Tuesday, February 16, 2016

"Fifty Shades of Gray: Sentencing Trends in Major White-Collar Cases"

The title of this post is the title of this new Note appearing in the February 2016 issue of the Yale Law Journal authored by Jillian Hewitt and now available via SSRN.  Here is the abstract:

Between 1987 and 2005, federal judges sentenced defendants pursuant to binding Sentencing Guidelines that severely curtailed their discretion.  In United States v. Booker, the Supreme Court held the mandatory Guidelines sentencing scheme unconstitutional and rendered the Guidelines advisory.  This Note offers a picture of white-collar sentencing in “shades of gray.” It conducts an empirical analysis of sentencing decisions after Booker to assess the consequences of the return to judicial discretion.

In particular, the Note examines major white-collar cases in the Southern District of New York, where many such cases of national and international significance are prosecuted.  The Guidelines instruct judges in white-collar cases to calculate the amount of economic loss attributable to the defendant and apply a sentencing enhancement — often a sizable one — on the basis of that loss.  The findings reveal that a significant majority of defendants in these cases receive sentences of imprisonment shorter than those recommended by the Guidelines.  Moreover, when judges impose sentences below the Guidelines range, the resulting sentences are often dramatically shorter than those produced under the Guidelines.

Based on these findings, this Note argues that the U.S. Sentencing Commission should revise its approach to white-collar cases in three ways.  The Commission should amend the Guidelines to reduce the severity of the economic loss table; calculate economic “loss” differently; and add additional, though less severe, enhancements to punish pecuniary gain and intended loss.  Absent such changes, judges will — and should — continue imposing sentences far below the Guidelines range.  These proposed changes better capture the seriousness of the offense and the culpability of the offender, even if they do not resolve the fundamental tension between individualized sentencing and the rigid quantification that characterizes the Guidelines system.

February 16, 2016 in Booker in district courts, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, February 12, 2016

Another federal child porn downloader gets another non-prison sentence in the EDNY

A helpful readers alerted me to this notable Newsday report concerning a notable federal sentencing this morning in the Eastern District of New York headlined "Ex-police investigator gets home detention for child porn." Here are the details:

A former investigator with the New York State Police stationed on Long Island was sentenced to 9 months of home detention Friday in a child porn case.  Sean Michael Pagano of Mount Sinai could have been sentenced to between 46 months to 57 months in prison under federal sentencing guidelines after he pleaded guilty to one count of accessing child pornography.

Pagano, at the time stationed at Troop L in East Farmingdale, was arrested in April by FBI agents after he was accused of accessing a website in Alaska and downloading child pornography.  The arrests came after agents raided a house in Anchorage that served as a base for the distribution of child pornography and took over the site, collecting information on who was involved in the site.

“I take full responsibility for my actions,” Pagano said Friday, tearing up as he spoke in Central Islip federal court.  “I am sorry. . . . Helping people was my main goal in life.”

Before sentencing Pagano, U.S. District Judge Arthur Spatt said he was balancing the “seriousness” of the crime with his otherwise “outstanding” career. There is “certainly no danger to society or anyone and he is probably truly remorseful,” Spatt said.

Eastern District Assistant U.S. Attorney Allen Bode had asked for a significant sentence, noting that Pagano, as a state trooper, had gone along on raids involving child pornography with FBI agents on Long Island who normally deal with such cases.  Bode said as a result of Pagano’s relationship with agents on Long Island FBI agents from the city had to work on the case.

Before sentencing, Pagano’s attorney Joseph Conway of Mineola described his client as having a distinguished career in the Marine Corps and with the State Police. Pagano has since resigned from the State Police. His position was the equivalent of being a detective....

At the time of his arrest, Pagano claimed he was investigating child pornography. But State Police officials said that that was not correct and he had been assigned to investigating narcotics.

Though I am disinclined to assert that there is a full judicial revolt with respect to the federal sentencing of child pornography offenders in the Eastern District of New York, I do think it quite notable and significant that this is the third significant report of a federal judge in EDNY refusing to accede to the arguments by federal prosecutors that a downloader of child pornography has to be imprisoned (prior coverage here and here and linked below).

Notably, in the course of this discussion at Crime & Consequences in the wake of Judge Jack Weinstein's recent similar sentencing ruling in US v. RV (discussed here), Bill Otis stated his view that there are "very, very few CP cases that actually reach indictment in which a zero [prison] sentence would be acceptable."  Though I am not sure I completely agree with that sentiment, I do find the imposition of only home confinement in this case especially notable (and perhaps distinctly questionable) because the defendant here was, according to this press article, a "state trooper [who] had gone along on raids involving child pornography with FBI agents on Long Island,"  and when arrested "Pagano claimed he was investigating child pornography."  In other words, it appears that the CP downloader here had a unique position of trust AND aggravated his crime by obstructing justice when he was first caught.  Those aggravating factors lead me to wonder think federal prosecutors might be uniquely eager to appeal this case to the Second Circuit, though I would need to know a lot more about the extent and nature of the child porn downloaded by Pagano before making any predictions about whether such an appeal might prevail.

Recent related posts about child porn sentencing in EDNY:

February 12, 2016 in Booker in district courts, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8)

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Based on Johnson, split Fifth Circuit panel finds another simlar provision of federal law is unconstitutionally vague

A helpful reader alerted me to a notable new split ruling handed down by the Fifth Circuit yesterday in US v. Gonzalez-Longoria, No. 15-40041 (5th Cir. Feb. 10, 2016) (available here). Here is how the majority opinion gets started:

In this appeal, we address for the first time whether 18 U.S.C. § 16’s statutory definition of “crime of violence” is unconstitutionally vague.  We consider this question in the light of the Supreme Court’s recent holding that a similar provision of the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) is unconstitutionally vague.  Johnson v. United States, 135 S.Ct. 2551 (2015).  In Johnson, the Court held that the ACCA violated the constitutional prohibition against vague criminal statutes by defining “violent felony” as any crime that “is burglary, arson, or extortion, involves the use of explosives, or otherwise involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another.” 18 U.S.C. § 924(e)(2)(B).  Section 16 contains a similar definition: a “crime of violence” is “any other offense that is a felony and that, by its nature, involves a substantial risk that physical force against the person or property of another may be used in the course of committing the offense.”  The Seventh and Ninth Circuits have both held that this language is sufficiently similar to the ACCA’s language to suffer the same unconstitutional fate.  United States v. Vivas-Ceja, 808 F.3d 719, 720 (7th Cir. 2015); Dimaya v. Lynch, 803 F.3d 1110 (9th Cir. 2015). We agree, and accordingly hold § 16 unconstitutional.

And here is how the dissent gets started and sums up its differing analysis of Johnson's impact here:

It is the uncertainty that charms one. A mist makes things wonderful.” Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray. Perhaps true for Oscar Wilde, but not in the criminal law, where too much uncertainty denies defendants fair notice and permits arbitrary enforcement of the laws. See Kolender v. Lawson, 461 U.S. 352, 357-58 (1983)....

In summary, we should not strike Congressional law, 18 U.S.C. § 16(b), because, first, the concerns raised by the Court in Johnson with respect to ACCA’s residual clause are less implicated by Section 16(b); second, because Leocal is precedent only the Supreme Court should adjust; and, third, because Section 16(b) does not involve the interplay of interpretative method and statutory text causing the double indeterminacy that was the due process muddle rejected in Johnson.  Gonzalez-Longoria was on sufficient notice that his prior crime of Assault Causing Bodily Injury with Prior Conviction of Family Violence is one society condemns as violent because it involves a substantial risk that, in the course of its commission, force will be used against another.  I dissent.

February 11, 2016 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Senator Tom Cotton forcefully (and somewhat thoughtfully) makes his case against the current version of SRCA 2015

23992166449_9ff10a5a94As reported previously in this post and now again via this new piece from The Hill, a number of Senators are in the midst of a robust conversation about the merits of and concerns about the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (which I have called SRCA 2015 since its introduction last fall).  Of particular note and importance (and as noted in this prior post), Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton seems to be taking a leading role raising concerns about the current version of the SRCA, and I am now pleased and impressed that Senator Cotton has provide a thorough articulation of his concerns through this new Medium commentary titled "The Current Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act is Dangerous for America," and also through this extended speech delivered yesterday on the Senate Floor.

The Medium commentary, which is relatively short, does not do much more than emphasizethe anti-federal-sentencing-reform points already forcefully and repeatedly expressed by the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys and Bill Otis and others who have been consistent opponents of any changes to the current federal sentencing status quo.  But the Senate floor speech is much, much longer and, in my view, in spots much, much more thoughtful in discussing the SRCA and his own perspectives about federal sentencing reform.  I highly recommend all persons following federal sentencing reform to read Senator Cotton's lengthy floor speech in full, and here are some of the (many) passages that has led me to describe it as forceful (and somewhat thoughtful):

Today, I want to discuss the Sentencing Reform & Corrections Act that has been voted out of the Judiciary Committee. There is much debate about the wisdom of this bill.  That is, like most bills we discuss in this chamber, a judgment call. But there cannot be debate over the facts of this bill. We have to be very clear on what this bill, by its own text, is designed to do....

By its text, the bill will not just apply to so-called "non-violent offenders," but to thousands of violent felons and armed career criminals who have used firearms in the course of their drug felonies or crimes of violence.

By its text, the bill will reduce sentences not for those convicted of simple possession, but for major drug traffickers, ones who deal in hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of heroin or thousands of pounds of marijuana.  And let's be clear: drug trafficking is not "non-violent," as the bill's proponents often claim.  It's an industry that's built on an entire edifice of violence, stretching from the narcoterrorists of South America to the drug-deal enforcers on our city streets. If you think dealing drugs on a street corner while armed with a gun is a "non-violent" offense, you probably live in a rich suburb or a gated community....

It's been reported that the bill's sponsors are preparing to release a revised bill, one that would address some of these many shortcomings.  Regarding this news, I first want to thank the sponsors for acknowledging that the bill as passed by committee does in fact apply to serious drug traffickers and other violent felons.  I look forward to evaluating the new legislative text, and I hope it addresses these problems....

The [US Sentencing] Commission first reduced sentencing guidelines in 2007.  It did so again in 2010. And again in 2014. That is three major systemic sentencing reductions in the span of seven years. The result?  46,000 federal convicts will walk from jail early.  Wendell Callahan was one among that 46,000.  There will be many more like him. And while we pray — against all odds — that none of them go on to commit a triple-murder like Wendell Callahan did, or any other heinous crime, I'm afraid our prayers will go unanswered, at least in part.

The Sentencing Commission is an independent judicial agency that provides uniform sentencing guidance to judges. Congress didn't have a hand in those sentencing reductions.  But with the Sentencing Reform & Corrections Act, the Senate would impose a fourth major sentencing reduction within eight years — one that is deeper and broader than the reductions imposed by the Sentencing Commission.

This is badly misguided.  The Senate would be launching a massive social experiment in criminal leniency without knowing the full consequences of the first three reductions imposed by the Sentencing Commissions.  This experiment threatens to undo the historic drops in crime we have seen over the past 25 years....

The Senate, and the American people, need to consider any change to our sentencing laws with full information.  We need to know if this sentencing-leniency bill will return us closer to the days of the `70s and `80s when our cities were besieged by the drug trade, and whole communities were being rotted out as a result.  We need to debate sentencing changes with all the data available to us.  We need to do this with eyes wide open.

That is why today — together with Senators Hatch, Sessions, and Perdue — I am introducing the Criminal Consequences of Early Release Act.  This is a simple, but very needed bill.  It will require the federal government to report on the recidivism rates of the 46,000 federal inmates to be released early under the Sentencing Commission's reductions.  And it will require the same reporting for any prisoners released early under any future reductions passed by Congress.

The report required by this bill will make clear how many crimes are being committed by released felons.  It will make clear what types of crimes — from drug trafficking to assault to robbery to murder — are being committed by these felons. And it will make clear in which states these crimes are occurring.

Currently, this type of data is extremely hard to compile.  It is not reported by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, and any information we do have comes through anecdotes and sporadic media reports.  Full information on the criminal consequences of early release must be published in detail.  Before voting on any bill to reduce sentences, the members of this chamber need to understand fully the criminal consequences of prior sentence reductions....

I want to be clear.  To those who support the Sentencing Reform & Corrections Act, we are not in full disagreement. Like you, I oppose jail for first-time drug users with no prior record.  It's vanishingly rare for such offenders to be prosecuted and jailed in the federal system.  But it remains true that the better option for them — particularly if they are addicts — would be drug treatment.  Like you, I believe that our prisons should not be an anarchic jungle that is a danger to both prisoners and corrections officers.  Like you, I believe that those prisoners who will someday complete their sentences and re-enter society should be given the chance to rehabilitate and redeem themselves while in prison so that they do not recommit crimes once they are released.  Like you, I do believe that there exists the possibility of an unjust sentence, one that is so out of proportion that it shocks the conscience.

So I suggest, let's work on that bill.  Let's work on a bill that identifies and addresses all first-time drug possession inmates in the federal system, but keeps drug traffickers and other violent offenders in prison to finish their sentences.  Let's improve prison conditions and give prisoners a shot at redemption and a better life.  And, if you wish, let's work on a bill to speed the consideration of commutation applications.

If we want to undo unjust sentences, we can help the president use his constitutional power of pardon and commutation as a precise scalpel to identify and remedy those rare cases of manifestly unjust sentences.  But what we should not do is use the blunt instrument of releasing thousands of violent felons and major drug traffickers.  The president has the constitutional power to remedy unjust sentences.  But you know what power he doesn't have?  The power to bring back to life the victims murdered by prisoners who are released early or sentenced inadequately.

There are a number of statements in the parts of this speech quoted above with which I could take serious issue. In particular, Congress always has authority to block any and every formal decision by the US Sentencing Commission, and the crack-guideline reductions of 2010 were essentially mandated by Congress in the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010. Consequenlty, it is not accurate for Senator Cotton to assert that "Congress didn't have a hand in those sentencing reductions" to drug sentences promulgated by the USSC in recent years. More generally, to assert in blanket terms that "drug trafficking is not 'non-violent'," is no better than asserting in blanket terms that "drug trafficking is non-violent." Some federal drug-traffickers in some settings are extremely violent in doing business. But I have not heard of much violence taking place in all the stores now selling a whole lot of marijuana in Colorado and other states, and I surmise that the ability to purchase this drug in a safe environment is one reason marijuana sales seem to keep going up and up in a number of states.

But, critically, even though Senator Cotton sometimes favors rhetoric over reality in this speech, the basic themes and many particulars he stresses are an important and valuable contribution to the broader debate over federal sentencing reforms. In particular, Senator Cotton is 100% right that our national data on the recidivism rates and realities of federal offenders — not only with respect to those who get sentence reductions, but also for the entire released offender population — leave a lot to be desired and raise more questions than answers. (Indeed, as some readers likely know well, the very term "recidivism" is subject to various definitions in various settings.) I could not agree more with Senator Cotton's statement that the "Senate, and the American people, need to consider any change to our sentencing laws with full information." Indeed, I have long thought that many of our worst federal sentencing laws enacted in prior decades — e.g., the 100-1 crack/powder disparity, some of our most severe gun possession mandatory minimums — were passed largely based on misinformation about their reach and likely impact.

In addition, I think Senator Cotton merits praise for urging his colleagues to "improve prison conditions and give prisoners a shot at redemption and a better life," and especially for suggesting "work on a bill to speed the consideration of commutation applications" in order to "help the president use his constitutional power of pardon and commutation as a precise scalpel to identify and remedy those rare cases of manifestly unjust sentences." As long-time readers know, many sentencing reform advocates (myself included) have been advocating for Presidents of both parties to make much broader and more constitent use of the "constitutional power of pardon and commutation." I think it is both quite heartening and significant that now the Senate's most vocal opponent of proposed sentencing reforms is sincerely calling for President Obama (and future presidents) to use the clemency power to remedy any and all federal sentences that appear to the President to be "manifestly unjust."

February 10, 2016 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8)

Sunday, February 07, 2016

FSR accounting of state of federal sentencing reform efforts at end of 2015

1.cover-sourceAs I try to provide here a "real-time" account of certain ups-and-downs with various federal statutory sentencing reform bills, I too rarely find the time to provide a more reflective accounting of what is afoot in this important criminal justice reform space.  Helpfully, my Federal Sentencing Reporter co-editor, Frank Bowman, has spent time recently assembling in FSR's pages some primary documents and cutting-edge commentary on this front.  Here is part of an email Franl authored providing a description of what he has put together for FSR:

For anyone interested in the details of the various pending pieces of legislation and analysis of the practical impact of the bills that have made it through the House and Senate Judiciary Committees, I commend you to the latest issue of the Federal Sentencing Reporter (Vol 28, No. 2), which contains the text or summaries of the various bills, as well as commentaries. 

In particular, for an overview and impact analysis, see my article, Good Enough to Be Getting on With? The State of Federal Sentencing Reform Legislation, December 2015.  The FSR issue also contains excellent work by Nora Demleitner of Washington & Lee and Paul Hofer, formerly of the Sentencing Commission and now with the Federal Defenders sentencing project, which can be found at this link. Here is the abstract of Frank's article linked above:

This Article addresses the current status of the push for federal sentencing and corrections reform, and describes and analyzes all of the major pieces of sentencing and corrections reform legislation pending in the United States Congress at the close of 2015.  In particular, it considers the Justice Safety Valve Act of 2015, the Smarter Sentencing Act of 2015, the SAFE Justice Act of 2015, and the most likely candidate for passage -- the Senate's Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 (SRACA) and its counterpart in the House.  The Article discusses the merits and deficiencies of each bill, and estimates the likely effect of each on the population of current and future federal defendants and inmates.

The Article notes that the legislative proposals have become less expansive as the session has progressed, with each succeeding bill more cautious than the last.  The final section of the Article considers whether the result of Congress's efforts will be worthy of support by those who favor significant federal sentencing and corrections reform.  It concludes that, on balance, the front-end sentencing provisions of the legislation most likely to pass (SRACA) are "good enough to be getting on with," but that the back-end corrections measures with the most current legislative backing ought to be reconsidered and improved.

February 7, 2016 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Second Circuit panel laments the "Statement of Reasons" form used by sentencing judges

A helpful reader made sure I did not miss the interesting sentencing opinion handed down by the Second Circuit yesterday in US v. Pruitt, No. 14‐1921 (2d Cir. Feb. 1, 2016) (available here).  Authored by District Judge John Gleeson sitting by designation, here is how the Pruitt opinion gets started:

Kaylon Pruitt appeals from the May 29, 2014 judgment of conviction entered against him in the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York (Suddaby, J.).  Pruitt was sentenced principally to a 46‐month term of imprisonment on his plea of guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g).  He contends that the district court committed procedural error during his sentencing by failing to explain the reasons for the sentence, as required by 18 U.S.C. § 3553(c).

We affirm but write to suggest to the United States Sentencing Commission and the Judicial Conference of the United States that the Statement of Reasons form included within the statutorily‐required form for the entry of criminal judgments ‐‐ Form AO 245B ‐‐ be amended to bring it into conformity with § 3553(c) and Supreme Court precedent.  Specifically, a check‐a‐box section of the form, which was checked by the district court in this case, invites sentencing judges to impose a sentence within the applicable Guidelines range simply because the judge finds no reason to depart.   Because that both undermines the statutory obligation to state the reasons for every sentence and unlawfully presumes the reasonableness of the advisory Guidelines range, the form should be amended.

In a final notable footnote, the Pruitt opinion takes a notable shot at the US Sentencing Commission:

The form as a whole seems designed to encourage judges to sentence within the range.  A path of least resistance is clearly marked, and it is consistent with the Commission’s overall approach to sentencing in the post‐Booker era.  In United States v. Booker, 543 U.S. 220 (2005), the Supreme Court held that the mandatory guidelines system was incompatible with the Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury, and it accordingly severed the provision of the Act that made the Guidelines mandatory.  The Sentencing Commission has since repeatedly asked Congress to enact legislation requiring sentencing courts to give greater weight to the Guidelines range than Booker and its progeny permit.  The specific proposals include laws that would require sentencing judges give “substantial weight” to the advisory Guidelines range and require appellate courts to accord a presumption of reasonableness to within‐range sentences.  Thus, the objectionable part of Statement of Reasons form may reflect the law as the Commission wants it to be.

February 2, 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 (6)

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Judge Jack Weinstein disregards severe federal child porn guidelines again

A helpful reader alerted me to this notable local story describing the latest notable child porn downloading sentence imposed by US District Judge Jack Weinstein.  The piece is headlined "Judge Gives Man 5 Days for Child Porn, Rails Against Harsh Sentences," and here are excerpts:

A Brooklyn man who faced 10 years for downloading child pornography was sentenced to five days by a federal judge who sharply criticized punishment guidelines for failing to distinguish between dangerous offenders and those who pose little threat.

U.S. District Judge Jack Weinstein wrote a 98-page decision explaining why he bypassed the guidelines and chose not to put the man in prison for possessing two dozen photos and videos — some showing men sexually assaulting girls as young as 3 years old, according to court papers.  "Removing R.V. from his family will not further the interests of justice," Weinstein wrote, using the defendant's initials. "It will cause serious harm to his young children by depriving them of a loving father and role model and will strip R.V. of the opportunity to heal through continued sustained treatment and the support of his close family."

His opinion, first reported in the New York Law Journal, is the latest salvo in a war over whether penalties for possessing child pornography have gotten too harsh.  The existing guidelines, Weinstein wrote, do not "adequately balance the need to protect the public, and juveniles in particular, against the need to avoid excessive punishment."

The defendant, who agreed to speak to NBC News on the condition his name was not used, said he was surprised and relieved that Weinstein was so lenient after his guilty plea.  "I prayed to God and took my chances," the 53-year-old father of five said.  "I feel very remorseful. It's something that will never happen again."

But child-abuse victims' advocates said they were appalled by Weinstein's reasoning. "I think Judge Weinstein's opinion minimizes the harm that is done to victims of these crimes from the mere act of viewing their images. It's a gross violation of privacy and an invasion of privacy that traumatizes them throughout their lives," said Paul Cassel, a former federal judge who is now a law professor at the University of Utah.

In 2013, investigators remotely connected to the man's computer and downloaded four photos and videos showing men engaged in sexual acts with girls, including a 3-year-old and a 5-year-old, and they seized more porn on thumb drives with a search warrant, court papers said. The man also had "sexual" chats with underage girls online, but there was no evidence he sought physical contact with minors. When he pleaded guilty, the defendant said he understood the charge carried up to 10 years behind bars. Based on the specifics of his case, the federal guidelines called for a sentence of 6.5 to 8 years in prison.

But Weinstein thought that was too much time for an offender who did not make, swap or sell child porn or try to abuse children. He said the five days the man served before making bail, plus seven years of court supervision and a fine, were punishment enough. The judge noted that the man was undergoing sex offender treatment and was deemed unlikely to relapse and that a psychiatrist testified he was not a danger to his own or other children. He also noted that the Internet has made child pornography accessible to a much wider group of Americans who might not otherwise have been exposed to it.

The man — who lost his $75,000-a-year job as a restaurant manager after his arrest — told NBC News that he stumbled on child pornography while consuming legal, adult pornography online. "I just got caught up in it," he said. "It's not like I woke up and said, 'Listen, let me look at this stuff.' It kept popping up every time I was downloading."

Weinstein is among a group of federal judges who have argued that sentencing ranges for possessing child pornography — which were doubled by Congress in 2003 — are too severe. The federal bench handed down sentences below the guidelines 45 percent of the time, the Associated Press reported in 2012. Those who favor tougher sentences point out that while many consumers of child pornography may not never lay a hand on a child, some do. And all, they say, play a role in a system that promotes the abuse of children....

Jennifer Freeman, an attorney who represents child-porn victims in efforts to obtain restitution, called Weinstein's opinion "a diatribe" and said he was using the particulars of one case to indict the entire sentencing structure. "He's basically saying it's not worth too much punishment," she said, adding that she did not want to comment on whether the man Weinstein sentenced deserved more time than five days.

That man said that he had done something wrong and was ashamed of it but that locking him up would not have served any purpose and would have "put my family living out on the street."

"It should be illegal," he said of child pornography. "No child should be put through that process." But he added, "I would never physically do anything. I never had even a thought of it."

I will need to track down and review closely Judge Weinstein's lengthy opinion in this case before I would feel comfortable weighing in on this specific sentencing decision. But I already can state that I am sure federal prosecutors involved in this case are sure to feel quite uncomfortable when trying to decide whether to appeal this sentencing decision to the Second Circuit as unreasonable.

Assuming Judge Weinstein did not disregard any applicable mandatory minimum statute nor made any other clear doctrinal error, federal prosecutors might have a hard time establishing on appeal that Judge Weinstein's exercise of his post-Booker discretion in this case was unreasonable (especially in light of the Second Cicuit's significant 2010 Dorvee ruling which stressed the "irrationality" of the child porn guidelines).  But a decision by federal prosecutors not to appeal this sentence might be viewed, perhaps properly, as a tacit admission by the government that a non-prison sentence can be appropriate in some child porn downloading cases.

UPDATE:  A helpful reader sent me a copy of Judge Weinstein's sentencing opinion in this case, so I can now provide it here for downloading:  Download US - v- RV weinstein sentencing opinion

January 30, 2016 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (24)

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

"Congressionally Mandated Task Force Calls for Bold Transformation of Federal Corrections System"

CCTFThe title of this post is the headline of this press release which summarized the contents and import of a new report released this morning by the Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections.  Here are excerpts from the press release (which includes a link to the report):

Today, the Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections issued a set of bold recommendations to reform the federal justice system, enhance public safety, and save the government billions of dollars. In a new report, Transforming Prisons, Restoring Lives, the Congressionally mandated blue-ribbon panel released the findings of its year-long investigation into the nation’s overcrowded and costly federal prisons....

“We have laid out a detailed roadmap of ambitious, consensus-based recommendations that place public safety first while reserving prison for those who truly need it,” said task force chair, former Republican congressman from Oklahoma J.C. Watts, Jr. “If taken together, these reforms are projected to reduce the federal prison population by 60,000 people in the coming years and save more than $5 billion.”

Congress established the bipartisan panel in 2014 in response to mounting concerns about the scale and cost of the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), which currently houses 197,000 people with a budget of almost $7.5 billion this year. Alan Mollohan, the task force’s vice-chair, said that the seven-fold increase in the BOP’s population since the 1980s is unsustainable. 

"The BOP has been operating at crisis levels for decades," said Mollohan, a former Democratic congressman from West Virginia. "As a result, its policies and practices have not kept up with best practice in the field, presenting a missed opportunity to rehabilitate those who are confined in federal prisons and thus promote public safety.”...

In the report, the task force recommends that the federal justice system move away from its current “one size fits all” approach to meting out punishment and delivering treatment and programs. Instead, they advise that sentencing decisions and correctional responses be based on the individual case–an approach grounded in research evidence as the most effective means of reducing recidivism.

Observing that prison is expensive and imposes tremendous harm to individuals, families, and communities, the Task Force recommends that prison sanctions be used sparingly and long terms of incarceration be reserved for only the most serious federal crimes. They advise incentivizing participation in programs that are proven to lower recidivism and increase the odds of success for individuals reentering society. And, in following the example of successful reforms in states like Texas, Utah, Georgia, South Carolina, and Pennsylvania, they advocate for a more diversified, evidence-based approach to criminal justice that delivers public safety at less cost.

In more specific terms, the Task Force recommends that:

  • Mandatory minimum penalties for drug offenses should be reserved for “drug kingpins”–those found to have served a leadership role in a large cartel;
  • Program and treatment participation in prison should be incentivized through earned time off one’s sentence; and
  • The BOP should better assess the risks, needs, and assets of its population and align programming and treatment accordingly to reduce recidivism and enhance public safety.

Along with the release of this important report, J.C. Watts, the chair of the Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections, authored this Washington Post commentary headlined "Prisons are full of low-level offenders. It’s time to rethink federal sentencing laws.: Americans believe in redemption, but for too long, our reflexive reliance on incarceration has left us little room to show it."

January 26, 2016 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

What lessons are to be learned from California's recent experiences with sentencing reform?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable new post authored by Michael Rushford at Crime & Consequences (and supplemented by Bill Otis) titled "Congressional Supporters of Sentencing Reform Need to Look at California."  As regular readers know, I have long pointed to California as a state to watch closely in the sentencing reform arena, and thus I am pleased to see this post urging federal legislators to look at California's modern reform experiences.  But while the C&C folks seem to think the California experience should lead Congress to back away from proposed statutory sentencing reforms, I see many of the problems emphasized by the C&C folks to be a result of the abject failure of California's legislature to respond wisely with statutory reforms when there was an obvious need to improve its sentencing structures.

I have previously highlighted some of these California realities in this extended 2014 post titled "Can and should California's enduring CJ problems be blamed on those who've long opposed a state sentencing commission?".  In that post, I stressed that while the tough-on-crime crowd over at C&C is eager to blame recent California developments on recent sentncing reform required by a federal court order in Plata and resulting from voter initiatives, it was this same tough-on-crime crowd that vehemently opposed and effectively blocked efforts to create a California sentencing commission to deal proactively and systematically with the state's enduring sentencing problems before they became so acute that federal court intervention was required.

The critical part of the California reform story left out from the C&C discussion is that the California legislature from 2005 to 2010 completely failed to respond in any sound way to sensible calls by sentencing reformers to deal with the state's unconstitutional prison overcrowding and the statutory sentencing problems aggravating these problems.  The court orders requiring prisoner release in Plata and the voter-approved sentencing reforms passed in subsequent elections were the direct result of federal courts and Californian voters no longer being able to trust the state's elected representatives to move responsibly forward with needed state statutory sentencing reform.   

In some ways, this potentially problematic, reactive-reform dynamic is already playing out in the federal sentencing system.  For example, the US Supreme Court has been saying in various ways for many years that Congress needed to fix various problems with the Armed Career Criminal Act.  Congress long failed to respond, and we ultimately get the Justices in Johnson striking down the ACCA statute as partially unconstitutional (which will now require the release of many offenders previously sentenced as armed career criminals).  Similarly, the US Sentencing Commission and the US Department of Justice have been saying in various ways for many reasons that Congress needs to address record-high federal prison populations.  I suspect the USSC concluded, after Congress failed to heed its repeated calls for broad statutory reforms, that it had to do something big itself (with DOJ's support) and thus voted unanimously to reduce guideline sentences for all drug offenses across the board and to make these reforms retroactive.

Now, after years of failing to heed calls by sentencing reformers (and the bipartisan US Sentencing Commission) to get ahead of statutory sentencing problems, much of Congress (now led by the GOP) has seemingly come to realize that failing to deal proactively and systematically with sentencing and corrections reform could produce even more long-term problems and challenges.  But, yet again, the tough-on-crime crowd at C&C and elsewhere is vehemently opposed to a legislature moving forward proactively and systematically with enduring statutory sentencing problems before we get to a crisis point and other actors feel compelled to get involved due to legislative inaction.

January 26, 2016 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Monday, January 25, 2016

GOP empire striking back against federal sentencing reform efforts in Congress

TomCottonThis new Politico article, headlined "Cotton leads effort to sink sentencing overhaul: A cadre of conservative Republicans is lining up against the bipartisan measure, imperiling its future," reinforces my long-standing concern that the prospects of significant statutory sentencing reform emerging from Congress gets dimmer every week that passes without movement forward on the bills that have made it through the judiciary committees.  Here is the first part of the article:

Sen. Tom Cotton, the hawkish upstart who's already made waves railing against the Iran nuclear deal and government surveillance programs, is now leading a new rebellion against a bipartisan effort to overhaul the criminal justice system — hoping to torpedo one of the only pieces of major legislation that could pass in President Barack Obama’s final year.

GOP tensions over a bill that would effectively loosen some mandatory minimum sentences spilled over during a party lunch last week, when Cotton (R-Ark.), the outspoken Senate freshman, lobbied his colleagues heavily against the legislation, according to people familiar with the closed-door conversation. The measure passed the Senate Judiciary Committee last fall with bipartisan support.

“It would be very dangerous and unwise to proceed with the Senate Judiciary bill, which would lead to the release of thousands of violent felons,” Cotton said later in an interview with POLITICO. “I think it’s no surprise that Republicans are divided on this question … [but] I don’t think any Republicans want legislation that is going to let out violent felons, which this bill would do.”

Cotton isn’t alone. Other Senate Republicans, including Sens. Jim Risch of Idaho and David Perdue of Georgia, also registered their strong opposition during the lunch, even as Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) vigorously defended the bill, which he helped negotiate. Risch stressed this message, according to one Republican source: Shouldn’t the GOP be a party of law and order?

Risch declined to elaborate on his concerns over the bill, saying he was displeased that his private remarks made during a party lunch were made public. But the deepening Republican split over reforming key elements of the criminal justice system — an effort years in the making that has been powered by an influential right-left coalition — may imperil whether Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell ultimately will take up the measure later in this election year.

Conservatives opposing the legislation are coalescing around Cotton’s view — despite strong pushback from bill supporters — that the measure could lead to the early release of people convicted and imprisoned for violent crimes. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), once a supporter of easing mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenders, has also made this argument. And there’s stiff resistance in pockets of the Republican Party to do anything that may erode its tough-on-crime reputation.

Backers of the bill say their changes to sentencing laws merely allow qualifying inmates to have their cases revisited by the same judge and prosecutor who landed them in prison. The judge would then have the discretion to hand down a reduced sentence. “It’s not true,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) of opponents’ insistence that violent criminals could be freed under the sentencing reforms. “I’d say, please read the bill and listen to people like [former Attorney General] Michael Mukasey who makes the point, which is a critical point, that there’s no get-out-of-jail-free card.”

But that perception, hardening among conservatives, is a serious obstacle for supporters of the bill like Cornyn, who as the Senate’s second-ranking Republican is the most influential GOP backer of the criminal-justice measure. And last week, McConnell — who is often hesitant to press ahead on issues that divide his 54-member conference — indicated a breather of sorts on the bill, saying GOP senators would take some time to get educated on the measure.

Those comments discouraged some supporters, since any major pause could spell doom for the bill this year. In a couple of months, the GOP-led Congress will turn its attention to its top legislative priority — budget and appropriations bills — while individual lawmakers shift into full campaign mode. “Members of the Judiciary Committee have been deeply involved on that issue, the rest of us have not,” McConnell told reporters of criminal justice reform. “So we’re going to be working through the process of bringing everybody in the Republican Conference up to speed on this very important issue, and we’re going to do that before any decision is made about floor time.”

The criminal justice overhaul isn’t limited to sentencing reforms. The measure also includes reforms to the prison system championed by Cornyn and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) — changes that Cotton said he supports. And overhaul efforts also are complicated by the issue of so-called mens rea reform, with House Republicans and some GOP senators — including Orrin Hatch of Utah, the most senior Senate Republican — demanding changes to rules governing criminal intent.

But the sentencing changes are triggering the biggest — and most vivid — rift among Republicans. Cotton and other Republicans pointed to a triple murder earlier this month in Columbus, Ohio, where a man is accused of killing an ex-girlfriend and two of her children. The suspect, Wendell Callahan, had his prison sentence on drug charges reduced twice for a total of more than four years, according to The Columbus Dispatch.

January 25, 2016 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, January 14, 2016

"More Prison, Less Probation for Federal Offenders"

The title of this post is the title of this short Pew Charitable Trusts "Fact Sheet" publication which includes a graph highlighting how many more federal offenders are sentenced to prison and how many fewer get just probation in recent years.  Here is the heart of the text of the document (with my emphasis added):

Over the past three decades, imprisonment has become the dominant sanction in the federal criminal justice system. Nine in 10 federal offenders received prison sentences in 2014, up from less than half in 1980, as the use of probation declined steadily. (See Figure 1.) Federal courts sentenced 2,300 fewer offenders to probation in 2014 than in 1980, even though their caseload nearly tripled during that span.

Changes in the kinds of offenses and offenders prosecuted in federal court may have contributed to the shift toward prison and away from probation. But sentencing policies established during the 1980s and 1990s also played an important role by mandating prison time for many offenses for which probation had routinely been ordered in the past.

Congress increased imprisonment and decreased the use of probation in several ways. During the 1980s and 1990s, for example, lawmakers enacted dozens of laws prohibiting probation and requiring prison terms for many common federal crimes, including drug trafficking and illegal firearms possession.

In 1984, Congress created the U.S. Sentencing Commission, an independent agency within the judicial branch, and charged it with establishing guidelines that federal judges were required to follow during sentencing. The guidelines, which were intended to promote consistency in federal criminal penalties and took effect in November 1987, mandated imprisonment for a variety of offenses — including fraud, embezzlement, and tax evasion — for which probation was a routine sanction in the past.

January 14, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (5)

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

"'Not Ordinarily Relevant': Bringing Family Responsibilities to the Federal Sentencing Table"

The title of this post is the title of this notable Note, which I just happened across, authored by Emily Anderson and recently published in the Boston College Law Review. Here is the abstract:

Incarceration results in negative social, psychological, and economic impacts on an inmate’s family and dependents. These impacts last well beyond the period of incarceration and can cause lifelong challenges.  Federal statutes require courts to consider mitigating factors while calculating a sentence, including a defendant’s characteristics. Family ties and responsibilities are considered an aspect of a defendant’s characteristics.  Yet the Federal Sentencing Guidelines significantly limit the extent to which courts can use family ties and responsibilities to reduce or alter a defendant’s sentence.

This Note first argues that the Guidelines should be amended to indicate that courts can consider family ties and responsibilities when determining a sentence.  This Note then argues that Rule 32 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure should be amended to require that a family impact assessment be incorporated into each presentence investigation report to provide courts with information about a defendant’s family ties and responsibilities.

January 13, 2016 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (22)

Monday, January 11, 2016

Plain and Prejudice and Zombie Guideline Errors

51clhdJZUyL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The title of this post is the cheeky title I suggested for this SCOTUSblog argument preview I wrote up concerning Molina-Martinez v. United States, a case to be argued before the Justices tomorrow morning.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, the sensible SCOTUSblog folks went with a more descriptive title: "Argument preview: Justices take on 'plain error' review and guideline-range mistakes.  But I could not resist using my silly title in this space because it has literary/theatrical flair and Molina-Martinez concerns whether appellate courts conducting Plain error review should presume Prejudice upon discovery of a guideline calculation mistake that was buried until appeal (a Zombie Guideline Error).  Though I recommend heading over to SCOTUSblog for all the gory details on this case, here is how my SCOTUSblog argument preview starts and ends:

Before modern reforms, federal sentences were essentially unreviewable on appeal. This reality resulted largely from the absence of substantive federal directives for district judges in exercising their sentencing discretion. A defendant — or a prosecutor, for that matter — was hard pressed to complain on appeal that a sentence was premised on a legal error when no sentencing laws structured what sentences district judges were to impose within wide statutory sentencing ranges.

Through passage of the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, Congress brought law to federal sentencing. The SRA created the U.S. Sentencing Commission to promulgate sentencing guidelines directing how federal judges impose sentences. The Guidelines Manual now runs more than 500 pages and requires district judges to parse intricate provisions to calculate an “offense level” and a “criminal history score” to determine a defendant’s recommended guidelines sentencing range. Federal sentencing is now so chock full of so much law, it is inevitable that federal judges sometimes make technical mistakes in calculating a defendant’s proper guideline range. On January 12, the Supreme Court in Molina-Martinez v. United States will hear argument concerning how the courts of appeals should approach “plain error” review of guideline calculation errors not noticed until appeal....

The Supreme Court has not always broken into traditional conservative and liberal blocks in recent and older cases addressing the intersection of guideline-calculation issues and the application of the federal rules of criminal procedures.  However, in part because Molina-Martinez is not the most sympathetic of defendants, and because a number of current Justices may have deep reservations about adopting any doctrine that might be seen to water down the traditionally tough standards of plain-error review, it seems likely Molina-Martinez’s counsel will have an uphill battle convincing the Court to adopt the prejudice presumption he is seeking.

January 11, 2016 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Friday, January 08, 2016

US Sentencing Commission promulgates "Johnson fix" guideline amendment and proposes many other notable amendments

As noted in this recent post, today the US Sentencing Commission conducted a public meeting at which it was scheduled to "Vote to Promulgate Proposed Crime of Violence Amendment" and to "Vote to Publish Proposed Guideline Amendments and Issues for Comment." I suggested that these two agenda items could be a very big deal for federal sentencing fans; after watcing the meeting online, I now think the slate of new proposed guideline amendments that the USSC just unanimously voted to publish may be an even bigger deal than the "crime of violence" amendment that was also just officially promulgated by the USSC.

I say this because,

(1) on the crime of violence guideline amendment front, the USSC's new promulgated amendment (a) seemingly seeks to codify the best prior jurisprudence concerning what offenses should be enumerated as violent priors in the career offender guideline while eliminating the vague residual clause essentially blown up by the SCOTUS Johnson decision, and (b) seemingly will not be given retroactive effect because doing so could prove almost administratively impossible. Meanwhile....

(2) on the other proposed guideline amendment front, the USSC appears to be proposing potential amendments to a number of the most controversial and consequential amendments that it had not addressed in prior recent amendment efforts.  Specifically, it seems that the USSC, after having adjusted the drug and fraud guidelines in the last two amendment cycles, now is ready and eager to consider at least some significant tweaks to the immigration and child pornography guidelines.

Because it is not easy to fully assess the potential import and impact of all the USSC action today simply by watching the public meeting live, I am hopeful that some follow-up documents will soon be available on the Commission's website so that all federal sentencing fans can fully understand and assess all of today's action.  But, even before we see any official accounting of today's USSC efforts, I am eager to compliment all the members and staff of the Commission for reminding me that at least some inside-the-Beltway folks can conduct (and complete) critically important and consequential government work in an efficient and bipartisan manner (and on a Friday afternoon, no less).  Kudos to the USSC!

UPDATE: I just got an official email from the US Sentencing Commission that included this text and links:

At today’s public meeting, the U.S. Sentencing Commission unanimously voted to adopt an amendment relating to the definition of “crime of violence” in the Career Offender and other federal sentencing guidelines (press release). This amendment was the result of a multi-year study prompted by concerns and problems relating to the definition of “crime of violence.” The amendment, which eliminates the so-called “residual clause,” was informed by the recent Supreme Court case, Johnson v. United States, issued in June 2015. Read the adopted amendment.

In addition, the Commission proposed an amendment on immigration offenses which would recalibrate the guidelines to ensure more proportional sentences that reflect the totality of the circumstances in a particular case. The Commission also proposed amendments that would allow for higher penalties for animal fighting offenses. An update to the Commission’s policy statement pertaining to compassionate release was also proposed. Read all of the proposed amendments and issues for comment.

January 8, 2016 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11)

Thursday, January 07, 2016

US Sentencing Commission slated to vote on "Johnson fix" guideline amendment and promulgate other proposals

As detailed in this official notice, the United States Sentencing Commission has "a public meeting of the Commission ... scheduled for Friday, January 8, 2016, at 1:00 p.m....  This meeting will be streamed live."  Here is the agenda (with my emphasis added):

These last two agenda items could be a very big deal, depending on what the USSC has in the works.

January 7, 2016 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, December 24, 2015

"Child Pornography Sentencing in the Sixth Circuit"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new papaer by Carissa Byrne Hessick now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

This Symposium Essay explores and analyzes the Sixth Circuit’s approach to child pornography sentencing.  It critiques the Sixth Circuit’s decision to apply heightened scrutiny to below-Guideline sentences for child pornography possession.  In addition to presenting a critique of the Sixth Circuit’s cases, the Essay also provides guidance for defense attorneys seeking a below-Guidelines sentence.  It notes that there are particular strategies those attorneys should follow in order to secure not only a more lenient sentence from a district court judge, but also a sentence that is more likely to be upheld by the Sixth Circuit on appeal.

During the course of this discussion, the Essay identifies and criticizes three significant features of the Sixth Circuit’s cases in this area.  First, it notes that the Sixth Circuit is the only circuit to have adopted heightened appellate review of below-Guideline sentences for child pornography possession.  Second, it explains that the Sixth Circuit appears to be developing a common law of sentencing in child pornography cases; such a common law is contrary to the language and the logic of the Supreme Court’s Sixth Amendment sentencing cases.  Finally, it explains that the Sixth circuit has failed to give appropriate deference to district court decisions to sentence below the Guidelines based on facts and circumstances of particular cases.

December 24, 2015 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, December 14, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

You be the judge: what federal sentence for beloved elderly preist who embezzled half-million dollars?

Fatheredwardbelczakashxjpg-79869763239fae48This local article, headlined "Dozens ask judge for mercy in sentencing of embezzling Detroit-area Catholic priest," provides the interesting backstory for an interesting federal sentencing scheduled for late today. Here are the basics:

A beloved Catholic priest in Troy was scorned when allegations came forth that he embezzled more than $500,000 from church coffers.  Rev. Edward A. Belczak, 70, admitted to diverting $572,775 collected by the church, most of which he kept in a secret private bank account.  He also spent $109,570 to purchase a Florida condo in 2005.

Despite the admissions, dozens of people, including many of the parishioners he defrauded, have come forward to ask for a lenient sentence on behalf of the priest who headed St. Thomas More church in Troy from 1984 until 2013. He's scheduled to be sentenced Tuesday.

Belczak pleaded guilty to mail fraud as part of the plea agreement. In exchange, the U.S. Attorneys Office dismissed more serious charges and asked U.S. District Judge Arthur J. Tarnow to sentence Belczak to just over three years in prison.

Attorney John J. Morad, a friend and supporter of the priest, thinks any prison time is too much. "He made a terrible mistake and I know that he is embarrassed, ashamed and humiliated by the fact that he disappointed so many people who have grown to love and respect him for the work he has done among the people," Morad wrote in a letter to the judge. " ... I know he has confessed his sins and I'm certain God has forgiven him. Should we do anything less?"

The defense has asked for home detention, while sentencing guidelines call for a prison term of between 33 and 41 months.  The theft from the church is believed to have occurred between 2004 and 2012.

UPDATE This Detroit Free-Press article about the sentencing of Father Belczak report on the basic outcome via its headline: "Embezzling priest gets 27 months: 'It's .. my destiny'"

December 1, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (12)

Monday, November 23, 2015

US District Judge Bennett finds legal limit to giving retroactive effect to new lower federal drug sentencing guidelines

Regular readers know that US District Judge Mark Bennett regularly produces thoughtful and thorough opinions on an array of cutting-edge federal sentencing issues.  The latest Judge Bennett opus arrived today via US  v. Feauto, No. CR 12-3046-MWB (D. Iowa Nov. 23, 2015) (available for download below).  As this start to the Feauto opinion reveals (with lengthy footnotes left out and breaks added), Judge Bennett's latest work likely means a not-so-happy Thanksgiving week for at least on federal defendant:

Before me for consideration is defendant Randy Feauto’s eligibility for a sentence reduction under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2) in light of Amendment 782, the “All Drugs Minus Two Amendment,” to the United States Sentencing Guidelines.  The parties and the Federal Defender for the Northern and Southern Districts of Iowa, as invited amicus curie, argue that a defendant subject to a mandatory minimum sentence who previously received a “substantial assistance” reduction below that mandatory minimum can be resentenced pursuant to Amendment 782 without regard to the mandatory minimum.  That position was originally music to my ears, because I have consistently — and vehemently — disagreed with the harshness of most mandatory minimum sentences.  In fact, in most of the over 1,000 congressionally-mandated mandatory minimum sentences that I have imposed over the past twenty-two years, I have stated on the record that they were unjust and too harsh.  I would often inform or remind defendants and their families and supporters in the courtroom that reform of mandatory minimum sentencing must come from the legislative branch of our federal government — Congress.

So it is with significant irony, but consistent with my view that only Congress has the authority to waive mandatory minimum sentences (with the exception of substantial assistance motions, pursuant to § 3553(e) and FED. R. CRIM. P. 35(b), and “safety valve” eligibility, pursuant to § 3553(f)), that I disagree with the parties’ argument that the Sentencing Commission has the authority to use Amendment 782, or any other amendment to the Sentencing Guidelines, to “nullify” a mandatory minimum sentence established by Congress.  For the reasons set forth below, my understanding is that only Congress itself, not the Sentencing Commission or the Judicial Branch, has that power.  Consequently, the proper net effect of Amendment 782, applied either retroactively or prospectively, is that it can only reduce the sentence of a defendant who originally received a reduction for substantial assistance if he had no mandatory minimum or both his original guideline sentence and his amended guideline sentence are above his mandatory minimum.  Feauto is not such a defendant.

I fully recognize that, like the vast majority of mandatory minimum sentences themselves, this construction leads to a harsh result, but fidelity to the rule of law and principles of non-delegation and separation of powers trumps any personal views on the harshness of federal sentencing.  As discussed below, the construction urged by the parties and amicus creates an Alice In Wonderland like scenario in which the retroactive application of Amendment 782 opens a rabbit hole that Feauto, instead of Alice, falls through and receives a lower sentence in Wonderland than if he were originally sentenced today for his crime with the application of post-Amendment 782.  Surely, this Mad Tea Party scenario creates the very kind of unwarranted disparity the guidelines were intended to avoid.

Download Feauto.Final Opinion.final.112315

November 23, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, November 16, 2015

Sentencing prominent federal defendants: should sex offender Jared Fogle or Sunwest CEO fraudster get longer prison term?

Two notable (and notably different) federal prosecutions are to reach sentencing this week in Indiana and Oregon.  Though the crimes and defendants are not similar, the range of sentences being requested by prosecutors and defendants in these two cases are comparable.  Via press reports, here are the basic elements of these two federal cases (with links to some underlying documents):

Jared Fogle, who pleaded guilty to federal sex offenses, "Jared Fogle asks for 5-year prison term in court filing before sentencing":

Jared Fogle's attorneys asked for a five-year prison term for the former Subway restaurant pitchman in a court filing before his sentencing Thursday.  The filing says Fogle will speak publicly during his hearing before Judge Tanya Walton Pratt in federal court in Indianapolis.  "He is painfully aware of the fact that he has impacted the lives of minor victims, hurt those closest to him and, for all practical purposes, destroyed the life he worked to build over the last 18 years," the filing says.

Fogle has agreed to plead guilty to two counts: possession of child pornography and traveling across state lines to engage in sex with a minor.  The prosecutor is asking for 12½ years in prison, followed by a lifetime of supervised probation.  That was the maximum sentence the U.S. attorney had agreed to seek in a plea bargain struck with Fogle in August. Fogle faced a maximum sentence on the two federal felony charges of 50 years.  The judge has discretion to sentence Fogle to more or less than what the prosecution has requested.

The defense filing acknowledges that the advisory sentencing guideline is 135 to 168 months, but said it is "entitled to little weight because it is the result of a flawed and widely criticized set of … provisions."

Jon Michael Harder, who pleaded guilty to federal fraud offenses, "Former Sunwest CEO, facing sentencing for $130 million fraud, apologizes for 'carnage and problems'":

U.S. prosecutors accuse former Sunwest Management CEO Jon Michael Harder of orchestrating the biggest investment fraud in Oregon history, and they are asking a judge to sentence him to 15 years in prison.  IRS criminal investigators say that as the head of a vast network of assisted living centers, he helped make off with $130 million from 1,000 investors between 2006 and 2008.

Harder will go before a judge Monday morning for a rare two-day sentencing hearing before U.S. District Judge Michael H. Simon, who found him guilty last January of mail fraud and money laundering.  

Harder's legal team, seeking leniency, is asking Simon to sentence him to five years in prison. Assistant Public Defender Christopher J. Schatz took the unusual step of filing a court declaration that describes his client as possibly suffering from undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder from the emotional clubbing he took after Sunwest's failures.  "Many of the investors in Sunwest were family members, family friends and members of the Seventh Day Adventist community," Schatz wrote. "Mr. Harder feels that he let all the investors down, that he failed them all."  

Harder, too, filed a court paper — a letter of apology to Simon.  "I feel incredibly badly for all the carnage and problems that I have caused," he wrote. "I have obsessed, over the last 7 ½ years, about what I should have or could have done differently in operating Sunwest."

government sentencing memo paints Harder as a chief executive who burned through corporate cash as if it were his own. He drove luxury cars, owned six homes, and once flew about 100 people to Alaska — most of them Sunwest employees — to go fishing.

Intriguingly, it seems that the federal sentencing guidelines would call for a much, much longer sentence for the fraudster than the sex offender: while Jared Fogle appears to be facing a guideline sentencing range of roughly 12 to 14 years, Jon Harder appears to be facing a guideline sentencing range of life without the possibility of parole.

November 16, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Federal prosecutors seeking plea-deal max sentence of 12.5 years for Jared Fogle

As reported in this local article, headlined "Prosecutor to ask court to sentence Jared Fogle to 12.5 years," the feds have filed their sentencing recommendations in the child sex prosecution of former Subway pitchman Jared Fogle. Here are some of the details via the press report:

A court filing by prosecutors in advance of Jared Fogle's sentencing next Thursday tells the judge she must send a message to others involved in child exploitation.  Fogle, the former Subway pitchman, has agreed to plead guilty to two counts: possession of child pornography and traveling across state lines to engage in sex with a minor.

The prosecutor is asking U.S. District Judge Tanya Walton Pratt to sentence Fogle to 12-1/2 years in prison, followed by a lifetime of supervised probation.  That was the maximum sentence the U.S. Attorney had agreed to seek in a plea bargain struck with Fogle in August.  Fogle faced a maximum sentence on the two federal felony charges of 50 years.  The judge has discretion to sentence Fogle to more or less than what the prosecution has requested.

"Persons with a sexual attraction to young children may be difficult to deter, but these sentences matter," the document said.  "These offenders frequently communicate with each other online and they are concerned about the law enforcement efforts. "In many ways, the results of these cases help to deter and teach by example.  There is no avoiding the point that, whatever the result, in this matter, it will be closely watched by current and potential offenders who have not yet been identified."

The document said that Fogle "repeatedly expressed sexual fantasies concerning children to multiple persons," but despite exhaustive investigation, "no victims under the age of 18 years could be specifically identified from those victims already charged in this case."  Prosecutors have identified 14 victims.  Prosecutors said in the filing that they were trying to prevent more trauma to the victims in a high-profile case that has already caused "substantial anguish."

"A public trial would only have made this process of healing even more protracted and difficult, without changing the outcome," the filing said. Among the new information in the court filing:

• Fogle paid for sex from adults "on hundreds of occasions."

• Some of the commercial child pornography he had, which prosecutors believe was produced in Eastern Europe, included actual or simulated sexual intercourse by children as young as 6.

• Russell Taylor, former head of Fogle's foundation, who has also agreed to plead guilty to child porn charges, gave minors drugs, alcohol and money to induce them into sex acts. Two of the minors were 14 years old.

Taylor will be sentenced Dec. 10. In his case, prosecutors agreed not to seek a sentence of more than 35 years in prison.  Taylor agreed not to ask for less than 15 years in prison.

The new court filing said that Fogle rationalized his viewing of child porn made by Taylor. Because Taylor was going to secretly produce the material anyway, "he might as well benefit from the production by seeing the results, which interested him."

Prosecutors noted that Fogle had a "good childhood" and that his wife, who has filed for divorce, "had no idea he was doing any of these things."

Prior related posts:

November 12, 2015 in Booker in district courts, Celebrity sentencings, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (16)

"Who Gets Time for Federal Drug Offenses? Data Trends and Opportunities for Reform"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new data analysis from The Urban Institute.  Here are snippets from the start and end of the short and reader-friendly report:

Almost half (45 percent) of the 95,305 individuals in federal prison for drug offenses are in the lowest two criminal history categories, indicating minimal prior convictions and a low risk of recidivism.2 In fact, over one-quarter (26 percent) have no prior criminal history.

Further, over three-quarters of all individuals in federal prison for drug offenses have no serious history of violence before the current offense. More than half have no violent history, and nearly a quarter have minor histories of violence, such as a simple assault and other crimes that do not typically lead to serious injury....

At the end of the FY 2014, individuals serving drug sentences accounted for 49 percent of the total federal prison population. Though recent policy changes have helped reverse upward trends in population size, the Urban Institute’s Federal Prison Population Forecaster shows that continuing population declines will require significantly shorter lengths of stay for drug offenses.  Congressional leaders are considering legislative action that would reduce some mandatory minimum penalties and grant judges greater discretion to sentence individuals to shorter prison stays for drug offenses.  While the exact impact of these bills is unknown, lasting reductions in the size of the federal prison population will only come from big cuts in lengths of stay for drug offenses.  The Task Force will be considering such reforms as part of its deliberations and expects to build on the efforts under way in Congress.

November 12, 2015 in Data on sentencing, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (1)

Saturday, November 07, 2015

Thanks to retroactive drug guidelines, federal prison population under 200,000 for first time in nearly a decade

I was pleased to discover from this webpage providing a weekly updating of the official federal prisoner headcount that, for the first time in nearly a decade, the federal prison population is now officially under 200,000.  I believe that the official count last week was around 205,000, and thus it would seem that this milestone was achieved officially as a result of the implementation of the first set of drug-2 retroactivity early prisoner releases.

I have heard talk in various settings of an interest in having the federal prison population down eventually to 150,000 (which, I believe, would still have the facitlities officially a bot above their standard capacity).  I think the passage and effective implementation of the bipartisan federal sentencing reform bills now in Congress would likely go a long way to getting to that goal in a responsible way.     

November 7, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, November 06, 2015

"How Federal Judges Contribute to Mass Incarceration and What They Can Do About It"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article by US District Judge Lynn Adelman and his clerk Jon Deitrich now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Talk of reforming federal sentencing law by eliminating some mandatory minimum sentences is much in the air. The fact is, however, that many federal offenders are unnecessarily imprisoned in cases where there is no mandatory minimum.

This article attempts to expand the conversation about excessive imprisonment by discussing first how the federal sentencing guidelines place far too much emphasis on prison and far too little on sentences served in the community. Next, we discuss federal judges' excessive attachment to the guidelines despite their deep flaws and even after the Supreme Court has made clear that judges are free to reject them. Finally, we propose an approach to federal sentencing that is much less deferential to the guidelines and places much more emphasis on 18 U.S. § 3553(a), the parsimony statute, which requires judges to impose the least punitive sentence necessary to achieve the goals of sentencing.

November 6, 2015 in Booker in district courts, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Thursday, November 05, 2015

US Sentencing Commission hearing about how to fix Johnson problems in sentencing guidelines

As this webpage reports, this morning the US Sentencing Commission is holding a public hearing in Washington, DC "to receive testimony from invited witnesses on proposed amendments to the federal sentencing guidelines."  This hearing is being live-streamed here, and this hearing agenda now has links to all the scheduled witnesses' written testimony.

Helpfully, the start of this written testimony from the first witness, Judge Irene Keeley, Chair, Committee on Criminal Law of the Judicial Conference of the United States, provide a useful overview of what the USSC is working on:

On behalf of the Criminal Law Committee of the Judicial Conference of the United States, I thank the Sentencing Commission for providing us the opportunity to comment on proposed changes to the sentencing guidelines definitions of “crime of violence” and related issues.  The topic of today’s hearing is important to the Judicial Conference and judges throughout the nation.  We applaud the Commission for undertaking its multi-year study of statutory and guideline definitions relating to the nature of a defendant’s prior conviction and the impact of such definitions on the relevant statutory and guideline provisions. We also thank the Commission for considering whether to promulgate these guideline amendments to address questions that have been or may be raised by the Supreme Court’s recent opinion in Johnson v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 2551 (2015).

The Judicial Conference has authorized the Criminal Law Committee to act with regard to submission from time to time to the Sentencing Commission of proposed amendments to the sentencing guidelines, including proposals that would increase the flexibility of the guidelines.  The Judicial Conference has also resolved “that the federal judiciary is committed to a sentencing guideline system that is fair, workable, transparent, predictable, and flexible.”

As I discuss below, the Criminal Law Committee is generally in favor of the Commission’s proposed amendments, particularly those intended to address or anticipate questions raised by Johnson.  As you know, the definition of the term “crime of violence” for purposes of the career offender guideline has been the subject of substantial litigation in the federal courts.  We support any efforts to resolve ambiguity and simplify the legal approaches required by Supreme Court jurisprudence.  Additionally, our Committee has repeatedly urged the Commission to resolve circuit conflicts in order to avoid unnecessary litigation and to eliminate unwarranted disparity in application of the guidelines.  The Commission’s proposed amendment would reduce uncertainty raised by the opinion while making the guidelines more clear and workable.  

With regard to the proposed guideline amendments concerning issues unrelated to Johnson, the Committee generally supports or defers to the Commission’s recommendations.  The Committee opposes amending, however, the current definition of “felony” in the career offender guideline. Finally, the Committee supports revising other guidelines to conform to the definitions used in the career offender guideline to reduce complexity and make the guidelines system more simple and workable. 

November 5, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, October 30, 2015

Prez candidate Hillary Clinton now talking abut equalizing crack and powder federal sentences

Flip-flop-Hillary-Long-time readers with a very good memory and those who have followed the debates over crack/powder federal sentencing for a very long time may recall that earliy in the 2008 Prez campaign, candidate Hillary Clinton came out opposed to retroactive implementation of the small reduction in crack guideline sentences that the US Sentencing Commission completed in 2007.  Here are a few posts from eight years ago on this blog on that topic:

I raise this notable federal crack sentencing history concerning Hillary Clinton because of this notable new Wall Street Journal article headlined "Hillary Clinton Calls for Equal Treatment in Cocaine Sentencing." Here are excerpts:

Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton is calling for equal treatment in sentencing drug offenders who use crack and powder cocaine, part of her agenda for overhauling the criminal justice system. She’s also reiterating her support for a ban on racial profiling by law enforcement officials.

A Clinton aide said she would announce the proposals on her trip Friday to Atlanta, where she plans to address a Rainbow PUSH Ministers’ lunch hosted by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, and where she will appear at a rally to launch African Americans for Hillary, a group supporting her campaign.

Mrs. Clinton’s support among African-Americans is strong and has remained so even through a rocky summer that saw her poll numbers fall with many other voters. Black voters play a significant role in certain Democratic primary states, including South Carolina, which hosts the third nominating contest, and throughout the South, where primaries are set for March 1....

Her approach to criminal justice issues in this campaign is notably different from the tone she took both as first lady and as a U.S. senator, and reflects a growing political consensus that the crackdown on crime that was in full force when Bill Clinton was president has gone too far....

On Friday, she will lay out two specific ideas, with more proposals coming next week, the campaign aide said. First, she’ll propose eliminating disparities in sentencing for people caught with crack and powder cocaine. In 2010, President Barack Obama signed legislation that reduced the sentencing disparity. Until then, to be charged with a felony, crack users had to possess just five grams of the drug, but powder cocaine users needed to be found with 500 grams, a 100-to-1 disparity.

A majority of crack offenders are black, whereas whites are more likely to be caught with powdered cocaine, leading to a dramatic racial disparity in punishment. The gap dropped to 18-to-1 under the 2010 legislation, with the threshold for crack rising to 28 grams. But advocates say that isn’t enough.

The ACLU called the 2010 legislation a “step toward fairness” but said more was needed. “Because crack and powder cocaine are two forms of the same drug, there should not be any disparity in sentencing between crack and powder cocaine offenses—the only truly fair ratio is 1:1,” the group said.

The campaign aide said Mrs. Clinton would support further increasing the threshold for crack offenses so it meets the existing powder cocaine guidelines.

As a senator, Mrs. Clinton supported reducing the disparities between sentencing for crack and powder cocaine. But as a presidential candidate in 2007, she opposed making shorter sentences for crack offenders retroactive, a position that put her to the right of other Democratic candidates. This time, she supports making the change retroactive.

October 30, 2015 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, New USSC crack guidelines and report, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (15)

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Did former House Speaker Hastert get a sweetheart sentencing deal from federal prosecutors?

The question in this post is prompted by this lengthy new Politico article headlined "Hastert's sweet deal: Lawyers question whether federal prosecutors are following guidelines." Here are excerpts:

House Speaker Dennis Hastert’s guilty plea in a hush-money case has some lawyers asking whether the former speaker is getting a sweetheart deal.

At a court hearing in Chicago Wednesday, the prosecution and defense unveiled Hastert’s plea bargain under which he admitted to a felony charge of structuring $952,000 into 106 separate bank withdrawals to avoid federal reporting requirements. The two sides agreed that sentencing guidelines call for Hastert to receive between zero and six months in jail.

But legal experts say those guidelines arguably call for a much longer sentence—closer to two to three years or more, including a potential enhancement for obstruction of justice. And some lawyers say they’re baffled that prosecutors would buy into a calculation that opens the door to Hastert getting a sentence of probation. “It seems like a sweet deal,” University of Richmond law professor Carl Tobias said. “It’s just hard to understand.”

The indictment in the case also charged Hastert with lying to the FBI about what he did with the money, concealing that he paid it to a longtime associate in an effort to hide past misconduct. In the plea deal, Hastert admitted to misleading the FBI, but prosecutors agreed to drop the false statement charge....

The agreement between prosecutors and Hastert’s defense that the zero-to-six-month sentencing range is applicable to his case is not the end of the matter. A probation officer will also calculate the range and could disagree with the parties. Durkin will ultimately decide what the guidelines call for. Under the plea deal, Hastert retains the right to appeal the sentence to the 7th Circuit.

Under a 2005 Supreme Court decision, the judge is required to consult the guidelines but he can impose a more or less severe sentence. Experts in structuring cases say judges often sentence below the guidelines, especially in so-called “clean money” cases where the government does not allege that the funds were the product of illegal activity like drug dealing or were being used to avoid taxes.

"The sentencing guidelines for clean-source money cases are totally out of whack," the ex-prosecutor said. "It's insane to sentence someone for a purely regulatory violation as severely if not more severely than someone who defrauded someone out of $952,000. Having said that, there are a good measure of bad acts here, so maybe there would be some rough justice in it."

Prosecutors have alleged that Hastert paid the $952,000 in illegally structured withdrawals to a longtime associate because of Hastert’s past misconduct against that person, identified in court filings only as “Individual A.” Sources have alleged the behavior involved sexual contact with a male student while Hastert was a coach and high school teacher several decades ago, but the indictment does not mention any sexual aspect to the charges.

Experts say Hastert could not be charged or sued today over such acts years ago because the relevant statutes of limitations have expired. Lawyers say a key factor in Hastert's ultimate sentence could be whether Durkin decides Hastert's underlying misconduct is relevant for the purpose of sentencing on the bank reporting charge.

Criminal defense attorney Michael Monico, who co-authored a handbook on federal court practices in Illinois and the greater Midwest, said Durkin will want to know Hastert's motivation for paying out the $3.5 million and the exact nature of the behavior he was trying to hide.

"If I were the judge I would ask about it, I would want to know. I would want to know, what was he hiding?" Monico said. "I think that’s the number one question in the case: Is it relevant to his sentencing what Hastert did to this fellow decades ago? If it isn’t relevant, then probation is OK. If the conduct was despicable then it’s not an appropriate sentence. It seems to me that’s a question the judge has to answer."

October 29, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8)

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Great Hastings Law Journal coverage of federal sentencing circa 2015

Earlier this year, I had the honor of participating in a Hastings Law Journal symposium on federal sentencing reform a decade after Booker.  During the live event back in February, I thought that the written product of the symposium would be terrific if it captured even just a small piece of the many ideas developed during the live event. This current issue of Hastings Law Journal has these resulting articles, and they are all terrific:

Keynote Address: Federal Sentencing Reform Ten Years After United States v. Booker by Hon. Charles Breyer

Merit-Based Sentencing Reductions: Moving Forward on Specifics, and Some Critique of the New Model Penal Code by Rory Little

Incentivizing Excellence: A Suggestion for Merit-Based Reductions from a Twenty-Six-Year Federal Prison Insider by Michael Santos

Federal Sentencing in the States: Some Thoughts on Federal Grants and State Imprisonment by John Pfaff

October 25, 2015 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Recommended reading, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, October 22, 2015

BJS releases big new statistical study on "Federal Sentencing Disparity: 2005–2012"

As detailed at this webpage, the Bureau of Justice Statistics today released a notable new study, excitingly titled " "Federal Sentencing Disparity: 2005–2012," which is described this way:  

Examines patterns of federal sentencing disparity among white and black offenders, by sentence received, and looks at judicial variation in sentencing since Booker v. United States, regardless of race. It summarizes U.S. Sentencing Guidelines, discusses how approaches of other researchers to the study of sentencing practices differ from this approach, defines disparity as used in this study, and explains the methodology.  This working paper was prepared by Abt Associates for BJS in response to a request by the Department of Justice's Racial Disparities Working Group to design a study of federal sentencing disparity.  Data are from BJS's Federal Justice Statistics Program, which annually collects federal criminal justice processing data from various federal agencies. The analysis uses data mainly from the U.S. Sentencing Commission.

The full lengthy study is available at this link, and this one-page summary highlights some of these notable substantive findings:

Racial disparity

In the 8-year period between 2005 and 2012, black men received roughly 5% to 10% longer prison sentences than white men for similar crimes, after accounting for the facts surrounding the case.  While there has been a trend toward more lenient sentences overall, white males have seen larger declines in average prison sentences than black males.  Black males did not benefit as much from this increased leniency, which widened the existing racial sentencing disparity between these two groups.  The disparity between black and white males narrowed as crimes became more serious.  Race probably correlated with other characteristics — such as education, income, demeanor, and location — which might have accounted partially for the differing sentences among white and black males.

Judge effect

The exercise of prosecutorial discretion did not change much during the study period, although racial disparity increased during that time.  The trend is likely attributable to individual judges’ behavior.  Evidence from the study suggests considerable differences in the sentences that judges assigned for white and black offenders.  Judges disagreed about the relative sentences for white and black males, and some judges gave black males especially longer sentences.  However, judges who imposed above-average prison terms on black offenders also tended to impose above-average prison terms on white offenders.  And judges who sentenced white offenders to below-average prison terms also commonly gave below-average prison terms to black offenders.  Sentences were disparate in that similarly situated offenders who had committed similar crimes received sentences that differed depending on the judge who imposed the sentence.

Female sentencing

Judges were found to disagree more about the sentences for females than the sentences to be imposed on males.  As a whole, females and white males received less severe sentences than black males over the 8-year study period.  Black females were found to not be disadvantaged compared to white females.

October 22, 2015 in Booker in district courts, Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (11)

Monday, October 19, 2015

"13 Words That Could Mean Freedom for Many: The debate over the federal ‘residual clause’"

The title of this post is the headline of this effective Marshall Project piece discussing some of the sentencing guideline fall out of the Supreme Court's Johnson ACCA vagueness ruling.  I recommend the full piece, which starts this way (links from original):

Erskine Smith was 24 when he pleaded guilty to selling cocaine in Pittsburgh. Before the plea, a letter from the government estimated his sentence at 108 months to 135 months, or about nine to 11 years.  But once he pleaded guilty, Smith received a presentence report that floored him: the report set the sentence at a mandatory 292 months to 365 months, or about 24 to 30 years.  A judge sentenced him in 1993 to 30 years in prison.

The primary reason for the extra years: Two prior “crimes of violence” that the court agreed made Smith a career offender.  Smith had punched a man at age 18 and assaulted another in his hotel room at 20.  Each conviction was for simple assault, a Pennsylvania misdemeanor, for which he served no jail time.  But the federal government classified the crimes as violent felonies, a designation that meant Smith would be sentenced under the career offender guideline of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, which boosts sentences for people who have previously been convicted of two violent or drug felonies.

Each year, about 2,000 people are sentenced under the career offender guideline. For about three-quarters of them, the most recent crime is drug-related.  Though the sentencing guidelines have been advisory since 2005, experts say judges still tend to rely on them.  Federal non-career drug offenders get an average of nearly 69 months, while career drug offenders get an average of nearly 169 months, according to data from 2005 to 2014 analyzed by the Federal Defenders.

But a June Supreme Court ruling may get some of them, including Smith, a new sentence. In Johnson v. United States, the Court struck down the the less-than-sexily named “residual clause” of the Armed Career Criminal Act, deciding it was unconstitutionally vague.  Because of the decision, many people sentenced under the Armed Career Criminal Act will get at least five years knocked off their sentence.

The same clause appears in the career offender guideline, and defense lawyers are hoping it will meet the same fate.  They are now asking federal appellate courts to apply Johnson to the career offender guideline and resentence long-serving prisoners who have not benefited from recent, more publicized, reforms.

Some prior related posts:

October 19, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, October 15, 2015

New amicus brief to Eleventh Circuit seeking reconsideration of Johnson vagueness challenge to career-offender guideline

In this post just a few days 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 career offender guideline of the US Sentencing Guidelines.  Notably, the Justice Department has consistently conceded Johnson-based constitutional problems with the existing career offender guideline because the key phrase found vague in Johnson is part of the guideline definition of a career offender.  And a few appellate rulings have assumed without deciding that Johnson creates problems for existing career offender guideline sentencing.

But, as noted in this post a few weeks ago, an Eleventh Circuit panel in US v. Matchett, No. 14-10396 (11th Cir. Sept. 21, 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, and thanks to Carissa Hessick and David Markus, I have now been able to play a role in explaining to the full Eleventh Circuit just why.  Specifically, Carissa primarily drafted and I primarily tweaked an amicus brief that David helped finalize and file today urging en banc review in Matchett.  The full brief can be downloaded via SSRN, and here is how it gets started:

The U.S. Sentencing Guidelines dramatically increase a defendant’s sentencing range if she has at least two prior convictions for a “crime of violence,” which U.S.S.G. § 4B1.2(a)(2) defines to include crimes that “involve[] conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another.”  As the panel in this case acknowledged, that definition is identical to the definition in 18 U.S.C. § 924(e)(2)(B), which the Supreme Court in Johnson v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 2551 (2015), found to be unconstitutionally vague in violation of the Due Process Clause.

Nevertheless, the panel in this case held that § 4B1.2(a)(2) is not unconstitutionally vague, reasoning that the vagueness doctrine does not apply to the now-advisory Sentencing Guidelines.  That conclusion is inconsistent with Supreme Court decisions on the vagueness doctrine and the Sentencing Guidelines.  The panel’s decision also upsets the careful balance that the Supreme Court has struck between uniformity and discretion in federal sentencing after United States v. Booker, 543 U.S. 220 (2005).  Finally, the panel decision fails to appreciate that it faced a unique situation in which a Guideline contains language identical to a federal statute declared void for vagueness by the Supreme Court.  Both the narrow basis for that decision, as well as ordinary Commission practice of reviewing and revising the Sentencing Guidelines, ensure that few Guidelines will become susceptible to serious vagueness challenges.  This Court accordingly should grant en banc review.

October 15, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Via the National Review, an unintended parody of various arguments against modest federal sentencing reform

Tumblr_mr31fpWYLB1qzpxx1o1_500I generally respect and benefit form the work Bill Otis does over at Crime & Consequences criticizing sentencing reform movements because, despite sometimes overheated rhetoric, he generally uses sound data and reasonable aguments to make out the best case in defense of the modern federal sentencing status quo.  Though I think Bill is often wrong on the merits, especially with respect to federal statutory sentencing reform issues, he is justifiably seen as an important voice in the public-policy debate because he regularly makes responsible and sober claims in support of his various positions.

I bring all this up as a prelude to spotlighting this notable new National Review commentary by Andrew McCarthy, headlined "Keep Minimum Sentencing, to Discourage Criminals." This lengthy piece, in my view, reads almost like a parody (unintentionally, I assume) of many arguments against federal sentencing reform that Bill and some other prosecutors make much more soundly in other settings. Here are some few passages from the piece that strike me as especially cringe-worthy:

Young Americans for whom the Reagan administration is ancient history, New Yorkers who grew up in the post-Giuliani City — they have no memory of what it was like from the Sixties into the early Eighties. For them, the revolution in crime-fighting that so dramatically improved the quality of American life is not revolutionary. It is simply ... life. There is nothing hard-won about it. It is not informed by the dark days when rampant crime was fueled by a criminal-rights campaign premised on many of the same loopy ideas that undergird Washington’s latest fetish, “sentencing reform.”

The worst of those ideas is to roll back “mandatory minimum” sentences. These are terms of imprisonment, often harsh ones, that must be imposed for serious crimes. Mandatory minimums tie the hands of judges, mandating that they take hard criminals off the streets rather than slap them on the wrists. Before the Reagan era, federal penal laws prescribed potentially severe sentences for serious offenses ...[but a] judge was also free to impose the minimum sentence of no time whatsoever. What punishment to impose within that expansive statutory range from zero to 50 years was wholly the judge’s call. In effect, this nearly boundless discretion transferred control over punishment for crime from the public to the courts.

Federal judges tend to be very good at the difficult job they are trained to do: apply law, which is frequently arcane and sometimes inconsistent, to factual situations, which have their own complexities. This skill, however, does not necessarily translate into expertise in making punitive judgments that are governed less by legal rules than gut feeling — gut feeling being what controls broad discretion....

Even if many judges were not instinctively sympathetic to arguments in favor of harsh sentencing, sympathy comes with the institutional territory. The judge’s duty is not to promote public safety; it is to ensure that parties before the court receive justice. It is a bedrock conceit of those who toil in the justice system that the public perception of justice is just as vital as the objective reality of justice. Thus, the judge has great incentive to bend over backward to give convicted defendants every bounce of the due-process ball.

It is a lot easier to call for a harsh sentence from the peanut gallery than to be the judge who has to impose a sentence after a desperate plea for leniency has been made and while the defendant’s mother, wife, and kids weep in the first row. So whether the pressures were ideological, institutional, or rooted in human nature, judges were often weak sentencers. That weakness translated into the inadvertent promotion of crime by failing to disincentivize it and failing to sideline career criminals. Mandatory minimums were thus enacted by overwhelming congressional margins in order to divest judges of the discretion to impose little or no jail time for serious crimes and habitual criminals.

It is the latest Beltway fashion to demand that mandatory minimums be rolled back, if not repealed, on the theory that incarceration causes rather than drastically reduces crime. Or, since that claim doesn’t pass the laugh test, on the theory that incarceration is racist — the great American conversation ender. Beyond the in terrorem effect of the racism smear, the latter rationale relies on the overrepresentation of minorities, particularly blacks and illegal aliens, in the prison population — and banks on your being too cowed to bring up the overrepresentation of minority communities in the crime-victim population.

Alas, a “reform” that reduces mandatory minimums will benefit only one class of people — serious felons who commit many more crimes than they are prosecuted for. And racism? Please. We have, to take one pertinent example, a harsh mandatory minimum sentence for predators who are convicted of a felony after having previously being convicted of three other serious crimes. Congress wasn’t targeting race; it was targeting sociopaths.

Understand, I am not contending that the criminal-justice system is without flaws badly in need of correction. But the main problem is not severe sentencing. It is over-criminalization.

Too much formerly innocent private conduct has become prohibited, making criminals out of essentially law-abiding people. Law is supposed to be a reflection of society’s values, not a tool by which society is coerced to transform its values. Moreover, when the statutes, rules, and regulations proliferate to the point that it becomes unreasonable to expect average people to know what is forbidden, we no longer have a nation of laws; we have a nation of men arbitrarily deciding which of the presumptively guilty get punished and which go unscathed.

If a problem is not accurately diagnosed, it will not be cured. There is a prescription for what ails us, but it is most certainly not a repeal of the severe sentences enacted to address serious crime. Nothing that rewards real criminals at the expense of the people they victimize should trade under the name of “reform.”

I share the closing sentiment that a problem need to be accurately diagnosed to be solved. But there are so many problems in the arguments before that sentiment, I almost feel unable to unpack them all in the space. What I find especially peculiar are the suggestions here that sound sentencing is necessarily only about "gut feeling," that it is problematic judges consider "every bounce of the due-process ball," and that sentencing would be better if more attentive to every "call for a harsh sentence from the peanut gallery." Also remarkable is the suggestion that any and everyone subject to an existing federal mandatory minimum is a "sociopath" that must be subject to severe punishment because surely they have committed "many more crimes than they are prosecuted for."

All these curious contentions aside, I find it especially remarkable how McCarthy concludes after saying nothing is wrong with the harsh mandatory drug and gun sentences created in recent decades by Congress and applied (inconsistently) by federal prosecutors. He says the "main" problem is other federal criminal laws created in recent decades by Congress and applied (inconsistently) by federal prosecutors which creates, so he claims, a "nation of men arbitrarily deciding which of the presumptively guilty get punished and which go unscathed." In other words, it seems, when it comes to imposing punishment for crimes, we should continue to distrust modern judges and trust old mandatory sentencing laws created by Congress in the 1980s, but when it comes to defining what is a crime, we should not trust Congress because somehow they enact criminal laws (but not "severe sentences") that are not really "a reflection of society’s values."

I trust I am not the only one who see how backward a lot of what is being said here. But apparently the folks at the National Review see reasonable logic or some kind of wisdom here that perhaps requires spending more time in the Beltway to understand. Or maybe I just need to go re-watch Breaking Bad, which NR has extolled, so I can better understand the "sociopaths" federal judges cannot be trusted to sentence properly because they have the wrong "gut feeling" while concerned with "every bounce of the due-process ball."

October 10, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

"Unsophisticated Sentencing"

The title of this post is the title of this notable paper about a notable federal sentencing provision authored by Miriam Baer and now available on SSRN. Here is the abstract:

This essay, written for the Wayne Law Review’s 2014 Symposium on white collar crime and sentencing, examines the rising popularity of the “sophisticated means” enhancement under Section 2B1.1 of the United States Sentencing Guidelines. Over the past decade, the rate at which federal courts apply the enhancement in criminal fraud cases has more than tripled.

This Essay considers several possible explanations for the enhancement’s increasing prevalence, including the possibilities that: (i) fraud offenders as a whole have become more sophisticated; (ii) federal prosecutors are investigating and charging more sophisticated frauds; and (iii) the enhancement’s meaning has, over time, gradually expanded to include additional conduct, a phenomenon I refer to as “sentencing creep.” With this final explanation in mind, the Essay concludes with some practical advice for reinvigorating the enhancement as a useful sorting device.

October 6, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2)

Early prisoner release following reduced drug guideline retroactivity about to be reality

It seems like a real long time ago that the US Sentencing Commission suggested it might reduced the severity of its drug sentencing guidelines across the board. (In fact, it was way back in early January 2014, as reported in this post.)  That USSC proposal a few month later became a formal guideline amendment known as drugs -2 (as reported here in April 2014); some months after that, the USSC formally voted to make this reduced guideline fully retroactive to those already serving long federal drug prison sentences (as reported here in July 2014).  

But when making its reduced drug guidelines retroactive, the USSC also provided that no federal drug prisoner should be released until fall 2015 in order to give courts and prisons time to process all thousands of folks who would not be eligible to seek early release.  Now, as this new Washington Post piece reports, all this USSC reform is finally going to mean thousands of prisoners actually securing early releases:

The Justice Department is set to release about 6,000 inmates early from prison — the largest one-time release of federal prisoners — in an effort to reduce overcrowding and provide relief to drug offenders who received harsh sentences over the past three decades.

The inmates from federal prisons nationwide will be set free by the department’s Bureau of Prisons between Oct. 30 and Nov. 2. Most of them will go to halfway houses and home confinement before being put on supervised release.

The early release follows action by the U.S. Sentencing Commission — an independent agency that sets sentencing policies for federal crimes — which reduced the potential punishment for future drug offenders last year and then made that change retroactive....

The panel estimated that its change in sentencing guidelines eventually could result in 46,000 of the nation’s approximately 100,000 drug offenders in federal prison qualifying for early release. The 6,000 figure, which has not been reported previously, is the first tranche in that process.

“The number of people who will be affected is quite exceptional,” said Mary Price, general counsel for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, an advocacy group that supports sentencing reform. The Sentencing Commission estimated that an additional 8,550 inmates would be eligible for release between this Nov. 1 and Nov. 1, 2016....

The U.S. Sentencing Commission voted unanimously for the reduction last year after holding two public hearings in which members heard testimony from former attorney general Eric H. Holder Jr., federal judges, federal public defenders, state and local law enforcement officials, and sentencing advocates. The panel also received more than 80,000 public comment letters, with the overwhelming majority favoring the change.

Congress did not act to disapprove the change to the sentencing guidelines, so it became effective on Nov. 1, 2014. The commission then gave the Justice Department a year to prepare for the huge release of inmates.

The policy change is referred to as “Drugs Minus Two.” Federal sentencing guidelines rely on a numeric system based on different factors, including the defendant’s criminal history, the type of crime, whether a gun was involved and whether the defendant was a leader in a drug group. The sentencing panel’s change decreased the value attached to most drug-trafficking offenses by two levels, regardless of the type of drug or the amount.

An average of about two years is being shaved off eligible prisoners’ sentences under the change. Although some of the inmates who will be released have served decades, on average they will have served 8 1/2 years instead of 10 1/2 , according to a Justice Department official.

“Even with the Sentencing Commission’s reductions, drug offenders will have served substantial prison sentences,” Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates said. “Moreover, these reductions are not automatic. Under the commission’s directive, federal judges are required to carefully consider public safety in deciding whether to reduce an inmate’s sentence.”

In each case, inmates must petition a judge, who decides whether to grant the sentencing reduction. Judges nationwide are granting about 70 sentence reductions per week, Justice officials said. Some of the inmates already have been sent to halfway houses.

In some cases, federal judges have denied inmates’ requests for early release. For example, U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth recently denied requests from two top associates of Rayful Edmond III, one of the District’s most notorious drug kingpins. Federal prosecutors did not oppose a request by defense lawyers to have the associates, Melvin D. Butler and James Antonio Jones, released early in November.  But last month Lamberth denied the request, which would have cut about two years from each man’s projected 28 1/2 -year sentence....

Critics, including some federal prosecutors, judges and police officials, have raised concerns that allowing so many inmates to be released at the same time could cause crime to increase.

But Justice officials said that about one-third of the inmates who will be released in a few weeks are foreign citizens who will be quickly deported.  They also pointed to a study last year that found that the recidivism rate for offenders who were released early after changes in crack-cocaine sentencing guidelines in 2007 was not significantly different from the rate for offenders who completed their sentences.

October 6, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, October 01, 2015

Basic elements of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015

As I write this, I am watching (at this link) the tail end of speeches being given by a series of US Senators discussing their pleasure and thanks concerning the bipartisan agreement to propose the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 (which I will start calling SRCA 2015).  Here are links to two documents provided by the Senate Judiciary Committee summarizing what appears in this bill:

Here ais the full text of the summary document:

WOWSA!!  And the more detailed section-by-section analysis suggests that lots and lots of badly over-sentenced federal offenders subject to extreme mandatory minimum sentencing provisions in not-so-extreme cases (including folks I have represented or filed amicus briefs on behalf of like Weldon Angelos and Edward Young) might be able to get retroactive relief if this legislation becomes law!!  Thus, to summarize, just the introduction of SRCA 2015 is a huge development, and I strongly believe its provisions can will significantly reshape the federal sentencing and prison system if (and I hope when) it becomes law.

Though I will still need to see the precise text before I will be in a position to really assess all that appears in this bill, these summary documents confirm my hope that this bill was likely to be among the biggest and most ambitious federal sentencing reform efforts we have seen since the enactment of the Sentencing Reform Act more than three decades ago.  Mega-kudos to all involved, Senators and staffers and advocates of all stripes, and now let's see if all the good mojo that this SRCA 2015 represents might get this bill through the Congress in the coming weeks!!

UPDATE The full text of the SRCA runs 141 pages, and the folks at FAMM have it available at this link.

October 1, 2015 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (24)

Bipartisan federal sentencing reform bill due to emerge from Senate today

In part because October is my favorite month, I am likley to remember that a potentially historic federal sentencing reform bill emerged from behind the Senate negotiating curtain on the first day of October 2015.  This New York Times article, headlined "Senators to Unveil Bipartisan Plan to Ease Sentencing Laws," previews some of what we should expect to see in the bill.  Here are excerpts:

A long-­awaited bipartisan proposal to cut mandatory prison sentences for nonviolent offenders and promote more early release from federal prisons is scheduled to be disclosed Thursday by an influential group of senators who hope to build on backing from conservatives, progressives and the White House.

The comprehensive plan, which has the crucial support of Senator Charles E. Grassley, the Iowa Republican who heads the Judiciary Committee, is the product of intense and difficult negotiations between Republicans and Democrats who hope to reduce the financial and societal costs of mass incarceration that have hit minority communities particularly hard.

The push has benefited from an unusual convergence of interests in an otherwise polarized Washington and has become a singular issue that usually warring groups have rallied around. Progressive advocacy groups have embraced the possibility of less jail time and better preparation for offenders when they are released; conservatives have championed the potential savings in reducing prison populations and spending on the strained criminal justice system.

According to those familiar with the still­-secret agreement, the legislation proposes an extensive set of changes in federal sentencing requirements. Those changes include a reduction in mandatory minimum sentencing to five years from 10 for qualified cases; a reduction in automatic additional penalties for those with prior drug felonies; and more discretion for judges in assessing criminal history.

The legislation would also ban solitary confinement for juveniles in nearly all cases, and allow those sentenced as juveniles to seek a reduction in sentencing after 20 years. Many of the new rules could be applied retroactively to people now serving time.

The authors also took steps to deny any new leniency to those who committed serious violent crimes or drug felonies. And the bill would put some new mandatory minimum sentences in place for those convicted of interstate domestic violence or providing weapons or other material to terrorists or certain countries.

Lawmakers hoping for more sweeping changes did not win the across­theboard reductions in mandatory minimum sentences they had sought when the negotiations began. They compromised to win the backing of Mr. Grassley, who in the past has been critical of broad efforts to reduce prison time.

If the authors wish to push the legislation through this year, it will require an aggressive effort and a decision by Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, to make the measure a priority. The bill is most likely to be considered by the Judiciary Committee this month, with a committee vote possible on Oct. 22. Congressional consideration could also be kicked into 2016....

Backers of a criminal justice overhaul were not aware of the details of the legislative deal, which senators were trying to keep under wraps until the announcement Thursday, but they welcomed the movement toward getting the debate in the public arena.

“This sounds good to us,” said Mark Holden, general counsel for Koch Industries, which has led conservatives in calling for new sentencing laws and is part of the bipartisan Coalition for Public Safety. “It is a good place to start, and hopefully this will be the impetus that gets things moving.”  Holly Harris, the executive director of the U.S. Justice Action Network, another part of the coalition, noted that “the devil is in the details.”

I share the sentiments that this sounds like a pretty good deal and that the devil is really in the details. But, absent the details looking very ugly, I am going to be a vocal and aggressive advocate for this bill because it seems like the only federal sentencing reform proposal with any realistic chance of getting to President Obama's desk while he is still President Obama.

October 1, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Long-awaited bipartisan federal criminal justice reform bill to emerge from Senate this week

A helpful reader alerted me to this notable new NPR story headlined "Bipartisan Criminal-Justice Overhaul Proposal Expected As Soon As Thursday."  Here are the details: 

A bipartisan group of senators on the Judiciary Committee is preparing to unveil a criminal-justice overhaul proposal as early as Thursday, two sources familiar with the deal told NPR.  The plan follows months of behind-the-scenes work by the staffs of Sen. Charles Grassley, the Iowa Republican who chairs the committee, and several other lawmakers representing both political parties.

Senior members of the Obama administration, including the second-in-command at the Justice Department, also have been nudging senators on the sentencing plan, viewing the proposal as one of the capstones of a legacy on criminal-justice issues for this president. Barack Obama famously became the first sitting president to visit a prison in July.

An unusual left-right coalition formed earlier this year to drive action in Congress and in state houses across the country. The Coalition for Public Safety, which includes Koch Industries, the American Civil Liberties Union and others, is said to support the Senate plan, as well, a third source said.

The proposal will not go as far as some reform advocates may like, the sources say. For instance, the plan would create some tough new mandatory minimum sentences, after pressing from Grassley. It stitches together proposals that would allow inmates to earn credits to leave prison early if they complete educational and treatment programs and pose a relatively low risk to public safety along with language that would give judges some more discretion when sentencing non-violent offenders....

Despite the optimism among advocates and lawmakers, it's unclear whether the full Senate has the time to act before the presidential election intensifies. In the House, meanwhile, Reps. Bobby Scott, D-Va., and James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., are pressing their own legislation, known as the SAFE Justice Act. The two leaders of the House Judiciary Committee, Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., and John Conyers, D-Mich., are writing their own bills, staff members said.

I am giddy with anticipation to see the specifics of this bill and I am cautiously hopeful that all the time spent working through the details will greatly increase the likelihood that a bill actually makes it through the Senate and perhaps all the way to the desk of Prez Obama.  As I have long said in this space and others, hopeful visions of "the best" possible reform should not stand in the way of any "good" reform that has a real chance of becoming law.  And since just about any reform emerging from a bipartisan deal is likely to have good elements, I am extra hopeful that this news means we getting ever closer to an improvement of existing federal sentencing law and policy.

September 29, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Friday, September 25, 2015

How might House speaker John Boehner's resignation announcement impact prospects for federal sentencing reform?

The question in the title of this post was my first reaction to this remarkable and unexpected news via Politico

Speaker John Boehner, who rose from bartender's son to the most powerful man in Congress, will retire at the end of October, ending a tumultuous five-year tenure atop the House of Representatives.

Boehner, 65, planned to leave Congress at the end of 2014, one of his aides said Friday morning, but returned because of the unexpected defeat of Eric Cantor.

"The Speaker believes putting members through prolonged leadership turmoil would do irreparable damage to the institution," the Boehner aide said. "He is proud of what this majority has accomplished, and his speakership, but for the good of the Republican Conference and the institution, he will resign the Speakership and his seat in Congress, effective October 30."...

Boehner came into power on the power of the 2010 tea party wave, but it was that movement that gave him the most problems. Boehner's tenure will be remembered for his internal political battles, but also his complicated relationship with President Barack Obama. He and Obama tried — but repeatedly failed — to cut a deal on a massive fiscal agreement. But Boehner has had some significant victories, including the free-trade deal that Congress passed this year, and changes to entitlement systems....

Boehner's decision, relayed in a closed Republican meeting Friday morning, will set off one of the most intense leadership scrambles in modern Congressional GOP politics. Second in line is House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who is widely expected to serve as the next speaker. But there is serious unrest in the House Republican ranks, as a small clutch of conservatives have continuously clashed with more establishment Republican types. But it is unclear if any of these figures can win a leadership election.

Of course, the easy answer to the hard question in the title of this post is "it depends." As regular readers know, the younger, more conservative and libertarian-leaning members of Congress within the GOP have generally been more supportive of federal sentencing reform than older establishment GOP officials. Thus, I think the prospects for federal sentencing reform could grow a bit brighter with new blood in the speaker seat.

Then again, any power struggle for leadership positions in the House is almost sure to take time and attention away from other legislative duties.  And diverted attention likely means any existing and future federal sentencing reform bills will have a hard time getting to and through a full vote in the House (and perhaps also the Senate).

September 25, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Former peanut CEO (sort of) gets less than LWOP for salmonella outbreak

As reported in this Reuters article, high-profile federal white-collar sentencings yesterday culminated in a set of severe sentences for executives culpable in a harmful food safety crime.  Here are the details:

The former owner of a peanut company in Georgia was sentenced to 28 years in prison on Monday for his role in a salmonella outbreak that killed nine people and sickened hundreds, a rare instance of jail time in a food contamination case.  

Stewart Parnell, 61, who once oversaw Peanut Corporation of America, and his brother, Michael Parnell, 56, who was a food broker on behalf of the company, were convicted on federal conspiracy charges in September 2014 for knowingly shipping salmonella-tainted peanuts to customers.  Contamination at the company's plant in Blakely, Georgia, led to one of the largest food recalls in U.S. history and forced the company into liquidation.

U.S. District Judge Louis Sands gave Michael Parnell 20 years in prison.  Mary Wilkerson, 41, a former quality control manager at the plant who was found guilty of obstruction, was sentenced to five years in prison.  Stewart Parnell faced life in prison and his brother faced about 24 years.

Before the judge issued the sentences, Stewart Parnell said; “This has been a seven-year nightmare for me and my family. I’m truly, truly sorry for what’s happened.”             

A man whose mother died from eating tainted peanut butter was among those who told a federal judge on Monday that the Parnells should receive stiff prison time.  Jeff Almer, of Brainerd, Minnesota, said his mother, Shirley Almer, was among the nine people killed in the salmonella outbreak linked to the company in 2009.  "My mother died a painful death from salmonella, and the look of horror on her face as she died shall always haunt me," Almer said during the hearing on Monday in Albany, Georgia.  "I just hope they ship you all to jail," Almer said.

During the seven-week trial last year, prosecutors said the Parnell brothers covered up the presence of salmonella in the company's peanut products for years, even creating fake certificates showing the products were uncontaminated despite laboratory results showing otherwise.  The Parnells have said they never knowingly endangered customers, and their supporters asked a judge on Monday to show mercy....

An official with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention testified at the trial that the company's peanut products sickened 714 people in 46 states, including 166 of whom were hospitalized.

Though not formally an LWOP sentence, the federal prison term here means the main defendant will have to live until well into his mid-80s to make it through his whole sentence even with time off for good behavior (and the brother will need to make it to his mid 70s). Thus, while I believe these are technically below-guideline sentences, they are still quite severe given the defendants' ages.

Prior related posts:

September 22, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, September 21, 2015

Eleventh Circuit panel categorically rejects Johnson vagueness attack on career offender guidelines

In this prior post a few days 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 possibility that Johnson could impact past, present and future sentencings pursuant to the career offender guideline of the US Sentencing Guidelines. 

Since then, I believe that the Department of Justice has consistently conceded Johnson-based constitutional problems with the existing career offender guideline because the key phrase found vague in Johnson is also used in the guideline definition of a career offender.  In addition, as noted in this post from last month, the US Sentencing Commission has proposed amending the career offender guideline to eliminate the Johnson-problematic definition of a crime of violence.   And I believe at least a few appellate rulings have assumed without deciding that Johnson creates problems for existing career offender guideline sentencing.

But today an Eleventh Circuit panel in US v. Matchett, No. 14-10396 (Sept. 21, 2015) (available here), squarely addresses this issue and rules that Johnson and its vagueness problem just do not apply to advisory sentencing guidelines.  Here is how the Matchett opinion gets started:

This appeal presents an issue of first impression for this Court: whether the vagueness doctrine of the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment applies to the advisory Sentencing Guidelines.  Calvin Matchett pleaded guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm, 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1), and now challenges both the denial of his motion to suppress the firearm and the calculation of his sentence.  Police Officer Jesse Smith stopped Matchett when he saw Matchett carrying a flat-screen television in a residential neighborhood on a weekday morning.  After speaking with Matchett, Officer Smith frisked him based on his confrontational demeanor and the risk that he had a burglary tool that could be used as a weapon.  When Officer Smith found a loaded handgun in Matchett’s pocket, Matchett fought with Officer Smith for over three minutes in an attempt to flee.  The district court did not err when it denied Matchett’s motion to suppress.  It also correctly determined that Matchett’s previous convictions for burglary of an unoccupied dwelling were crimes of violence and that Matchett’s resistance created a substantial risk of death or bodily injury in the course of fleeing from a law enforcement officer.  We reject Matchett’s argument that the definition of “crime of violence” in the Sentencing Guidelines is unconstitutionally vague in light of Johnson v. United States, __ U.S. __, 135 S. Ct. 2551 (2015).  The vagueness doctrine applies only to laws that prohibit conduct and fix punishments, not advisory guidelines.  We affirm.

Some prior related posts:

September 21, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter | Permalink | Comments (7)

Sunday, September 20, 2015

You be the federal judge: how long a prison term for peanut executives convicted of selling salmonella-tainted food?

In this prior post a few months ago, I highlighted that a peanut company executive convicted of selling salmonella-tainted food was facing an “unprecedented” federal life without parole sentence according to the recommended guideline sentencing range. The sentencing proceeding, as reported in this new AP piece, is slated to go forward this Monday. Here is context for answering the query in the title of this post:

A year after a federal jury convicted him of crimes behind a salmonella outbreak blamed for killing nine people and sickening hundreds more, former peanut executive Stewart Parnell returns to court facing possible imprisonment for the rest of his life.

A sentencing hearing was scheduled for Monday in Albany, Georgia, for the 61-year-old former owner of Peanut Corporation of America. Due in U.S. District Court with Parnell were two co-defendants — his brother and a plant manager — also found guilty in what experts called the first food-poisoning trial of American food processors.

Parnell was convicted Sept. 19, 2014, of knowingly shipping salmonella-tainted peanut butter from his plant in Blakely, Georgia, to Kellogg's and other customers who used it in products from packaged crackers to pet food. The jury also found Parnell and his brother, food broker Michael Parnell, guilty of faking results of lab tests intended to screen for salmonella.

The brothers were charged after a salmonella outbreak that sickened 714 Americans in 46 states was traced to Peanut Corporation's plant in Blakely, Georgia, in early 2009. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that nine people who ate tainted peanut butter died during the outbreak in 2008 and 2009, though it couldn't say for sure salmonella caused each death.

Federal investigators found a leaky roof, roaches and evidence of rodents, all ingredients for brewing salmonella. They also uncovered emails and records showing food confirmed by lab tests to contain salmonella was shipped to customers anyway. Other batches were never tested at all, but got shipped with fake lab records saying salmonella screenings were negative.

In a court order Friday, Judge W. Louis Sands noted Stewart Parnell faces a possible prison sentence of 9,636 months — which comes to 803 years. The U.S. Probation Office, which prepares pre-sentencing reports to help guide federal judges, recommended the stiff sentence based on the number of illnesses as well as estimates that the outbreak, which triggered one of the largest food recalls in U.S. history, cost Parnell's corporate customers $144 million.

The judge has the authority to impose a lighter sentence. Randy Napier, whose 80-year-old mother in Ohio died from salmonella poisoning after she ate contaminated peanut butter from Parnell's plant, said he plans to testify at the hearing and ask the judge to show little mercy. "We need to send a message to these food manufacturers," said Napier of Durham, North Carolina. "No one else should have to go through what we did, watching my mother die. I'm hoping to have closure. It's been six years of utter hell."

Attorneys in the case say voluminous testimony from victims seeking stiff sentences and defendants' relatives asking for leniency could push the sentencing proceedings into a second day Tuesday.

Parnell's attorneys insist locking him up for life would be too harsh. Even food-safety attorney Bill Marler, who represented many families of victims in the salmonella outbreak, has said life imprisonment would be "unprecedented."...

Michael Parnell, who was convicted on fewer counts than his brother, faces a recommended punishment of 19 to 24 years in prison. Co-defendant Mary Wilkerson, the Georgia plant's quality control manager, faces five years. She was convicted of obstruction of justice.

Three deaths linked to the outbreak occurred in Minnesota, two in Ohio, two in Virginia, one in Idaho and one in North Carolina.

Prior related post:

September 20, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (7)

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Lots of new data from BJS on prisoners and from USSC on federal sentencing

Sentencing and corrections data junkies have the opportunity for heavy dose of notable new data runs from two federal sources.  Both of these recently released reports have a number of interesting and important modern sentencing stories buried inside lots of notable new numbers:

From the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, "Prisoners in 2014"

From the US Sentencing Commission, "FY 2015 Third Quarterly Sentencing Data Report"

Importantly, the BJS prisoners document has data on only prison populations and thus does not include total incarcerated persons in the US because jail populations are not in the statistics.  With that important statistical reality in mind, here are some highlights identified by BJS concerning "Prisoners in 2014" that I found particularly noteworthy:

September 17, 2015 in Booker in district courts, Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Is Donald Trump's bluster hurting the cause of federal sentencing reform?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable lengthy new TPM piece sent to me by a helpful reader and headlined "How Donald Trump Threatens To Blow Up Bipartisan Criminal Justice Reform." Here are excerpts:    

A long-awaited, hard-fought criminal justice reform push is coming to Washington this fall, with lawmakers of both parties making progress on legislation to curb mass incarceration. But after spending years convincing lawmakers that tackling the issue of mass incarceration would not make America more dangerous or put their political careers in jeopardy, advocates are now watching with growing dread as the GOP primary veers back toward the usual tough on crime rhetoric.

Just a few months ago, reformers were celebrating that most of the 2016 GOP pack had signaled that, at least in theory, they supported retooling America's justice system. But, as has been the case with so many other sensitive issues, the entrance of Donald Trump has changed the dynamic. Now instead of talking about criminal justice reform, the GOP primary contenders are warning of a supposed nationwide crime spike, touting the mandatory-minimums in "Kate’s Law," and lobbing “soft on crime" accusations.

“I’m concerned about the impact on the push for justice reform because we’re expecting a bill at some point this month,” Jason Pye, director of Justice Reform at the conservative FreedomWorks, told TPM. “I’m concerned about the impact of the rhetoric on that.”

Trump may not solely be to blame for the shift in tone. But in interviews with TPM before his entrance in to the race, justice reform advocates expressed cautious optimism that the GOP field had more or less coalesced around curbing mass incarceration, and they believed it was unlikely to become a flashpoint in the primary.

Trump may have conflated the issue, they now contend, by linking illegal immigration and violent crime, thus prompting many of his rivals to take harder lines, too. Coupled with warnings of a summer crime spike, the campaign trail has taken a turn back to the ‘90s, with candidates falling into old patterns of invoking crime fears to rile their constituencies.

“For the most part these candidates aren’t talking about these issues right now, it’s largely focused one person and we know who that person is, for better or for worse,” said Pye of FreedomWorks, the major DC advocacy outfit with Tea Party roots that plays an important role in pushing criminal justice reform from the right....

Last week, Trump released an ad attacking former Gov. Jeb Bush that critics said echoed the notorious Willie Horton ad that Bush's father used against Michael Dukakis in the 1988 presidential race.  The ad flashes the mugshots of undocumented immigrants charged or convicted of murder over Jeb Bush's infamous immigration is an "act of love" comments, and ends with placards saying "Love? Forget Love. It's Time Get Tough!" Bush's spokesperson responded by calling Trump a "soft on crime liberal."

“They look like tweedledum and tweedle dumber in terms of this very retro style of exploiting these old arguments,” liberal justice reform leader Van Jones said in an interview with TPM last week, referring to the Trump and Bush spat.

Meanwhile, conservatives have taken a harsh line on Black Lives Matter, a movement that includes calls for overhauling law enforcement and justice policies. Led by Fox News, conservatives have accused the protest movement, without basis, of inciting violence against police officers.  Trump accused Black Lives Matter this week of "looking for trouble” and suggested they were being "catered to" by Democrats.

The rhetoric has spread beyond Trump, which is of particular concern to criminal justice reform advocates. A few high-profile police deaths have prompted candidates like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) to blame the Obama administration for, as Walker put it, “a tendency to use law enforcement as a scapegoat.” New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) has called for the return of stop and frisk, vowed to crack down on marijuana legalization, and blamed “liberal-leaning mayors and cities” and their “lax criminal justice policies” for the stabbing death of a former intern in Washington, D.C.

“There are two things that are troubling,” said Inimai Chettiar, director of Justice at the Brennan Center. “One, that people are saying that there is a crime wave now and they’re implying that crime is going to be going up as a permanent trajectory -- which is wrong -- and that second people are blaming criminal justice policies and particularly policing policies for this.”...

Already, balancing the various concerns of those interest groups was a delicate dance for lawmakers hammering out federal legislation.  But heated campaign claims -- be it about Black Lives Matter, undocumented immigrants or police fatalities -- isn’t helping to smooth over tensions....

Nevertheless, Senate advocates for reform insist legislative progress can be made despite the campaign trail rhetoric. “There’s been heated rhetoric for decades around justice reform,” said Ben Marter, a spokesman for Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), who is involved in crafting the anticipated compromise bill.  “But the senators negotiating this legislation have put their partisan differences aside to negotiate a solution in good faith.”

Likewise, advocates are hopeful the most ardent justice reformers in the GOP field will resist relying on such language.  “I would get worried if suddenly other candidates less desperate and flailing than Governor Bush started jumping on that bandwagon,” Jones said.

But the proposal known as Kate’s Law shows how easily legislative progress can be undercut by the kind of the knee-jerk reactions to sensationalized tragedies that contributed to the creation of mass incarceration policies in the first place. The legislation, inspired by Steinle's murder, would impose mandatory sentencing minimums on undocumented immigrants who return to U.S. after being deported and, according to Families Against Mandatory Minimums, would add nearly 60,000 people to the federal prison population.

Trump has made Steinle’s murder a focal point of his campaign (despite the desires of her family), and conservative media have fanned the flames. Cruz -- who has previously touted his interest in criminal justice reform -- has embraced the measure, while other candidates have also expressed support. So far, cooler heads in Congress have prevented Kate’s Law from gaining traction there. “Watching Kate’s Law unfold is like watching history repeat itself,” FAMM government affairs counsel Molly Gill told TPM, comparing it to 1986 drug overdose by college basketball star Len Bias that led to federal mandatory drug sentencing. “We’ve come a long way in the last 30 years in our understand of crime and recidivism and using evidence-based approaches. But a lot of times we’re still legislating like that never happened."

​For years, criminal justice reformers have labored to convince politicians that dismantling ‘80s and ‘90s era crime legislation -- through cutbacks on mandatory minimums or softening of drug laws -- will not making them look “soft on crime.” The best proof they had was the success of a number of state lawmakers -- especially in red states -- in curbing mass incarceration without facing political consequences. They have also had to do this working within a tenuous coalition balancing competing priorities. “With consensus around criminal justice reform from both sides of the aisle that hasn’t been seen for a generation, it would be a shame for presidential candidates to undermine this by exploiting negative imagery and stereotypes for mere political gain,” said Janai Nelson, associate director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, in a statement to TPM.

September 10, 2015 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8)

Prez Obama makes a new (and a renewed) nomination to the US Sentencing Commission

Late yesterday, as detailed in this official press release, "President Obama nominated Judge Richard Franklin Boulware II and Judge Charles R. Breyer to serve on the United States Sentencing Commission." Hard-core sentencing fans know that Judge Breyer has been serving on the USSC since 2013, so his nomination is really just a reappointment, but Judge Boulware brings new blood to this commission, and here is his bio from the White House Press release:

Judge Richard Franklin Boulware II is a United States District Judge for the District of Nevada, a position he has held since June 2014.  Prior to his appointment to the bench, he worked at the Federal Public Defender’s Office in Las Vegas from 2007 to 2014, where he served as the lead attorney on complex white-collar cases from 2010 to 2014. From 2003 to 2007, he was a trial attorney at the Federal Defenders of New York.  Judge Boulware began his legal career as a law clerk to the Honorable Denise Cote of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York from 2002 to 2003.  He received his J.D. in 2002 from Columbia Law School and his A.B. cum laude in 1993 from Harvard College.

In addition to being excited that Prez Obama has nominated a new judge and a former federal public defender to serving on the Commission, I am now hoping that Judge Boulware's appointment could mean future USSC conferences might get slated for Las Vegas.

Jokes aside, because the USSC has been short of commissioners during a very busy time for federal sentencing reform, I am glad Prez Obama has finally moved to fill one of the open spots on the Commission. I sincerely hope Judge Boulware secures a speedy confirmation and that Prez Obama soon nominates another commissioner as well.

September 10, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Highlighting headwinds for federal sentencing reform in coming critical period

Over at Crime & Consequences, Bill Otis has this extended new post headlined "The Biggest Obstacles Right Now to Sentencing 'Reform'."  The post provides a five-point account of recent developments enhancing the (always uphill) battle for significant federal sentencing reform, and here is how the post gets started:

From late spring through about the end of July, it was my sense that some kind of fairly significant sentencing "reform" bill was going to make more headway in this Congress than in the last, and conceivably could pass. More members of the majority party had expressed an openness to it than we had seen in the last Congress.

Probably the first sign of trouble was when the sentencing "reform" bill that had been promised before the August recess never showed up. I expect that one (or several) will show up now, but their content and their prospects for passage seem diminished from what they had been just six weeks ago.

As a former DOJ political appointee, Bill Otis has long been much more of an inside-the-Beltway player than I ever will ever be, and I surmise he still has considerable connections with establishment GOP leaders in Congress.  Consequently, his latest prognostications here strike me as important as we all anticipate Senator Charles Grassley unveiling, perhaps as early as today as previewed here, a (big?) new sentencing reform bill that may be the one most likely to have a real chance to get to the President's desk in some form.

Even though Bill's sentencing analysis is sometime subject to sharp criticism (as recently noted here), I think his posts about sentencing reform arguments and prospects alway provide a useful reminder of how many different kinds of political and policy arguments can be made against changing the status-quo of tough-and-tougher sentencing.  Most fundamentally, when crime is in decline, Bill and others will be quick to say we should not risk changing what seems to be working; when crime seems to be spiking, Bill and others will be quick to say we should not risk going soft now.

Some prior related posts:

September 8, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, September 03, 2015

Julie Stewart of FAMM goes hard after Bill Otis for being "proven wrong time and time again"

Regular readers know I often note and express respect for the work and writings of both former federal prosecutor Bill Otis, who now writes most regularly at Crime & Consequences, and Julie Stewart, who is the President and Founder of Families Against Mandatory Minimums.   Today I must note and express amazement at the concerted efforts of one of these two taking on the other: Julie Stewart has this notable new Reason commentary headlined "The Former Prosecutor Who Consistently Gets Criminal Justice Reform Wrong: Former prosecutor Bill Otis has been mistaken over and over again when advising legislators against reducing drug sentences."  Here are excerpts mostly from the start and end of the piece:

No one expects our elected representatives to be experts in every area of public policy. At the same time, we have every right to expect that our representatives will consult policy analysts and experts who know what they're talking about, not someone who has been proven wrong time and time again. In the world of criminal justice, that someone is former federal prosecutor and Georgetown Law adjunct William Otis.

Over the past two decades, Bill Otis has become the Paul Ehrlich of criminal sentencing reform.  He is always certain in his convictions and nearly always wrong.  Moreover, like Ehrlich, Otis likes to scare the public with predictions of certain and impending doom, and he is immune to feelings of embarrassment or humiliation despite being proven spectacularly wrong over and over again....

[W]hereas Ehrlich saw overpopulation as the culprit, Otis thinks shortening sentences for nonviolent drug offenders will be America's undoing.  Indeed, every time Congress or the U.S. Sentencing Commission has considered even mild sentence reductions over the past two decades, Otis has gone full Chicken Little.  He has been wrong every time....

The nationwide drop in crime and prison crowding should be celebrated.  Less violent crime means fewer murder victims, fewer robbery victims, and fewer assault victims. Smaller prison populations means savings for taxpayers and more money to spend on what actually does reduce crime — community policing and supervision practices like "short, swift, and certain."  None of these gratifying results would have been possible if Otis's theory were correct — or if any lawmakers outside the Beltway had heard of Otis and took his views seriously.  While Otis has been consistently wrong, thankfully lawmakers have ignored him....

Committed to his prison-is-always-the-answer ideology, Otis derided the [Fair Sentencing Act], saying it should be called the "Crack Dealers Relief Act."  When the U.S. Sentencing Commission lowered the crack guideline and made it retroactive in accord with the FSA, Otis predicted it would lead to an increase in crime....  On his blog, Otis cranked up the fear machine. He predicted "misery" when "thousands of crack dealers" would be "put back on the street prematurely" to terrorize their communities.

Fortunately for those of us concerned about public safety, Otis was wrong again — amazingly wrong.  Since passage of the FSA, the crime rate, the prison population, and crack usage are all down!  It bears repeating.  Otis said the changes would cause "misery" and "inevitably lead to more crime."  Instead, while thousands of offenders have received fairer sentences, the crime rate has fallen, crack use is down, and taxpayers have saved millions from being wasted on unnecessary prison costs....

Otis is impervious to facts and evidence.  He will quote Professor Steven Levitt's finding that greater reliance on incarceration helped reduce crime in the 1990s and then ignore Levitt's later conclusion that the country has gone too far and that prisons should reduce their populations by one-third.  Otis will say, as he does in National Review, that the movement for sentencing reform "is strictly interest-group — and billionaire — driven, inside-the-Beltway," which would be fine if you did not already know that the reform movement began in the states and is being promoted in Washington, DC by insiders like Senators Ted Cruz (R-Tx.), Rand Paul (R-Ky.), and Mike Lee (R-Utah).

Otis's amazing record of wrongness would be interesting and perhaps even funny if he, like fellow fear-peddler Paul Ehrlich, were exiled from the world of rational public policy making.  But media reports have suggested that some members of Congress actually listen to Otis.  If that's true, then we really do have a good reason to be scared.

Yowsa.   Because I consider both Julie Stewart and Bill Otis to be personal friends, I am going to be trying hard to stay out of this sentencing sparring.  But I am also going to try to report fairly on any rounds of this fight, and thus will be quick to post any response that Bill Otis provides in his own defense in the days ahead. 

UPDATE:  Bill Otis has a response up at Crime & Consequences: Are Sentencing "Reformers" Getting Worried?.  Here is a snippet from Bill's introduction to his brief substantive refutation of points made by Julie Stewart:

I think it unbecoming and unwise to get caught up in this sort of thing.  If you hold a controversial position, you can expect some heat.  And if you spend all your time answering your critics, you'll never do anything else.  You'll certainly abandon any hope of making your own points. Accordingly, with the exceptions noted below, I am not going to engage with Ms. Stewart. (If she seeks a live debate with me, that would be another matter).

I'm quite sure she is sincere. But, for reasons stated in hundreds of things I have said on this blog and elsewhere, I believe she is in error.

September 3, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, National and State Crime Data, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (22)

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Previewing the latest (and most important) bipartisan federal statutory sentencing reform effort in Congress

ImagesAs regular readers know, September is the month that a (long-forecast) important new federal sentencing reform bill has become likely to emerge from the US Senate.  This new Daily Signal article, headlined "Bipartisan Group of Senators Set to Announce Deal to Reduce Prison Population," which reports that this bill is going to be unveiled a week from today, provides an account of what we can expect to see in this bill.  Here are excerpts:

Soon after lawmakers return to Washington, D.C., on Sept. 8, a bipartisan group of members on the Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to announce a deal meant to relieve the overcrowded federal prison population.

The bill, which is still being written and near completion — according to Beth Levine, a spokeswoman for Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley — would give judges more discretion in sentencing offenders of certain nonviolent drug crimes and let well-behaved inmates earn time off their prison terms.

“They want to announce a deal as soon as they get back, but they just aren’t quite there yet,” says Conn Carroll, the communications director for Sen. Mike Lee, a committee member and leading reform advocate. “Let’s just say it’s first and goal on the one, everyone thinks we’ll score, we just don’t know when,” Carroll continued.

The legislation, the result of months of negotiations, will likely incorporate policies from previously introduced legislation in both houses of Congress.

The judiciary committee’s compromise bill is not expected to include reductions to mandatory minimums that are blamed for mass incarceration. Mandatory minimums require binding prison terms of a particular length and prevent judges from using their discretion to apply punishment. But the legislation is expected to give judges some leeway in sentencing drug offenders....

A new Pew study, using data from the Federal Bureau of Prisons, reveals that there are more than 207,000 inmates in federal prisons, and 95,000 of those inmates are incarcerated for drug-related offenses — up from fewer than 5,000 in 1980.

The jump in the number of inmates has cost a lot of money. From 1980 to 2013, federal prison spending increased 595 percent, from $970 million to more than $6.7 billion. According to the study, prison spending now represents one of every four dollars spent by the U.S. Justice Department. The report says growth of the prison population, and the longer drug sentences, can be pinned on a tough-on-crime mentality that dominated the 1980s.

Reform advocates say these policies — such as laws passed by Congress enacting mandatory minimum sentences of five, 10, or 20 years for drug offenders, and abolishing parole for federal offenders — have outlived their usefulness and need to be revised.

“The question really boils down to, has Sen. Grassley come to recognize mandatory minimums are a policy failure?” says Alison Holcomb, the director of the ACLU’s Campaign for Smart Justice. “Whether the bill is worth all the time and effort of the negotiations depends on a large part to the answer to that question.”

Grassley, as the judiciary committee chair, is the gatekeeper of the talks. Experts such as Holcomb say Grassley is opposed to across-the-board repeal of mandatory minimum sentences. “The real question of this bill is, how far can Grassley go?” says Molly Gill, the government affairs counsel for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a nonprofit. “There’s a lot of pressure to do something significant. Is Grassley’s definition of significant close to everyone else’s? There becomes a certain point where you ask, is this real reform?”

Though Grassley’s office won’t share the exact details, the bill is expected to address a “safety valve” law that’s supposed to keep people from receiving unfair sentences.

Under the law, a federal drug offender can avoid a mandatory minimum sentence if he passes a five-part “safety valve” test. A convicted felon can be sentenced below a mandatory minimum if he was not a drug leader or “king pin,” he did not use or possess a gun during the offense, the offense is nonviolent, he was truthful with the government, and he has little or no other criminal activity on his record.

Reform advocates argue that even the most minor criminal history, such as being convicted for possessing a small amount of marijuana as a juvenile, can make an offender ineligible for the safety valve exception. The Senate Judiciary Committee bill may make the criminal record aspect of the safety valve more forgiving. It may also create a new loophole to get around mandatory minimums.

In addition, the legislation will include elements of a separate bill, the Corrections Act, authored by two senators of the judiciary committee: John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I.

That bill would allow certain well-behaved prisoners to earn time off their sentences by participating in recidivism reduction programs such as drug counseling and vocational training. The judiciary committee bill won’t be as comprehensive as the House’s SAFE Justice Act, sponsored by Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., and Bobby Scott, D-Va., which would narrow the range of offenders that mandatory minimums apply to. Some members, like Grassley, think that reform plan is too far-reaching.

“Although there is clearly bipartisan support for a number of these proposals, [this] is a difficult issue,” says John Malcolm, the director of The Heritage Foundation’s Meese Center for Legal and Judicial Studies. “Some believe our current sentencing regime is unfair and the pendulum has swung too far in terms of imposing harsh sentences,” Malcolm continued. “Others believe increased incarceration and harsh sentences have taken some very dangerous people off of the streets. I remain cautiously optimistic there is some ‘sweet spot’ where both sides can compromise.”

Whatever the final product looks like, all sides are optimistic that Congress will give Obama a criminal justice reform bill to sign this year — because too many people are waiting. “The American criminal justice system has gotten has so far out of whack, with far too many people behind bars for too high a price,” Holcomb said. “The cold hard fact that people across the aisle can agree on is that America is better than this.”

I am pleased that some key details of the sentencing reform bill most likely to get to Prez Obama's desk are emerging, and I am not surprised that Senator Grassley is more interested in pursuing expanded exceptions to current federal mandatory minimums rather than across the board cuts to any current mandatory minimum. At the same time, I am concerned (but again not suprised) that advocates of federal sentencing reform are worried that this latest bill which has Senator Grassley's blessing is not going to be as far-reaching or impactful as other bills that have been making the rounds.

As a general matter, I favor a federal sentencing world without any crude and strict mandatory minimums terms for any non-violent crimes. But, especially now that we have had two-plus years of talk about statutory sentencing reform and nothing at all that has made it through Congress, I am hopeful all reform advocates will get on-board with whatever comes out of the Senate later this month. Especially with growing talk about violent crime increases in some cities and with sound-bite presidential campaigns now dominating the broader political conversation, I think the window for any meaningful federal sentencing reforms emerging from Congress is already starting to close. If visions of the "best" or even the "really good" prompt criticisms of any bill that has a real chance of passage, we could well end up with no bill making it through Congress at all.

Some prior related posts:

September 1, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Saturday, August 29, 2015

"Federal Drug Sentencing Laws Bring High Cost, Low Return"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new Pew Public Safety Performance Project Issue Brief, which gets started this way:

More than 95,000 federal prisoners are serving time for drug-related offenses—up from fewer than 5,000 in 1980. Changes in drug crime patterns and law enforcement practices played a role in this growth, but federal sentencing laws enacted during the 1980s and 1990s also have required more drug offenders to go to prison— and stay there much longer—than three decades ago. These policies have contributed to ballooning costs: The federal prison system now consumes more than $6.7 billion a year, or roughly 1 in 4 dollars spent by the U.S. Justice Department.

Despite substantial expenditures on longer prison terms for drug offenders, taxpayers have not realized a strong public safety return. The self-reported use of illegal drugs has increased over the long term as drug prices have fallen and purity has risen. Federal sentencing laws that were designed with serious traffickers in mind have resulted in lengthy imprisonment of offenders who played relatively minor roles. These laws also have failed to reduce recidivism. Nearly a third of the drug offenders who leave federal prison and are placed on community supervision commit new crimes or violate the conditions of their release—a rate that has not changed substantially in decades.

August 29, 2015 in Data on sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, August 28, 2015

Arkansas political corruption case showcases corruptness of federal sentencing guidelines

This local reporting from Arkansas, headlined "Martha Shoffner gets 30 months in bribery case," details today's federal sentencing of a significant political figure in the Natural State. Here are the basics, with some commentary to follow:

Judge Leon Holmes has sentenced former Arkansas Treasurer Martha Shoffner to 30 months in prison for taking bribes for state bond business. It will be followed by some supervised release. No fine was assessed.  The 71-year-old will have to report to a Fort Worth prison in 60 days.

She faced as much as 15 years in prison under federal sentencing guidelines.  Her attorney had asked for 12 to 18 months, with half that in home detention.  U.S. Attorney Chris Thyer, who'd asked for 60 months, said he was satisfied with the outcome....

Judge Leon Holmes said Shoffner had netted little — he ordered restitution of $31,000 she'd kept in bribes — but as a public official should do prison time....

Shoffner's attorney argued that the only loss was $36,000 in bribes, not the value of the bond business of $1.7 million. Holmes held there were multiple payments for multiple actions and the $36,000, paid in six installments, didn't amount to a single payment, which also means a potential enhancement of the sentence. He said [bribe giver Steele] Stephens benefited from the bribes to the tune of $900,000 the amount by which his $1.7 million in commissions exceeded the next biggest bond dealer who did business with Shoffner.

[Defense attorney Chuck] Banks asked the court to show mercy on Shoffner, saying she "made a terrible, terrible error in judgment" and characterizing her as "gullible" and "clueless." He said that she was inclined to accept the bribes from Stephens in large part because she was in a bad financial situation, having underestimated the cost of commuting on a regular basis between Newport and Little Rock.

Banks asked Holmes to consider Shoffner's "good deeds," including her work for the Humane Society. He presented the court with a picture of her dog, Fred, and said he was moved by the fact that after Shoffner was first arrested, she asked Banks to call her sister to check on Fred. He called two character witnesses to the stand to testify on her behalf.

He also said that in her capacity as treasurer, Shoffner's books consistently balanced and audits found no problems in the accounts of the office itself. "She was in all honesty doing a pretty dadgum good job," Banks said. "I'm proud to be standing with this poor woman here at this dark hour ... she really is gullible. She really is naive."...

Banks said Shoffner has experienced the most public vilification that he has ever seen in his career as an attorney.  He compared her haggard appearance today with a picture of her being sworn in a few years ago, to show the physical toll her ordeal has taken.  He said she was now "disgraced," "broke" and "ostracized" and noted that she drove to the courthose in a 2003 Oldsmobile this morning.

He also pointed out that Steele Stephens received complete immunity from prosecution for his cooperation with the FBI.  Stephens got a $25,000 fine and lost his brokers license, and "that's it," Banks said.

The attorney argued that sentencing Shoffner to a long period in jail would not serve the public interest, and urged Holmes to give her only as much punishment needed "to repair people's confidence in the office."  She might not live out a harsh sentence, he said.

Especially because to this day I remain grumpy Bill Clinton never got prosecuted for his crimes while in office, I tend not to be eager to argue for mercy for lawbreaking politicians. But, if I read the facts here right, it seems the bribe-giver netted nearly $1 million dollars in benefits and gets only a small fine for his misdeeds because of his FBI cooperation while the bribe-taker is headed off the prison for a couple years even though she has already been disgraced and likely never posed any real risk to public safety.

That all said, I do not find either the 30-month sentence imposed by the federal judge or even the 5-year sentence recommended by the federal prosecutor too troublesome. What offends me is a guideline structure that would recommend a 15-year(!) prison sentence for a 71-year-old, first-time offender who poses no risk to public safety. That guideline recommendation strikes me as crazy on these facts, and it is reassuring that the prosecutor here had the good sense to only urge a sentence only 1/3 as long as the guidelines recommend and that the judge imposed a sentence only half as long as the prosecutor requested. And it is cases like this that still lead me to consider circuit courts misguided in the post-Booker jurisprudence to embrace any kind of presumption of reasonableness for within-guideline sentences.

August 28, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Scope of Imprisonment, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (3)

Despite copious reform talk, big and tough federal drug sentencing system churns on

ChartAs regular readers know, talk of federal sentencing reform, especially drug sentencing reform, has been all the rage in recent years.  And yet, as this new report from the US Sentencing Commission details, in the last fiscal year, the federal criminal justice system still sentenced tens of thousands of drug offenders to hundreds of thousands of years of federal imprisonment.

The new report, titled excitingly "Overview of Federal Criminal Cases, Fiscal Year 2014," actually reports a decline in the overall number of federal criminal case sentences in the last fiscal year.  But this overall decline was driven mostly by a significant decline in immigration cases.  Here are some snippets from the report which highlight some of modern federal sentencing trends:

The number of individual offenders sentenced each year grew steadily after the Commission began reporting sentencing data in 1988, reaching a high of 86,201 individual offenders sentenced in fiscal year 2011.  Since then the number of cases has decreased each year.  In fiscal year 2014, the number of individual offender cases reported to the Commission fell by 4,199 (5.2%) cases from the previous year to 75,836.  Since fiscal year 2011, the number of these cases has declined by 12.0 percent....

Drug cases have traditionally been the most common federal cases.  However, beginning in fiscal year 2009, the number of immigration cases steadily increased, reaching a high of 29,717 such cases in fiscal year 2011.  That year immigration cases were the most common offense in the federal system....  In fiscal year 2014, 24,011 drug cases were reported to the Commission, accounting for 31.7 percent of all cases. Most of these cases involved drug trafficking offenses.  That year there were 22,238 immigration cases, accounting for 29.3 percent of the total federal caseload that year....

Several factors affect the average prison sentence for drug offenders, including statutory mandatory minimum punishments, the quantity of the drugs involved in the case, the prior criminal history of the offender, and whether the offender assisted the government in the investigation of his or her crime and other crimes.

For more than 20 years, crack cocaine offenders have been the most severely punished, however the length of imprisonment imposed in these cases has decreased steadily since 2007.  In fiscal year 2014, the average imprisonment for drug crimes involving crack cocaine was 93 months of imprisonment (with a median sentence of 72 months).  This compares to a high of 129 for these offenders in fiscal year 2007.  Methamphetamine offenders are the next most severely punished drug crimes, with an average length of imprisonment of 88 months (and a median sentence of 70 months).  Marijuana offenders have the lowest average imprisonment at 36 months (with a median sentence of 24 months)....

Mandatory minimum penalties enacted by Congress play a large part in determining the sentence for drug offenders, either outright or through the impact of these statutes on the structure of the guidelines.  In fiscal year 2014, half of all drug offenders were convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty, however, this proportion was the lowest it has been since the Commission began reporting data about mandatory minimum penalty application in 1993.  The portion of drug cases carrying a mandatory minimum penalty in fiscal year 2013 was 62.1 percent.  This significant reduction was due, in large part, to a change in the policy of the Department of Justice as to how to charge drug cases.

In fiscal year 2014, powder cocaine offenders and methamphetamine offenders were convicted of an offense that provided for the imposition of a mandatory minimum sentence at the highest rates — 65.4 percent in powder cocaine cases and 61.8 percent in methamphetamine cases.  Mandatory minimum penalties were least common in drug cases involving “other” drugs (mostly prescription drugs) and marijuana, accounting for 4.3 percent and 33.2 percent, respectively, of those cases.

These data highlight that DOJ's new charging policies have a measurable impact of the operation of the federal sentencing system. But that change did not dramatically alter the modern annual pattern of more than 125,000 cumulative years of future federal prison time being imposed on all federal drug defendants. All those years, at a conservative average taxpayer cost of $30,000 per year, means just federal drug sentencing in 2014 served to commit nearly $4,000,000,000 in future federal taxpayer funds to incarcerating those drug defendants sentenced over the last USSC fiscal year.

August 28, 2015 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)