Sunday, July 06, 2014

Interesting account of guidelines accounting facing former NOLA mayor at upcoming federal sentencing

This lengthy local article, headlined "Emotions aside, Nagin sentence likely to come down to math," effectively reviews some of the guideline (and other) factors likely to impact the federal sentencing of former New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin this coming week.  Here are excerpts:

Under the rules, Nagin starts with a base “offense level” of 20 because he was an elected official who took multiple bribes but otherwise has no criminal history — facts that, with the jury verdict, are now undisputed.

The other major factors that will add points to his offense level include the financial “loss” the court assigns to his actions, the court’s judgment as to whether he was an “organizer or leader” in “criminal activity” that involved at least five people, and whether Nagin is found to have obstructed justice by lying to investigators and to the court.

There is some gray area in all of these questions. For instance, the monetary loss can be calculated to include not only bribes paid and received, but also the proceeds of any contracts that resulted from bribes. At a minimum, however, Berrigan will almost certainly find that the loss was greater than $200,000, as the jury convicted Nagin of taking more than that amount in bribes. That would bring his offense level to 32, but it could go significantly higher depending on whether Berrigan decides to include the profits of some or all of the contracts Nagin signed....

Experts say the question of financial loss is among the thorniest in calculating guidelines. The amount of bribes paid is an imperfect measure, for contracts awarded on the basis of bribes are presumed to be inflated to cover the cost of the payoffs. At the same time, the contractor usually completes the work outlined in the contract, making it unfair to count the entire value of the contract as a loss. In Nagin’s trial, the government did not present evidence to show that those who bribed Nagin failed to perform....

Other questions are similarly nuanced. If Berrigan finds Nagin obstructed justice by lying to investigators and to the jury, as prosecutors say he did on more than 25 occasions, the offense level would jump another two points. And if she finds he took a leadership role in a scheme involving five or more people, that would add as many as four more points. Though it’s clear that Nagin’s criminal conduct involved more than five people, experts say there may be wiggle room in that question, too....

Depending on how the judge rules on those questions, Nagin’s final offense level could be as low as 32, or as high as 40 or more. Based on those numbers, the guidelines would call for a sentence ranging from 10 years at the low end to as much as 30 years or even life. A filing by Nagin’s lawyer, Robert Jenkins, suggests that probation officers came up with an offense level of 38, which translates to a range of 20 to 24 years.

Jenkins asked Berrigan to consider a downward departure from that figure based on Nagin’s lack of a criminal history and an argument that the crimes of which he was convicted constituted “aberrant” behavior for an otherwise upstanding citizen. But prosecutor Matt Coman argued in an opposing motion that the guidelines already take into account the mayor’s unblemished past, which they do. Meanwhile, Coman said it was laughable to consider Nagin’s criminal conduct as an aberration, considering that he was convicted of multiple bribery and fraud schemes that unfolded over a period of years....

Apart from applying her own analysis of the guidelines, Berrigan also has some ability to go outside the recommended range, experts said. She could grant a “downward variance” on some basis she deems appropriate, provided that she explains it and the variance is not too great. Federal law spells out a number of factors a judge may consider, from the need to protect the public from further crimes to the deterrent effect of the sentence.

July 6, 2014 in Booker in district courts, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Yet more ACCA messiness out of Maryland

I noted in this post last week this lengthy Baltimore Sun article discussing how the multi-dimensional jurisprudential mess that is application of the Armed Career Criminal Act is messing with federal courts in Maryland.  Now this new Baltimore Sun article, headlined "Federal appeals court ruling could lead to more reduced sentences; Court rules that Maryland burglary convictions should not be used to increase sentences," reviews the latest chapter to rhis saga courtesy of the Fourth Circuit. Here are the basics:

A federal appeals court ruling could add to the number of inmates with legal grounds to seek reduced sentences because of a shifting interpretation of sentencing guidelines and what constitutes a violent crime. The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals invalidated last week a 3.5-year sentence for Jose Herbert Henriquez, an El Salvadoran who pleaded guilty to illegally re-entering the United States. The lengthy sentence was based in part on a previous burglary conviction.

"A Maryland conviction of first-degree burglary cannot constitute a crime of violence," Judge James A. Wynn Jr. wrote for the majority, remanding the case to a lower court for Henriquez to be resentenced.

The finding follows a Supreme Court decision that gave judges new instructions on how to determine which state laws should count as violent. That finding and a subsequent appeals case has led to dozens of federal inmates from Maryland challenging their sentences, and Wynn's decision raises the possibility of further challenges.

Prosecutors say the technical rulings threaten to undermine efforts to impose long sentences and keep the public safe, but inmate advocates say prisoners who have been unjustly locked away for too long are finding hope in the string of court victories....

The federal sentencing guidelines call for longer sentences in unlawful re-entry cases for defendants previously convicted of a violent crime. Among those crimes, the guidelines include "burglary of a dwelling." Maryland's first-degree burglary law defines the crime as breaking into a dwelling with the intent to commit a crime of violence or a theft.

Wynn, joined by other 4th Circuit judges, found that Maryland law does not sufficiently define dwelling to ensure it's in keeping with a Supreme Court ruling that burglary only includes breaking into a building — and not, for example, a houseboat or an RV.

The Fourth Circuit ruling in US v. Henriquez, No. 13-4238 (4th Cir. June 27, 2014), is available here.

Recent related post:

June 29, 2014 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

How SCOTUS Halliburton ruling could have white-collar sentencing echoes

HallExperienced lawyer and federal sentencing guru Mark Allenbaugh (firm website here) sent me an intriguing set of insights about how yesterday's Supreme Court ruling yesterday in Halliburton v. Erica P. John Fund (available here) could possibly impact some white-collar sentencing arguments. Mark kindly allowed me to reprint his analysis here:

White collar defense practitioners should be aware of today’s ruling in in Halliburton v. Erica P. John Fund. While a civil class action case, Halliburton may have some helpful applicability at sentencing. 

The Court in Halliburton has expanded the application of Basic Inc. v. Levinson, 485 U. S. 224 (1988) regarding WHEN plaintiffs can prove damages in “fraud on the market cases” from a defendant’s misrepresentation.  In Basic the Court, held that a class of plaintiffs could  prove reliance of a defendant’s misrepresentation by “invoking a presumption that the price of stock traded in an efficient market reflects all public, material information—including material misrepresentations.”  The presumption effectively allows plaintiffs to side-step proof of actual reliance on any misrepresentations for purposes of establishing damages.  Without class certification, however, individual plaintiffs cannot invoke the presumption thereby making proof of damages far more difficult.  The Court held that, contrary to the Fifth Circuit, Defendant/Petitioner Halliburton could introduce evidence that any misrepresentation lacked “price impact” to prevent certification of the class.

Halliburton could be helpful in securities fraud sentencing cases inasmuch as the government usually lumps all the victims together to determine a collective “loss” for sentencing purposes without introducing any evidence that any particular victim (save for those few who may have testified at any trial) relied on any misrepresentations of the defendant.  Such a collectivization of victim losses, therefore, implicitly invokes the Basic efficient market presumption allowing the government to side-step having to prove reliance by any particular victim.  But just as the Commission’s (relatively new and untested) modified recissory method for calculating loss in securities fraud case is subject to rebuttal, so too is the Basic presumption.  In light of today’s ruling in Halliburton, counsel should consider providing the Court evidence that any misrepresentation by the defendant lacked “price impact” on the victims sufficient to overcome the de facto Basic presumption with respect to collective victim losses.  In this way, the Government would be required to provide evidence how individual victims relied on any misrepresentations. 

To be sure, unlike in sophisticated civil class actions that require precision, since determining loss at sentencing need only be a reasonable estimate, only those victims that would materially affect the loss amount should not be granted the Basic presumption; in those cases the Government would be required to prove reliance.  But this is as it should be inasmuch as years if not decades of your client’s life could be at stake.

June 24, 2014 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

"Sentencing Terrorist Crimes"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article by Wadie E. Said now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

The legal framework behind the sentencing of individuals convicted of committing terrorist crimes has received little scholarly attention, even with the proliferation of such prosecutions in the eleven years following the attacks of September 11, 2001. This lack of attention is particularly striking in light of the robust and multifaceted scholarship that deals with the challenges inherent in criminal sentencing more generally, driven in no small part by the comparatively large number of sentencing decisions issued by the United States Supreme Court over the past thirteen years. Reduced to its essence, the Supreme Court’s sentencing jurisprudence requires district courts to make no factual findings that raise a criminal penalty over the statutory maximum, other than those found by a jury or admitted by the defendant in a guilty plea. Within those parameters, however, the Court has made clear that such sentences are entitled to a strong degree of deference by courts of review.

Historically, individuals convicted of committing crimes involving politically motivated violence/terrorism were sentenced under ordinary criminal statutes, as theirs were basically crimes of violence. Even when the law shifted to begin to recognize certain crimes as terrorist in nature — airplane hijacking being the prime example — sentencing remained relatively uncontroversial from a legal perspective, since the underlying conduct being punished was violent at its core. In the mid-1990s, the development and passage of a special sentencing enhancement, U.S. Sentencing Guidelines Manual section 3A1.4, offered the opportunity for district courts to significantly increase the penalty for certain activity that fell into a defined category of what was termed “a federal crime of terrorism.” Coupled with the post-9/11 trend of the government using a relatively new offense, 18 U.S.C. § 2339B, the ban on providing material support to designated foreign terrorist organizations, as its main legal tool in the war on terrorism, sentences for such crimes increased significantly, even in situations where there was no link to an act of violence. The application of section 3A1.4 invites a district court to find certain facts, under the preponderance of the evidence standard, which bring the conduct into the category of a federal crime of terrorism, thereby triggering greatly enhanced punishment. A review of the reported decisions involving section 3A1.4 reveals, however, that only in rare cases do courts find the enhancement to be improperly applied. This Article argues that, as currently understood, the application of section 3A1.4 raises serious concerns about its fidelity to the Supreme Court’s Sixth Amendment jurisprudence.

The existence of a terrorism sentencing enhancement also serves as a kind of statutory basis to embolden courts of appeals to overturn a sentence as too lenient, as has been the case in certain high-profile prosecutions, such as those of Ahmad Abu Ali, Lynne Stewart, and Jose Padilla, among others. As the examples in this Article demonstrate, those courts of review that have engaged in this practice either fail to appreciate or disregard the Supreme Court’s instructions to engage in a highly deferential type of review of a district court sentence. At the heart of these opinions lies a message that terrorism is especially heinous, and those convicted of terrorist crimes are particularly dangerous to the point of being irredeemably incapable of deterrence. While these sentiments may or may not be accurate, the courts of appeals adopting them cite no evidence or studies in support, creating the impression that a court of review may overturn a sentence in a terrorism case simply because it disagrees with the district court, something the Supreme Court has said is improper. In light of this recent development, this Article recommends that some combination of Congress, the United States Sentencing Commission, and the federal courts establish standards to better help a court decide when a heightened punishment might be warranted, free from unsupported assumptions about the nature of terrorism or a particular defendant.

June 18, 2014 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Two thoughtful criticisms of DOJ's request for only limited retroactivity of proposed lower drug guidelines

As reported here on Tuesday, the Justice Department this week advocated to the US Sentencing Commission that it make its new reduced drug guidelines retroactive only for the lowest-level offenders now serving prison sentences under the old drug guidelines. No doubt because many are eager to see the new drug guidelines made fully retroactive and because I suggested the DOJ half-a-loaf approach was politically and practically astute, I have received two lengthy and thoughtful e-mails from informed advocates which are critical of the DOJ retroactivity position and my reaction to it. With permission, I am posting the comments here.

Federal public defender Sarah Gannett had this to say:

I was the Federal Defender witness at yesterday's USSC hearing on drugs-minus-two retroactivity, and I read your post about the DOJ proposal.  Although I can see how the DOJ proposal might have some facial appeal, I urge you to take a closer look at it.

There is little evidence that the exclusions the Department is proposing are tied in any meaningful way to public safety.  At best, they are overbroad, and will result in deserving inmates being excluded from relief (for example, drug addicts who are in high CHCs because of multiple minor prior convictions related to their addictions).  Indeed, the Commission has acknowledged that criminal history is an imperfect proxy for seriousness of criminal history and risk of recidivism, which is why the Guidelines include a departure provision for over-representation.  Unfortunately, because of the way 1B1.10 is currently written, those who received over-representation departures will be ineligible for relief if the Commission adopts the DOJ proposal.  Similar arguments can be made about the enhancements the DOJ proposes as limiting.

Both David Debold, on behalf of PAG, and Mary Price, for FAMM, focused on the DOJ's proposal in their testimony yesterday.  You may wish to speak to either or both of them. I also encourage you to read the Defender testimony, which is available on the Commission's website.  Although we did not know what the Department's proposal would be until it was announced yesterday, we anticipated and addressed many of the points the DOJ proposal raises (see especially pp. 5-6).

Full retroactivity is the just result, which the Criminal Law Committee of the Judicial Conference recognized.  In fact, in her oral testimony, Judge Keeley indicated that the CLC considered a proposal like the DOJ's, but rejected it out of fairness concerns.  The CLC recommended a different compromise -- which delays implementation just until the institutional players can adequately prepare to address the volume of cases.  This approach is more principled than the limitations suggested by the Department.  It is discussed in the CLC's statement, which also was posted.  (Defenders took the position that, based on experience gained in the crack retroactivity process and other factors, the players could find a way to manage the caseload.  See our statement at pp. 9-13, 14-15.)

Those who are concerned about community safety should remember that the retroactivity statute and policy statement require the sentencing judge to review and consider the appropriateness of early release in every individual case, an obligation that courts took seriously following the 2007 and 2011 retroactive crack amendments.

Former US Pardon Attorney Margaret Colgate Love had this to say:

I am genuinely puzzled by the Department's proposed "compromise" on the retroactivity issue, and surprised and disappointed by your response to it.  I suggest that you compare the Department's proposal for guidelines retroactivity with the President's eight commutations last December.

Only one or possibly two of the eight individuals whose sentences were commuted -- all presumably pursuant to a favorable Department recommendation -- would qualify for relief under the DOJ proposed "compromise".  Clarence Aaron was enhanced for obstruction, Gray and Wintersmith had guns, and Gilbert, Wheeler and Patterson and probably George were either career offenders or CHC III or above.  Of the eight, only Jason Hernandez (a gang member charged with massive amounts of drug, with juvie gun priors) would appear to be a candidate for relief under the DOJ proposed compromise, a curious result to say the least.

It certainly raises a question why the Department thinks it is appropriate to ask the President to make these tough case-by-case calls but does not trust district judges to make them.  Somehow that does not seem "politically and practically astute" (your words), or respectful of institutional roles and competencies.  Moreover, if DOJ really wanted to lighten the burden imposed on its own staff by its unprecedented and possibly ill-advised invitation to all federal prisoners to apply for clemency, and to the private bar to represent them, one would think it should be asking the courts to do more of this work, not less.

Perhaps this means that DOJ will interpret and apply its six new clemency criteria narrowly, and recommend only those prisoners who fit in this minor-record-no-gun-no-obstruction category -- those few who would not benefit from the guidelines reduction because of a mandatory minimum.  It is not at all clear to me that such a crabbed interpretation of the clemency initiative would be responsive to the President's clear signal in the December 8 grants about what he wants from his Justice Department.

If the only ones recommended for clemency are those who satisfy the criteria commended to the Commission by the Department, this will be a cruel hoax on federal prisoners, who are expecting a lot more.  It will also be deeply unfair to the hundreds of private lawyers who have agreed to donate their time to learn a new skill in preparation for telling a prisoner's story, in what may turn out to be a false hope that one of their clients will win the clemency lottery.

I commend Judge Irene Keeley for saying that full retroactivity is a "moral issue" and the courts’ “burden to bear.”  Good for the POs too, whose professionalism is encouraging. I agree with Judge Keeley that it would be fundamentally unfair to categorically deny full retroactivity to prisoners, just as it would be fundamentally unfair to categorically exclude certain prisoners from clemency consideration.

I hope the Department -- and the President -- will come to see that the apparatus already exists to achieve sentencing fairness, and it is in the courts not the executive.  I hope also that this President does not turn out to be the third in a row to be embarrassed by his Justice Department's clemency program.

Some recent related posts:

June 12, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Some new posts highlighting the "tough-on-crime" take on federal drugs sentencing reform

Long-time readers know that we used to be able to get Bill Otis's tough-on-crime perspective on sentencing reform via the comments to posts here, but now we all need to head over to Crime & Consequences to see his take on current sentencing events.  Not surprisingly, the discussion by US Sentencing Commission about whether to make its new lower drug guidelines retroactive has Bill going strong, and here are a sampling of him recent post from C&C:

The titles of all these posts provide a flavor of their contents, but I urge all folks following closely the debates over recent federal sentencing reform to click through and read all Bill has to say on these topics.  Notably, the first post listed above highlights how perspectives on broader reform debates will necessarily inform views on particular positions taken on smaller issues.  Bill assails DOJ for advocating for "large scale retroactivity" when it decided to yesterday to "support limited retroactivity of the pending drug guideline amendment."  In notable contrast, I have received a number of e-mails from advocates of federal sentencing reform today (some of which I hope to soon reprint in this space) that assail DOJ for not advocating for complete retroactivity.

June 11, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (17) | TrackBack

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

DOJ advocates for "limited retroactivity of the pending drug guideline amendment"

As detailed in this prior post, today the US Sentencing Commission is conducting a public hearing to gather testimony from invited witnesses concerning whether the Commission should designate as retroactive its new proposed guideline that reduces most drug sentences across the board.  And though that hearing is on-going, the hearing agenda available here now has links to most of the witnesses' submitted written testimony, including the position advocated by the Department of Justice.  

As detailed in this official DOJ press release and this written testimony via US Attorney Sally Yates, the Justice Department is urging the Commission to make the new reduced drug guidelines retroactive for some, but not all, prisoners now serving sentences under the old drug guidelines.  Here are the basics of the compromise advocated by DOJ via its submitted testimony:

After extensive discussions and consideration of the various policy interests at stake in this matter – including public safety, individual justice for offenders, and public trust and confidence in the federal criminal justice system – we support limited retroactivity of the pending drug guideline amendment. As I will discuss further, we think such an approach strikes the right balance of policy interests and can be rigorously and effectively implemented across the federal criminal justice system within existing resource constraints....

Assessing whether the amendment should be applied retroactively requires balancing several factors.  The primary factor driving our position to support retroactive application of the amendment, albeit limited retroactivity, is that the federal drug sentencing structure in place before the amendment resulted in unnecessarily long sentences for some offenders.  While we believe finality in sentencing should remain the general rule, and with public safety our foremost goal, we also recognize that the sentences imposed for some drug defendants under the current sentencing guidelines are longer than necessary, and this creates a negative impact upon both the public’s confidence in the criminal justice system and our prison resources....

Because of public safety concerns that arise from the release of dangerous drug offenders and from the diversion of resources necessary to process over 50,000 inmates, we believe retroactivity of the drug amendment should be limited to lower level, nonviolent drug offenders without significant criminal histories. Limited retroactivity will ensure that release decisions for eligible offenders are fully considered on a case-by-case basis as required, that sufficient supervision and monitoring of released offenders will be accomplished by probation officers, and that the public safety risks to the community are minimized. Release dates should not be pushed up for those offenders who pose a significant danger to the community; indeed, we believe certain dangerous offenders should be categorically prohibited from receiving the benefits of retroactivity....

Balancing all of these factors, the Department supports limited retroactive application of the 2014 drug guideline amendment. We urge the Commission to act consistently with public safety and limit the reach of retroactive application of the amendment only to those offenders who do not pose a significant public safety risk. The Commission has the authority to direct limited retroactivity under both 18 U.S.C. § 994(u) and Dillon, which provide authority to the Commission to prescribe the “circumstances” under which an amended guideline is applied retroactively. We believe the Commission should limit retroactive application to offenders in Criminal History Categories I and II who did not receive: (1) a mandatory minimum sentence for a firearms offense pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 924(c); (2) an enhancement for possession of a dangerous weapon pursuant to §2D1.1(b)(1); (3) an enhancement for using, threatening, or directing the use of violence pursuant to §2D1.1(b)(2); (4) an enhancement for playing an aggravating role in the offense pursuant to §3B1.1; or (5) an enhancement for obstruction of justice or attempted obstruction of justice pursuant to §3C1.1.

With these limitations, all of which should have been determined in prior court action and should be documented in the court file in most cases, courts will be able to determine eligibility for retroactivity based solely on the existing record and without the need for transporting a defendant to court or holding any extensive fact finding. Retroactivity would be available to a class of non-violent offenders who have limited criminal history, did not possess or use a weapon, and thus will apply only to the category of drug offender who warrants a less severe sentence and who also poses the least risk of reoffending. While the factors we suggest are not a perfect proxy for dangerousness, they are a reasonable proxy based on the Commission’s own research, and identifying them will not require new hearings.

Though I suspect the intriguing middle-ground position embraced here by DOJ will disappoint the usual suspects advocating fully against or fully for retroactivity, I view this DOJ proposal to be both politically and practically astute. In part because SO very many current federal prisoners may be eligible for a sentence reduction based on the new guidelines, I think it make sense (and is consistent with congressional policies and goals) for any retroactivity rule to seek to bring some equities into the application of the new law in an effort to ensure the most deserving of previously sentenced defendants get the benefit of the new guidelines. The DOJ position here seems thoughtfully designed to try to achieve that balance.

Some recent related posts:

June 10, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (15) | TrackBack

Monday, June 09, 2014

Big US Sentencing Commission hearing Tuesday on reduced drug guideline retroactivity

As reported in this official notice, a public hearing of the United States Sentencing Commission is scheduled for Tuesday, June 10, 2014, and the "purpose of the public hearing is for the Commission to gather testimony from invited witnesses concerning whether the Commission should designate as retroactive Amendment 782."  That Amendment, in short form, reduces the guidelines applicable to drug trafficking offenses by two levels in most settings.  And, as set forth in this detailed USSC staff analysis, as many as "51,141 offenders sentenced between October 1, 1991 and October 31, 2014, would be eligible to seek a reduction in their current sentence if the Commission were to make the 2014 drug guidelines amendment retroactive.

The hearing agenda and the list of the 16 witnesses scheduled now to testify at this hearing is available here. I am pretty confident that most of these witnesses will advocate that the new drug guidelines be made retroactive, but I am not entirely certain about what positions will be advocated by the Department of Justice and some of the law enforcement witnesses. In addition, advocates on both sides likely will articulate in different ways with distinct emphasis why they think retroactivity for these new reduced drug guidelines would be a good or bad idea.

I am hopeful that by this time tomorrow the written testimony to be submitted by the witnesses with be linked on the USSC's website.  In the meantime, I will be re-reading  this detailed USSC staff analysis in order to have a better understanding of the 50,000+ federal prisoners whose fates could be impacted by the retroactivity decision.

June 9, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Commentary on drug guideline retroactivity asks "Who's Afraid of Too Much Justice?"

This notable new commentary in The Huffington Post by Megan Quattlebaum makes the case for the US Sentencing Commission to make fully retroactive its new guidelines amendment reducing most federal drug sentencing recommendations. Here are excerpts:

In a landmark decision, the United States Sentencing Commission voted last month to lower the recommended penalty for federal drug crimes by about 17 percent.  As of now, the change will apply only to defendants who are sentenced after November 1, 2014.  But the Commission is also exploring whether the reduction should be made retroactive, and it issued two reports two reports two reports (available here and here) analyzing that question last week.

Four things struck me as I read the reports. First, the Commission estimates that, if the changes were made retroactive, 51,141 individuals who are currently in prison (an incredible 23 percent of the total population) would be eligible to seek a reduction in their sentences.  That a large number of people will be affected is not surprising -- almost half of all federal prisoners (48 percent) are incarcerated for drug crimes.  But what is surprising is that even if all 51,141 were to get reduced sentences, we would have barely begun to bring the federal prison population down to pre-drug war levels.  We incarcerated approximately 25,000 people in federal prisons in 1980.  By 2013, that number had risen to over 219,000.  As a result, the federal prison system is operating at 36 percent over capacity, costing taxpayers $6.4 billion per year and climbing....

Second, a significant percentage (about 25 percent) of the 51,141 potentially eligible for earlier release are non-citizens who may be subject to deportation.  Many rightly question the wisdom of incarcerating large numbers of ultimately deportable non-citizens at taxpayer expense....

Third, the average age of an inmate who will be eligible for a sentence reduction is 38 years.  In the universe of criminal justice, 38 is old.  Researchers have consistently found that involvement in street crimes, like drug offenses, generally begins in the early teenage years, peaks in young adulthood, and dissipates before the individual turns 30. Explanations for this phenomenon are varied, but "[a] large body of research shows that desistance from crime... is... tied to the acquisition of meaningful bonds to conventional adult individuals and institutions, such as work, marriage and family..."  These older offenders should have a low risk of recidivism generally.  And the more that we can do to foster their re-engagement with their families and communities, the lower that risk will be.

Fourth, 20 percent of the individuals who may be eligible for earlier release come from one state: Texas.  True, Texas is big and populous, but it's also punitive.  The more heavily populated state of California only accounts for five percent of potential sentence reductions, while New York accounts for about four percent.  Reading the charts that accompany the Sentencing Commission report is a statistical window into the American drug war, in which hang 'em high southern states feature prominently, if not proudly.

The Sentencing Commission is accepting public comments until July 7, 2014 on whether to make these changes to drug sentences retroactive. Some will no doubt argue against retroactivity, either out of fear that releasing individuals earlier will permit them re-offend sooner or out of concern for the serious workload that federal courts will have to take onin order to process so many applications for sentence reduction.  But if we have revised our view of what constitutes a just sentence for a drug offense, then we cannot and should not justify continuing to incarcerate 51,141 people under an old, rejected understanding. We should never be afraid of too much justice.

I am grateful to see this thoughtful effort to dig into the US Sentencing Commission data concerning who could benefit from the new drug guidelines being made retroactive. And I think this commentary rightly highlights that the nationality status and the age profile of federal drug prisoners provide some important extra reasons for being comfortable with the new guidelines being made retroactive.

That said, the commentary about Texas justice and the state-by-state analysis strikes me a potentially a bit misguided. I suspect and fear that federal prosecution of drug crimes in Texas is higher than in other states not only because of the likely international dimensions to many drug crimes around the Mexican border but also because state drug laws in other states may be uniquely harsh. This commentary compares data from California and New York, but these two states have had a history of some notorious tough state sentencing laws (i.e., the Three Strikes Law in California, the Rockefeller Laws in NY). There may be so many federal drug prisoners from Texas not because state sentencing policies and practices are so tough, but because federal policies and practices relative to state norms are so much tougher and because local drug crimes are not really local along the border.

My point here is to highlight that state-by-state examination of federal drug sentencing patterns may reflect lots of distinct and dynamic factors.  Notably, the Commission data indicate that about the same number of federal drug prisoners from Iowa will be impacted by retroactivity of the new drug guidelines as from Arkansas and Mississippi combined.  These data alone hardly reveal the corn belt is the real "hang-em-high" center for the national drug war.  Ultimaely, ever-changing local, state and national drug use and trafficking patterns along with dynamic prosecutorial policies and priorities likely better explain state-by-state federal prisoner data than any social or political conventional wisdom.

Some various somewhat recent related posts:

June 3, 2014 in Data on sentencing, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Monday, June 02, 2014

Tenth Circuit explains what's the matter with Kansas prior convictions as enhancers

Download (1)Thanks to a helpful reader, I learned that today the Tenth Circuit handed down a significant opinion concerning the use of prior Kansas offenses in career offender guideline calculations in US v. Brooks, No. 13-3166 (10th Cir. June 2, 2014) (available here).  Here is how the opinion in Books starts and ends:

Did Defendant Damian L. Brooks commit enough prior qualifying felonies to be considered a “career offender” under the Federal Sentencing Guidelines?  The district court below said yes, relying on United States v. Hill, 539 F.3d 1213 (10th Cir. 2008), to classify a prior Kansas conviction of Defendant as a felony because it was punishable by more than one year in prison. On appeal, Defendant admits Hill mandates this classification. He argues, however, that Hill was abrogated by the Supreme Court in Carachuri-Rosendo v. Holder, 560 U.S. 563 (2010).  We agree.  As such, exercising jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1291 and 18 U.S.C. § 3742, we reverse and remand for resentencing....

In conclusion, Hill — which looked to the hypothetical worst possible offender to determine whether a state offense was punishable by more than a year in prison — cannot stand in light of Carachuri-Rosendo.  We now hold, in line with our pre-Hill precedent, that in determining whether a state offense was punishable by a certain amount of imprisonment, the maximum amount of prison time a particular defendant could have received controls, rather than the amount of time the worst imaginable recidivist could have received.  As such, Defendant’s prior Kansas conviction for eluding police is not a felony for purposes of U.S.S.G. § 4B1.1(a).  The district court’s imposition of a career offender enhancement was therefore in error and is REVERSED. This case is REMANDED for resentencing.

The helpful reader who alerted me to this opinion noted that "for those of us who deal with Kansas state convictions, it is (as Ron Burgundy would say), kind of a big deal."  Here is part of this reader's explanation for why:

Previous 10th Circuit authority held that a conviction for a Kansas on grid "felony" was punishable by more than one year if a sentence more than one year could be imposed on any hypothetical defendant.  That is, the analysis was not limited by a defendant's actual criminal history category on the state guidelines grid.  If more than one year could be imposed for any criminal history category, the conviction = felony for purposes of federal law, even though a particular defendant may have only been exposed to a sentence less one year or less....

This ruling will impact multiple areas of federal prosecution and sentencing.  For instance, if the high end of a defendant's KS gridbox is 12 months, then the conviction is not a disabling conviction for purposes of 18 USC 922(g)(1).  Likewise, such a conviction would not be a predicate conviction for purposes of the Armed Career Criminal Act or the Career Offender guidelines enhancement.

A more limited effect will be that a few drug-grid convictions will not be a "prior drug felony" that can enhance a controlled substance offense under 21 USC 851....  Certain attempts/conspiracies/solicitations to commit drug crimes would also not be a federal felony for enhancement purposes.

Because I do not know how many federal sentencing cases are significantly impacted by how certain prior Kansas offenses are assessed, I cannot readily guess just how loudly this Brooks ruling might echo in other settings.  But I do know that a similar type of ruling from the Fourth Circuit a few years ago concerning how North Carolina priors were to be treated has tied up a lot of federal courts in a lot of jurisprudential knots as they try to unwind the impact of "mis-assessed prior offenses." Consequently, I would advise court officials and federal practitioners in Kansas and perhaps throughout the Tenth Circuit to start reviewing and giving thought to what Brooks says and what it could mean for prior cases as well as future ones.

June 2, 2014 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

US Sentencing Commission releases two significant research reports concerning drug sentencing reform and retroactivity

I just received a notice from the US Sentencing Commission which highlights that the USSC has some new research that can and should help inform the on-going discussion of whether and how the new reduced drug guidelines ought to be made retroactive. Here is the text of this notice I got via e-mail, which includes links to two important new research documents:

As previously noted, the Commission is seeking public comment on the issue of whether to apply its recent amendment to the drug quantity table retroactively.  The Commission will receive public comment on this issue through July 7, 2014.  Public comment can be emailed to  public_comment@ussc.gov.  To facilitate public comment on this issue, the Commission is making available the following materials:
 
In April, Commissioners directed staff to analyze the impact of retroactivity should the Commission vote to authorize retroactive application of the 2014 drug guidelines amendment.
 
The Commission also released an updated recidivism analysis of crack cocaine offenders who were released early after implementation of a 2007 guidelines amendment which retroactively reduced by two levels the base offense levels assigned by the Drug Quantity Table for crack cocaine.  In this five-year study, these offenders were compared with similarly situated offenders who served their original sentences.

May 27, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Fascinating research on federal mortgage fraud prosecutions and sentencing in Western PA

20140525mortgage-fraud-thumbI am pleased and excited to have learned over the long weekend that the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Duquesne University School of Law collaborated on an innovative Fact Investigations class, led by associate professor and Criminal Justice Program director Wesley Oliver, to study the modern work of Western Pennsylvania's federal prosecutors in response to modern mortage fraus.  As explained in this first article of a series about this work, this group "identified 144 prosecutions alleging mortgage-related crimes in the Pittsburgh area ... [and then] analyzed 100 prosecutions in which sentence had been pronounced and for which the federal sentencing guidelines could be discerned." Before getting into the findings, I want to heap praise on everyone involved in this project because it shows what valuable work can be done when law schools and traditional media team up to examine intricate and dynamic issues concerning the federal criminal justice system.

Here, from the start of the first article in the series, are the basic findings of this terrific project:

In 2008, as the housing market dragged the world economy down, orders came from Washington, D.C., to federal prosecutors nationwide: Bust the people whose lies contributed to the mess.

Six years later, the effort by Pittsburgh's federal prosecutors to punish fraudulent mortgage brokers, appraisers, closing agents, property flippers and bank employees can claim 144 people charged, more than 100 sentenced and no acquittals.

That undefeated record, though, came at a price: Some of the worst offenders got extraordinary deals in return for their testimony against others.

A review by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Duquesne University School of Law students of 100 completed cases showed that the sentences of mortgage-related criminals in the Pittsburgh area were driven more by their degree of cooperation with prosecutors than by the number of people they scammed, the dollars they reaped or the damage they did to the financial system.  Some of the most prolific offenders used their central places in the fraud conspiracy to secure light sentences.

• Leniency for cooperation was doled out liberally.  At least 30 of the 100 defendants were the beneficiaries of prosecutorial motions to reward "substantial assistance" to the investigation.  That cooperation rate is nearly double that seen in fraud cases nationwide, suggesting that prosecutors here rewarded more defendants than normal.

• Most of the mortgage criminals who assisted prosecutors got no prison time, and the average amount of incarceration for those 30 defendants was a little more than three months.  By contrast, defendants who pleaded guilty but didn't provide substantial assistance to prosecutors, got average sentences of three years in prison.  Those few who went to trial faced an average of 6½ years behind bars.

•  Several of the figures most central to the region's mortgage fraud problem cooperated with prosecutors, and got non-prison sentences.  For instance, Kenneth C. Cowden, formerly of McKees Rocks and now of Florida, performed unlicensed appraisals that exaggerated real estate values in the region to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. He cooperated and got nine months in a halfway house.  Jay Berger of Fox Chapel, who recruited Cowden and lived lavishly from fraudulent mortgages, was sentenced in 2012 to 15 months in prison, but died this month at age 49 without serving time.

Here are links to all the article in the series:

Regular readers will not be at all surprised to hear me say that I view this terrific bit of investigative journalism as further proof that those who are really concerned about suspect disparities in federal sentencing ought to be much more focused on the application of (hidden and unreviewable) prosecutorial sentencing discretion than about the exercise of (open and reviewable) judicial sentencing discretion.

May 27, 2014 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Within-guideline sentences dip below 50% according to latest USSC data

Due to a busy end-of-the-semester schedule, I only just this week got a chance to look at US Sentencing Commission's posting here of its First Quarter FY14 Quarterly Sentencing data.  And, as the title of this post highlights, there is big news in these USSC data: for the first time, less than half of all federal sentences imposed were technically "within-guideline" sentences.  To be exact, only 48.8% of the 18,169 sentences imposed during the last three months of 2013 were within-guideline sentences.

In this post following the previous quarterly USSC data release, I noted a small uptick in the number of below guideline sentences imposed by federal district judges (from around 18.5% of all federal cases to 19.3% in the last quarter of FY13).  At that time, I hypothesized that perhaps a few more judges were willing to impose below-guideline sentences in a few more federal cases after Attorney General Eric Holder's big August 2013 speech to the ABA lamenting excessive use of incarceration in the United States.  Now, in this latest quarterly data run, the number of judge-initiated, below-guideline sentences has ticked up again, this time to 20.4% of all sentenced federal cases.  I now this this data blip is evidence of a real "Holder effect."

Though still more time and data are needed before firm causal conclusions should be reached here, I do believe all the recent talk about the need for federal sentencing reform is likely finding expression in the way federal judges are now using their post-Booker discretion.  The data from the last six month suggest that, as we hear ever more public policy groups and politicians on both the right and the left echoing AG Holder's call for less reliance on long terms of incarceration, more federal judges feel ever more justified in imposing more sentences below the guidelines. 

May 7, 2014 in Booker in district courts, Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Monday, May 05, 2014

New York Times op-ed spotlights enduring flaw with modern drug sentencing

Today's New York Times has this notable new op-ed authored by Mark Osler under the headline "We Need Al Capone Drug Laws."  Here are highights:

After a ruinous 30-year experiment in harsh sentences for narcotics trafficking resulting in mass incarceration, policy makers are having second thoughts.  Many states, including Texas, have reformed their laws to shorten sentences.  Congress is giving serious consideration to the Smarter Sentencing Act, which would do the same. The United States Sentencing Commission has just adopted a proposal to revise federal guidelines.

And most recently, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. announced that President Obama intends to use his executive pardon power to release hundreds or even thousands of federal prisoners with narcotics convictions (I am on a committee to train lawyers for the project).  Something like that hasn’t happened since President John F. Kennedy granted clemency to more than 200 prisoners convicted of drug crimes.

Unfortunately, none of this addresses a very basic underlying problem: We continue to use the weight of narcotics as a proxy for the culpability of an individual defendant, despite this policy’s utter failure.  If a kingpin imports 15 kilograms of cocaine into the country and pays a trucker $400 to carry it, they both face the same potential sentence.  That’s because the laws peg minimum and maximum sentences to the weight of the drugs at issue rather than to the actual role and responsibility of the defendant.  It’s a lousy system, and one that has produced unjust sentences for too many low-level offenders, created racial disparities and crowded our prisons....

Some laws create remarkably low thresholds for the highest penalties.  For example, my home state of Minnesota categorizes someone who sells just 10 grams of powder cocaine (the equivalent of 10 sugar packets) as guilty of a first-degree controlled-substance crime — the most serious of five felony categories.  There is no real differentiation between the most culpable wholesaler and an occasional street dealer.  

The problem with recent legal reforms is that they don’t dispose of this rotten infrastructure.  In 2010, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act, which changed the ratio between crack and powder cocaine for sentencing purposes from 100-to-1 (meaning the same sentence applied to 100 grams of powder cocaine and to 1 gram of crack) to 18-to-1.  

What the Fair Sentencing Act didn’t do is change the basic weight-centric centric focus that has filled our prisons with narcotics convicts. There were 4,749 such prisoners serving federal time in 1980, before the harshest weight-based standards were implemented. As of 2013, that number was 100,026. As for the drugs themselves, they’re still here....

A better measure of culpability would be the amount of profit that any individual took from the operation of a narcotics ring. Because narcotics conspiracies are nothing more or less than a business, they operate like any other business. The people who have the most important skills, capital at risk or entrepreneurial abilities take the most money. Statutes and guidelines should be rewritten so that profit thresholds replace narcotic weight thresholds. Only then will mules and street sellers properly face much shorter sentences than real kingpins.

This would, of course, create a new challenge for prosecutors and investigators, who would have to prove the amount of profit made by an individual defendant. It wouldn’t be as easy as snatching up mules and street dealers. But then “easy” and “justice” rarely rest comfortably with each other.

May 5, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

President Bartlet urges Congress to pass the Smarter Sentencing Act

I am pleased and intrigued to learn via this Mother Jones piece, headlined "Martin Sheen Reprises His 'West Wing' Role — for a Sentencing Reform PSA," that a high-profile celebrity is making the case for federal sentencing reform. Here are the details (along with links):

On Tuesday, Brave New Films released a new PSA calling on Congress to pass the Smarter Sentencing Act. The proposed sentencing-reform legislation aims to reduce prison populations and costs by creating less severe minimum terms for nonviolent drug offenders. (On Monday,Yahoo News reported that President Obama could grant clemency to "hundreds, perhaps thousands" of nonviolent drug offenders by the end of his second term.) The video was produced in partnership with the ACLU and Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), and stars actor Martin Sheen. It's titled "President Bartlet has a message for Congress," in reference to Sheen's role on Aaron Sorkin's political drama The West Wing.

"When BNF joined with FAMM and the ACLU to rally support for the Smart Sentencing Act, we couldn't think of a better spokesperson than Martin Sheen," Brave New Films president Robert Greenwald said. "When he portrayed President Bartlett on The West Wing, his character commuted the sentences of nonviolent drug offenders. In the real world, Martin Sheen has been an advocate for sentencing reform and alternatives to the harsh, long prison sentences we give to nonviolent drug offenders."

April 23, 2014 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Critical reflections on the Cantu commutation ... aka why some federal prosecutors perhaps deserve to be demonized

220px-TrialKafkaThe more I reflect on the typo-correction sentence commutation of federal prisoner Cesar Huerta Cantu (basics here), and especially after re-reading this 2255 dismissal order that followed Cantu's own effort to have a court fix its own significant sentencing error, the more disgusted I feel about the modern federal sentencing system and especially about the U.S. Department of Justice and those federal prosecutors most responsible for Cesar Cantu's treatment by our Kafkaesque system.  In an effort to achieve some catharsis, let me try to briefly explain my feelings in three basic points:

1.  Cantu's original federal sentencing as guidelines numerology:  My disgust begins as I think about the basic reality that our federal sentencing system enables a small numerical typo — what should have been a 34 was a 36 in the presentence report guideline calculations — to result in 38-year-old defendant with no criminal history (who pleaded guilty and had considerable family support) to get sentenced to an extra 3.5 years in prison.  I continue to struggle to find much sense of justice or wisdom in a federal sentencing system in which quantitative numbers invented by a government agency, rather than qualitative factors and reasoned judgment, often still conclusively determine how many years or decades defendants are ordered to spend locked in a cage.

2.  Cantu's original federal sentencing as federal actors gone numb:  Arguably more depressing than a federal sentencing system in which numbers invented by a government agency determine how long a defendant gets locked up are sentencing actors whose concern for the human realities of incarceration have been numbed by all the numbers.  One would hope that, as part of a system in which years of human experience for federal defendants (and those who care about them) get determined by basic math, everyone involved would make extra sure the math is always done right.  But, numbed by so many humans being imprisoned for so many years based on so many numbers, the author of the PSR did not notice a typo that inflated Cantu's guideline-recommend prison sentence by many years, and neither did the defense attorney representing Cantu, and neither did the US Attorneys prosecuting Cantu, and neither did the federal judge sentencing Cantu.

3.  Cantu's dismissed 2255 motion as federal prosecutors possessed:  Bill Otis and others sometimes complain that I seem at times to suggest federal prosecutors are evil or satanic.  In fact, I have great respect for the hard work of federal prosecutors, and I am sure I would much rather have my daughters date 99% of federal prosecutors than 99% of federal defendants.  But I must wonder about what kind of evil or satanic forces may have possessed the federal prosecutors who responded to Cantu's pro se 2255 motion to correct his sentence with a motion to dismiss this matter as time-barred.  

Based on my reading of this 2255 dismissal order that followed Cantu's motion, federal prosecutors have never disputed that a  typo resulted in Cantu receiving a sentence 3.5 years longer than he should have, nor have they disputed that federal government officials are wholly responsible for this consequential error.  Still, the federal prosecutors who contributed to a mistake costing Cantu 3.5 years of his freedom responded to his 2255 motion by urging the sentencing judge also responsible for this mistake to refuse to correct Cantu's sentence because Cantu discovered their mistakes too late.  I am hard-pressed to come up with adjectives to describe this federal prosecutorial decision to seek dismissal of Cantu's 2255 motion other than inhumane.

I want to be able to imagine a positive motivation for why federal prosecutors sought a procedural dismissal of Cantu's motion to correct his indisputably erroneous sentence: perhaps, I was thinking, six years after prosecutors helped get an erroneously long sentence imposed on Cantu, these prosecutors came to believe Cantu was a criminal mastermind still involved in serious criminal wrongdoing from prison.  But, as this New York Times article reports, years after his initial erroneous sentencing, Cantu provided "law enforcement authorities with substantial assistance on an unrelated criminal matter" and "he has been a model prisoner, taking vocational and life skills courses and expressing remorse."  In addition, according to the Times reporting, Cantu is married and has 8-year old daughter.  Even if prosecutors were, for whatever reasons, disinclined to help Cantu get his erroneous sentence fixed after Cantu himself had helped the prosecutors, wouldn't they lose a little sleep over the notion that a typo could end up costing Cantu's wife the chance to have her husband's help to raise their daughter during her coming adolescence?

I am hoping Bill Otis or other current or former federal prosecutors will help me feel better about the work of our federal sentencing system and the Department of Justice in the wake of the Cantu commutation.  Especially because Prez Obama has been so stingy with his clemency power, I want this latest commutation to be a reason to celebrate rather than curse our justice system.  But unless and until someone can metamorphasize my understanding of the work of federal prosecutors in this case, I have a hard time not thinking that Josef K. and Cantu have far too much in common. 

April 16, 2014 in Clemency and Pardons, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (25) | TrackBack

Thursday, April 10, 2014

US Sentencing Commission to vote on reducing drug sentencing guidelines

As detailed in this official notice, "a public meeting of the [US Sentencing] Commission is scheduled for Thursday, April 10, 2014, at 2:30 p.m."  On the official agenda is "Vote to Promulgate Proposed Amendments," and as reported in this prior post, in January the USSC voted to publish proposed amendments to the federal sentencing guidelines that include an across-the-board reduction in the sentences recommended for all drug offenses.  

I expect there will be some press reports about the USSC vote on the drug guidelines later today.  In the meantime, this effective new PBS Frontline article headlined "Feds to Reconsider Harsh Prison Terms for Drug Offenders," provides some background and context:

The federal prison population has expanded by nearly 800 percent in the past 30 years, spurred in part by the increasing use of tougher sentences applied to nonviolent drug crimes. Now there’s a growing movement to scale it back. On Thursday, the U.S. Sentencing Commission, an independent federal agency, plans to vote on an amendment to sentencing guidelines that could ultimately begin to winnow the federal prison population, nearly half of whom are people convicted of drug offenses.

The amendment is part of a bipartisan push away from America’s addiction to incarceration, which prison reform experts say costs far too much, not only in dollars — $80 billion a year in 2010 — but also in the devastation primarily of African-American communities, who have been disproportionately caught up in the system.

The commission’s proposal would lower the sentencing guideline levels for drug-trafficking offenses, allowing judges to impose reduced sentences by about 11 months, on average, for these crimes. The guidelines are the range between which a judge can sentence an offender. Currently, those guidelines are set higher even than mandatory minimum sentences — the lowest possible sentence a judge could impose — to give prosecutors bargaining power. The amendment would set the upper and lower guideline limits around the mandatory minimums, leading to lower sentences for nearly 70 percent of drug-trafficking offenders, the commission said....

Prison reform advocates say the commission’s proposal is an incremental step, but an important one. “When you’re serving 10 years, six months can make a difference,” said Jesselyn McCurdy, an attorney with the ACLU’s Washington legislative office. “It’s incremental, but it’s all important because it sends the larger message that we have to do something about the harsh sentencing in the federal system.”

Should the Sentencing Commission’s amendment pass, it will be sent to Congress, which will have 180 days to make any changes. If it does nothing — which is the likely outcome given bipartisan Congressional support for the proposal — the resolution will take effect on Nov. 1.

For years, states, which carry the bulk of U.S. prisoners, have taken the lead on sentencing reform — largely out of necessity. Struggling with stretched budgets and overflowing prisons, 40 states have passed laws that ease sentencing guidelines for drug crimes from 2009 to 2013, according to a comprehensive analysis by the Pew Research Center. Seventeen states have invested in reforms like drug treatment and supervision that will save about $4.6 billion over 10 years, according to the Justice Department.

Such reforms also have gained popular public support. According to Pew’s own polling, 63 percent of Americans say that states moving away from mandatory minimum sentencing is a “good thing,” up from 41 percent in 2001. Even more — 67 percent — said that states should focus on treatment, rather than punishment, for people struggling with addiction to illegal drugs....

The Sentencing Commission itself notes that substantial reform requires action by Congress. “Our proposed approach is modest,” said Patti Saris, the commission’s chairwoman. “The real solution rests with Congress, and we continue to support efforts there to reduce mandatory minimum penalties, consistent with our recent report finding that mandatory minimum penalties are often too severe and sweep too broadly in the drug context, often capturing lower-level players.”...

The Senate is currently considering a bill called the Smarter Sentencing Act, a bipartisan bill introduced in July 2013 by Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah). It wouldn’t abolish mandatory minimums, but it would allow judges to impose more lenient sentences for certain non-violent drug offenses. “Our current scheme of mandatory minimum sentences is irrational and wasteful,” Lee said when introducing the bill, adding that the act “takes an important step forward in reducing the financial and human cost of outdated and imprudent sentencing policies.”...

But the bill, which even the senators acknowledged as “studied and modest” on their website, doesn’t have great odds of passing. According to govtrack.us, a nonpartisan website that tracks congressional legislation, the Smarter Sentencing Act has only a 39 percent chance of being enacted.

Some recent related posts:

UPDATE:  This press release reports that, as expected, the USSC voted today to reduce the federal guidelines for all drug offenses.  Here is an excerpts from the press release:

The Commission voted unanimously to amend the guidelines to lower the base offense levels in the Drug Quantity Table across drug types. The drug guidelines under the amendment would remain linked to statutory mandatory minimum penalties. The Commission estimates that approximately 70 percent of federal drug trafficking defendants would qualify for the change, with their sentences decreasing an average of 11 months, or 17 percent, from 62 to 51 months on average.

The Commission this year has prioritized addressing federal prison costs and capacity with a continued commitment to public safety. The Commission estimates that the amendment reducing drug guidelines would reduce the federal prison population by more than 6,500 over five years, with a significantly greater long-term impact.

“This modest reduction in drug penalties is an important step toward reducing the problem of prison overcrowding at the federal level in a proportionate and fair manner,” said Judge Patti B. Saris, chair of the Commission. “Reducing the federal prison population has become urgent, with that population almost three times where it was in 1991.”

In addition, the Chair of the USSC made a statement in conjunction with today's vote, which is now available here via the USSC's website.  The interesting three-page statement concludes with this interesting paragraph concerning possible retroactive application of the proposed new guidelines: 

Over the next few months, the Commission will be studying the issue of whether the drug amendment should apply retroactively, which we are statutorily required to do. This is a complex and difficult issue, and requires a different analysis than the decision we have made today about reducing drug sentences prospectively. The Commission will take into account, as it always does when considering retroactivity, the purposes of the amendment, the magnitude of the change, and the difficulty of applying the change retroactively, among other factors. I know the Commission will carefully consider this issue, and many stakeholders will have strong views. I do not know how it will come out, but we will carefully review data and the retroactivity impact analysis we have directed staff to conduct as well as public comment in order to ensure that we weigh all perspectives.

April 10, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Lots of notable sentencing activity via the Sixth Circuit on this hump day

I have long found that Wednesday seems to be a popular day for circuit sentencing decisions, and today the Sixth Circuit was involved in two notable sentencing actions. 

One action involves the decision, noted in this order, to grant en banc review in US v. Mateen, a statutory interpretation case concerning "whether a state sexual offense that does not necessarily involve a minor or ward can trigger the sentencing enhancement under 18 U.S.C. § 2252(b)(2)."  The (split) Mateen panel held that the sentence enhancement was not applicable, and the en banc grant suggest a majority of the Sixth circuit judges may not agree.

The other action involves a lengthy decision in a MDMA sentencing appeal, US v. Kamper, No. 12-5167 (6th Cir. April 9, 2014) (available here), which gets started this way:

Defendants-appellants Glenn Kamper and Joe Head appeal their respective 144-month sentences imposed for their roles in a conspiracy to manufacture and distribute MDMA (also known as 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine or “ecstasy”) in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Head and Kamper both appeal their sentences as procedurally and substantively unreasonable. Kamper argues that the MDMA-to-marijuana equivalency ratio underlying his Guidelines sentencing range is based on faulty science, and that the district court erred when it justified its refusal to reject the Guidelines ratio with institutional concerns. We conclude that the district court misunderstood its authority to reject and replace a Guidelines equivalency ratio based on policy disagreements, but conclude that the district court’s error was harmless. We reject Kamper’s other arguments regarding the reasonableness of his sentence as without merit. Head argues that the district court erred in applying sentencing enhancements for his aggravating role in the criminal conspiracy and for obstruction of justice. We conclude that Head’s sentence must be vacated because the district court erred in applying a sentencing enhancement for obstruction of justice. Accordingly, we AFFIRM the judgment of the district court with respect to Kamper, but REVERSE the judgment of the district court with respect to Head and REMAND for resentencing.

April 9, 2014 in Booker in the Circuits, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Friday, March 28, 2014

Federal judge robustly defends drug guidelines ... after robustly varying from them

Thanks to this post by Paul Cassell over at The Volokh Conspiracy, titled "Are the federal sentencing guidelines for drug dealing unduly harsh?", I have had a chance to see and read a remarkable 70+-page opinion by US District Judge James Browning in US v. Reyes, CR 12-1695 (D.N.M. March 2014) (available here).   For any and everyone concerned about federal (or even state) sentencing for drug offenses, this opinion is a must-read.  Reyes also provides a remarkable case-specific window into the modern drug trade and the persons who get caught up within it.  And the validity and role of various uses of judicial discretion after Booker also is front-and-center in this opinion.

I am going to make all my sentencing students read this opinion, and this openning to the opinion helps highlight why it covers so many important issues:

THIS MATTER comes before the Court on Defendant Kayla Marie Reyes’ Sentencing Memorandum and Motion for a Downward Variance, filed March 21, 2013 (Doc. 45)(“Sentencing Memorandum”).  The Court held a sentencing hearing on January 6, 2014. The primary issues are: (i) whether the Court will vary downward to a sentence of 15 months to reflect Defendant Kayla Marie Reyes’ comparatively minimal involvement in an overall drug conspiracy; (ii) whether the Court should vary from the advisory guideline range because of a substantive disagreement, under Kimbrough v. United States, 552 U.S. 85 (2007), with the United States Sentencing Commission’s Guideline ranges for drug trafficking violations, as did the Honorable John Gleeson, District Judge for the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York, in United States v. Diaz, No. 11-CR-00821-2, 2013 WL 322243 (E.D.N.Y. Jan. 28, 2013); and (iii) whether the Court should consider the costs of incarceration and supervised release in sentencing.  

The Court will vary downward, but not as much as Reyes requests: it will vary to a sentence of 30 months, which the Court concludes best reflects the factors that Congress laid out in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a).

The Court concludes that Judge Gleeson’s criticisms of the Commission’s Guideline ranges for drug trafficking lack a sound basis.  Accordingly, the Court will not adopt his substantive disagreement under Kimbrough v. United States with the Commission’s Guideline for drug trafficking offenses. The Court varies for reasons tied to the factors in § 3553(a) and to Reyes’ individual circumstances, and not because of a substantive disagreement with the Commission’s ranges for drug trafficking. Finally, the Court will not consider the costs of incarceration and supervised release in sentencing, because the factors in § 3553(a) do not clearly permit the Court to consider costs, and because those concerned about the fiscal implications of criminal justice policy should petition the other branches of government and should not ask the Court to consider such implications in sentencing an individual defendant. 

As this introduction hints, I could readily write a few dozen blog posts about this Reyes opinion (and might do a few more in the weeks ahead). But my most fundamental insight about the opinion appears in the title to this post: Judge Browning makes a very forceful argument in support of the federal drug sentencing guidelines, but he is doing so in a case in which he concludes that they should not be followed. If Judge Browning really thinks these guidelines are so sound, I do not quite understand why he feels it necessary (or even legally appropriate) to vary from them.

March 28, 2014 in Booker in district courts, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack

Thursday, March 27, 2014

USSC Chair talks up "A Generational Shift for Drug Sentences"

I just noticed via the US Sentencing Commission's official website that Chief Judge Patti Saris, Chair of United States Sentencing Commission and federal district judge, gave this lengthy speech at the Georgetown University Law Center titled “A Generational Shift For Drug Sentences.” The speech as reprinted runs eight-single-spaced pages, and here is one of many notable snippets:

So what have we learned then about drug sentencing policy in the generation since these federal sentences and guidelines were put into place?  At the state level, we have seen that many states have been able to reduce their prison populations and save money without seeing an increase in crime rates.  Michigan, New York, and Rhode Island all significantly decreased drug sentences, with Michigan and Rhode Island rolling back mandatory minimum penalties for drug offenses.  Each state saw reductions in prison population, accompanied by decreases in crime rates.  South Carolina eliminated mandatory minimum penalties for drug possession and some drug trafficking offenses and increased available alternatives to incarceration for drug offenses.  It too has seen reductions in its prison population and a drop in crime rates.  Other traditionally conservative states like Texas, Georgia, and South Dakota have shifted their emphasis from harsh punishment of drug offenses to a greater focus on alternative approaches, without seeing an increase in crime rates.  Respected organizations like the Vera Institute and the Pew Charitable Trust have studied these state reforms and found positive results.

This real-life experience in the states, together with new academic research, has begun to indicate that drug sentences may now be longer than needed to advance the purposes for which we have prison sentences, including public safety, justice, and deterrence.  Some prominent scholars have written that lengthy periods of incarceration are unlikely to have a deterrent effect and that even the incapacitation effect — keeping dangerous people off the streets — becomes less significant as prisoners get older.

March 27, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack