Sunday, December 04, 2016

Second Circuit hints that sentence reduction might well be justified whenever guideline range is increased "significantly by a loss enhancement"

I am grateful to Harry Sandick for alerting me to this seemingly little (and easily overlooked) opinion handed down by a unanimous Second Circuit panel late last week.  Stephanie Teplin and Harry Sandick discuss the case in this thoughtful blog posting, and here are key passages from their coverage:

In United States v. Algahaim, No. 15-2024(L), the Second Circuit (Newman, Winters, Cabranes) upheld the conviction of two defendants for misconduct involving the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (“SNAP”), but remanded to the district court for consideration of a below-Guidelines sentence.  The Court, in an opinion by Judge Newman, held that the outsize effect of the loss amount enhancement on the defendant’s base offense level — a sentencing scheme for fraud that is “unknown to other sentencing systems” — required the district court to reconsider whether a non-Guidelines sentence was warranted....

Judge Newman acknowledged that it was within the Sentencing Commission’s authority to construct a sentencing scheme that “use[s] loss amount as the predominant determination of the adjusted offense level for monetary offenses.”  However, he observed that “the Commission could have approached monetary offenses quite differently.  For example, it could have started the Guidelines calculation for fraud offenses by selecting a base level that realistically reflected the seriousness of a typical fraud offense and then permitted adjustments up or down to reflect especially large or small amounts of loss.”

The “unusualness” of the Guidelines system, the Court held, can be considered by a sentencing judge under Kimbrough v. United States.  “Where the Commission has assigned a rather low base offense level to a crime and then increased it significantly by a loss enhancement, that combination of circumstances entitles a sentencing judge to consider a non-Guidelines sentence.”  The Court did not hold that the sentences were in error, but remanded for the district court’s reconsideration of the sentences....

Judge Newman has long been a skeptic of the Guidelines approach to sentencing.  In this short opinion, he cites the pre-Booker decision in United States v. Lauersen, 348 F.2d 329 (2d Cir. 2003), an opinion he authored at a time when the Guidelines were mandatory, except for downward departures.  Lauersen held that where the cumulative impact of overlapping Guidelines enhancements (in that case, for loss amount and for defrauding a financial institution of more than $1 million) resulted in an overly long sentence, the district court could downwardly depart.... 

In Algahaim, Judge Newman carries this concept forward to the more open-ended sentencing regime given to us by Booker, Gall and Kimbrough.  Many judges have stated that the Guidelines are not helpful in white-collar cases and that their emphasis on loss can lead to results that are “patently unreasonable.”  E.g., United States v. Adelson, 441 F. Supp. 2d 506, 509 (S.D.N.Y. 2006) (Rakoff, J.).  Practitioners have also advocated for shorter sentences in cases involving relatively low loss amounts or where the defendant had no prior record.  See ABA Criminal Justice Section, “A Report on Behalf of the ABA Criminal Justice Section Task Force on the Reform of Federal Sentencing for Economic Crimes” (November 10, 2014) (last visited December 1, 2016).  To the extent that district judges needed any further encouragement, Judge Newman’s decision lets district judges know that a Guidelines sentence need not be imposed where the “significant effect of the loss enhancement” leads to an unduly long sentence.

Because Judge Jon O. Newman was my very first boss as a lawyer (I served as his law clerk from 1993-94 starting just months after my graduation from law school), I am always partial to his opinions and especially as to his opinions about sentencing issues. And, as regular readers know, I am always partial to judicial opinions that thoughtfully explain whether and when the federal sentencing guidelines should or should not be followed. And so, perhaps my partiality is going to bubble over when I assert that Judge Newman is being especially astute and shrewd in his pro-discretion sentencing work in United States v. Algahaim, in part because the particulars of the loss enhancement in Algahaim are actually not all that major.

Specifically, in Algahaim, the two defendants who were appealing their convictions and sentences were subject to offense-level increases for loss of "only" 10 and 12 points  under USSG § 2B1.1(b)(1).  Though such loss enhancements certainly appear significant when added to a base offense level of 6, in many other fraud cases the loss enhancement under 2B1.1(b) can commonly add 16 or 20 or 24 or even up to 30 points.  Despite those realities, the Second Circuit in Algahaim has now called just a 10-level loss enhancement in a fraud case "significant" and also has said this enhancement is alone large enough to merit serious consideration of a below-guideline sentence.  For that reason, I would now expect lots of astute and shrewd future white-collar defendants throughout New York and elsewhere to be citing to Algahaim to bolster arguments for below-guideline sentences whenever the guideline range is moved up a lot by loss calculations.

December 4, 2016 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thursday, December 01, 2016

US Sentencing Commission getting an early start on possible guideline amendment

Traditionally, the US Sentencing Commission holds a meeting in January to proposed amendments to the federal sentencing guidelines for the year. But via email today I received this notice about the USSC getting off to a quicker start this season:

Please join the United States Sentencing Commission for a public meeting on December 9th at 11:30 a.m. (ET) where commissioners may vote to publish proposed amendments to the federal sentencing guidelines.

Amendments proposed during the meeting will stem from this year’s list of policy priorities. The meeting will be held at the Thurgood Marshall Federal Judiciary Building, One Columbus Circle NE, in Suite 2-500 (South Lobby). Please note that if you cannot attend in person, it will be broadcast live.

The agenda is as follows:

  • Vote to Adopt August 2016 Meeting Minutes
  • Report from the Chair
  • Possible Vote to Publish Proposed Guideline Amendments and Issues for Comment

December 1, 2016 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, November 28, 2016

Guest posting from Prof Carissa Hessick on SCOTUS argument: "Beckles and the Continued Complexity of Post-Booker Federal Sentencing"

Image (1)I am pleased to be able to reprint this original commentary concerning today's SCOTUS oral argument from LawProf Carissa Hessick:

Earlier today the Supreme Court heard argument in Beckles v. United States.  Beckles raises two questions: (1) whether the now-advisory Federal Sentencing Guidelines are subject to vagueness challenges under the Due Process Clause, and (2) whether, assuming the Guidelines are subject to vagueness challenge, a ruling that a Guideline is unconstitutionally vague is retroactive under the Teague framework.  The Beckles case and today’s argument illustrate how complicated federal sentencing has become since the Supreme Court decided to treat the Federal Sentencing Guidelines as advisory in Booker v. United States.

In the decade since Booker was decided, the Supreme Court has clarified that, although the Federal Sentencing Guidelines are no longer mandatory, they are also not entirely voluntary.  Deputy Solicitor General Michael Dreeben did a fantastic job in his argument explaining the middle path that the Court has carved for the Guidelines since Booker.  He not only described the anchoring effect of the Guidelines, but he also noted that the Court has adopted procedural mechanisms “designed to reinforce the primacy of the Guidelines.”  The current advisory system, according to Dreeben, “injects law into the sentencing process.”

As the Beckles argument illustrates, the middle path that the Court has carved is complicated.  The Court continues to struggle with how to regulate an advisory system in light of the fact that the purely discretionary system that the Federal Sentencing Guidelines replaced was essentially unregulated.  Indeed, counsel for Beckles spent much of her argument fending off questions by various Justices about how a Guideline could be unconstitutionally vague if a purely discretionary system is permissible under the Constitution. Justices Alito, Breyer, Kennedy, and Chief Justice Roberts all asked questions to this effect.  Notably, later questions by Justice Breyer and the Chief Justice appeared to accept that a purely discretionary system might be subject to different rules than an advisory system.

The complexity of the middle path was on full display in today’s argument in part because the United States relied on the complexity of that path to take what Justice Kennedy and a court-appointed amicus characterized as inconsistent positions.  The United States argued that the advisory Guidelines are subject to vagueness challenges because of the important role that they continue to play in the post-Booker world.  But the government argued that the advisory status of the Guidelines should prevent the Court from making any vagueness ruling retroactive.  The government distinguished this case from a recent juvenile life-without-parole case, saying that juvenile LWOP cases require a particular finding in order for a defendant to be eligible for a life-without-parole sentence.  In contrast, according to the government, the Guidelines affect only the likelihood that a defendant will receive a particular sentence.  The government relied on the distinction between likelihood of a sentence and eligibility for a sentence as the reason it took different positions on the vagueness question and the retroactivity question. And while Justice Sotomayor pressed the government on this distinction, none of the attorneys or the Justices mentioned an important fact about this case: When Beckles was sentenced in a Florida district court, the prevailing law in the Eleventh Circuit actually required such a finding. (Because of the amount of time taken up by questions about vagueness, petitioner’s counsel addressed the likelihood/eligibility argument only in the single minute she had remaining for rebuttal. The argument was made in an amicus that Doug and I co-authored with Leah Litman, which is available here.)

Other odd aspects of the Court’s post-Booker jurisprudence were also on display during the Beckles argument.  Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito both raised the question whether the Court’s recent decisions about the quasi-legal status of the advisory Guidelines should endure in the face of changing sentencing patterns in the district courts.  And Justice Breyer, who has often served as a champion for the U.S. Sentencing Commission, raised the possibility that the courts should be more indulgent of vague sentencing guidelines than vague statutes because the Commission is in a better position than Congress to refine the law.

Perhaps because this area of the law is so complex, both Justice Ginsburg and Justice Kennedy appeared to cast about for an easy way to dispose of this case.  At one point Justice Ginsburg said as much: “I thought . . . that if we decide the first issue, . . . the case is over.  But -- so I was thinking, well, we could decide that issue and not reach either vagueness or retroactivity.”  Much to his credit, Deputy Solicitor General Dreeben discouraged the Court from taking that path, even though it would have meant a victory for the Government.  Dreeben noted that there are many cases that raise the vagueness and the retroactivity questions that are currently pending in the lower courts.  And he made an institutional appeal to the Justices to resolve the retroactivity issue even if they could decide this case based on some commentary in the Guidelines.  I admire Dreeben for making this appeal to the Justices.  But I don’t think that his appeal went far enough. There are a number of defendants in the Eleventh Circuit who have viable vagueness claims that are not claiming retroactivity.  Because the Eleventh Circuit refused to recognize any vagueness challenges to the Guidelines, the Court should also rule on the vagueness issue even if it determines that its ruling will not be retroactive.

Although I was not at the argument this morning, it is hard to read the transcript of the Beckles argument and think that the defendant is likely to prevail. Only Justice Sotomayor seemed to be asking friendly questions of petitioner’s counsel, and only she seemed to resist the Government’s likelihood/eligibility argument.

But even if Beckles does not prevail, we may see another vagueness challenge to the Guidelines in the not-so-distant future.  For one thing, Dreeben made clear in today’s argument that the Government has not taken a position on retroactivity for pre-Booker mandatory sentences.  So if Beckles loses on the retroactivity question, then the courts of appeals will have to decide retroactivity in those pre-Booker cases, and if the courts split on that question, the Supreme Court may need to take another case.  For another, the Court has granted cert in another statutory vagueness case, Lynch v. Dimaya.  The statute at issue in Dimaya, 18 U.S.C. § 16(b), has been incorporated into a Guideline, U.S.S.G. § 2L1.2(b)(1)(C).  So if the Court decides that § 16(b) is unconstitutionally vague in Dimaya, and if the Court does not answer the vagueness question in Beckles, then the Court may need to take another Guidelines vagueness case.

November 28, 2016 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Sunday, November 13, 2016

"Hard Bargains: The Coercive Power of Drug Laws in Federal Court"

11_HardBargainsThe title of this post is the title of this soon-to-be released book by Mona Lynch that is now at the very top of my holiday wish/reading list. Here is the publisher's description of the book:

The convergence of tough-on-crime politics, stiffer sentencing laws, and jurisdictional expansion in the 1970s and 1980s increased the powers of federal prosecutors in unprecedented ways.  In Hard Bargains, social psychologist Mona Lynch investigates the increased power of these prosecutors in our age of mass incarceration.  Lynch documents how prosecutors use punitive federal drug laws to coerce guilty pleas and obtain long prison sentences for defendants — particularly those who are African American — and exposes deep injustices in the federal courts.

As a result of the War on Drugs, the number of drug cases prosecuted each year in federal courts has increased fivefold since 1980.  Lynch goes behind the scenes in three federal court districts and finds that federal prosecutors have considerable discretion in adjudicating these cases.  Federal drug laws are wielded differently in each district, but with such force to overwhelm defendants’ ability to assert their rights.  For drug defendants with prior convictions, the stakes are even higher since prosecutors can file charges that incur lengthy prison sentences — including life in prison without parole.

Through extensive field research, Lynch finds that prosecutors frequently use the threat of extremely severe sentences to compel defendants to plead guilty rather than go to trial and risk much harsher punishment.  Lynch also shows that the highly discretionary ways in which federal prosecutors work with law enforcement have led to significant racial disparities in federal courts.  For instance, most federal charges for crack cocaine offenses are brought against African Americans even though whites are more likely to use crack.  In addition, Latinos are increasingly entering the federal system as a result of aggressive immigration crackdowns that also target illicit drugs.

Hard Bargains provides an incisive and revealing look at how legal reforms over the last five decades have shifted excessive authority to federal prosecutors, resulting in the erosion of defendants’ rights and extreme sentences for those convicted.  Lynch proposes a broad overhaul of the federal criminal justice system to restore the balance of power and retreat from the punitive indulgences of the War on Drugs.

November 13, 2016 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Tuesday, November 08, 2016

Is the likely federal sentencing guideline range for "Bridgegate" defendants convicted last week at least 3 to 4 years in federal prison?

As noted in this prior post, late last week a federal jury returned guilty verdicts against Bridget Anne Kelly, the former deputy chief of staff to NJ Gov Chris Christie, and Bill Baroni, the former deputy executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey on seven federal criminal charges stemming from the so-called "Bridgegate" scandal.  This Wikipedia page provides lots of background on the scandal, and this lengthy New York Times article about the convictions provides these hints about the federal sentencing issues to now be debated as a February sentencing for Ms. Kelly and Mr. Baroni looms:

A federal jury convicted two former allies of Gov. Chris Christie on Friday of all charges stemming from a bizarre scheme to close access lanes at the George Washington Bridge to punish a New Jersey mayor who declined to endorse the governor’s re-election.  Though only the two defendants, Bridget Anne Kelly and Bill Baroni, were tried in the so-called Bridgegate case, the scandal surrounding the lane closings in September 2013 left Mr. Christie deeply wounded....

David Wildstein, who was installed as the governor’s enforcer at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the bridge, pleaded guilty to orchestrating the lane closings and became the prosecution’s chief witness....

Facing about 50 reporters and television cameras outside the federal courthouse here on Friday, the United States attorney for New Jersey, Paul J. Fishman, said that his office brought charges against only the people it believed a jury would find guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.  There was substantial documentary evidence, he said, to corroborate Mr. Wildstein’s testimony about Ms. Kelly and Mr. Baroni, once Mr. Christie’s top staff appointee at the Port Authority....

The convictions carry a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison, but under federal guidelines, Ms. Kelly and Mr. Baroni are likely to get far less time.  Mr. Fishman said Friday that under federal guidelines, Mr. Wildstein would be sentenced to 20 to 27 months in prison, but that he was likely to get “credit” from the judge for his cooperation. Prosecutors were likely to recommend longer terms for Mr. Baroni and Ms. Kelly, Mr. Fishman said, because they did not accept responsibility for their crimes and because prosecutors believe that they did not testify truthfully.

Judge Susan D. Wigenton set sentencing for Feb. 21.

I found at this link a copy of the plea agreement in which Mr. Wildstein agreed to plead guilty to two counts and to have his guideline calculation add up to an offense level 16 (including a three-point downward adjustment for acceptance of responsibility).  Such an offense level for a first offender accounts for his applicable guideline range being set at 21-27 months before he gets any further cooperation credit for his substantial assistance in the prosecution of Ms. Kelly and Mr. Baroni.  Assuming the same basic guideline calculations for Mr. Baroni and Ms. Kelly, but now without any benefit for acceptance of responsibility AND with a two-point enhancement for obstruction of justice based on testifying falsely, it seem they are facing an offense level of 21 (at least), and thus looking at an advisory guideline range of 37-46 months (at the lowest).

I can certainly imagine all sorts of arguments that could possibly be made by federal prosecutors to try to drive up the applicable guideline range further, but I suspect that USA Paul Fishman and his line prosecutors will be content to argue for a federal prison sentence in the range of three to four years.  I would also expect that defense attorneys for Ms. Kelly and Mr. Baroni will look for ways to contest any guideline range enhancement and will also advocate forcefully under the provisions of 18 USC 3553(a) for a sentence below whatever the guideline range is calculated to be. 

Because I am going to be turning this real case into a real-world teaching exercise in my sentencing class, I would be grateful to have informed (or even uniformed) folks provide any insights or ideas about how they expect the sentencing for Ms. Kelly and Mr. Baroni and Mr. Wildstein to play out in the week ahead.

Prior related post:

November 8, 2016 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Friday, November 04, 2016

"Bridgegate" now a federal sentencing story after two former New Jersey officials convicted on all federal counts after lengthy jury deliberations

As regular readers know, I tend to avoid discussing high-profile criminal prosecutions unless and until they become interesting or important sentencing stories.  And then, perhaps problematically, once they become notable sentencing stories, I tend to discuss the cases too much.  These tendencies are going to be on full display now that the long-running so-called "Bridgegate" scandal this morning because a great sentencing story. This CNN piece explains, while concluding with an accurate and ridiculous sentencing point:

Two former officials linked to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's office were found guilty on all charges Friday in connection with the closure of lanes in 2013 on the George Washington Bridge in an act of alleged political retribution, the fallout for which has come to be known as Bridgegate. The news comes after nearly five days of deliberations from the jury.

Bridget Anne Kelly, the former deputy chief of staff to Christie, and Bill Baroni, the former deputy executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, both faced seven counts of various charges including conspiracy, fraud, and civil rights deprivation.

The verdict is another setback in Christie's political career, following a controversy that spans nearly three years and put a significant dent in the Garden State Republican's presidential ambitions. Christie is heading planning behind Republican nominee Donald Trump's transition if he wins the presidency. CNN has reached out to the Trump campaign for comment and not yet gotten a response.

Prosecutors allege that the lane closures on the George Washington Bridge were part of a deliberate effort to punish the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, New Jersey, who did not endorse the Republican incumbent Christie in his 2013 re-election bid.  Emails and text messages released in January of 2014 form the basis of the charges. In one particularly damning email, Kelly told former Port Authority official David Wildstein, "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee."  Kelly later said her messages contained "sarcasm and humor," and she claims that she had told Christie about traffic problems resulting from a study a day prior to sending the email....

Kelly and Baroni each face a maximum sentence of 86 years, according to Paul Fishman, the federal prosecutor in the case.

Though I am disinclined to accuse federal prosecutors of "overcharging" unless and until I know all the facts, the simple fact that the conviction on all counts here even presents the possibility of a sentence of 86 years in prison leads me to be more than a bit suspicious of how the feds approached this case. That concern aside, I feel pretty certain predicting (1) that now-convicted federal felons Bridget Anne Kelly and Bill Baroni are unlikely to be sentences to more than a few years in prison, and (2) that federal prosecutors are going to be inclined to ask for a pretty lengthy prison sentence for these two because they had the temerity to contest their guilt and put the feds through the bother of a lengthy trial, and (3) that a low-profile, high-impact legal question for Kelly and Baroni is whether they will be given bail pending what could be very lengthy appeals of their multiple convictions.

I have not followed this case closely enough to even begin to figure out what the advisory guideline calculations might look like in these cases, but I would love to hear from some informed folks about what they think Bridget Anne Kelly and Bill Baroni are now facing, formally or informally, as this long-running scandal becomes a fascinating federal sentencing case.

November 4, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Celebrity sentencings, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (9)

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

Two new Washington Post commentaries making federal sentencin reform sound (way too) easy

The "In Theory" section of the Washington Post now has posted two notable new commentaries about prison reform.  Here are the authors, full titles and links:

Here is how the second of these two commentaries gets started:

When our next president enters the Oval Office, she or he will be faced with two questions: First, how to make a mark as president ? Second, how to break through gridlock in Congress?

Prioritizing reducing our prison population is one way to achieve both goals. Most Republicans and Democrats agree: Mass incarceration devastates communities of color and wastes money.  Even Hillary Clinton and Paul Ryan see eye-to-eye. Committing to such reform in the first 100 days would make a lasting and imperative change.

Regular readers will not be surprised to know I support the spirit and much of the substance of these two commentaries.  But the "can-do" talk and the direct or indirect suggestion that this kind of reform should be "easy for the next president" really seem to me to miss the mark.  After all, Prez Obama and House Speaker Paul Ryan and current Senate Judiciary Chair Chuck Grassley all right now largely "see eye-to-eye" on the importance of "reducing our prison population."  And yet, despite diligent work by lots and lots of folks on the federal reform front for more than two years now, Congress has so far been unable to get any kind of significant criminal justice reform bill to the desk of Prez Obama. 

Though I know the 2016 election is certain to disrupt the existing political status quo, I do not know if anything that happens at the voting booth next week can make it that much easier for the folks inside the Beltway to find their way to turn all sorts of talk into actual statutory reforms.  I sure hope advocates like those who authored these commentaries keep talking up the importance of making criminal justice reform a priority in 2017.  But, as I have been saying for too many years already, I am not counting any federal sentencing reform chickens until they are fully hatched.

November 1, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Latest USSC data suggest prison savings now exceeding $2 billion from "drugs -2" guideline amendment retroactivity

The US Sentencing Commission's website has this new data document titled simply "2014 Drug Guidelines Amendment Retroactivity Data Report." This report, dated October 2016, provides updated "information concerning motions for a reduced sentence pursuant to the retroactive application of Amendment 782. The data in this report reflects all motions decided through September 30, 2016, and for which court documentation was received, coded, and edited at the Commission by October 20, 2016."

The official data in the report indicate that, thanks to the USSC's decision to make Amendment 782, the so-called "drugs -2" guideline amendment, retroactive, now 29,391 federal prisoners have had their federal drug prison sentences reduced by an average of over two years. So, using my typical (conservative) estimate of each extra year of imprisonment for federal drug offenders costing on average $35,000, the USSC's decision to make its "drugs -2" guideline amendment retroactive so far appears to be on track to save federal taxpayers around $2.1 billion dollars.

As I have said before and will say again in this context, kudos to the US Sentencing Commission for providing evidence that at least some government bureaucrats inside the Beltway will sometimes vote to reduce the size and taxpayer costs of the federal government. Perhaps more importantly, especially as federal statutory sentencing reforms remained stalled in Congress and as Prez Obama continues to be relatively cautious in his use of his clemency power, this data provide still more evidence that the work of the US Sentencing Commission in particular, and of the federal judiciary in general, remains the most continuously important and consequential force influencing federal prison populations and sentencing outcomes.

October 25, 2016 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (27)

Monday, October 17, 2016

"How the Sentencing Commission Does and Does Not Matter in Beckles v. United States"

The title of this post is the title of this timely new paper available via SSRN authored by Leah Litman and Luke Beasley. Here is the abstract:

This Essay considers how significant the differences between the Armed Career Criminal Act and the Sentencing Guidelines are to one question the Supreme Court is poised to address in Beckles v. United States -- namely, whether a rule invalidating the so-called "residual clause" in the Sentencing Guidelines applies retroactively to cases on collateral review.  This Essay collects evidence from resentencings that have occurred after courts have found the Guidelines' residual clause invalid.  These resentencings have resulted in defendants receiving significantly less prison time. 

The extent to which a rule invalidating the Guidelines' residual clause affects defendants' sentences -- often significantly -- justifies revisiting defendants' sentences because whatever finality interests exist in the defendants' sentences are outweighed by the effects that a rule invalidating the Guidelines' residual clause has on the amount of prison time defendants serve.  The Supreme Court should also not hesitate to make a rule invalidating the Guideline retroactive because the Sentencing Commission decided not to make retroactive an amendment deleting the Guideline's residual clause.  The Commission never investigated how difficult it would be to make that amendment retroactive.

A few of many related prior posts and related materials:

October 17, 2016 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Saturday, October 15, 2016

"Cost-Benefit Analysis and Retroactivity: The brief for respondent in Beckles v. U.S."

The title of this is the title of this timely and astute New Jersey Law Journal commentary authored by (former federal prosecutor) Steven Sanders. I recommend the piece in full, and here are excerpts from its beginning and ending:

In late June, the Supreme Court granted certiorari in Beckles v. United States, 136 S. Ct. 2510 (2016).  Beckles actually raises three questions, but only two of them are pertinent here: (1) is the "residual clause" of the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines' career offender provision void for vagueness under Johnson v. United States, 135 S.Ct. 2551 (2014); and (2) can a defendant whose Guidelines sentence became final before Johnson issued nonetheless invoke Johnson's new rule in a motion filed under 28 U.S.C. §2255.  In its recently filed merits brief, the government argues that the answer to question (1) is "yes," but that Beckles and thousands like him have no legal remedy because the answer to question (2) is "no."

The government's non-retroactivity argument in Beckles represents a total reversal of the position it took before the en banc Eleventh Circuit only one month before Johnson issued. And that reversal seems to stem from the government's concern about the costs the justice system would incur from conducting resentencings for prisoners who very likely would receive lower sentences were they afforded a remedy.  The government's belief that the costs of dispensing justice outweigh the benefits (i.e., less prison time for thousands of people the government acknowledges have been over-sentenced) is eye-opening, to say the least.  That it has broadcast that belief in a Supreme Court brief is downright disturbing....

In sum, the government's retroactivity position in Beckles seems more like a belated attempt at damage control than a principled effort to apply the law consistently across a set of similarly situated defendants.  The government would do well to heed Solicitor General Frederick Lehmann's powerful observation — now inscribed on the walls of the Department of Justice — that "[t]he United States wins its point whenever justice is done its citizens in the courts." See Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83, 87 & n.2 (1963).

A few of many related prior posts and related materials:

October 15, 2016 in Advisory Sentencing Guidelines, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Recommended reading, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, September 23, 2016

Great new US Sentencing Commission report on "simple possession" federal drug cases raises array of hard follow-up questions

Simplepossession_coverI find crime and punishment data so interesting and so important in large part because (1) even seemingly basic and simple data often can only be fully understood after one takes time to examine closely the backstories that surround that data, and (2) only if and when a researcher or advocate has deep understanding of data can that person even start to appreciate all the challenging policy and practical questions that important data implicate.  These realities are on full display in the context of an interesting and important new report released this week by the US Sentencing Commission titled "Weighing the Charges: Simple Possession of Drugs in the Federal Criminal Justice System." Here is the introduction to the short report, which explains the notable backstories concerning a dramatic recent change in the number of federal "simple possession" cases:

The simple possession of illegal drugs is a criminal offense under federal law and in many state jurisdictions. The offense occurs “when someone has on his or her person, or available for his or her use, a small amount of an illegal substance for the purpose of consuming or using it but without the intent to sell or give it to anyone else.”

Simple drug possession is a misdemeanor under federal law which provides that an offender may be sentenced to a term of imprisonment of not more than one year, fined a minimum of $1,000, or both. However, if an offender is convicted of simple possession after a prior drug related offense has become final, the offender can be charged with a felony simple possession offense.

The number of federal offenders whose most serious offense was simple drug possession increased nearly 400 percent during the six-year period between fiscal years 2008 and 2013. A change of this magnitude over a relatively short period of time triggered further investigation into these cases using data on offender and offense characteristics routinely collected by the United States Sentencing Commission (“the Commission”), as well as additional data collected specifically for this project.

At first, this dramatic increase in the number of offenders sentenced for the simple possession of drugs seems to suggest a substantially increased focus on this offense by federal law enforcement personnel. Further analysis, however, does not support such a conclusion. A closer inspection of the data demonstrates that this increase is almost entirely attributable to a single drug type — marijuana — and to offenders who were arrested at or near the U.S./Mexico border (a group almost entirely composed of offenders from the District of Arizona). For simple possession of marijuana offenders arrested at locations other than the U.S./Mexico border, the median quantity of marijuana involved in the offense was 5.2 grams (0.2 ounces).  In contrast, the offense conduct of simple possession of marijuana offenders arrested at that border involved a median quantity of 22,000 grams (48.5 pounds or 776.0 ounces) — a quantity that appears in excess of a personal use quantity.

In other words, the USSC noticed data showing a huge increase in the charging of misdemeanor federal drug crimes, which at first might suggest a curious new commitment by federal prosecutors to pursue low-level drug offenders. But, upon closer examination, the USSC discovers that what is really going on is that a whole lot of (low-level?) drug traffickers (mules?) found with huge quantities of marijuana are having their cases prosecuted through "simple possession" charges even though that label hardly seems like a factually fitting description of their drug crimes.

I am extraordinarily pleased to see the USSC detailing and explaining this interesting new data trend, and I am extraordinarily interested to hear from readers as to whether they think federal prosecutors in border regions ought to be praised or pilloried for their new misdemeanor approach to dealing with marijuana offenders arrested at the border with an average of 50 pounds of mary jane. This USSC report not only documents one tangible way that state marijuana reforms would seem to be having a profound impact on how the federal government is now waging the so-called "war on weed," but it also prompts a lot of hard questions about whether the new behaviors by federal drug prosecutors are appropriate given the absence of any formal changes to federal drug laws.

September 23, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

"Assessing Time Served" and the deeply under-theorized problems of criminal history

Patrick Woods has this effective and important new article now available via SSRN titled "Assessing Time Served."  Here is the abstract (which will be followed by a few comments I have about this topic):

This article examines the utility of a new way of determining when increased punishment should be imposed pursuant to “three strikes” laws or other recidivist enhancements. In the past two years, Congress and the United States Sentencing Commission have each considered criminal justice reform measures that would use the length of time an offender spent incarcerated as a proxy for the seriousness of his earlier criminal conduct.  While this reform seems sound at first glance, the article ultimately concludes that its incorporation into current state and federal sentencing laws must be done carefully, if at all, and that doing so now may be premature.

The article compares this new “time served” approach with the current methods of determining the severity of the punishment imposed upon an offender for his prior crime.  Current federal and state laws assess the seriousness of prior punishment using either the maximum statutory penalty — irrespective of the real sentence — or the sentence announced in court by the judge — even if only a small fraction of that sentence was actually served before the defendant was released.  Compared with these methods, determining the severity of a prior punishment using a “time served” measure seems to be an improvement.

Real problems, however, lurk just below the surface.  The article discusses in detail significant challenges with records gathering, defining the term of incarceration, and using the metric in a way that is consistent with due process guarantees.  It suggests how the metric might be employed to minimize each of these concerns, but also concludes that the condition of state and local incarceration records may make use of the metric in the near future impracticable.

This article effectively highlights some of the practical challenges of using time actually served in prison as a metric for recidivist sentencing enhancements, and these practical challenges must be considered against the backdrop of the host of other practical difficulties federal courts have experienced in using other metrics in application of the Armed Career Criminal Act and guideline assessments of criminal history.  Moreover, as the title of this post hints,  I think modern criminal justice theorists and scholars ought to be working a lot more on what the author calls the "philosophical underpinnings" of recidivist sentencing enhancements. (The author usefully brackets this issue because his fundamental project in this article is not conceptual.)  In many ways, I think the "war on drug" has had its biggest impact on modern incarceration through such recidivist enhancements, and I have long thought that the "philosophical underpinnings" of such enhancements can and should be greatly influenced by the types (and especially the motives) of prior offenses.

September 21, 2016 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Grover Norquist and Wade Henderson say now is the time for federal statutory sentencing reform

This new National Review commentary authored by the notable pairing of Grover Norquist and Wade Henderson makes the case for having Congress finally getting sentencing reform to the desk of Prez Obama now.  The piece is headlined "No Better Time Than Now to Pass Justice Reform," and here are excerpts:

Picture this: a legislative reform initiative that has garnered more than 70 percent approval from both Democrats and Republicans in state after state. Imagine a package of reform bills that has brought together elected officials from the left and right and passed through House committee with near unanimous support. Now consider that the speaker of the House is the biggest champion of these bills.

What issue has brought together both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue and has civil-rights groups working with top prosecutors and law enforcement? Justice reform. And given all this success, you would say these policies have every chance of becoming law, right? It’s not that simple, but it should be.

In the months since bipartisan-backed sentencing- and prison-reform legislation was introduced in the House of Representatives, Congress managed to name about ten post offices, revised coastal-barrier boundaries, ordered the Mint to create commemorative coins, and adopted bison as the national mammal of the United States.

In the states during that time, Minnesota introduced and passed the most significant reforms to its drug laws in 30 years. These bills reduced mandatory minimums for low-level drug crimes and devoted greater resources to treatment instead of incarceration. Iowa took similar steps. Maryland repealed mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses. Even states with high incarceration rates took action. Oklahoma and Louisiana eliminated employment barriers for those with criminal records. And Kentucky passed one of the most aggressive expungement bills in the country that seals criminal records for certain offenses.

It’s time for Congress to act on justice reform. The states have proven that treatment and rehabilitation in lieu of incarceration can often provide better outcomes. Unnecessarily harsh sentences for nonviolent offenders do not make better citizens; they lead them to commit more offenses. We also know that the easier it is for someone who leaves incarceration to get a job, improve his education, and support his family, the better shot he has at turning away from crime altogether.

In an election year, real reforms can easily get jettisoned for campaign-trail antics. Yet we know justice reform makes for good politics as well as good policy. In polling in battleground states such as Florida, Nevada, Ohio, and North Carolina, support for reforms that would reduce mandatory minimum sentences and focus resources on rehabilitation ranges from the low 70s to the high 80s for both Republicans and Democrats. These numbers show that the risk lies not in supporting these reforms, but in opposing them.

When one in three American adults has a record, these issues are now affecting every corner of society. That explains why the diversity of support for justice reform spans the breadth and depth of our political ideologies. Whether it’s about redemption and second chances, as is the case for religious groups such as the Southern Baptist Convention, or about reducing the cost of an ineffective system, as is the case for Americans for Tax Reform and many other conservatives, millions of Americans from all different perspectives are getting behind this movement....

Our justice system should be a part of the solution to crime and its root causes. We can do better than using a one-size-fits-all sentencing regime that lumps nonviolent offenders with violent ones. And when some estimates have re-arrest rates for ex-offenders at 65 percent within three years, we cannot afford to continue the status quo. The reforms on the table would improve outcomes while ensuring that public safety is a top priority.

The best chance we have of passing this legislation is now. The political stars are aligned, and support for reform is at a zenith. We need our elected officials to seize this moment and pass legislation that saves money and makes us safer. Congress must not squander this opportunity.

September 15, 2016 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Split en banc Seventh Circuit ruling, previewing coming Beckles debate before SCOTUS, applies Johnson to career-offender guidelines

As regular readers may recall (and as I like to remind everyone), in this post right after the US Supreme Court ruled that a key clause of the Armed Career Criminal Act violated "the Constitution’s prohibition of vague criminal laws" in Johnson v. United States, 133 S. Ct. 2551 (2015) (available here), I flagged the question of how Johnson would impact application of the (now older, pre-reform version) career-offender guideline of the US Sentencing Guidelines.  As I have noted before, the Justice Department has consistently conceded Johnson-based constitutional problems with that guideline, even though there was some prior rulings in some circuits that the federal guidelines could not be attacked based on traditional void-for-vagueness doctrines. 

In the last year, most of the circuit courts, perhaps moved a lot by DOJ 's view, have come to rule that vagueness challenges to the guidelines are proper and have concluded that there are Johnson-based constitutional problems with sentences based on the old career-offender guideline.  But, as noted in this post last September, an Eleventh Circuit panel in US v. Matchett, 802 F.3d 1185 (11th Cir. 2015) (available here), ruled that Johnson and its vagueness problem just do not apply to advisory sentencing guidelines.  

As I have previously noted, I consider the ruling Matchett suspect; but an amicus brief I helped put together urging en banc review in Matchett has not led to its reconsideration.  As blogged here this past June, we now have the ultimate judicial authority on this issue poised to weigh in: the final Supreme Court order list of last Term included a grant of certiorari in Beckles v. United States, No. 15-8544, which will explore whether Johnson's constitutional holding applies to the residual clause in the older, pre-reform version of the career offender guideline.  Continuing my friendly ways in this setting, I had the honor and pleasure to work with Carissa Hessick and Leah Litman on this new SCOTUS Beckles amicus brief explaining why we think the US Sentencing Guidelines are subject to vagueness challenges and why any ruling that a guideline is unconstitutionally vague should be made retroactive.

Though folks interested in a full understanding of the Beckles case might read all the extant SCOTUS briefing, folks interested in understanding the substantive highlights and the basic arguments on both sides of this intricate and important story can now just turn to the split en banc ruling of the Seventh Circuit yesterday in US v. Hurlburt, No. 14-3611 (7th Cir. Aug. 29, 2016) (available here).  Here are two key paragraphs from the start of the majority opinion (per Judge Sykes) in Hurlburt:

The residual clause in § 4B1.2(a)(2) mirrors the residual clause in the Armed Career Criminal Act (“ACCA”), which steeply increases the minimum and maximum penalties for § 922(g) violations. 18 U.S.C. § 924(e)(2)(B).  One year ago the Supreme Court invalidated the ACCA’s residual clause as unconstitutionally vague.  Johnson v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 2551, 2563 (2015).  The question here is whether Johnson’s holding applies to the parallel residual clause in the career offender guideline.  An emerging consensus of the circuits holds that it does. See infra pp. 16–17.

In this circuit, however, vagueness challenges to the Sentencing Guidelines are categorically foreclosed. Circuit precedent — namely, United States v. Tichenor, 683 F.3d 358, 364–65 (7th Cir. 2012) — holds that the Guidelines are not susceptible to challenge on vagueness grounds.  But Tichenor was decided before Johnson and Peugh v. United States, 133 S. Ct. 2072 (2013), which have fatally undermined its reasoning.  Accordingly, we now overrule Tichenor.  Applying Johnson, we join the increasing majority of our sister circuits in holding that the residual clause in § 4B1.2(a)(2) is unconstitutionally vague.

And here are a few key paragraphs from the dissenting opinion (per Judge Hamilton) in Hurlburt:

The doctrinal foundation of the majority opinion is inconsistent with the overall sweep of Supreme Court decisions following United States v. Booker, 543 U.S. 220 (2005), which held the Guidelines advisory as the remedy for the Sixth Amendment problems with mandatory sentencing rules that require judicial fact‐finding. Since Booker, the Supreme Court has been trying to maintain a delicate balance, recognizing that the difference between “binding law” and “advice” depends on the different standards of appellate review. See Gall, 552 U.S. at 50–51....

If the Supreme Court extends the rationale of Peugh, as the majority does here, and embraces wholeheartedly the concept that the Guidelines are like laws, that result would be difficult to reconcile with the Booker remedy, which spared the Guidelines from Sixth Amendment challenges by making them advisory. The delicate doctrinal balance the Court has tried to maintain since Booker would be threatened by extending vagueness jurisprudence to the advisory Guidelines.

August 30, 2016 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, August 29, 2016

Fourth Circuit ruling highlights circuit split (and general insanity) regarding loss calculations and guideline sentencing in securities fraud case

The Fourth Circuit on Friday handed down a lengthy opinion in US v. Rand, No. 15-4322 (4th Cir. Aug. 26, 2016) (available here), affirming the convictions and sentence of a white-collar defendant "following his involvement in earnings mismanagement and improper accounting transactions while acting as chief accounting officer at Beazer Homes USA, Inc." The sentencing discussion in Rand occupies only six pages of a 35+ page opinion, but those pages include elements of what I see as so very insane about loss calculations and guideline sentencing in security fraud cases.  These background paragraphs from the Rand opinion provide the foundation for my insanity complaint:

U.S. Sentencing Guideline § 2B1.1 sets the offense level for certain fraud offenses and requires an increase based on the loss caused by the offense conduct, in accordance with a table in § 2B1.1(b)(1). An application note instructs that “in a case involving the fraudulent inflation or deflation in the value of publicly traded security,” loss should be calculated based on how the price of a security changed, “after the fraud was disclosed to the market.” U.S.S.G. § 2B1.1 Application Note 3(F)(ix).

At sentencing, the parties debated which of Beazer’s three public disclosures qualified as the date on which the “fraud was disclosed to the market”.... The court determined that the fraud was disclosed in June and August and that the loss to investors following those dates was $135 million. Accordingly, the district court calculated an offense level of 51 for a guidelines range of life imprisonment, capped by the statutory maximum.  The parties agreed that if the October date were used, the resulting loss would be $0. Had the district court used the loss amount following the October disclosure, Rand’s offense level would have been 19, with a range of 30 to 37 months.  The court ultimately varied downward from the guidelines range of life imprisonment and imposed a ten-year sentence.

In other words, it seems here that the facts surrounding the defendant's criminal behavior is not in serious dispute for sentencing purposes, but there is a big legal dispute over how the federal sentencing guidelines take stock of the "loss" cause by this behavior. And, remarkably, for calculating the advisory guidelines sentencing range, one legal take on this issue calls for the defendant to get an LWOP+ sentence, but the other legal take calls for the defendant to get no more than about 3 years' imprisonment. I do not think it is insane for me to assert that it is insane for so radically different guideline prison recommendations to hinge on a technical legal dispute over loss calculations.

Adding to the insanity, at least in my view, is the Fourth Circuit panel's subsequent explanation for why it is disinclined to follow the Second and Fifth Circuits in having the US Supreme Court's "Dura [civil case] loss-causation principles apply to criminal securities fraud cases."  In short form, the Fourth Circuit panel agrees with "the Third, Sixth, and Ninth Circuits [which] have declined to apply Dura in the context of criminal sentencing" largely because concerns about mis-attributing "loss" are distinct in the civil and criminal contexts.  I fully agree that concerns about mis-attributing loss are distinct in the civil and criminal contexts, but it seems backward to make it much easier to attribute loss (as does the Fourth Circuit and other circuits refusing to adopt Dura loss-causation principles) in criminal cases where life and liberty (and not just property) are at stake.

In any event, and perhaps quite wisely, in the Rand case as noted in the case excerpt, the sentencing judge ultimately did not follow the guidelines range of life imprisonment when sentencing the defendant.  The defendant he was sentenced "only" to 120 months' imprisonment, which obviously constitutes a huge downward variance from the guidelines' LWOP recommendation (though also, of course, constitutes a huge upward variance if the Rand’s offense level really should have been 19 with a range of 30 to 37 months' imprisonment).  In this way, I suppose, the sentencing judge in Rand did what he could to stop the guidelines insanity.

August 29, 2016 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Does a weekend tweet from House Speaker Paul Ryan suggest that federal statutory sentencing reform still has a chance in the months ahead?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this weekend tweet from the account of House Speaker Paul Ryan, which includes a clip of a pro-sentencing reform speech that Speaker Ryan gave earlier this year and has this notable new sentence: "There are over 2 million people in our prisons, and a lot of them are just people who made a mistake."  Ever eager to hope that federal statutory sentencing reform is not completely dead for the current year, I want to consider this tweet a positive development to that end.

That said, I learned of this tweet from this Breitbart posting, and a good bit of the posting highlights why I probably should not really get too excited or hopeful in the wake of this tweet:

In July, Ryan said he believed that Congress “overcompensated” in the 1990s by imposing tough jail sentences to combating a decades-long crime wave and a drug epidemic that destroyed communities and lives across the country. He’s now backing legislation that would slash sentences for convicted drug traffickers.

“In the 1990s, to your first point, I think government, both Republicans and Democrats, overcompensated on our criminal code. And we went too far and there are disparities — crack cocaine vs. powder cocaine — there are clear disparities and more importantly, I think that we’ve learned there are better ways of dealing with some of these problems than locking up somebody for 20 or 30 years,” Ryan told NRP host Steve Inskeep. “You end up ruining their lives, ruining their families, hurting communities, and then when they try to re-enter into society, they’re destitute.”

“So I really think there are better methods of dealing with these problems and I think that is part of criminal justice reform. I think that’s something I put out in the poverty plan that I first authored three years ago. So we intend on bringing these bills up in September,” he added.

Conservative critics have labeled the so-called reform efforts as “jailbreak” bills. For example, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 (SRCA) would reduce penalties for drug traffickers profiting from poisoning communities. Neither would these drug-related penalty reduction bills significantly reduce some racial disparities, law enforcement officials say. “Blacks make up 37.5 percent of the prison population at the state and federal levels. If we released those convicted on drug charges alone the percentage of Black males in prison would drop to 37 percent — a mere half of one percent,” Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke testified before the House Judiciary committee.

Furthermore, the rollbacks will harm the communities they’re allegedly intended to help, say critics. “People who are convicted of a crime and imprisoned are a very small minority of the U.S. population … they comprise approximately 6.6 percent of the population,” Peter Kirsanow and a member of U.S. Commission on Civil Rights wrote in a letter to Grassley. “These people have managed to be less law-abiding than the remaining 93.4 percent of the U.S. population – quite a feat,” he wrote. “It is perhaps less of a feat when one considers that many offenders have serious additional problems that likely incline them toward criminality.”...

“This bill doesn’t touch simple possession, because there’s virtually no simple possession cases in federal court,” said prominent critic Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions. “The Senate bill would drastically reduce mandatory minimum sentences for all drug traffickers, even those who are armed and traffic in dangerous drugs like heroin, and provide for the early release of dangerous drug felons currently incarcerated in federal prison.”

Meanwhile, drug overdoses, mostly heroin and other opioids, killed over 47,000 Americans in 2014 alone and nearly half a million in the past decade. Nearly all heroin sold in the U.S. is imported illegally from Mexico. “While Colombia has historically been the biggest source of heroin sold in the United States, Mexican output has since surpassed it, DEA officials say. Together, the two countries account for more than 90 percent of the U.S. heroin supply, and nearly all of it is smuggled into this country by Mexican traffickers,” the Washington Post reports.

Yet Ryan continues to push the bipartisan elites’ sentencing reduction agenda even as Obama continues his “stigmatize-and-federalize” campaign against local and state law enforcement — and as the Obama administration is set to free 70,000 federal prisoners.  But Republicans’ efforts to partner with Democrats on leniency for criminals has stalled amid public concern.  Fifty-three percent of Americans, and 68 percent of nonwhites, are “worried a great deal” about rising violent crime, according to an April Gallup poll.

The Senate sentencing-rollback bill has been stopped by opposition from multiple Senators, including Sessions and Sen. Tom Cotton.  Also, President Barack Obama has rejected a proposed deal from Sen. Orrin Hatch and other Republicans leaders who have offered to back the rollback bill if Democrats support a “mens rae” rollback of white-collar business prosecutions.

August 29, 2016 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, August 19, 2016

US Sentencing Commission finalizes its priorities for the guideline amendment cycle ending May 1, 2017

This new Federal Register notice from the US Sentencing Commission reports on the results of the USSC's meeting yesterday in which the Commission "identified its policy priorities for the upcoming amendment cycle."  Here are what I consider to be highlights from the fourteen listed priorities:

[T]he Commission has identified the following priorities:

(1) Continuation of its work with Congress and other interested parties on statutory mandatory minimum penalties to implement the recommendations set forth in the Commission’s 2011 report to Congress, titled Mandatory Minimum Penalties in the Federal Criminal Justice System, including its recommendations regarding the severity and scope of mandatory minimum penalties, consideration of expanding the “safety valve” at 18 U.S.C. § 3553(f), and elimination of the mandatory “stacking” of penalties under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c), and to develop appropriate guideline amendments in response to any related legislation.

(2) Continuation of its multi-year examination of the overall structure of the guidelines post-Booker, possibly including recommendations to Congress on any statutory changes and development of any guideline amendments that may be appropriate. As part of this examination, the Commission intends to study possible approaches to (A) simplify the operation of the guidelines, promote proportionality, and reduce sentencing disparities; and (B) appropriately account for the defendant’s role, culpability, and relevant conduct.

(3) Continuation of its study of approaches to encourage the use of alternatives to incarceration.

(4) Continuation of its multi-year study of statutory and guideline definitions relating to the nature of a defendant’s prior conviction (e.g., “crime of violence,” “aggravated felony,” “violent felony,” “drug trafficking offense,” and “felony drug offense”) and the impact of such definitions on the relevant statutory and guideline provisions (e.g., career offender, illegal reentry, and armed career criminal), possibly including recommendations to Congress on any statutory changes that may be appropriate and development of guideline amendments that may be appropriate.

(5) Continuation of its comprehensive, multi-year study of recidivism, including (A) examination of circumstances that correlate with increased or reduced recidivism; (B) possible development of recommendations for using information obtained from such study to reduce costs of incarceration and overcapacity of prisons, and promote effectiveness of reentry programs; and (C) consideration of any amendments to the Guidelines Manual that may be appropriate in light of the information obtained from such study....

(9) Study of offenses involving MDMA/Ecstasy, synthetic cannabinoids (such as JWH-018 and AM-2201), and synthetic cathinones (such as Methylone, MDPV, and Mephedrone), and consideration of any amendments to the Guidelines Manual that may be appropriate in light of the information obtained from such study.

(10) Possible consideration of whether the weapon enhancement in §2D1.1(b)(1) should be amended to conform to the “safety valve” provision at 18 U.S.C. § 3553(f) and §5C1.2 (Limitation on Applicability of Statutory Minimum Sentences in Certain Cases)....

(14) Consideration of any miscellaneous guideline application issues coming to the Commission’s attention from case law and other sources, including possible consideration of whether a defendant’s denial of relevant conduct should be considered in determining whether a defendant has accepted responsibility for purposes of §3E1.1.

August 19, 2016 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, August 14, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Highlighting the notable absence of criminal trials in a high-profile federal district court ... thanks to the modern "trial penalty"

Jury1Yesterday's New York Times had this article on the modern reality of negotiated federal criminal justice headlined "Trial by Jury, a Hallowed American Right, Is Vanishing."  Here are excerpts:

The criminal trial ended more than two and a half years ago, but Judge Jesse M. Furman can still vividly recall the case.  It stands out, not because of the defendant or the subject matter, but because of its rarity: In his four-plus years on the bench in Federal District Court in Manhattan, it was his only criminal jury trial.

He is far from alone. Judge J. Paul Oetken, in half a decade on that bench, has had four criminal trials, including one that was repeated after a jury deadlocked.  For Judge Lewis A. Kaplan, who has handled some of the nation’s most important terrorism cases, it has been 18 months since his last criminal jury trial.  “It’s a loss,” Judge Kaplan said, “because when one thinks of the American system of justice, one thinks of justice being administered by juries of our peers. And to the extent that there’s a decline in criminal jury trials, that is happening less frequently.”

The national decline in trials, both criminal and civil, has been noted in law journal articles, bar association studies and judicial opinions.  But recently, in the two federal courthouses in Manhattan and a third in White Plains (known collectively as the Southern District of New York), the vanishing of criminal jury trials has never seemed so pronounced.  The Southern District held only 50 criminal jury trials last year, the lowest since 2004, according to data provided by the court.  The pace remains slow this year.

In 2005, records show, there were more than double the number of trials: 106. And decades ago, legal experts said, the numbers were much higher. “It’s hugely disappointing,” said Judge Jed S. Rakoff, a 20-year veteran of the Manhattan federal bench. “A trial is the one place where the system really gets tested.  Everything else is done behind closed doors.”

Legal experts attribute the decline primarily to the advent of the congressional sentencing guidelines and the increased use of mandatory minimum sentences, which transferred power to prosecutors, and discouraged defendants from going to trial, where, if convicted, they might face harsher sentences.  “This is what jury trials were supposed to be a check against — the potential abuse of the use of prosecutorial power,” said Frederick P. Hafetz, a defense lawyer and a former chief of the criminal division of the United States attorney’s office in Manhattan, who is researching the issue of declining trials.

Julia L. Gatto, a federal public defender, recalled the case of Oumar Issa, a Malian arrested in Africa in a 2009 sting operation on charges of narco-terrorism conspiracy, which carried a mandatory minimum 20-year sentence, and conspiring to support a terrorist organization, which had no minimum.  Although Ms. Gatto and her client believed that elements of the case were weak and that there were strongly mitigating circumstances, Mr. Issa concluded that the risk of going to trial was too high.  He pleaded guilty in 2012 to material support, with prosecutors dropping the other charge.  He received 57 months in prison. “It was the only thing he could do,” Ms. Gatto said. “His hands were tied.”

In 1997, according to federal courts data nationwide, 3,200 of 63,000 federal defendants were convicted in jury trials; in 2015, there were only 1,650 jury convictions, out of 81,000 defendants....

Judge P. Kevin Castel, who helped to organize the court’s 225th anniversary celebration in 2014, recalled taking a friend, Mary Noe, a legal studies professor at St. John’s University, to see an exhibit of courtroom illustrations documenting Southern District trial scenes of past decades.  But as they reached the end, Professor Noe observed that the sketches of more recent defendants, like Bernard L. Madoff and the would-be Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad showed them pleading guilty.  “I was like, what happened to the trials?” she recalled.

Judge Analisa Torres said she had felt the difference ever since joining the federal bench in 2013.  Judge Torres, a former state court judge who handled about two dozen criminal trials a year in Manhattan and the Bronx, said she has since had just a few such trials. “It’s day and night,” she said. On the state bench, she said, she spent her entire day in the courtroom but for the lunch hour. “Now, I am in chambers all day long.”

This article rightfully suggests that the vanishing jury trial is a sentencing story related to the distinctive severity of federal statutes and guidelines and the impact of the modern "trial penalty" in federal courts. Competent defense attorneys have to tell their federal clients that the decision to test the government's evidence at trial will almost always risk adding years, if not decades, to any eventual federal sentence on any charge that produces a conviction.

It is ironic, but not really surprising, that this problem has only gotten worse since the Blakely and Booker SCOTUS rulings a decade ago made much of a defendant's Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial.  Had the Booker court adopted a "jury trial" remedy to "fix" federal guideline sentencing rather than the advisory remedy, we likely would have seen an increase in jury trials focused on specific guideline enhancements (especially in fraud and other kinds of high-profile cases more common in the Southern District of New York).  In addition, modern federal sentencing doctrines that diminish the need for and significance of jury determinations — like guideline anhancements based on "acquitted conduct" and "uncharged conduct" and "relevant conduct" — would be no more.

It is also disconcerting, but not surprising, that federal district judges are now so quick to lament the lack of jury trials, but are still so slow to explore their powers and opportunities to encourage more trials.  Though subject to some legal uncertainty (and sure to generate some federal prosecutorial pushback), federal judges still could today consider requiring limited jury trials to aid the resolution of any major factual disputes that have major guideline sentencing consequences.  Notably, in other high-profile settings, especially with respect to the death penalty and fraud sentencings and collateral consequences, SDNY federal district judges have been willing to test the reach and limits of thier judicial authority to move the law forward as they see fit.  If these judges really lament the vanishing criminal trial so much, they can and should be more aggressively exploring just what they might be able to do about this problem.

August 9, 2016 in Blakely Commentary and News, Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in district courts, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Two new US Sentencing Commission "Quick Facts" on federal gun sentencing

The US Sentencing Commission late last week released two new Quick Facts publications, which are designed to "give readers basic facts about a single area of federal crime in an easy-to-read, two-page format." Here are links to the latest publications and their summary description from the USSC:

In fiscal year 2015, there were 2,119 offenders convicted under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c) accounting for 3.0% of all offenders sentenced under the guidelines.  The number of offenders convicted of multiple counts of section 924(c) has decreased from 174 offenders in fiscal year 2011 (7.5% of all section 924(c) offenders) to 119 in fiscal year 2015 (5.6% of all section 924(c) offenders).

In fiscal year 2015, there were 4,984 offenders convicted under 18 U.S.C. § 922(g) accounting for 7.0% of all offenders sentenced under the guidelines.  The number of offenders sentenced under this statute has steadily decreased over the last five years from 5,761 in fiscal year 2011 to 4,984 offenders in fiscal year 2015.

July 24, 2016 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Gun policy and sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Guest posting from Prof Mark Osler with advice to US Sentencing Commission on revising drug sentencing guidelines

Earlier this month, federal sentencing reform guru Mark Osler informed me that he put together some suggestions for the US Sentencing Commission in response to its request for public comment about proposed priorities.  In turn, I urged Mark to put together a guest-post for this space to ensure his insights can be seen outside the Beltway.  Here is what he sent my way:

Each year, the United States Sentencing Commission goes through a seasonal cycle; it starts and ends in May, when the Commission publishes proposed amendments (closing out one cycle) while setting out proposed priorities and inviting public comments to begin the next cycle. This year the public comment period lasts until July 25. You can get more complete information at www.ussc.gov.

The proposed priorities for this year are strikingly broad and encouraging for reform advocates.  They include some specific items, including “consideration of expanding the “safety valve” at 18 U.S.C. § 3553(f), and elimination of the mandatory “stacking” of penalties under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c),” but also some fascinating broader priorities.  The line that really caught my attention was this one: “the Commission intends to study possible approaches to (A) simplify the operation of the guidelines, promote proportionality, and reduce sentencing disparities; and (B) appropriately account for the defendant’s role, culpability, and relevant conduct.”

For those fascinated by federal sentencing, could there be a more enticing invitation?

I have submitted my own comment, which Doug has kindly linked here [down below].  It grows out of the response I got to a New York Times op-ed I wrote in 2014, suggesting that the weight of narcotics used in a conspiracy is a lousy proxy for the culpability of any one conspirator, and that it would be much better to instead simply enhance sentences for those individuals who make the most money from a narcotics operation.  After that piece ran, I was surprised at the group I heard from the most: sentencing judges.  A few pointed out (correctly) that they had proposed this decades ago, while others simply affirmed the problem with weight of narcotics as the central metric for a drug sentence.  And, of course, they had depressing stories to share of sentences they had been forced to give out (pre-Booker) to low-level players in large narcotics organizations.

Here is how my comment begins:

Currently, because of the structure and importance of the Drug Quantity Table at Guideline §2D1.1(c), the primary input of sentence computation in narcotics cases is the weight of the drugs at issue, either by an individual or conspiracy.  However, weight of narcotics is not a good proxy for culpability because it unfairly punishes the actions of too many low-level traffickers.  If a true kingpin imports 150 kilograms of cocaine into the country and pays a trucker $1,000 to haul it, both of them fall under Guideline §2D1.1(c)(2), which provides for a base offense level of 36. While guideline sections §3B1.1 & 1.2 (distinguishing roles in the offense) provide some level of differentiation, that differentiation will likely be at most a swing of six offense levels.

We all know that the one-off trucker is not nearly as culpable as the kingpin, but the guidelines don’t reflect that because weight-driven sentences are mandated by Guideline §2D1.1(c).  Sentencing judges have chafed at the resulting failure of proportionality ever since the beginning of the guideline era.

The false proxy of narcotics weight creates problems with proportionality and disparities because it too often obscures actual role and culpability.  Moreover, it imposes a complexity to the guidelines that is unnecessary.

After discussing the benefits and challenges of making such a change, I suggest three alternate ways to amend the guidelines and accomplish this goal.

Perhaps you agree with me, maybe you don’t, or it could be that you think there is a much cleaner route to simplicity, proportionality, and the reduction of disparities.  I urge you not only to read the rest of my comment, but to submit your own while the window is still open.

Download USSC comment 2016

July 21, 2016 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Perhaps previewing coming SCOTUS work in Beckles, four Eleventh Circuit judges make case against circuit's refusal to apply Johnson to guidelines

In this post after the US Supreme Court ruled that a key clause of the Armed Career Criminal Act violated "the Constitution’s prohibition of vague criminal laws" in Johnson v. United States, 133 S. Ct. 2551 (2015) (available here), I flagged the question of how Johnson would impact application of the (now older, pre-reform version) career offender guideline of the US Sentencing Guidelines.  Notably, the Justice Department has consistently conceded Johnson-based constitutional problems with that career offender guideline, which in turn has led to most circuit courts finding Johnson-based constitutional problems with sentences based on that guideline. 

But, as noted in this post last September, an Eleventh Circuit panel in US v. Matchett, 802 F.3d 1185 (11th Cir. 2015) (available here), squarely addressed this issue and ruled that Johnson and its vagueness problem just do not apply to advisory sentencing guidelines.  I considered this ruling suspect, but an amicus brief I helped put together urging en banc review in Matchett did not led to its reconsideration.  As blogged here last month, though, we know have the ultimate judicial authority on this issue poised to weigh in: the final Supreme Court order list of last Term included a grant of certiorari in Beckles v. United States, No. 15-8544, which will explore whether Johnson's constitutional holding applies to the residual clause in the older, pre-reform version of the career offender guideline.

For a variety of reasons, I am expecting that SCOTUS will ultimately agree with the majority of circuits that Johnson's holding applies to the career offender guidelines and thereby reject the Eleventh Circuit's Matchett precedent.  What I did not expect was that a number of Eleventh Circuit judges would set forth, in essence, some amicus briefing to SCOTUS in order to explain in detail why they think their own circuit's work in Matchett was wrong.  But that is what I see via a series of recent concurring opinions in In Re: William Hunt and In re: Charles Therion Clayton, cases in which a panel felt duty-bound to reject habeas applications due to the Matchett precedent but then followed up with separate opinions by Circuit Judges Wilson and (Jill) Pryor and Rosenbaum and Martin all explaining why they think Matchett is so wrong and so troublesome as we await a SCOTUS ruling in Beckles.

If you have read this far into this post, you probably have some interest in the application of Johnson and its impact on the career offender guidelines, which in turns means you ought to find the time to read all the judicial thoughts shared in Hunt and Therion.  I know that is my plan for this evening, and to whet everyone's appetite I will close this post by quoting the closing paragraph authored by Judge Pryor in these cases:

If the Supreme Court decides in Beckles that the residual clause in the career offender guideline is void for vagueness, there may be new hope for the scores of inmates who have tried to obtain relief since Johnson, only to be turned away by this Court based upon Matchett.  I hope next time around we will avoid the mistakes I have identified. And I hope that, rather than being behind the march of justice, we, as our nation’s designated guardians, will be at the front.

July 19, 2016 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Nearly four years(!?!) in federal prison for MLB scout who hacked into rival team's research and notes

As reported in this local article, headlined "Former Cardinals scouting director sentenced to 46 months for hacking Astros database," a notable defendant got a significant federal prison sentence for some illegal corportate espionage. Here are some of the details:

The former St. Louis Cardinals scouting director who admitted he hacked accounts of the Houston Astros to gain insight into their operations was sentenced Monday afternoon to 46 months in prison.

Chris Correa pleaded guilty in January to five counts of unauthorized access to a protected computer. As part of his plea, Correa admitted to using the accounts of three Astros employees to view scouting reports, amateur player evaluations, notes on trade discussions and proposed bonuses for draft picks.  The information he accessed was given an estimated value of $1.7 million by the U.S. Attorney’s office.

Correa, 36, also admitted taking measures to conceal his identity. The sentence includes two years of supervised release and restitution payment of $279,038.65.  He will remain free until he is to report to prison, in two to six weeks....

During his guilty plea six months ago, Correa contended he hacked into the Astros accounts to see if former Cardinals employees had taken proprietary data or statistical models to use in their new positions with the Astros. Correa told prosecutors he found evidence that it did occur, U.S. Attorney Kenneth Magidson told the Post-Dispatch at that time....

Giles Kibbe, general counsel for the Astros, said after the sentencing that Correa accessed the Houston team’s database 60 times on 35 different days. “I don’t know what he saw or thought he saw,” Kibbe said, adding that what was clear from listening to U.S. District Judge Lynn N. Hughes during the sentencing is this: “The Astros were victims in this case.”...

Houston and its general manager, Jeff Luhnow, who began his baseball career with the Cardinals more than a decade ago, have repeatedly denied that Luhnow or any other former Cardinals employees brought information to the Astros. “The Astros refute Mr. Correa’s statement that our database contained any information that was proprietary to the St. Louis Cardinals,” the team said in a statement in January. Along with the U.S. attorney’s investigation, in which no other member of the Cardinals’ organizations was charged, the team completed an internal investigation; its outcome was Correa’s dismissal a year ago....

Correa read a four-minute statement to the judge before Hughes handed down his sentence. “I behaved shamefully,” Correa said, in apologizing to the Astros. “The whole episode represents the worst thing I’ve ever done by far.”

As he continued reading, offering an apology to his family with the promise to “regain your trust,” Hughes stopped Correa, asking him to turn around and speak directly to family members attending the hearing. Correa did so, his voice breaking as he repeated his apology. Correa said that because of his actions, he lost his career and his house, and he will work with his wife to rebuild “a quiet life of integrity.”

Hughes chastised Correa several times for his actions, comparing them to middle-school behavior. The judge used as an example a teacher asking Correa if he threw the eraser to which Correa would justify the action by saying: “Bobby did, too!”

“I hope it didn’t work then. It’s not going to work now,” Hughes said. The judge likened Correa’s hacking actions to altering a check by adding extra zeroes “and wiping out someone’s bank account.” Hughes also disclosed in court that Correa had been using prescription drugs without a prescription since the hacking charges, and that he could also have been prosecuted for that crime.

Hughes noted that Correa had taken college classes in ethics, asking: “At any time did you think hacking the Astros’ computers and using other people’s passwords was ethical?”

“No, your honor,” Correa said. Correa left the courthouse without comment, climbing into the passenger seat of a white SUV that was quickly driven away....

As part of his plea in January, Correa admitted to illicitly accessing Houston’s database through three accounts from at least March 2013 to the end of June 2014. He began by accessing the email account of one Astros employee who used to work for the Cardinals, referred to in the documents as “Victim A.” Although never mentioned by name in the documents, two of the former employees being described are believed to be Luhnow and Sig Mejdal. Both were key architects in the early days of the Cardinals’ analytic departments, and both are now baseball operations execs in Houston.

Correa took advantage of the fact that “Victim A” had used a password for his Astros email that was similar to the one he used with the Cardinals. He had gained the password when “Victim A” turned in his Cardinals laptop before leaving the team. Correa was able to access the accounts of two other Houston employees and through them see information in a database nicknamed “Ground Control.” On March 24, 2013, Correa viewed an Excel file of every amateur player eligible for the draft as well as the Astros’ internal evaluations and the scouts’ proposed bonuses to offer the players. He also looked at the Astros’ evaluations of Cardinals’ prospects.

That June, during the draft, Correa entered Ground Control and filtered the Astros’ information on players not yet drafted. He also looked at specific pages for two players, neither of whom the Cardinals drafted.

During that visit he looked at Houston’s scouting information for three of the eight players the Cardinals’ selected the previous day in rounds three through 10. At baseball’s trade deadline, July 31, Correa peered into Houston’s notes on trade discussions. In March 2014, he again entered the database and looked at 118 pages of what court documents called “confidential information.”

Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak and other team officials have stated they did not know about the breaches until investigators alerted them in early 2015.

I have reprinted the details of this "hacker's crime" because I am struggling to see what aggravating factors justified a nearly four-year prison sentence for a white-collar offenders who would appear to present no obvious risk to public safety and who has admitted his misdeeds and seems to show genuine remorse for his computer crimes.  I sumrise from the press description here that the the defendant's federal sentencing guidelines range was driven up significantly by the U.S. Attorney's determination that the "estimated value" of corporate information accessed here was $1.7 million.   But the fact that the defendant was ordered to pay less than $300K in restitution suggest that the actual harm to the Cardinals was far less than the economic number that appears to have driven the defendant's sentence up so much under the applicable sentencing guidelines.

Because I have not done a careful study of lots of recent computer crime cases, I am not sufficiently informed about whether this particular defendant's crime was distinctly bad or whether his sentence is distinctly severe.  But I do know that modern problems in the US with mass incarceration is aggravated when we now have persons who pose no threat to public safety and who commit crimes that seem to have a relatively small impact on a huge rich company getting sent away to federal prison for a really long period of time.

July 19, 2016 in Examples of "over-punishment", Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (30)

Thursday, July 14, 2016

First trader federally convicted for "spoofing" gets significant (below-guideline) prison term

As reported in this local article, headlined "Trader Michael Coscia 1st in nation to be sentenced under 'anti-spoofing' law," a notable new type of federal white-collar offender got a notable old-school type of punishment yesterday in federal court in Chicago. Here are some details:

In the outcome of a closely watched trial that could set precedent, convicted futures trader Michael Coscia was sentenced in federal court Wednesday to three years in prison and two years of supervised release for spoofing and commodities fraud.

Coscia, 54, of Rumson, N.J., was the first defendant in the country to stand trial under new anti-spoofing laws included in the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act.  In November, he was found guilty of six counts of spoofing — the use of computer algorithms to rig markets in fractions of a second — and six counts of commodities fraud.

Prosecutors had recommended five to seven years in prison, while the defense had sought probation.  Ultimately, U.S. District Judge Harry Leinenweber settled in the middle, citing Coscia's age and health, as well as the ambiguous amount of financial loss incurred by the victims.

"This is a very serious crime and it has serious consequences. ... (Coscia) has helped a lot of people over the years, not only family and friends, but also fellow traders.  But he also engaged in spoofing and had no financial need to do so," Leinenweber said shortly before announcing the sentence.

Federal prosecutors were pleased with the outcome. "There was and has been this sort of suggestion throughout the course of this prosecution that this criminal case is somehow murky or unclear because of technology, because of the use of algorithms. Well, guess what?  A lie is a lie.  Deceit is deceit. ... The defendant cheated faceless victims out of money through deceit over the internet.  Today's result and sentence, I think, is a reflection of that," U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon said.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Sunil Harjani added that the sentence of imprisonment would send a message to traders in Chicago and throughout the U.S.

Coscia made about $1.4 million in only about two months by victimizing traders including those at Citadel, the Chicago financial services firm formed by billionaire Ken Griffin, when he manipulated the prices of futures contracts on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, prosecutors have said.

Upon leaving the courtroom, Coscia declined to comment.  He smiled as he hugged friends and family who had come to show support.  During the hearing, he gave a brief statement asking for leniency and saying that he takes responsibility for his actions.

Stephen Senderowitz, Coscia's attorney, said he will file an appeal.  During the hearing, Senderowitz emphasized that it's not clear how much money any individual trader lost because of Coscia's actions.  That will be among the issues argued further during the appeal, during which the defense will also challenge the constitutionality of the spoofing law, he said afterward....

The Coscia case is "just the tip of the iceberg" in terms of the government's increasingly active role in such prosecutions, said Renato Mariotti, lead prosecutor on the case before recently joining a private practice.  "For years, many people scoffed at the notion that the government could explain high-frequency trading strategies to judges and juries. No one is laughing anymore," Mariotti said in a statement after the sentencing.

Coscia commissioned the design of computer programs, known as algorithms, to manipulate prices in the markets of various commodities, including gold, soybean meal, soybean oil, high-grade copper, Euro FX and Pounds FX currency futures, prosecutors said.

Among Coscia's family, there was some feeling that the sentencing could have gone worse. During the hearing, Anthony Coscia, Michael Coscia's uncle and a counselor at a Catholic high school in Brooklyn, N.Y., quoted passages from Shakespeare and the Bible while speaking on behalf of his nephew's character.... "The judge seemed to show some compassion," the elder Coscia said as he left the courtroom.

July 14, 2016 in Booker in district courts, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, July 02, 2016

"Couriers Not Kingpins: Toward a More Just Federal Sentencing Regime for Defendants Who Deliver Drugs"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper authored by Kevin Lerman and recently posted to SSRN.  Here is the abstract:

After decades of tweaking and modification, the federal sentencing guidelines have yet to meaningfully separate high-level drug traffickers from their unsophisticated underlings. The Mitigating Role Guideline — designed in part to alleviate the effects of quantity-based drug sentencing — fails to reach many of the people prosecuted for their work at the lowest rungs of drug-trafficking hierarchies.  This includes couriers and mules who transport drugs for small amounts of money.

Quantity-based sentencing guidelines qualify couriers and mules for extremely high sentences, which they must work down from by proving they deserve one or more sentencing reductions.  The Mitigating Role Guideline requires defendants to prove their role makes them “substantially less culpable” than similarly situated drug traffickers.  This mushy standard — along with a host of other obstacles — results in denial of sentencing reductions.  Mitigating Role is all-the-more treacherous because it triggers further sentencing reduction that frequently apply to couriers and mules.  These reductions are: (1) Role Cap, which counteracts quantity-based calculations that the Sentencing Commission has determined overstate low-level drug defendants’ culpability; and (2) the Methamphetamine Importation Enhancement, which extends sentences unless mitigating role is granted.

This Paper argues the Mitigating Role Guideline must be amended to more consistently account for low-level defendants.  An amended guideline should assess defendants’ functional roles rather than engage in an obscure comparison with so-called average participants.  It should expressly disavow “indispensability” analysis, which incorrectly equates basic but-for causation with culpability.  And the guideline should expressly distinguish between the analysis required for Mitigating Role and the analysis for Aberrant Behavior. Conflation of the two guidelines frequently leads to denials of sentencing reductions.  Finally, given past failures, guidelines depending on Mitigating Role should no longer depend on it. Rather, they should be "de-coupled," so they take effect for any defendant’s role that is not aggravating.  Because quantity-based guidelines are perilously high for all but a tiny fraction of violent drug trafficking defendants, these reductions for Role Cap and subtraction of the Methamphetamine Enhancement should be applied presumptively to limit the impact of overly harsh role determinations.

July 2, 2016 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Sixth Circuit affirms way-below guideline five-year child porn sentence based in part on jury poll urging sentence even lower

A number of helpful readers made sure that, despite being on the road all day, I did not miss the remarkable Sixth Circuit panel decision today in US v. Collins, No. 15-3236 (6th Cir. June 29, 2016) (available here).  I first blogged about this case here after initial sentencing, recounting these basic details via a news account:

A jury convicted Ryan Collins in October of one count possessing, distributing and receiving child pornography and one count possession of child pornography. Police found more than 1,500 files on his computer, and he was charged with distributing because he used peer-to-peer file sharing programs.

Under federal law, a judge can sentence a defendant to up to 20 years in prison if he or she is found guilty of child porn distribution. On Tuesday, during Collins' sentencing, Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Sullivan asked U.S. District Judge James Gwin to give the maximum sentence for the charge.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Probation and Pretrial Services said a guideline sentence for Collins, who is 32 and has no criminal history, would be between about 21 and 27 years in federal prison. While higher than the maximum sentence, the office's calculation accounted for several factors in Collins' case -- including the age of the victims and not taking responsibility for his actions.

But Gwin handed down a five-year sentence to Collins, the minimum allowable sentence for a distribution charge. The judge said that after Collins' trial, he polled jurors on what they thought was an appropriate sentence. The average recommendation was 14 months, Gwin said.

Unhappy with this outcome, federal prosecutors appealed the sentence as unreasonable, but now has lost before a unanimous Sixth Circuit panel. The Court's relatively short opinion includes these passages:

The government also argues that the jury poll was an “impermissible factor[]” for the district judge to consider in crafting an appropriate sentence. Conatser, 514 F.3d at 520. We again disagree. Federal law provides nearly unfettered scope as to the sources from which a district judge may draw in determining a sentence....

District courts also have the authority to “reject the Guidelines sentencing ranges based on articulated policy disagreements in a range of contexts.” United States v. Kamper, 748 F.3d 728, 741 (6th Cir. 2014). Indeed, we have suggested the plausibility of rejecting guidelines ranges in child pornography cases based on policy disagreements. See United States v. Bistline (Bistline I), 665 F.3d 758, 762-64 (6th Cir. 2012) (finding that the district court “did not seriously attempt to refute” the judgments underlying the guidelines).

When establishing the Sentencing Commission, Congress directed it to take “the community view of the gravity of the offense” into account when crafting appropriate criminal sanctions. 28 U.S.C. § 994(c)(4). As reflected in his writing on the subject, and briefly in the sentencing hearing below, the district judge reasons that the Commission fell short of this directive. See Judge James S. Gwin, Juror Sentiment on Just Punishment: Do the Federal Sentencing Guidelines Reflect Community Values?, 4 HARV. L. & POL'Y REV. 173, 185 (Winter 2010)....

Though we reiterate that juries lack “the tools necessary for the sentencing decision,” Martin, 390 F. App’x at 538, they can provide insight into the community’s view of the gravity of an offense. See Gwin, supra at 193-94; see also Ring v. Arizona, 536 U.S. 584, 615-16 (2002) (BREYER, J., concurring) (jurors “reflect more accurately the composition and experiences of the community as a whole” and are “better able to determine in the particular case the need for retribution”) (internal quotations and citations omitted). The jury did not determine or impose defendant’s sentence. Rather, the district judge – who does possess the necessary tools for the sentencing decision – was at all times interposed between the jurors’ views of an appropriate sentence and the sentencing guidelines’ § 3553(a) factors. Considering the jury’s sentencing recommendation as part of the sentencing calculus did not conflict with the district judge’s duty or ability to properly weigh the § 3553(a) factors and independently craft an appropriate sentence.

June 29, 2016 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (4)

US Sentencing Commission publishes "Overview of Federal Criminal Cases – Fiscal Year 2015"

On Monday, the US Sentencing Commission released this new data report, excitingly titled "Overview of Federal Criminal Cases – Fiscal Year 2015."   This USSC webpage provides this summary of the report's contents and findings:

The United States Sentencing Commission received information on 71,184 federal criminal cases in which the offender was sentenced in fiscal year 2015. Among these cases, 71,003 involved an individual offender and 181 involved a corporation or other “organizational” offender. The Commission also received information on 24,743 cases in which the court resentenced the offender or modified the sentence that had been previously imposed. This publication provides an overview of those cases [and includes these key findings]:

  • The 71,003 individual original cases reported to the Commission in fiscal year 2015 represent a decrease of 4,833 (6.4%) cases from fiscal year 2014.

  • Drug cases continued to be the most common type of federal case.  The 22,631 drug cases reported to the Commission in fiscal year 2015 accounted for 31.8 percent of all cases report to the Commission.

  • Immigration cases were the next most common, accounting for 29.3 percent of the total federal caseload.  In fiscal year 2011, immigration cases were the most common federal crime; however, since that year the number of these cases has steadily declined.

  • In fiscal year 2015, an imprisonment sentence was imposed on 87.3 percent of all offenders. Another 7.2 percent of offenders received a sentence of probation (i.e., where no type of confinement was imposed), a rate that has decreased over time from a high of 15.3 percent in 1990.

  • Almost three-quarters of offenders sentenced in fiscal year 2015 received a sentence of less than five years.

  • Methamphetamine offenses were the most common drug trafficking offenses and were the most severely punished drug crime in fiscal year 2015.

  • The proportion of drug offenders convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty was the lowest it has been since 1993.

June 29, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Final SCOTUS order list has nine Mathis GVRs ... and I suspect hundreds more cases will be impacted

The Supreme Court this morning finished up its work before heading out on summer vacation by issuing this order list. Though the Justices granted review in eight new cases, none appear to involve criminal justice issues. But the order list still had a bit of sentencing intrigue by including nine GVRs based on its Mathis ACCA ruling from last week (basics here).

Though it is never surprising to see a spate of GVRs in the wake of any significant ruling about a federal sentencing statute, I suspect that the fall-out from Mathis will extended to many more cases because, as reported via Justice Alito's dissent, it seems the ruling means that "in many States, no burglary conviction will count" as a possible ACCA predicate offense. That reality not only can impact many past, present and future ACCA cases, but also could also echo through the application of burglary (and even other crimes) in past career offender guideline cases.

Ultimately, I would be very surprised in the impact and import of Mathis end up nearly as grand or as complicated as last Term's Johnson ruling. But the consequential sentencing math of Mathis still may be major.

June 28, 2016 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Monday, June 27, 2016

SCOTUS grants cert on Johnson application to career offender guidelines

As noted in this prior post, SCOTUS has been relisting throughout June two notable petitions on Johnson's applicability to the career offender guidelines.  Excitingly for sentencing fans, today's final Supreme Court order list includes a grant or certiorari in Beckles v. United States, No. 15-8544, which SCOTUSblog has described this way:

Issue: (1) Whether Johnson v. United States applies retroactively to collateral cases challenging federal sentences enhanced under the residual clause in United States Sentencing Guidelines (U.S.S.G.) § 4B1.2(a)(2) (defining “crime of violence”); (2) whetherJohnson's constitutional holding applies to the residual clause in U.S.S.G. § 4B1.2(a)(2), thereby rendering challenges to sentences enhanced under it cognizable on collateral review; and (3) whether mere possession of a sawed-off shotgun, an offense listed as a “crime of violence” only in commentary to U.S.S.G. § 4B1.2, remains a “crime of violence” after Johnson.

IN other words, Beckle buckle-up your seat-belts, sentencing fans, as the post-Johnson criminal history bumpy ride is now sure to continue in the Supreme Court for at least the next Term and likely beyond.

Notably and significantly, the SCOTUS order list reports that "Justice Kagan took no part in the consideration or decision of ... this petition." In other words, it seems that Justice Kagan's prior history as Solicitor General has caused her to be conflicted out of this case. Ergo, it will likely be only be a seven (or perhaps and eight-member) Court that will be resolving the application of vagueness doctrines in this case.  

A few (of many) prior related posts:

June 27, 2016 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, June 17, 2016

"'Loss' Revisited: A Guarded Defense of the Centerpiece of the Federal Economic Crime Sentencing Guideline"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article authored by Frank Bowman now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

This article discusses "loss," the concept at the heart of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines section governing economic crimes, Section 2B1.1. It notes the common criticism that "loss" plays too large a role in federal economic crime sentencing, but distinguishes between the sound observation that structural problems in Section 2B1.1 cause loss amount to generate too many "offense levels" and critiques of the core definition of "loss."

The article summarizes previous suggestions made by the author and others to address the arguably disproportionate role played by "loss," but it focuses primarily on the Guidelines' definition of "loss," whether actual or intended. The article defends the fundamental soundness of the existing "loss" definition, but suggests some points on which improvements might be made, particularly to the definition of intended loss.

The article was solicited as a response to an article by Mr. Daniel Guarnera, published in the same issue of the Missouri Law Review, in which Mr. Guarnera argues for a revision of the definition of intended loss to include unrealized harms as to which the defendant was reckless.

June 17, 2016 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, June 10, 2016

Two SCOTUS reslists concerning Johnson's application to the career-offender guideline worth keeping an eye on

This week's entry in the always amusing and informative Relist Watch SCOTUSblog posting by John Elwood has flagged two cases of note for sentencing fans, especially for those especially interested in the continued fall-out from the Supreme Court's big Johnson vagueness ruling last year.  I will reprint, with all the humor and links, Elwood's coverage of these cases:

Our next new relist is Jones v. United States, 15-8629. No, not that one.  Not that one either.  Or that.  Now you’re trying my patience.  Can we just agree it’s a pretty common case caption?  And indeed, this case has been up to the Court once before.  The petitioner in Jones was sentenced to about twenty-one years’ imprisonment under the residual clause of the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines’ career-offender provision.  During its last trip to One First Street, the Court granted cert., vacated the judgment, and remanded (“GVR”) in light of Johnson v. United States, which declared an identically worded residual clause in the Armed Career Criminal Act (“ACCA”) unconstitutionally vague and therefore void.  On remand, the Third Circuit determined that Johnson was inapplicable because Jones’s career-offender designation relied not on the residual clause, but on its “Application Note,” which specifically lists robbery as a predicate offense.  During Jones’s stay in the Third Circuit, the Court held in Welch v. United States that Johnson announced a new substantive constitutional rule that applies retroactively to ACCA cases on collateral review.  Jones poses three questions: (1) whether Johnson applies retroactively to collateral cases challenging the residual clause of the Guidelines’ career-offender provision; (2) whether Johnson applies to and invalidates the Guidelines’ residual clause; and (3) whether Jones’s robbery conviction qualifies as a “crime of violence” under the residual clause based on the clause’s Application Note, “even though [the Note] does not interpret and conflicts with the text of the guideline.”

Jones, unsurprisingly, is not one of a kind: It has a doppelganger, Beckles v. United States, 15-8544, which is nearly identical right down to the GVR and raises the same three questions (except that Beckles’s third question presented involves possession of a sawed-off shotgun). Both the Jones and Beckles petitions assert urgency because of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act’s one-year bar: “Prompt resolution of these issues is required because the one-year statute of limitations governing collateral Johnson claims will expire on June 26, 2016,” the petitioners say, adding that “a per curiam opinion on these issues without full briefing or oral argument may be appropriate.” The government opposes cert. because, among other things, the Sentencing Commission has adopted a Guidelines amendment, likely taking effect on August 1, 2016, that deletes the residual clause from the guideline in light of the Court’s concerns in Johnson: “The question of Johnson’s application to the current career offender guideline is therefore likely to be of no continuing importance.”   Both cases got something of a late boost when the Fourth Circuit deepened the split on Wednesday....

 

15-8629

Issue: (1) Whether Johnson v. United States announced a new substantive rule of constitutional law that applies retroactively on collateral review to challenges of sentences imposed under the residual clause in United States Sentencing Guidelines career offender provision, U.S.S.G. § 4B1.2(a)(2); (2) whether Johnson's constitutional holding applies to U.S.S.G. § 4B1.2(a)(2)'s identical residual clause thus rendering that provision void; and (3) whether Petitioner's Pennsylvania conviction for robbery by force however slight is a “crime of violence” because it is listed in the commentary to U.S.S.G. § 4B1.2, even though it does not interpret and conflicts with the text of the guideline, after Johnson.

(relisted after the June 2 Conference)

 

15-8544

Issue: (1) Whether Johnson v. United States applies retroactively to collateral cases challenging federal sentences enhanced under the residual clause in United States Sentencing Guidelines (U.S.S.G.) § 4B1.2(a)(2) (defining “crime of violence”); (2) whether Johnson's constitutional holding applies to the residual clause in U.S.S.G. § 4B1.2(a)(2), thereby rendering challenges to sentences enhanced under it cognizable on collateral review; and (3) whether mere possession of a sawed-off shotgun, an offense listed as a “crime of violence” only in commentary to U.S.S.G. § 4B1.2, remains a “crime of violence” after Johnson.

(relisted after the June 2 Conference)

June 10, 2016 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Split Seventh Circuit panel debates import and impact of jury finding of drug quantity rejected by the judge at sentencing

A helpful reader altered me to an interesting Seventh Circuit ruling today in US v. Saunders, No. 13-3910 (7th Cir. June 10, 2016) (available here). These passages from the partial dissent authored by Judge Manion provides a reasonable look into why this split panel's sentencing work is blog-worthy:

The jury in this case found beyond a reasonable doubt that the drug amount was between 100 grams and 1 kilogram.  This necessarily implies that the jury found the offense did not involve 3.69 kilograms, but at sentencing, the district court found a 3.69-kilogram amount.  These findings are irreconcilable.  By its finding, the district court overrode the jury’s decision. The Sixth Amendment does not allow this.  I dissent from this aspect of the court’s decision, but join in all other aspects....

A straightforward reading of the jury-verdict form does not allow this court to find an “effective acquittal.”  The jury does not — in a single sentence, passing judgment on one count — actually convict and effectively acquit.  Here, the jury convicted Saunders and Bounds of a capped drug quantity, and its verdict should stand....

In its ruling today, the court affirms the district court’s application of Watts to this case.  It should not.  Watts stands for the simple principle that a sentencing court may consider conduct underlying an acquitted charge if that underlying conduct is proven by a preponderance of the evidence. Watts, 519 U.S. at 157.  Watts is therefore factually and legally distinguishable from this case. Instead of an acquittal, this case features an affirmative jury finding of fact.  An acquittal is a legal conclusion, “not a finding of any fact,” and it “can only be an acknowledgment that the government failed to prove an essential element of the offense beyond a reasonable doubt.” See id. at 155 (internal quotation marks omitted)....

As the Supreme Court observed [in Watts], “That [acquittal] verdict does not preclude a finding by a preponderance of the evidence that the defendant did, in fact, use or carry such a weapon, much less that he simply possessed the weapon in connection with a drug offense.” Id. at 157 (emphasis in original).  In contrast, the two results in this case cannot square: the defendants cannot have (1) possessed less than 1 kilogram and (2) also possessed 3.69 kilograms. By flatly contradicting the jury’s express factual finding, the sentencing judge in this case violated the Sixth Amendment rights of Saunders and Bounds.  And if the jury system is to mean anything, this outcome is a problem.

June 10, 2016 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thursday, June 09, 2016

US Sentencing Commission provides notice of proposed 2017 priorities and requests comment

The US Sentencing Commission has now posted here a "notice to identify tentative priorities for the amendment cycle ending May 1, 2017."  The notice lists a dozen tentative priorities, and here are what I consider highlight from the list:

(1) Continuation of its work with Congress and other interested parties on statutory mandatory minimum penalties to implement the recommendations set forth in the Commission’s 2011 report to Congress, titled Mandatory Minimum Penalties in the Federal Criminal Justice System, including its recommendations regarding the severity and scope of mandatory minimum penalties, consideration of expanding the “safety valve” at 18 U.S.C. § 3553(f), and elimination of the mandatory “stacking” of penalties under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c), and to develop appropriate guideline amendments in response to any related legislation.

(2) Continuation of its multi-year examination of the overall structure of the guidelines post-Booker, possibly including recommendations to Congress on any statutory changes and development of any guideline amendments that may be appropriate. As part of this examination, the Commission intends to study possible approaches to (A) simplify the operation of the guidelines, promote proportionality, and reduce sentencing disparities; and (B) appropriately account for the defendant’s role, culpability, and relevant conduct.

(3) Continuation of its study of approaches to encourage use of alternatives to incarceration, including possible consideration of amending the Sentencing Table in Chapter 5, Part A to consolidate and/or expand Zones A, B, and C, and any other relevant provisions in the Guidelines Manual.

(4) Continuation of its multi-year study of statutory and guideline definitions relating to the nature of a defendant’s prior conviction (e.g., “crime of violence,” “aggravated felony,” “violent felony,” “drug trafficking offense,” and “felony drug offense”) and the impact of such definitions on the relevant statutory and guideline provisions (e.g., career offender, illegal reentry, and armed career criminal), possibly including recommendations to Congress on any statutory changes that may be appropriate and development of guideline amendments that may be appropriate.

(5) Continuation of its comprehensive, multi-year study of recidivism, including (A) examination of circumstances that correlate with increased or reduced recidivism; (B) possible development of recommendations for using information obtained from such study to reduce costs of incarceration and overcapacity of prisons, and promote effectiveness of reentry programs; and (C) consideration of any amendments to the Guidelines Manual that may be appropriate in light of the information obtained from such study....

(8) Study of the operation of Chapter Four, Part A of the Guidelines Manual, including (A) the feasibility and appropriateness of using the amount of time served by an offender, as opposed to the sentence imposed, for purposes of calculating criminal history under Chapter Four; and (B) the treatment of revocation sentences under §4A1.2(k)....

(12) Consideration of any miscellaneous guideline application issues coming to the Commission’s attention from case law and other sources, including possible consideration of whether a defendant’s denial of relevant conduct should be considered in determining whether a defendant has accepted responsibility for purposes of §3E1.1.

The Commission hereby gives notice that it is seeking comment on these tentative priorities and on any other issues that interested persons believe the Commission should address during the amendment cycle ending May 1, 2017. To the extent practicable, public comment should include the following: (1) a statement of the issue, including, where appropriate, the scope and manner of study, particular problem areas and possible solutions, and any other matters relevant to a proposed priority; (2) citations to applicable sentencing guidelines, statutes, case law, and constitutional provisions; and (3) a direct and concise statement of why the Commission should make the issue a priority. [Public comment should be received by the Commission on or before July 25, 2016.]

June 9, 2016 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, June 06, 2016

US Sentencing Commission posts big new report authored by its Tribal Issues Advisory Group

I received via email today a US Sentencing Commission notice about these notable new tribal sentencing activities:

Today, the Commission’s Tribal Issues Advisory Group (TIAG) released its final report addressing federal sentencing issues related to American Indian defendants and victims and to offenses committed in Indian Country.

The Commission has scheduled a public hearing for July 21, 2016 to receive testimony from members of the TIAG on this report. The TIAG will present its findings and subsequent recommendations for amending the federal sentencing guidelines.

The full TIAG report runs more than 100 pages, but it starts with this helpful, brief and interesting executive summary:

The Tribal Issues Advisory Group (“the TIAG”) makes several recommendations to the United States Sentencing Commission (“the Commission”) for revisions and additions to the Sentencing Guidelines (“the Guidelines”), for tribal consultation, and for other changes. The TIAG suggests that the following revisions be made to the Guidelines:

(1) Adding an application note and commentary to USSG §4A1.3 to guide when tribal court convictions may be considered for a possible upward departure in the defendant’s criminal history category;

(2) Including in USSG §1B1.1 a definition of “court protection order;”

(3) Amending USSG §5H1.1 regarding the “age” policy statement; and

(4) Adding a departure concerning juvenile and youthful offenders as USSG §5K2.25.

The TIAG recommends that the Commission adopt certain policy changes including:

(1) Establishing a standing advisory group on tribal issues to assist the Commission on changes to the Guidelines impacting American Indian defendants, to advise on and assist in tribal consultation, and to form the basis for a new TIAG when appropriate;

(2) Creating a process for the collection of better data on federal court sentencing to allow for study of the protection order provisions of the Guidelines and analysis of sentencing disparity concerns as detailed herein; and

(3) Considering the recommendations of other working groups regarding juvenile offenders, including possibly collapsing sentencing zones A, B, and C into a single zone.

The TIAG also recommends that the Commission support changes in federal law and practice including:

(1) Congressional action that incentivizes states and requires appropriate federal agencies to collect data on state court sentencing of defendants generally and Native American defendants in particular so that better data exists to analyze whether and where there truly are sentencing disparities;

(2) Increased use of pretrial diversion agreements by United States Attorneys’ offices;

(3) Increased use by law enforcement in Indian country of misdemeanor statements of charges and Central Violations Bureau misdemeanor citations to non-Indians in Indian country;

(4) Better training of federal employees who work in Indian country about Native American history and culture; and

(5) Revisions to the Juvenile Delinquency Act, 18 U.S.C. § 5032, to require federal consultation with tribes in certain juvenile case prosecutions.

This Report provides the basis for and an explanation of these and other recommendations.

June 6, 2016 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, May 22, 2016

A bunch of timely and notable new Quick Facts from the US Sentencing Commission

The US Sentencing Commission has its pretty new website up and running, and my only knock on the site is that it is not easy anymore to see exacly what is new on the site.  Fortunately, I somehow discovered that the Commission released two notable new Quick Facts covering federal drug sentencing and mandatory minimum sentences.  (As the USSC explains, "Quick Facts" are publications that "give readers basic facts about a single area of federal crime in an easy-to-read, two-page format.")

In addition to these two new items, the Commission also released two other timely "Quick Facts" last month, and here are links to all four of these reader-friendly USSC products:

May 22, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

US Sentencing Commission working on impressive looking new website

I am excited and intrigued to see a new item on the US Sentencing Commission's (old) website titled "Commission Launches Redesigned Beta Website."  Here is the explanation:

We are pleased to invite you to explore an in-progress (beta) version of the Commission’s redesigned website [available here].  We have more work to do, styling content and fixing bugs but by using the site, you’ll help show us what works, and what doesn’t. E-mail comments to: PubAffairs@ussc.gov (link sends e-mail).

I spent a few minutes poking around this new USSC site, and I find it very pretty but not so easy to navigate (though this may be due to its unfamiliarity).

May 3, 2016 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, May 02, 2016

Another prominent elderly corrupt politician presenting dynamic federal sentencing issues

NY-DK527_NYCHAR_11U_20150122183914This lengthy Wall Street Journal article, headlined "Sheldon Silver Set to Be Sentenced: Judge has wide leeway as prosecution asks for long prison term, and defense seeks leniency for the former Assembly speaker," reports on issues surrounding a high-profile politician's federal sentencing scheduled for tomorrow in New York. Here are excerpts:

A federal judge is expected to decide Tuesday whether former New York state Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver deserves a long prison sentence for years of corruption, or leniency because he is ill and says he is sorry.

Leading up to the decision, lawyers for Mr. Silver have filed letters of support from ex-colleagues, constituents, family members and even a former employee at a Chinese restaurant he frequented. “I know that Sheldon Silver has been convicted, but please consider his kind personality and his support to the community,” wrote Fei Chen, who was a cook at Nom Wah Tea Parlor in Manhattan’s Chinatown.

The endorsement is part of a trove of materials from both the prosecution and defense that reflect the range of factors judges are supposed to consider in public-corruption cases and the latitude they have in deciding on punishment. Judges in cases like Mr. Silver’s grapple with how to account for breaking the public trust, and to what extent a sentence should serve as a deterrent to future crime.

Mr. Silver, a Manhattan Democrat who served as Assembly speaker for more than two decades, was convicted of honest-services fraud, extortion and money laundering. Prosecutors said Mr. Silver, 72 years old, netted about $4 million in kickbacks from schemes involving a real-estate company and an oncologist. Attorneys for Mr. Silver have said they would appeal.

Prosecutors have asked U.S. District Judge Valerie Caproni for a prison sentence greater than any previously imposed on legislators convicted of public corruption in the state. Court filings suggest the longest sentence for such an official was 14 years. “Silver exploited the vast political power entrusted in him by the public to serve himself,” prosecutors wrote.

Defense lawyers have asked for leniency, suggesting “rigorous community service.” The former legislator also wrote an apology letter to the judge. “I failed the people of New York,” Mr. Silver’s letter said.

U.S. law says judges should decide sentences based not only on the offense, but also the defendant’s “history and characteristics.” Also relevant, the law says, are deterrence, public protection and the needs of the defendant, including medical care. In court filings, Mr. Silver’s lawyers have highlighted his prostate cancer, bile-duct obstruction and knee problems.

For judges, sentencing in public-corruption cases presents a particular quandary: While the convicted official usually isn’t considered a threat to public safety, or capable of committing the same crimes in the future, the government has an incentive to punish such officials harshly to deter others from similar offenses.

“The difficulty you have in high-profile cases is that there is a philosophical argument that general deterrence sometimes trumps all other factors,” said Benjamin Brafman, a defense attorney not connected to the Silver case who represented Carl Kruger, a former state senator who was convicted on public-corruption charges and sentenced to seven years.

In the case of Mr. Silver, Judge Caproni can also consider prosecutors’ evidence that Mr. Silver used his position to help two women with whom he had extramarital affairs because, like the letters, it speaks to his character. In legal filings, attorneys for Mr. Silver said the allegations were unproven.

In recent years, public-corruption cases have garnered more attention, particularly because prosecutors have become increasingly vocal when bringing charges, said Deborah Gramiccioni, executive director of NYU’s Center on the Administration of Criminal Law. “The public’s indignation perhaps seems more pronounced,” said Ms. Gramiccioni, a former federal prosecutor who worked on public-corruption cases. But such indignation doesn’t necessarily influence judges’ decisions, she said....

Data show that New York judges often diverge from the federal guidelines when awarding prison sentences. Of 3,301 cases sentenced in federal court in New York in fiscal 2015, judges awarded sentences within the guideline range in 29.5% of cases, compared with 47.3% nationwide, according to federal statistics. Of 544 fraud cases in New York, 28.5% of sentences fell within the guidelines. Just five people received sentences above the guideline range.

In Mr. Silver’s case, sentencing guidelines suggest a range from about 22 to 27 years. In sentencing filings, both prosecution and defense attorneys cite many of the same public-corruption cases, including that of Mr. Kruger, the former state senator. Attorneys for Mr. Silver note that Mr. Kruger was sentenced to well below the federal recommendations. But prosecutors note that Mr. Kruger pleaded guilty, which they view as a crucial difference. “Unlike Kruger, here Sheldon Silver has accepted no responsibility and shown no remorse for his crimes,” they said.

May 2, 2016 in Booker in district courts, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, April 30, 2016

"Why Vague Sentencing Guidelines Violate the Due Process Clause"

The title of this post is the title of this new article by Kelsey Heilman now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

The United States Sentencing Guidelines are the mandatory starting point and the lodestone for the sentences of 75,000 federal defendants each year.  Though advisory after the 2005 Supreme Court decision in United States v. Booker, the Guidelines continue to exert tremendous influence over federal sentencing practice.  Last term, in Johnson v. United States, the Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutionally vague a sentencing provision of the Armed Career Criminals Act.  In the ensuing year, a circuit split developed regarding whether that decision dooms a textually identical provision of the Guidelines, with some courts holding advisory sentencing guidelines are completely immune from due process challenges.  In this Article, I argue the Guidelines violate the Due Process Clause of the United States Constitution if they are so vague they deny fair notice to defendants and invite arbitrary enforcement by judges.

April 30, 2016 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thursday, April 28, 2016

"A Legal Definition of Leadership: Understanding Section 3B1.1 of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper now available via SSRN authored by Marin Roger Scordato. Here is the abstract:

This Article offers a formal legal definition of “leadership” drawn from an unusual quarter: criminal sentencing. Sentencing guidelines that include adjustments based on the extent to which a defendant was a “leader” have spawned hundreds of appellate court cases attempting to develop a thoughtful, workable definition of the term. Reviewing these cases, this Article offers 25 separate characteristics courts have found material to a legal judgment as to whether an individual has been a leader within a criminal enterprise.

Eleven of these characteristics can be organized into three categories, which operate on the boundaries of the leadership concept.  The first category contains those circumstances courts have found do not, by themselves, confer leadership status.  For example, courts have found that controlling property alone does not make one a leader.  The second category of leadership characteristics are those circumstances that are not, in themselves, sufficient to show a defendant is not a leader.  For example, there may be more than one leader in a group, so the identification of one or more other leaders in a group does not preclude the possibility of characterizing a defendant as a leader as well.  A third category of leadership focuses on the external group functions of leadership, the ways in which a leader monitors and mediates the points of contact between the group as a separate entity and important elements outside the group.

The remaining 14 characteristics comprise a fourth category that resides at the center of what courts find establishes leadership status. To courts, the gravamen of leadership is the control, organization, and responsibility for other group members.  Examples of characteristics in this category are that a leader inspires members to make sacrifices for the group, possesses decision-making authority within the group, carries ultimate responsibility for the group’s success, and resolves disputes within the group.

This Article concludes by noting this formal legal definition of leadership, given its basis in criminal sentencing, has generated a set of leadership characteristics all of which appear to enjoy the possibility of general applicability to a broad range of factual contexts including standard business settings, but still notes how very far the formal legal definition of leadership is from conventional definitions grounded explicitly in a moral, value-laden context.

April 28, 2016 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, April 21, 2016

"Slimy Sheldon Silver should serve substantial slammer stint, sentencing statement says"

An awesome, amusing, amazing alliteration about prosecutors' potent politico punishment proposal after federal fraud findings made for too good a title for me not to reuse the headline of this New York Daily News piece.  Here are the serious senetencing specifics:

Disgraced ex-Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver should serve more than 14 years behind bars for corruption — a longer term than any other state pol convicted of similar crimes, federal prosecutors argued Wednesday.

Silver, a Democrat convicted last November on seven corruption counts, should serve a sentence that reflects the “unprecedented magnitude, duration, and scope of his abuse of power,” Manhattan federal prosecutors said in the sentencing memo.

“It should reflect the immeasurable damage Silver caused to the democratic process and to the public trust. It should punish Silver for the vast harm he has caused and the position of trust that he exploited, deter other elected officials from the temptation towards corruption, and communicate to the public that the rule of law applies even to the most prominent of public officials.”...

Sentencing guidelines for Silver suggest a range from 262 to 327 months — that’s between 22 and 27 years — in a federal lockup. “The guidelines range is high because the United States Sentencing Commission explicitly has recognized the ‘threat to the integrity of democratic processes’ caused by public corruption offenses,” the feds wrote.

Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara’s office also said the hefty suggestion stemmed from “the many egregious aspects of the defendant’s crimes — including Silver’s role as a high-level public official, his engagement in multiple corrupt schemes, the millions of dollars in bribe money Silver took in, and his laundering of his crime proceeds.”

Bharara wants Silver, 72, to forfeit the $5.2 million he pocketed in the scheme and cough up “a substantial fine of at least $1 million is appropriate in this case, particularly in light of the defendant’s significant remaining resources and his more than $70,000-per-year pension, paid for by New York State taxpayers.”

Silver’s lawyers maintain in their sentencing memo that Manhattan Federal Judge Valerie Caproni should consider “a term of rigorous community service — whether as an alternative to incarceration, or as a component of an appropriate below-guidelines sentence” due to his age and poor health. "One letter after another — written with full awareness of the jury's verdict - from Mr. Silver's constituents, neighbors, friends, family, fellow Assembly members, and other government officials attest to his outstanding character and unrivaled contributions," they wrote in the memo, filed Wednesday.

Silver's lawyers went on to quote a key staffer who said that Silver "acted with integrity and exhibited a deep, consistent commitment to issues that he felt best served the public interest." They also quoted former Mayor David Dinkins as saying, "Mr. Silver has shown himself to be a person of integrity, committed to working in partnership on the side of New York City's citizenry."

April 21, 2016 in Celebrity sentencings, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Lots of interesting post-Booker guideline talk as federal defendant gets another sentencing win from SCOTUS

The Supreme Court today handed down its opinon this morning in Molina-Martinez v. US, No. 14-8913 (S. Ct. April 20, 2016) (available here), a little case about the application of plain error review of guideline calculation errors.  Excitingly, because the majority opinion authored by Justice Kennedy has lots of dicta about post-Booker sentencing, and because a concurrence by Justice Alito complains about some of that dicta, Molina-Martinez is now a must-read for all sentencing practitioners.  

I will likely have some further commentary about Molina-Martinez after I get a chance to read it thoroughly.  In the meantime, here are a couple of key passages from the majority opinion:

This case involves the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. In sentencing petitioner, the District Court applied a Guidelines range higher than the applicable one. The error went unnoticed by the court and the parties, so no timely objection was entered. The error was first noted when, during briefing to the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, petitioner himself raised the mistake. The Court of Appeals refused to correct the error because, in its view, petitioner could not establish a reasonable probability that but for the error he would have received a different sentence. Under that court’s decisions, if a defendant’s ultimate sentence falls within what would have been the correct Guidelines range, the defendant, on appeal, must identify “additional evidence” to show that use of the incorrect Guidelines range did in fact affect his sentence. Absent that evidence, in the Court of Appeals’ view, a defendant who is sentenced under an incorrect range but whose sentence is also within what would have been the correct range cannot demonstrate he has been prejudiced by the error....

The Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit stands generally apart from other Courts of Appeals with respect to its consideration of unpreserved Guidelines errors. This Court now holds that its approach is incorrect.

Nothing in the text of Rule 52(b), its rationale, or the Court’s precedents supports a requirement that a defendant seeking appellate review of an unpreserved Guidelines error make some further showing of prejudice beyond the fact that the erroneous, and higher, Guidelines range set the wrong framework for the sentencing proceedings. This is so even if the ultimate sentence falls within both the correct and incorrect range. When a defendant is sentenced under an incorrect Guidelines range—whether or not the defendant’s ultimate sentence falls within the correct range—the error itself can, and most often will, be sufficient to show a reasonable probability of a different outcome absent the error....

In the ordinary case the Guidelines accomplish their purpose. They serve as the starting point for the district court’s decision and anchor the court’s discretion in selecting an appropriate sentence. It follows, then, that in most cases the Guidelines range will affect the sentence. When that is so, a defendant sentenced under an incorrect Guidelines range should be able to rely on that fact to show a reasonable probability that the district court would have imposed a different sentence under the correct range. That probability is all that is needed to establish an effect on substantial rights for purposes of obtaining relief under Rule 52(b).

And here is the start of the concurrence authored by Justice Alito:

I agree with the Court that the Fifth Circuit’s rigid approach to unpreserved Guidelines errors is incorrect. And I agree that petitioner has shown a reasonable probability that the District Court would have imposed a different sentence in his case if his recommended Guidelines sentence had been accurately calculated. Unlike the Court, however, I would not speculate about how often the reasonable probability test will be satisfied in future cases. The Court’s predictions in dicta about how plain-error review will play out are predicated on the view that sentencing judges will continue to rely very heavily on the Guidelines in the future, but that prediction may not turn out to be accurate. We should not make predictions about the future effects of Guidelines errors, particularly since some may misunderstand those predictions as veiled directives.

April 20, 2016 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Saturday, April 16, 2016

US Sentencing Commission adopts a bunch of (large and small) federal sentencing guideline amendments

Late yesterday before I had to jump on an airplane, I watched online this scheduled public meeting of the US Sentencing Commission where a number of new guideline amendments were formally and unanimously passed by the USSC. The hour-long meeting included a few interesting comments by a few participants, and I was particularly struck by the Chair's comments (available here) that one proposed amendment concerning the animal fighting guideline engendered "more pieces of public comment on this amendment than any in the history of the Commission." (This USSC page with public comments includes this entry that reports that an ASPCA Form Letter was submitted by 48,116 citizens on this front that urges the Commission to act to "ensure higher sentences" for federal animal fighting offenses.)

This press release from the USSC provides this summary of the substantive work done by the Commission yesterday afternoon.  Here are excerpts:

The bipartisan United States Sentencing Commission (“Commission”) voted unanimously to amend the federal sentencing guidelines, including significant changes pertaining to immigration policy, compassionate release and animal fighting.

Based on the Commission’s data and public comment, the Commission voted to amend the illegal reentry guidelines. The promulgated amendment modifies the existing guideline by (1) eliminating the “categorical approach,” which has been a source of widespread complaints by judges, the Department of Justice, and others; and (2) recalibrating the guideline to account for prior criminal conduct in a more proportionate manner.  The newly adopted amendment adds a new tiered enhancement specifically aimed at criminal conduct occurring after a defendant reentered the country illegally, including prior illegal reentry offenses. The current base offense level for illegal reentry offenders will remain the same....

The Commission also amended the federal sentencing guidelines for alien smugglers, enhancing penalties for those who smuggle vulnerable unaccompanied minors.  Today’s amendment also makes clear that a four level sentencing enhancement applies for any smuggling case involving sexual abuse.

Separately, in response to Congressional changes to the Animal Welfare Act, the Commission’s own research and analysis, and nearly 50,000 citizen letters, the Commissioners also voted to strengthen the federal sentencing guidelines to better reflect the cruelty and violence associated with animal fighting offenses.  Specifically, the Commission voted to increase the base offense level for animal fighting offenses from a range of 6 to 12 months to a more serious range of 21 to 27 months.  The amendment also establishes a new, corresponding sentencing guideline range for anyone that attends an animal fighting venture with a minor under 16 years old.

In addition, the Commission strengthened and broadened the criteria for compassionate release with several meaningful changes. Congress charged the Commission with issuing policy statements describing what should be considered extraordinary and compelling reasons for a sentencing reduction.  As amended, federal inmates may be eligible for compassionate release based on four categories relating to medical conditions, age, family circumstances, or other extraordinary and compelling reasons.  The Commission’s action encourages the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to use its current authority if an eligible offender meets any of the circumstances defined by the Commission’s expanded criteria for compassionate release.

In addition, the Commission voted to resolve certain circuit conflicts, in the area of child pornography, as well as to strengthen provisions pertaining to probation and supervised release.  Finally, the Commission took action on necessary conforming, technical changes in response to recently enacted legislation.

A reader-friendly version of these amendments are available at this link, and I hope in some future posts to highlight the part of these amendments likely to be most consequential in the future.

April 16, 2016 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, March 31, 2016

"A Fatally Flawed Proxy: The Role of 'Intended Loss' in the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines for Fraud"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article authored by Daniel Guarnera now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Of all federal criminal defendants, those convicted of fraud are among the most likely to receive a sentence below the term recommended by the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines.  The most important (and controversial) driver of fraud sentences under the Guidelines is the economic loss — actual or intended, whichever is greater — resulting from the crime.

This Article examines the role of the “intended loss” calculation.  The U.S. Sentencing Commission designed the intended loss enhancement to function as a rule-oriented proxy for defendant culpability.  By applying the framework of rules and standards, this Article argues that culpability, by its nature, is too multifarious a concept to be accurately represented by a single variable.  Furthermore, a recently-enacted amendment to the definition of intended loss — which restricts its scope to losses “that the defendant purposely sought to inflict” — will only exacerbate the problem by excluding a significant subset of plainly culpable conduct.

Rather than attempt to fine-tune the intended loss calculation any further, this Article contends that the purposes of sentencing in general (and the goals of the Guidelines in particular) would be better served by enabling judges to conduct a more standard-based inquiry into the wide array of facts that can bear on culpability.  It evaluates several proposals that would give judges greater discretion while, at the same time, minimizing the risk of unwarranted sentencing disparities.

March 31, 2016 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thursday, March 17, 2016

"Easing Mandatory Minimums Will Not Be Enough"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable article in Judicature authored by one of my old bosses, Second Circuit Judge Jon O. Newman.  I recommend the full piece, and here is how it starts:

Congress is finally considering easing mandatory minimum penalties.  However, this effort, even if successful, will need to be complemented by actions taken by the United States Sentencing Commission and federal district judges.

If some mandatory minimum requirements are repealed or at least modified, there will be two immediate consequences.  First, prosecutors will be deprived of the awesome power to coerce a guilty plea by threatening to charge an offense that will subject a defendant to a mandatory minimum sentence.  Second, sentencing judges will be spared the often distasteful obligation to impose a required sentence that is more severe than the one they would have selected had they been free to use their sentencing discretion.

But these immediate consequences, desirable as they are, will be only the first of three steps needed to reduce the severity of sentences currently subject to mandatory minimum requirements.  The Sentencing Commission must take the second step of revising the Sentencing Guidelines, and then district judges must take the third step of using their authority to impose non-Guidelines sentences.

March 17, 2016 in Booker in district courts, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

US Sentencing Commission hearing on proposed immigration and other guideline amendments

Tomorrow, 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, and can be watched at this link.  I am hopeful that, as is the usual USSC practice, this webpage with the official agenda will eventually provide links to any and all submitted written testimony of the scheduled witnesses. 

Most of the conceptual and technical debate about guideline amendments this cycle are to be focused on the immigration guidelines, which have been subject to an array of criticisms over the years.  I will be especially interested to see what federal judges, practitioners and advocates have to say concerning the amendments that have been proposed by the USSC in this important arena.  As federal sentencing fans likely know, immigration cases are a huge part of the total federal criminal docket, especially in border states. Thus, any significant changes to the immigration guidelines is sure to have significant ripple effects throughout the entire federal criminal justice system.

March 15, 2016 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, March 13, 2016

"Feds want convicted journalist to serve 5 years, his lawyers ask for no prison time"

The title of this post is the headline of this interesting ArsTechnica article previewing an interesting federal sentencing scheduled for later this month in federal court in California.  Here are the particulars with all links from the original article to the parties' sentencing submissions and related materials:

Federal prosecutors have asked a judge to impose a sentence of five years against Matthew Keys, who was found guilty last year on three counts of criminal hacking under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.  That federal law, which was passed in 1984, was what the late activist Aaron Swartz was prosecuted under.  Last year, President Barack Obama called for Congress to expand prison sentences for those found guilty under this law.

Keys worked previously as an online producer for KTXL Fox 40, a Sacramento, California-based television station. Prosecutors argued that in December 2010, shortly after his dismissal, he handed over login credentials to a Tribune Media content management system (CMS), which allowed members of Anonymous to make unauthorized changes to a Los Angeles Times story. (At the time, both companies were both owned by Tribune Media.)  Those changes amounted to a short-lived prank: they lasted only 40 minutes, and there is little evidence that the prank was widely noticed. Criminal charges were not filed until March 2013.

Even after he was found guilty, Keys continued to deny the government’s narrative.  In a brief interview with Ars after his trial concluded, he described the prosecution’s theory as "total bullshit."

"A sentence of five years imprisonment reflects Keys’s culpability and places his case appropriately among those of other white-collar criminals who do not accept responsibility for their crimes," Matthew Segal, an Assistant United States Attorney, wrote in the Thursday sentencing memorandum.

In the 12-page filing, Segal explained that, although Keys initially "succeeded in deflecting suspicion away from himself," the FBI changed course after it reviewed chat logs found on the computer belonging to Wesley "Laurelai" Bailey, a former Anonymous member.  Those chat logs between Bailey and Ryan Ackroyd (aka "Kayla"), included a line where Kayla wrote: "Iol he's not so innocent and we have logs of him too, he was the one who gave us passwords for LA times, fox40 and some others, he had superuser on alot of media."  Segal explains further that Keys’ attack was "an online version of urging a mob to smash the presses for publishing an unpopular story," adding that Keys employed "means that challenge core values of American democracy."

Keys’ defense lawyers filed their own sentencing memorandum on Wednesday, asking the court to impose no prison time at all or go with a "non-custodial sentence."  The 69-page filing goes to great lengths to illustrate Keys lengthy history in journalism, going way back to his elementary school days when he edited the school bulletin.  "In recent years, Matthew’s sacrifices have paid off in the form of impactful journalism that has received national attention," wrote Jay Leiderman, his attorney, who has also worked on many other Anonymous-related cases.  "His stories have encouraged discourse, influenced policy and won the attention and accolades from his peers in the industry, public interest groups and even law enforcement officials."

Leiderman also notes that if the government’s recommendations stand, "[Keys] faces a far more severe sentence than any member of Lulzsec served.  60 months, which the Government seeks, would be more than any person engaged in hacking crimes during this period — by about double!"

I am a bit sorry I am not teaching my sentencing class this semester because the issues raised in this case and the parties' filing provide a great primer on guideline calculation disputes and the application of post-Booker sentencing jurisprudence based in the factors set forth in 3553(a). (I am teaching a 1L legal writing class in which students have to develop variance arguments for a white-collar offender, and I may urge my students to look at the parties' submissions for inspiration.)

March 13, 2016 in Booker in district courts, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, March 03, 2016

"This Morning’s Breakfast, Last Night’s Game: Detecting Extraneous Influences on Judging"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new empirical article on SSRN authred by Daniel Chen, which actually has some encouraging federal sentencing findings. Here is the abstract (with the sentencing story highlighted):

We detect intra-judge variation in judicial decisions driven by factors completely unrelated to the merits of the case, or to any case characteristics for that matter.  Concretely, we show that asylum grant rates in US immigration courts differ by the success of the court city’s NFL team on the night before, and by the city’s weather on the day of, the decision.  Our data including half a million decisions spanning two decades allows us to exclude confounding factors, such as scheduling and seasonal effects.  Most importantly, our design holds the identity of the judge constant.

On average, US immigration judges grant an additional 1.5% of asylum petitions on the day after their city’s NFL team won, relative to days after the team lost.  Bad weather on the day of the decision has approximately the opposite effect. By way of comparison, the average grant rate is 39%.  We do not find comparable effects in sentencing decisions of US district courts, and speculate that this may be due to higher quality of the federal judges, more time for deliberation, or the constraining effect of the federal sentencing guidelines.

March 3, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

"Judging Federal White-Collar Fraud Sentencing: An Empirical Study Revealing the Need for Further Reform"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper now available via SSRN authored by Mark Bennett, Justin Levinson and Koichi Hioki.  Here is the abstract:

White-collar federal fraud sentencing has long been fraught with controversy and criticism. As a result, the U.S. Sentencing Commission’s intensive multi-year examination of sentencing for fraud crimes generated tremendous interest among the Department of Justice, criminal defense organizations, the academy, and a wide-range of advocacy groups.  In November 2015, the Commission’s publicly announced proposed amendments became law without Congressional change.  These amendments, while commendable in process and purpose, fall short of sorely needed reforms that would serve to realign white-collar fraud punishments with legitimate penal justifications.  This Article portrays the recent historical tension between the Federal Sentencing Commission and federal judges, and presents the results of an original empirical study that demonstrates clearly the continuing need for significant reforms.

The Article begins by framing the problem of fraud sentencing within modern criminal law, and examines the statistical reality of economic crime sentencing since the 1980s, which has been increasingly characterized by downward departures from harsh recommend minimum sentences.  It then details an original empirical study we conducted on 240 sitting federal and state judges, just as the new sentencing guideline amendments were passing untouched through Congress.  This study presented judges with a realistic pre-sentence report for a multimillion-dollar economic crime, and asked judges to sentence the defendant.  We found that a remarkable 75% of federal district court judges sentenced the defendant to the precise minimum sentence of a possible seven year range.  The study further compared the judges’ sentences across judicial cohorts and evaluated the role of judges’ individual sentencing philosophies, age, religion, and the political party of the appointing president.  Despite a range of interesting differences in sentencing philosophy and self-reported attitudes found based on these factors, federal judges’ overwhelming agreement regarding minimum sentencing largely transcended their other differences.

The Article considers the results of the study in the context of the revised guidelines as well as scholarly reform suggestions, and offers five specific proposals to reform the guidelines, beginning with significant cuts to the so-called “loss table” as well as the specific offense characteristics that frequently lead to near-nonsensical sentencing guidelines.

February 24, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

What does (closet libertarian?) GOP front-runner Donald Trump now really think about the drug war and criminal justice reform and Prez clemency?

Based on his personal and professional history, as well as a number of his prior positions on a range of social and economic issues, I have long assumed the essential political views and commitments of Donald Trump to be what might be called "pragmatic libertarianism."  I say that in part because most successful private businessmen in the United States, in addition to being generally pragmatic, tend to have at least some hint of a libertarian streak on at least some issues (e.g., think of the Koch brothers or Peter Lewis).  More to the point, as I have flagged in prior posts here and  on my marijuana reform blog, Donald Trump once embraced the libertarian view that full legalization would be the only way to "win" the drug war.

But, of course, Donald Trump the Presidential candidate has sounded far more authoritarian than libertarian on the campaign trail, especially with respect to domestic issues.  He conveniently says that he has now changed his mind about abortion and thus now is pro-life rather than pro-choice.  He also has expressed in vaious ways disaffinity for marijuana legalization (though his position seems to get more and more nuanced as time goes on, as highlighted in posts here and here from my marijuana reform blog).  Then again, to the extent a single idea summarizes Trump's modern politics, it would seem to be "anti-establishment"; I think it is accurate to describe The Establishment, on both the left and the right, to be quite statist and generally anti-libertarian.  

I say all this not to claim that Donald Trump is the most libertarian candidate still with a serious chance to become President (although this might be true).  Rather, I say it in order to try to figure out whether, when and how the candidate now seemingly most likely to represent the GOP on the national stage for the bulk of 2016 will articulate his latest thinking about federal criminal justice issues ranging from statutory sentencing reform of mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders to federal responses to state marijuana legalization to the robust use of federal clemency powers.  

Obviously, how the last five or six US presidents have approached these federal criminal justice issues, both politically and practically, has had a huge impact on the nature and reach of our nation's federal and state criminal justice systems.   Before I can even figure out whether I should be terrified by the prospect of a President Trump, I really am eager to hear more about his current thoughts on these important criminal justice fronts.  Critically, not only would Trump's discussion now of these issues help me better understand long-term what would a President Trump might actually do, I think they could have a big short-term impact on the work of the current Congress and the current President (and even the current Supreme Court) in these areas.

With apologies for my (silly?) Prez Trump musings in the wake of his latest "yuge" win in Nevada, I am eager to hear lots of thought from lots on readers on this political and legal front.

February 24, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Pot Prohibition Issues, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

Monday, February 22, 2016

"The Use of Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 35(b)" to reward cooperators after initial sentencing

The quoted portion of the title of this post is the title of this notable new US Sentencing Commission research report and the second part of the title of this post is intended to highlight exactly why the first part of the title of this post is a sentencing story.  The 42-page report is data-rich, and here is the text of this USSC webpage providing background and noting some of the report's key findings:

This report examines sentence reductions for offenders who cooperate with the government in its efforts to investigate or prosecute others.  Offenders can receive credit for their “substantial assistance” in at least two ways; at the time of sentencing (USSG §5K1.1 departure motions) and after sentencing (Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 35(b) motions).  In both instances, the government must make a motion for a lower sentence.

This publication discusses the history and current use of Fed. R. Crim. P. 35(b).  It also presents data on the number of Rule 35(b) reductions and the jurisdictions where they are granted; the effects of Rule 35(b) reductions on sentences; and the offense and demographic characteristics of offenders who receive such reductions.  The report also compares the circumstances of offenders receiving Rule 35(b) reductions with those who received USSG §5K1.1 departures. 

Key Findings

A review of the 10,811 cases in which Rule 35(b) reductions were granted over the past six years suggests the following conclusions:

  • Rule 35(b) sentencing reductions are used relatively rarely, but a few districts make frequent use of Rule 35(b) sentencing reductions.  There is no clear data-based explanation for these differences, as these districts vary substantially from one another in overall case load, offense mix, and demographic composition.

  • Most offenders receiving a Rule 35(b) reduction were originally sentenced within the guideline range.  This suggests that courts are rarely departing or varying for reasons other than substantial assistance with this group of offenders.

  • Most offenders receiving a Rule 35(b) reduction were convicted of a drug trafficking offense that carries a mandatory minimum penalty.

  • Rule 35(b) sentencing reductions generally provide less benefit than do § 5K1.1 substantial assistance departures.  This general statement holds true whether the Rule 35(b) sentencing reduction is compared to the §5K1.1 substantial assistance departure in terms of the ultimate sentence length or by the extent of the reduction from the original sentence.  The relatively high number of Rule 35(b) offenders who are convicted of drug and firearms offenses, though, as well as the relatively high number of those subject to mandatory minimum penalties, suggests that these offenders may receive a lower reduction because they are more serious offenders.

  • Although Rule 35(b) sentencing reductions are usually less beneficial to offenders than are §5K1.1 substantial assistance departures, offenders who receive both a §5K1.1 departure and a Rule 35(b) sentencing reduction receive the largest overall reduction in their sentences, regardless of how that reduction is measured.

  • Offenders sentenced in jurisdictions that primarily use Rule 35(b) sentencing reductions overall receive less of a benefit for their substantial assistance than do offenders in jurisdictions that rely primarily on §5K1.1 departures or a combination of Rule 35(b) reductions and §5K1.1 departures.

February 22, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)