used drug trafficking to finance terrorism....

Earlier this month, faith leaders in Iowa encouraged Mr. Grassley to embrace the various bipartisan bills in front of him and encouraged reintegration of people returning from prisons and jails. A group of more than 100 pastors, reverends, bishops and other faith leaders suggested in an April 20 letter that Mr. Grassley limit disproportionate sentences “particularly for drug offenses.” “We believe justice can be better served and proportionality restored by lowering penalties,” the letter states. The unnecessarily lengthy incarceration of people with drug offenses has burdened the federal criminal justice system and produced increasing costs that are unsustainable.”

On Monday, Mr. Grassley seemed willing to negotiate — or at least sit down and listen to their concerns. “I told a lot of people that are for sentencing reform that I want to sit down and talk to them,” said Mr. Grassley. “There is some talk going on, I don’t know how far its progressed at this point, at the staff level. But yes, I’m willing to do some legislation in that area.”

Mr. Grassley also said he supported having video cameras in the Supreme Court and wanted to examine the fairness of asset forfeiture by the police and federal law enforcement. In addition, Mr. Grassley plans to introduce a Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act reauthorization bill this week. The bill, he said, has the support of Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on crime and terrorism.

The full speech by Senator Grassley delivered yesterday at the National Press Club Newsmakers News Conference is available at this link. As highlighted in prior posts linked below, these comments from Senator Grassley do not reflect any major change of position, but it does reinforce my belief that any and all persons seriously committed to serious federal sentencing reforms need to figure out just what kinds of reforms Senator Grassley is prepared to support or allow to get to a vote in his critical committee.

April 28, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Friday, April 24, 2015

Attorneys for another convicted CIA leaker urges judges to follow Petraeus sentencing lead

This notable new Washington Post article, headlined "Attorneys ask judge to consider Petraeus in sentencing ex-CIA officer Sterling," the seemingly lenient treatment given yesterday to former CIA director David Petraeus for leaking information to his journalist/mistress (basics here) is already having an echo effect in other federal criminal cases.  Here are the interesting details:

Defense attorneys for the former CIA officer convicted of giving classified information to a New York Times reporter urged a federal judge on Friday to sentence their client in line with the terms faced by other so-called leakers — noting that not 24 hours ago, a retired general and ex-CIA director was given mere probation in a similar case.

Defense attorneys for Jeffrey Sterling did not endorse a specific penalty, but they urged U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema to consider the impact of the case and be fair. The defense attorneys argued that in three other recent leak cases, those convicted received — at the most — 30 months in prison. On Thursday retired general and former CIA chief David Petraeus was sentenced to two years of probation and a $100,000 fine. “In meting out justice,” defense attorneys wrote, “the Court cannot turn a blind eye to the positions the Government has taken in similar cases.”

Sterling, 47, was convicted in January of nine criminal counts after jurors determined unanimously that he gave classified information to New York Times reporter James Risen about a sensitive operation to put faulty nuclear plans in the hands of Iranian officials. Federal prosecutors earlier this week urged a judge to impose a “severe” sentence and said they felt the U.S. probation office had correctly calculated the range in the federal sentencing guidelines as 19 years 7 months on the low end and 24 years 5 months on the high end.

Such a sentence would have few parallels: The closest might be the 35-year prison term imposed by a military judge on Chelsea Manning, who leaked the largest volume of classified documents in U.S. history. And Sterling’s defense attorneys argued that a prison term within the guidelines would be “plainly excessive,” essentially penalizing Sterling for not taking a plea deal. “Mr. Sterling was convicted, under the Espionage Act, for ‘leaking’ information to a reporter,” defense attorneys wrote. “He should be treated similarly to others convicted for the same crimes and not singled out for a long prison sentence because he elected to exercise his right to a trial.”

Defense attorneys pointed to two similar cases in which alleged leakers reached plea agreements and avoided decades behind bars. Former CIA officer John Kiriakou, who revealed the name of another covert officer, was ultimately sentenced to 30 months in prison, and former State Department arms expert Stephen Jin-Woo Kim, who leaked classified information to a Fox News reporter, was ultimately sentenced to 13 months in prison, defense attorneys argued. They argued that Petraeus, who lied to the FBI, reached a deal to avoid prison entirely. “Mr. Sterling should not receive a different form of justice than General Petraeus,” Sterling’s defense attorneys wrote.

Prosecutors have characterized Sterling’s case as “unique” and argued that the harm he caused to national security was grave. They have argued that Sterling, motivated by “pure vindictiveness,” leaked details that compromised one of the nation’s few ways to deter Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and in doing so, put a Russian scientist who was working with the CIA in danger....

Sterling is scheduled to be sentenced May 11.

April 24, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Why the US Sentencing Commission's moderate moderation of fraud guidelines has few fans

This new Huffington Post piece, headlined "Why Nobody Is Really Happy With New Guidelines For Punishing White-Collar Criminals," provides an effective review of why the US Sentencing Commissions new amendments to the fraud guidelines is not garnering widespread praise. Here are excerpts:

A federal panel voted earlier this month to amend the guidelines that federal judges use when sentencing people who commit economic crimes. But few are happy with those changes: Sentencing reform advocates say they don't go far enough to fix draconian sentences, while the U.S. Department of Justice contends that the changes could give some white-collar criminals a new avenue for unfair leniency.

Recommended sentences for economic crimes under the current rubric are so severe, they are no longer taken seriously, some prosecutors and judges suggest. Those guidelines have relied on complicated calculations involving criminal gain and inflicted losses that spit out sentences that can appear inconsistent or absurd. One federal New York judge called the math "hocus-pocus." In 2008, for example, a federal judge sentenced a 72-year-old man to 330 years in prison for an investment scam.

The U.S. Sentencing Commission is responsible for coming up with the road map that federal judges can use when issuing these sentences. On April 9, the commission approved new guidelines, which now will be submitted to Congress and will go into effect in November, unless lawmakers intervene.

Chief Judge Patti Saris, who chairs the commission, contended last week that the economic crime guidelines are not broken, but has acknowledged that they could provide more clarity on what to do in the cases of certain first-time, low-level offenders. The changes aim to make punishments more fair by giving greater weight to a criminal's role and his or her intent....

In March, the Justice Department came out against some of these changes, in favor of more targeted reforms. DOJ is worried that the intent clarification could allow white-collar criminals to claim they never meant to hurt anyone. A fraudster running a Ponzi scheme who is caught early, for example, could argue that he hoped the scheme wouldn't fail.

It makes sense that the Justice Department would want to preserve the option to impose harsher sentences in certain cases. Frank Bowman, a professor at the University of Missouri School of Law who has commented on the draft guidelines, said that from DOJ's perspective, stringent guidelines can give them leverage when negotiating plea bargains.

But some legal experts argue that the Obama administration is missing the point in this case. "All we want to do is make guidelines such that a federal prosecutor can actually look a federal judge in the face and say, 'Impose these guidelines as written,'" Bowman said. If the guidelines had more credibility, he added, judges might be more inclined to follow them and hand down stronger sentences. "The Justice Department is cutting off its nose to spite its face," he said.

Mark Holden, senior vice president and general counsel for Koch Industries, told The Huffington Post that he considered the commission's emphasis on offender intent "a positive development and consistent with the Bill of Rights." He added that the guidelines "are an effort to make the punishment fit the crime," but that more needs to be done on criminal justice reform overall....

Advocates say that when it comes to sentencing reform, there are parallels between drug crimes and economic crime. Mary Price, general counsel for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, asked, "Do we just count drugs, or do we look at [the harm] people really intended? How much harm did they cause? … Are they the courier or the mastermind?" She added that she was disappointed with the pending changes to the economic crime guidelines, calling them "rather minimal."

Prior related posts:

April 24, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Monday, April 20, 2015

New Sentencing Commission data reveal within-guideline sentences now rarer than non-guideline sentences

The US Sentencing Commission today released on this webpage its latest, greatest federal sentencing data for all of Fiscal Year 2014 and the first quarter of FY 2015.  Here are links to these two new data runs:

First Quarter FY15 Quarterly Sentencing Update (Published April 20, 2015)

Final FY14 Quarterly Sentencing Update (Published April 20, 2015)

I thought Fiscal Year 2014 was likely to be a quirky year for federal sentencing data, primarily because (1) in January 2014, the Commission indicated it probably would reduce the drug sentencing guidelines across the board, and (2) in March 2014, the Attorney General indicated that he supported having the new-reduced-guidelines informally applied in on-going drug cases even though they would not become official until November 2014.   Because of this big pending guideline change to a big chunk of federal sentencing cases, I was not surprised that throughout much of Fiscal Year 2014, a majority of sentences did not come within calculated guideline ranges. 

Sure enough, the complete USSC data now show that, while FY 2013 had 51.2% of all cases sentenced within the guidelines, in FY 2014 that number dropped significantly to 46%.  In other words, less than half of all federal sentences throughout FY 2014 were within-guideline sentences, and it seemed likely that the big change in the overall data from just the prior year largely reflected a drug-sentencing-guideline transition dynamic.

But my view on the overall data story has changed somewhat now that the Commission has released its First Quarter FY15 Quarterly Sentencing Update.   I am pretty sure (though not certain) that most drug sentences imposed during the first quarter of FY15 should involve the new-and-improved drug guidelines and thus the transition to the new guidelines should not dramatically distort the overall FY 2015 data (although there is a one-month difference between when the USSC fiscal year and its new-guideline year gets going).  But, fascinatingly, the new data reveal that, even with the new guidelines in place, still less than half of all sentences at the start of FY 2015 were within-guideline sentences: specifically, only 46.5% of all sentences in the first quarter of FY 2015 were within-guideline sentences.

For various reasons, this too-brief discussion of USSC data perhaps only highlights how hard it is for me in this space to effectively account for and explain basic federal sentencing data.  But, as the title of this post suggests, I think the latest data run now provides reason to believe hat a typical federal judge in a typical case (whatever than means) is now typically a bit more likely to impose a non-guideline sentence rather than a within guideline sentence.

April 20, 2015 in Booker in district courts, Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Friday, April 17, 2015

US Sentencing Commission releases data report on illegal reentry offenses

Late yesterday, the US Sentencing Commission released this 30-page report, titled "Illegal Reentry Offenses," which provides a details statistical accounting of the composition and sentencing of a huge chuck of cases in the federal criminal justice system. Here is how this report gets started:

This report analyzes data collected by the United States Sentencing Commission concerning cases in which offenders are sentenced under USSG §2L1.2 — commonly called “illegal reentry” cases.  Such cases are a significant portion of all federal cases in which offenders are sentenced under the United States Sentencing Guidelines.  In fiscal year 2013, for instance, illegal reentry cases constituted 26 percent of all such cases.  As part of its ongoing review of the guidelines, including the immigration guidelines, the Commission examined illegal reentry cases from fiscal year 2013, including offenders’ criminal histories, number of prior deportations, and personal characteristics.

Part I of this report summarizes the relevant statutory and guideline provisions.  Part II provides general information about illegal reentry cases based on the Commission’s annual datafiles.  Part III presents the findings of the Commission’s in-depth analysis of a representative sample of illegal reentry cases.  Part IV presents key findings.

Among the key findings from analysis of fiscal year 2013 data: (1) the average sentence for illegal reentry offenders was 18 months; (2) all but two of the 18,498 illegal reentry offenders — including the 40 percent with the most serious criminal histories triggering a statutory maximum penalty of 20 years under 8 U.S.C. § 1326(b)(2) — were sentenced at or below the ten-year statutory maximum under 8 U.S.C. § 1326(b)(1) for offenders with less serious criminal histories (i.e., those without “aggravated felony” convictions); (3) the rate of within-guideline range sentences was significantly lower among offenders who received 16-level enhancements pursuant to §2L1.2(b)(1)(A) for predicate convictions (31.3%), as compared to the within-range rate for those who received no enhancements under §2L1.2(b) (92.7%); (4) significant differences in the rates of application of the various enhancements in §2L1.2(b) appeared among the districts where most illegal reentry offenders were prosecuted; (5) the average illegal reentry offender was deported 3.2 times before his instant illegal reentry prosecution, and over one-third (38.1%) were previously deported after a prior illegal entry or illegal reentry conviction; (6) 61.9 percent of offenders were convicted of at least one criminal offense after illegally reentering the United States; (7) 4.7 percent of illegal reentry offenders had no prior convictions and not more than one prior deportation before their instant illegal reentry prosecutions; and (8) most illegal reentry offenders were apprehended by immigration officials at or near the border.

In 2013, there were approximately 11 million non-citizens illegally present in the United States, and the federal government conducted 368,644 deportations.  The information contained in this report does not address the larger group of non-citizens illegally present in the United States and, instead, solely concerns the 18,498 illegal reentry offenders sentenced under §2L1.2 of the United States Sentencing Guidelines in fiscal year 2013. Therefore, the information should not be interpreted as representative of the characteristics of illegal immigrants generally.

April 17, 2015 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Friday, April 10, 2015

Basic report on basic changes to fraud guidelines promulgated by US Sentencing Commmission

Though the US Sentencing Commission's vote yesterday to revise the fraud sentencing guidelines is very big news for white-collar sentencing in future high-profile federal cases (basic here), this notable sentencing reform got very little news attention.  Here are excerpts from this Reuters piece with the most fulsome coverage I have seen:

A federal judicial panel on Thursday adopted new guidelines for sentencing white-collar criminals in fraud cases, in an effort to make punishments more fairly reflect the harm suffered by victims and the intent of offenders to cause harm. The changes approved by the U.S. Sentencing Commission will take effect on Nov. 1 unless Congress objects.

They follow years of criticism from defense lawyers and some judges who say federal sentencing guidelines have led to overly severe punishments, potentially reaching life in prison, because they emphasize financial losses such as from falling stock prices. Judges need not follow the guidelines, but must consider them. "These amendments emphasize substantial financial harms to victims rather than simply the mere number of victims and recognize concerns regarding double-counting and over-emphasis on loss," said Chief Judge Patti Saris of the federal court in Massachusetts, who chairs the commission.

The changes call for "intended" losses to reflect financial harm that defendants "purposely sought to inflict," and give judges greater discretion in factoring actual losses in stocks, bonds or commodities into punishments. They also permit greater punishments when even just one or a few people suffer "substantial financial hardship" from fraud, while current guidelines emphasize the number of victims, even if their losses are small. Another change adjusts fraud losses for inflation for the first time.

The U.S. Department of Justice had expressed concern that the new definition of intended loss could let defendants claim they never intended to financially harm anyone. It also said an inflation adjustment could negate the "overwhelming societal consensus" favoring tougher punishments for fraud, and reduce the length of typical sentences by roughly one-fourth. On the other hand, the Justice Department welcomed the greater focus on actual harm inflicted. A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment on Thursday.

David Debold, a Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher partner who led an advisory group to the commission, said the changes on balance "tend to make sentences more fair" in fraud cases. "They make punishment better reflect the harm that defendants actually intended," he said. "That's an important change, and a good one."

Prior related post:

April 10, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Thursday, April 09, 2015

US Sentencing Commission votes to amend fraud guidelines (but not really "fix" that much)

As reported in this official press release, "United States Sentencing Commission voted today to adopt changes to the fraud guideline to address longstanding concerns that the guidelines do not appropriately account for harm to victims, individual culpability, and the offender’s intent. The Commission also voted to change the drug quantity table to account for the rescheduling of hydrocodone." Here are some details from the press release concerning this important federal white-collar sentencing news:

The Commission altered the victim enhancement in the fraud guideline to ensure that where even one victim suffered a substantial financial harm, the offender would receive an increased sentence. It also made changes to refocus economic crime penalties toward the offender’s individual intent, while maintaining an underlying principle of the fraud guideline that the amount of loss involved in the offense should form a major basis of the sentence.

“We found through comprehensive examination that the fraud guideline provides an anchoring effect in the vast majority of cases, but there were some problem areas, particularly at the high-end of the loss table,” said Chief Judge Patti B. Saris, chair of the Commission. “These amendments emphasize substantial financial harms to victims rather than simply the mere number of victims and recognize concerns regarding double-counting and over-emphasis on loss.”

The Commission also acted today to provide additional guidance as to which offenders are eligible to receive a reduced sentence as a minor or minimal participant in an offense. “This change is intended to encourage courts to ensure that the least culpable offenders, such as those who have no proprietary interest in a fraud, receive a sentence commensurate with their own culpability without reducing sentences for leaders and organizers,” Saris said....

The Commission also made an adjustment to monetary tables to account for inflation. This goodgovernment measure derives from a methodology provided by Congress and will have an effect on both penalty and fine tables.  The amendments will be transmitted to Congress by May 1, 2015. If Congress does not act to disapprove some or all of the amendments, they will go into effect November 1, 2015.  More information about this process and the amendments approved today will be available on the Commission’s web site at www.ussc.gov.

At the USSC's website, one can now find this "Preliminary 'Reader-Friendly' Version of Amendments. Though "reader-friendly," the amendments themselves do not really provide a complete picture of just how much these amendments, assuming they are not disapproved by Congress, could impact guideline-sentencing ranges in future high-loss white-collar cases.  In addition, and of perhaps particular interest to some currently incarcerated  defendants, the Commission has to my knowledge not yet indicated in any formal documents whether, when and how it might consider making these amendment retroactive in a manner that might impact past high-loss white-collar cases.

IMPORTANT FRAUD AMENDMENT RETROACTIVITY UPDATE: A helpful colleague who was able to watch the USSC meeting and votes provided this report on the topic of the potential retroactivity of these amendments:

At the end of the hearing, USSC staff brought up the question of retroactivity and said a motion would be appropriate at this time if the Sentencing Commission wanted the staff to conduct a retroactivity impact analysis. USSC Chair Saris asked whether anyone wanted to make such a motion and no one did. Saris then read a brief statement saying they have a statutory obligation to consider whether any amendments should be retroactive, and they had determined in this case that for these amendments that would not be appropriate.

Notably, if Congress was truly eager to help with prison-crowding problems by doing something for some notable non-violent offenders, I think Congress could provide by statutory direction either that the amendments be made retroactive in whole or in part (or it might at least direct that the Commission consider more fully whether these amendments be made retroactive in whole or in part). Also, back in 2007, when the crack guidelines were first adjusted downward slightly, the Commission did not take up the retroactivity issue until many months after it promulgated amendments lowering the guidelines. But, I suspect absent some significant advocacy by the white-collar defense bar, the die may be already permanently cast against any even partial retroactivity of these new fraud amendments.

April 9, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Sentences Reconsidered, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Terrific review of possible USSC fraud guideline amendments (and DOJ's foolish opposition)

As detailed in this official notice, the US Sentencing Commission has a public meeting scheduled for tomorrow, April 9, 2015, at 1:00 pm (which is to be live-streamed here). The big agenda item of note for the meeting is the "Vote to Promulgate Proposed Amendments," and the most consequential amendments being considered concerns proposals to tweak § 2B1.1, the key guideline for fraud cases and many other white-collar offenses.  

I doubt the actual USSC meeting will be a must-see event, though I have urged my sentencing students to tune in.  (I plan to watch the meeting live on my iPad while also keeping an eye on another notable on-going event in Augusta, Georgia.)  But I have a must-read for anyone interested in white-collar federal sentencing: this fantastic Jurist commentary by Prof Randall Eliason titled "The DOJ Opposition to the Proposed Sentencing Guideline Amendments: Fighting the Wrong Battles in Fraud Cases." The entire commentary is a must-read (with lots of great links) for all federal sentencing fans, and here are a few choice excerpts:

On March 12, 2015, the US Sentencing Commission held a public hearing on its annual proposed amendments to the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. A number of the proposals concern the guideline for economic crimes and fraud cases, § 2B1.1. The amendments would reduce the recommended sentence in many such cases, particularly those involving large dollar amounts.

At the hearing the US Department of Justice opposed most of these amendments. DOJ argued that any move to reduce the sentences in fraud cases would be bad policy and would ignore the "overwhelming societal consensus" in favor of harsh punishment for these crimes.... But given the current realities of federal sentencing, DOJ is fighting the wrong battles....

At the March 12 hearing DOJ opposed the inflation adjustment; opposed the amendments concerning sophisticated means, intended loss, and fraud on the market; and supported the new enhancement based on causing victims substantial hardship. In other words, DOJ opposed virtually any amendment that could lead to lower sentences while supporting changes that could lead to higher ones. While this may seem predictable, I think it's a mistake.

DOJ was a lonely voice at the hearing and is definitely swimming against the tide by opposing the amendments. There is a widespread and growing belief that the sentences called for in major fraud cases have become excessive. More broadly, there is an emerging bipartisan movement in the country favoring criminal justice reform, including measures to reduce skyrocketing sentences (particularly for non-violent offenders) and our enormous prison population.

Law professor Frank Bowman provided some compelling hearing testimony tracing the history of the fraud guideline and demonstrating how various forces, both intentional and unintentional, have combined over the years to escalate the sentences in such cases dramatically. As he pointed out, given the large dollar values involved in some recent Wall Street frauds, it's relatively easy for a white-collar defendant to zoom to the top of the sentencing table and end up with a recommended sentence of 30 years or even life in prison—on a par with sentences recommended for homicide, treason, or a major armed bank robbery.

DOJ's resistance to virtually any amendment that might lead to lower sentences in economic crime cases appears short-sighted and runs the risk of looking reflexive. The Sentencing Commission has researched these questions for several years, gathering input from all stakeholders. The proposals seem reasonable and justified, and in fact are more modest than many had hoped.

It's hard to see what criminal justice purpose is being served by the escalating sentences in fraud cases. The prospect of prison does have a powerful and important deterrent effect that is unique to criminal law. But for a typical business executive it's hard to believe there's much additional marginal deterrent value in a possible twenty or twenty-five year sentence as opposed to, say, a fifteen year one.

But the more important fact is that legal developments have rendered DOJ's position in favor of higher guidelines sentences increasingly beside the point. It's been ten years since the Supreme Court ruled in US v. Booker that the mandatory sentencing guidelines were unconstitutional and the guidelines must be advisory only. Later in Kimbrough v. US the Court made it clear that a judge is free to depart from the recommended sentence if the judge disagrees with a policy decision underlying the guidelines.

In this legal environment, DOJ's push for higher guidelines looks like a struggle to keep the barn door closed when the horse left for greener pastures long ago. In the post- Booker/Kimbrough world, if judges believe a sentence called for by the guidelines is out of whack they will simply reduce it. For example, in the recent public corruption case involving former Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell, the judge called the recommended guidelines sentence of six to eight years in prison "ridiculous" and proceeded to sentence McDonnell to only two years.

There's evidence that the same thing is already happening in fraud cases. According to the Sentencing Commission's data, judges sentence below the recommended guidelines range in about 21 percent of fraud cases (not counting those cases where the government itself requests a reduced sentence). But in the Southern District of New York, home to Wall Street and many of the big-dollar fraud cases, judges depart below the guidelines in a whopping 45.6 percent of such cases. It does no good for DOJ to continue to push for extremely high guidelines numbers only to have judges ignore the guidelines and impose the lower sentences that they feel are just and reasonable.

DOJ's approach is worse than futile, it's counter-productive. The more that judges come to regard the guidelines as calling for inappropriate sentences, the more comfortable they may become not following them. This could lead to more widespread departures from the guidelines not merely in fraud cases but in cases across the board, accelerating a deterioration in the force and influence of the guidelines that so far has been held relatively in check since Booker.

April 8, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Sunday, March 29, 2015

"Federal Sentencing 'Reform' Since 1984: The Awful as Enemy of the Good"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new article by Michael Tonry now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

The federal sentencing system was conceived in one era and delivered in another. When the first bills that culminated in passage of the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 were introduced, they aimed at reducing the worst excesses of indeterminate sentencing and achieving greater fairness, consistency, equality, accountability, and transparency in sentencing federal offenders. The overriding goal was reduction of unwarranted racial and other disparities.

In the different political climate of the mid-1980s the federal sentencing commission instead sought to achieve greater rigidity and severity and to respond to the law-and-order policy preferences of the Reagan administration and the Republican-controlled US Senate. Probation, formerly the sentence of half of convicted federal offenders, was nearly eliminated as a stand-alone punishment. Lengths of prison sentences increased enormously. After the federal guidelines took effect, buttressed by a plethora of mandatory minimum sentence laws, the growth of the federal prison population far outpaced that of the states and the federal system became the extreme example nationally and internationally of the dangers of politicization of crime policy. The political climate may be changing and the federal system may change with it. Only time will tell.

March 29, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Reviewing DOJ's opposition to any fraud guideline amendments

This Reuters article, headlined "Justice Department objects to white-collar sentencing reforms," details that the US Department of Justice is not too keen on proposed reformed to the federal sentencing guidelines for fraud offenses. Here are the excerpts:

The U.S. Justice Department has come out broadly against a series of proposals from a federal panel that would cut prison time for white-collar criminals. The department's views, revealed on Thursday at a hearing of the U.S. Sentencing Commission, marked a potential setback for the proposals, which defense lawyers had already criticized for being too moderate.

In a letter released at the meeting, the department objected to a proposal to adjust victim losses for inflation for the first time since 1987. Losses directly influence recommended prison term lengths, and the move would reduce fraud sentences by 26 percent on average. "It seems a somewhat odd thing to do," Benjamin Wagner, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of California, said at the hearing.

The Justice Department also objected to a proposal to shift the emphasis in calculating sentences for stock fraud cases to financial gains instead of investor losses, a change that could reduce the amount of prison time some executives would face. The department's position came amid continuing debate over whether changes to the guidelines are necessary to address what even some judges have said are overly harsh recommended punishments for fraud offenders.

Fraud offenses constitute the third largest type of federal crime in America, behind only immigration and drugs cases. Over the last decade, average prison sentences for fraud have lengthened three-fold, the commission said. But after the U.S. Supreme Court declared the guidelines advisory in 2005, judges increasingly gave shorter terms than what the commission recommended. In 2012, the average fraud sentence was 22 months, compared to the 29-month minimum recommended, the commission said.

Critics say the data shows many judges view the guidelines as overly-driven by victim losses, at times resulting in potential life sentences in cases like stock frauds with high-dollar amounts.

The commission's proposals, released in January, were viewed as too moderate by groups like the American Bar Association, which had pushed for broader revision de-emphasizing the influence losses have not just in cases involving the stock market but also for other frauds, such as in mortgages and healthcare. Still, the commission said its proposal to adjust the loss calculations for inflation would itself reduce sentence lengths.

The Justice Department said any reduction would be contrary to "overwhelming societal consensus." Several commissioners, though, appeared skeptical of the department's position.

Prior related posts:

March 14, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Thursday, March 12, 2015

US Sentencing Commission hearing on proposed fraud and other guideline amendments

Download (2)Today, as detailed at this webpage with the official agenda, the US Sentencing Commission is holding a public hearing to receive testimony from invited witnesses on proposed amendments to the federal sentencing guidelines. This event is being streamed live (for the first time, I think), and can be watched at this link.

This webpage with the official agenda also provides links to the submitted written testimony of the scheduled witnesses. Most of the interesting conceptual and technical debate about guideline amendments this cycle are focused on the fraud guidelines, which have been subject to an array of criticisms due especially to their severity in cases including significant "loss" calculations. But, as the Department of Justice's written testimony (available here) makes the case that there is nothing really broken in the fraud guideline that needs to be fixed:

Lessening penalties for economic crime would be contrary to the overwhelming societal consensus that exists around these offenses. All three branches of government have expressed a belief that the sentences for fraud offenses are either appropriate or too low....

The Department also feels that penalties for economic crimes should remain unchanged and not be decreased. The proportionality established between loss and offense level is based upon numerous policy considerations, including how economic crimes should be punished and deterred. In the Department's experience and judgment, the harm from economic crimes is generally not being overstated.

In notable contrast, the written testimony of Professor Frank O. Bowman, III (available here) has a very different take on the realities of the fraud guidelines:

[F]or the last decade or so, the loudest complaint about §2B1.1 has been that it prescribes sentences which, at least for some defendants, are far too high. In particular, many observers have argued that for some high-loss defendants the guidelines now are divorced both from the objectives of Section 3553(a) and, frankly, from common sense....

Accordingly, one would have expected the proposed 2015 amendments to §2B1.1 to concentrate on the class of high-loss offenders the Commission seems to agree are over-punished by the guidelines. Curiously, however, the proposed amendments – though in several cases laudable for other reasons – would have virtually no material impact on the guidelines ranges for very high loss offenders, while producing modest guidelines reductions for significant numbers of low-to-moderate-loss offenders.

<P>I agree with the Commission’s basic conclusion that for many, perhaps most, economic offenders the Guidelines do not suggest manifestly unreasonable sentences.  But I also agree with Judge Saris’s implicit conclusion that for many high-loss offenders the fraud guideline is “fundamentally broken.”  The Commission doubtless believes that the modest proposals put forward in this cycle will at least ameliorate the high-loss offender problem. Unfortunately, the guidelines for high-loss offenders are so “fundamentally broken” that these modest measures will have no meaningful effect.

March 12, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Colson Task Force highlights " biggest driver of growth in the prison population is in federally sentenced drug offenders"

Images (2)As reported in this Crime Report piece, the Charles Colson Federal Corrections Task Force has just released this notable new research brief titled "Drivers of Growth in the Federal Prison Population." Here are excerpts from the document (with emphasis in original):

The federal prison population has grown by 750 percent since 1980, resulting in rapidly increasing expenditures for incarceration and dangerous overcrowding.  In response, Congress created the Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections to examine trends in correctional growth and develop practical, data-driven policy responses.  Following the example of many states that have recently engaged in criminal justice reform, the first step for the Task Force is to understand the underlying drivers of growth in the prison population.

The biggest driver of growth in the prison population is in federally sentenced drug offenders, almost all of whom were convicted of drug trafficking.  In fiscal year (FY) 2013, there were almost 50,000 more drug offenders in federal prisons than there were in FY 1994.  Incarceration for drug offenses disproportionately affects nonwhite offenders: in FY 2013, over 75 percent of all drug offenders in federal prison were black or Hispanic....

The population growth is driven by both the number of people who are admitted to prison for drug crimes every year and the length of their sentences.   In FY 2013, more people were admitted to federal prison for drug crimes than any other crime type, and the average sentence for those entering prison was almost six years.  Every year, about 95 percent of federally sentenced drug offenders receive a term of incarceration as part of their sentence, up from about 76 percent in the year before the passage of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act in 1986, which established mandatory minimum penalties for certain drug offenses.

In particular, length of stay for drug offenders, often dictated by statutory mandatory minimum penalties, has driven most of the recent growth.  Though the number of admissions has remained largely constant over time, the number of drug offenders in federal prison has increased because of people serving longer sentences.

March 11, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Monday, March 09, 2015

"Hey, Grandpa: End Mandatory Minimums!"

The title of this post is the headline of this Daily Beast piece highlighting the generational divide which now impacts the fate and future of some proposed federal sentencing reforms. Here are excerpts:

[A] wave of young conservative leaders has been pushing for a variety of reforms to address problems that, in many cases, disproportionately affect the African-American community. The bad news it that these conservatives have a formidable adversary: Their elders.

When word leaked last month the Smarter Sentencing Act would be reintroduced, Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, 81, wasted little time in going nuclear. “It is a fact that the so-called Smarter Sentencing Act would cut in half the mandatory minimum sentences that Congress put in place for distributing drugs to benefit terrorists or terrorist organizations,” he said. ... Terrorists?!?

The bipartisan Smarter Sentencing Act included Republicans Mike Lee, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Jeff Flake as co-sponsors — hardly the sort to want to help fund terrorists. But this isn’t a new line for Grassley, who is chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and it isn’t clear whether the terrorist line is a sincere (albeit wrongheaded and crank-ish) concern, or merely a way to kill reform....

According to Vikrant Reddy, a senior policy analyst for the conservative Right on Crime, the generational divide — not the partisan divide — is the issue. “It is true that Senator Grassley has expressed skepticism about the Cruz-Lee proposals, but it is also true that Dianne Feinstein voted against last year’s Recidivism Reduction and Public Safety Act," Reddy said. “Senators Grassley and Feinstein have very little in common, but they do share a generation: They are both exactly 81 years old.”

Meanwhile, the loudest voices for criminal justice reform in Congress are members of Generation X: Mike Lee is 43, Ted Cruz is 44, and Cory Booker is 45. But Reddy doesn’t want to bash his elders just for the sport of it. There is, he insists, a perfectly good explanation for the generational divide: Grassley and Feinstein came of age in an era of high crime....

But the violent crime rate has consistently dropped in recent decades, and many reformers believe the pendulum has swung too far. “We may be at the point where high levels of incarceration are themselves ‘criminogenic,’ meaning that they actually cause more crime than they prevent, because extremely lengthy prison stays produce high recidivism rates,” says Reddy.

It would be a mistake to return to the bad old days of being soft on crime, but it would also be foolish to fail to adapt to changing times.  Rather than resting on our laurels, we should continue to tweak and fix problems.  Bipartisan agreement is rare in Washington, and it would be a shame to scuttle one of the few areas where conservative reformers have a real opportunity to do well by doing good.

... And they might have gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for those meddling codgers.

March 9, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Friday, February 27, 2015

How might US Sentencing Commission's new Tribal Issues Advisory Group deal with marijuana law and policy?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable new US Sentencing Commission press release, which was released on a day I am participating in the first ever Tribal Marijuana Conference (some background here via MLP&R).  Here are excerpts from the press release:

The United States Sentencing Commission announced today the formation of a Tribal Issues Advisory Group (TIAG), which will consider methods to improve the operation of the federal sentencing guidelines as they relate to American Indian defendants, victims, and tribal communities.

The TIAG will look at whether there are disparities in how federal sentencing guidelines are applied to defendants from tribal communities or in the sentences received by such defendants as compared to similarly situated state defendants. The group will also examine whether there should be changes to the guidelines to better account for tribal court convictions or tribal court orders of protection and consider how the Commission should engage with tribal communities in an ongoing manner....

The TIAG is composed of federal appointees and at-large members. The federal judge appointees are Judge Diane Humetewa from Arizona, Judge Brian Morris from Montana, Chief Judge Ralph Erickson from North Dakota, and Chief Judge Jeffrey Viken and Judge Roberto Lange from South Dakota. The ten at-large members were selected from a broad array of applicants from across the country, and they represent a wide spectrum of tribal communities and roles in the criminal justice system. The TIAG at-large members include tribal court judges, social scientists, law enforcement officials, defense attorneys, and victims’ advocates.

“I commend the Commission for creating a mechanism to develop insights and information that have the potential to improve the lives of our citizens in Indian Country,” said Chief Judge Erickson. “I look forward to working with the distinguished members of this Group and with the Commission to rationally address longstanding sentencing issues in Indian Country.”

There are literally hundreds of tribal attendees at the tribal marijuana conference because it seems a number of tribal leaders think there is a chance that, despite federal prohibition, marijuana activity on tribal lands might "have the potential to improve the lives of our citizens in Indian Country." Of course, this new USSC advisory group has more than enough challenging issues to consider without getting into marijuana law and policy matters. But, especially because typically only the feds have full criminal jurisdiction in tribal lands, I think it will unavoidable for TIAG to discuss marijuana enforcement issues if (and when?) a number of tribes jump into the marijuana industry in the weeks and months ahead.

February 27, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Offense Characteristics, Pot Prohibition Issues, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Thursday, February 26, 2015

US Sentencing Commission releases report on LWOP sentences in federal system

I am intrigued and pleased to see that today the US Sentencing Commission has released this effective (reader-friendly) new report titled "Life Sentences in the Federal System." The entire 20-page report is a must read for anyone (like me) who fears we pay too much attention to much attention to a handful of death sentences and too little attention to hundreds of LWOP sentences. Here is how this new report gets started:

Life imprisonment sentences are rare in the federal criminal justice system. Virtually all offenders convicted of a federal crime are released from prison eventually and return to society or, in the case of illegal aliens, are deported to their country of origin. Yet in fiscal year 2013 federal judges imposed a sentence of life imprisonment without parole on 153 offenders. Another 168 offenders received a sentence of a specific term of years that was so long it had the practical effect of being a life sentence. Although together these offenders represent only 0.4 percent of all offenders sentenced that year, this type of sentence sets them apart from the rest of the offender population. This report examines life sentences in the federal system and the offenders on whom this punishment is imposed.

There are numerous federal criminal statutes that authorize a life imprisonment sentence to be imposed as the maximum sentence. The most commonly used of these statutes involve drug trafficking, racketeering, and firearms crimes. Additionally, there are at least 45 statutes that require a life sentence to be imposed as the minimum penalty. These mandatory minimum penalties generally are required in cases involving the killing of a federal official or other government employee, piracy, or repeat offenses involving drug trafficking or weapons. In fiscal year 2013, 64 of the 153 offenders who received a sentence of life imprisonment were subject to a mandatory minimum penalty requiring the court to impose that sentence.

February 26, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack