Thursday, March 12, 2015

US Sentencing Commission hearing on proposed fraud and other guideline amendments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 09, 2015

"Hey, Grandpa: End Mandatory Minimums!"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, February 27, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, February 26, 2015

US Sentencing Commission releases report on LWOP sentences in federal system

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

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

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

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

Friday, February 20, 2015

Virginia's former first lady facing sentencing after hubby got only two years

Today brings another high-profile white-collar sentencing in the federal court in Virginia as Maureen McDonnell, former first lady, is to come before the same judge who sentenced former Virginia Gov Robert McDonnell to two years' imprisonment last month. Helpfully, Randall Eliason at the Sidebars Legal Blog provides this preview, titled "What to Expect at Maureen McDonnell’s Sentencing." Randall provides this refined summary of the guideline basics and the parties' recommendations:

The Presentence Report prepared by the U.S. Probation Department concludes that the Sentencing Guidelines call for a sentence of 63-78 months in prison. The prosecution agrees with those calculations but recommends the judge sentence her to only 18 months in prison to avoid an unwarranted disparity between her sentence and that of her husband. Mrs. McDonnell’s attorneys argue that, properly calculated, the Sentencing Guidelines call for only 33-41 months, but urge the judge to depart even further from the Guidelines and sentence her to probation along with 4000 hours of community service.

In addition, the Washington Post has this article headlined "Everything you need to know about Maureen McDonnell’s sentencing." But that piece does not set out these guideline basics, so the headline is not accurate for hard-core federal sentencing geeks like me.

UPDATE:  As this Washington Post piece reports, "Maureen McDonnell was sentenced Friday to a year and a day in federal prison after an emotional, hours-long hearing in which the former first lady of Virginia apologized publicly for the first time since she and her husband were accused of public corruption."

As all competent federal sentencing lawyers know, a sentence of a year and a day for the former first lady is actually better than a sentence of one year. That extra day makes her formally eligible to earn good-time credit, which nearly all non-violent offenders earn. So, practically, Ms. McDonnell is now likely to be released from federal custody after only 10.5 months in the federal graybar hotel.

February 20, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Yet again, Sixth Circuit reverses one-day sentence for child porn downloading as substantively unreasonable

Regular readers who follow federal sentencing in child porn cases likely recall that the Sixth Circuit and an Ohio-based federal district judge got into a sentencing tug-of-war over the sentencing of child porn downloader Richard Bistline not long ago.  And even irregular readers should know that circuits, if they stick with it, will always win these kinds wars.  More proof of that reality come from another similar Sixth Circuit case decided today, US v. Robinson, No. 13-230806 (6th Cir. Feb. 18, 2015) (available here), which starts this way: 

The government appeals, for the second time, from the noncustodial sentence imposed on Rufus Robinson (“Defendant”) for the possession of more than seven thousand images of child pornography in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2252A(a)(5)(B).  Defendant’s previous sentence of one day of incarceration and five years of supervised release was held substantively unreasonable by this Court in United States v. Robinson, 669 F.3d 767 (6th Cir. 2012) (“Robinson I”).  On remand, the district court again sentenced Defendant to one day of incarceration, with credit for time served.  The district court also lengthened the period of supervised release and imposed additional conditions of release.  The government’s second appeal raises the question of whether this second sentence is substantively reasonable.

For the reasons set forth below, we VACATE Defendant’s sentence and REMAND the case for reassignment and resentencing. 

Prior related posts concerning similar case:

February 18, 2015 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

"How to Talk About Sentencing Policy — and Not Disparity"

The title of this post is the title of this terrific new piece by Nancy Gertner just published by the Loyola University Chicago Law Journal.  I consider most everything Prof (and former Judge) Gertner writes about sentencing to be a must-read, and these passages from the start of the piece reinforce my sense that this new commentary is especially timely and important:

I want to talk about why I don’t want to discuss sentencing disparity, why this is an issue far, far less important than issues of sentencing fairness, of proportionality, of what works to address crime. Disparity-speak has sucked the air out of all interesting and meaningful discussion of criminal justice reform for the past several decades....

The mythology of rampant sentencing disparity without guidelines has driven American sentencing for decades. The problem is that you cannot build a rational sentencing regime if the only important question is this one: Am I doing the same thing in my courtroom that you are doing in yours, even if neither of us is imposing sentences that make sense, namely, that work to reduce crime? You cannot talk about disparity unless you understand the context—disparity in sentencing with respect to what? What purposes? What characteristics? Similarly situated with respect to what? The offense? The chances of deterrence? Amenability to treatment?...

To eliminate sentencing disparity, the United States Sentencing Commission and Congress chose to treat drug quantity the same across contexts, contexts that were very different. I want to talk about those contexts and the content of a just sentence. How do we deal with drug addiction? What is the punishment that makes sense? When is drug treatment appropriate in lieu of imprisonment? I want to talk about problem solving courts, reentry programs, and meaningful diversions. How can neuroscience help us craft treatment? What evidence based practices should we implement? What works?

And, above all, I want to talk about how to meaningfully undo the catastrophe of mass incarceration in this country, the catastrophe that we have created with our dual emphasis on eliminating disparity, and imprisonment as a cure all. It is a “one size fits all” approach, and that “size” has been ever more imprisonment. I want to talk about our uniformity-focused, criminal-record emphasis, incarceration-obsessed criminal justice policy.

February 17, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Monday, February 16, 2015

Feds assert, despite reversal of hate crime convictions, Amish beard-cutters should get same sentences

As reported in this AP piece, headlined "Federal prosecutors want same sentences in Amish beard-cutting case when they are resentenced," the feds are claiming that the reversal on appeal of the most-serious charges against a group of Amish defendants (details here) should not impact their sentence one whit.  Here are the details:

Sixteen Amish men and women whose hate crime convictions in beard- and hair-cutting attacks were overturned still should receive the same sentences, federal prosecutors told a judge who will resentence the group.

The members of the eastern Ohio Amish group are scheduled to be resentenced March 2 after the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned only their hate crimes convictions. New sentences are required because the original sentences were based both on hate crimes convictions and convictions on other charges but did not differentiate between them.

The attacks were in apparent retaliation against Amish who had defied or denounced the authoritarian style of Sam Mullet Sr., leader of the Bergholz community in eastern Ohio. The U.S. Attorney's Office, in a court filing on Friday, said Mullet should be resentenced to 15 years for concealing evidence and making false statements to the FBI. Both of those charges were not overturned.

The other defendants should also be given the same lesser sentences. Those defendants who have already been released should be sentenced to time served, the prosecutors said.

Prosecutors argued that the conduct that led to the hate crime charges, which included kidnapping, should still be considered even if the defendants are no longer convicted of a hate crime.

Defense attorneys are expected to file their response next week.

I am neither surprised or troubled that the feds want the same sentences imposed on the less culpable defendants who have already finished serving their prison time. But I struggle to see how urging the same exact sentence for Sam Mullet Sr. despite reversal of the most serious convictions against him serves to "promote respect for the law" as 18 USC 3553(a)(2)(A) requires.

Related prior posts:

February 16, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

District Judge, to chagrin of feds, relies on jury poll to give minimum sentence to child porn downloader

This fascinating story from the federal courts in the Northern District of Ohio provides an interesting perspective on the input and impact that juries can have in the federal sentencing process in at least one courtroom. The piece is headlined "Cleveland federal judge's five-year sentence in child porn case frustrates prosecutor," and here are excerpts:

A federal judge in Cleveland sentenced a Dalton man convicted of child pornography charges Tuesday to five years in prison, a move that frustrated prosecutors who pushed for four times that length based, at least in part, on a recommendation from the U.S. probation office.

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

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

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

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

In addition to citing the juror's various jobs and where they lived, Gwin said the poll "does reflect how off the mark the federal sentencing guidelines are." He later added that the case was not worse than most of the child pornography cases that he sees and that five years "is a significant sentence, especially for somebody who has not offended in the past."

Sullivan objected to the sentence, saying it is based on an "impermissible" survey. He also argued before the sentence was issued that 20 years was justified because prosecutors did not show the jury each one of the images found on Collins' computer. Gwin rejected that argument, though, explaining that all of the photos were presented as evidence, even if they were not shown at trial.

Under federal law, either prosecutors or defense attorneys can appeal a sentence if they feel it was improper. It is uncommon for federal judges to issue sentences that go so far below the probation office's recommendations, though, so appeals by prosecutors are rare. Mike Tobin, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office, said that prosecutors "will review the judge's sentence and make a decision at the appropriate time."...

Iams also said that even though his client was convicted by a jury, the fact that he went to trial may have helped Collins in the end, since Gwin was then able to poll the jury and get an idea of where the community's feelings were on sentencing. "If he had just pled guilty, that might have not been there. At the end of the day, it may have helped," Iams said.

Collins was taken into custody following his sentencing. In addition to the prison sentence, Collins was also ordered to pay a $5,000 fine and $10,000 in restitution to two girls seen in the pornography Collins downloaded. Once he is released, he will have to register as a sex offender and will be on supervised release for five years.

February 11, 2015 in Booker in district courts, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Two notable Second Circuit opinions upholding aggravated sentencing decisions

A helpful reader alerted me to two Second Circuit sentencing decisions handed down this morning. Though neither seems all that ground-breaking, both still strike me a blogworthy.  Here are links to the rulings along with an excerpt from the start of the opinions:

United States v. Morrison, No. 14-485 (2d Cir. Feb. 10, 2015) (available here):

Defendant-Appellant Shane Morrison appeals from a February 6, 2014 judgment of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York (Wexler, J.) sentencing Morrison to, inter alia, eighteen months’ imprisonment following his guilty plea to one count of conspiracy to distribute cocaine.  Morrison argues that 18 U.S.C. § 3153(c) bars the district court’s reliance on positive results on drug tests administered by the Pretrial Services Agency (“pretrial services”) to enhance his term of imprisonment.  Because the district court did not violate § 3153(c) by relying on the information from pretrial services in determining Morrison’s sentence, we affirm the judgment.

United States v. Cramer, No. 14-761 (2d Cir. Feb. 10, 2015) (available here):

Defendant Thomas Cramer appeals from a judgment of conviction and sentence of 360 months’ imprisonment and 15 years of supervised release, entered on February 21, 2014 by the U.S. District Court for the Western District of New York (Geraci, J.), following his guilty plea to four counts of sex trafficking of a minor in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1591(a)(1) and (b)(2). On appeal, Cramer argues that his sentence was procedurally unreasonable because he received a two-point enhancement under U.S. Sentencing Guidelines Manual  section 2G1.3(b)(3) for use of a computer in the commission of the crimes.  This case presents two issues of first impression in this Circuit: First, does the computer-use enhancement under Guidelines subsection 2G1.3(b)(3)(A) apply to a defendant who begins communicating and establishing a relationship with a minor by computer, but then entices the victim through other modes of communication? Second, is Application Note 4 to Guidelines section 2G1.3 plainly inconsistent with subsection 2G1.3(b)(3)(B) and therefore inapplicable to that subsection? We answer both questions in the affirmative.

February 10, 2015 in Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Friday, January 23, 2015

US Sentencing Commission essentially giving up on fixing definition of "crimes of violence"

As noted in prior posts here and here, the US Sentencing Commission earlier this month publish proposed guideline amendments with some modest but significant possible revisions to the federal fraud sentencing guidelines.  One reason these modest proposed guideline changes could be the most consequential reform coming from the Commission this year is because, as noted at the very end of these remarks at by the USSC Chair Patti Saris, it appears the Commission has given up its effort to seek to improve the doctrinal problems surrounding another big part of the federal sentencing guidelines:

I did want to briefly address an issue that does not appear in the proposed amendments.  As I announced at the last public meeting, the Commission held a roundtable discussion this fall on the definition of “crimes of violence” and related terms.  We had hoped that we would be positioned to publish some proposals today as an outgrowth of that very informative roundtable, and we conducted considerable follow up work after that event. But ultimately, after much consideration of this issue internally and consultation with leading experts, the Commission concluded that, given the existing statutory scheme, any attempts by the Commission at this time to clarify these definitions or establish more consistency within the guidelines would likely only lead to more confusion and renewed litigation.  We are currently considering whether it would be helpful for the Commission to issue a report on this issue with recommendations for legislative fixes.

I am a bit disappointed and troubled that the USSC thinks the best way now to deal with all the confusion and litigation over some key guideline terms is just to give up trying to fix these terms. But I also understand the challenge the USSC faces given that these terms are so significant in federal statutes that the Commission cannot itself amend.  And, perhaps usefully, the Commission's struggles here might further embolden the Supreme Court to declare part of the Armed Career Criminal Act unconstitutionally vague as it reconsiders the pending Johnson case (as discussed here).

January 23, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Brief account of what proposed fraud guideline changes might amount to

This new Reuters article, headlined "U.S. panel proposes changes to white-collar prison sentences," provides a reasonable summary of the likely import and impact of the guideline reform proposes announced by the US Sentencing Commission late last week (discussed here). Here are excerpts:

Some executives and others convicted of stock fraud could face shorter prison terms under a U.S. commission's proposal to change how white-collar criminals are sentenced. The U.S. Sentencing Commission on Friday released proposals to amend advisory federal guidelines that would shift the emphasis in calculating a sentence for frauds on the market to financial gains instead of investor losses.

The proposal follows years of criticism by defense lawyers and some judges who say that the guidelines focus too much on financial losses caused by fraud, leading in certain cases to sentences that are too harsh. Judges have discretion to impose any sentence, but are required to consider the guidelines.

In stock fraud cases, losses can be in the hundreds of millions of dollars, contributing to an advisory sentence of life in prison. Under the commission's proposal, judges in these cases would consider the gains from a fraud, a number defense lawyers say would often be considerably smaller.

The Sentencing Commission has scheduled a March 12 hearing on the proposals. The panel has until May 1 to submit any amendments to Congress. If Congress does not act by Nov. 1, the changes become law....

The commission has proposed setting a threshold sentencing level for gains, ensuring punishment in cases where profits are minimal. Depending on what floor is set, there is a "very good chance a number of cases would result in lower guideline sentencing ranges," said David Debold, a lawyer at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher who heads up an advisory group to the commission.

Defense lawyers cautioned that the proposed changes would not always result in a lower sentencing range. Some frauds like penny stock manipulation, for example, could involve significant gains to defendants and might still lead to lengthy sentences. Other proposals would affect the weight given to factors such as the harm to victims and the sophistication of a fraud.

Some defense lawyers say the proposals overall do not sufficiently emphasize a defendant's culpability and leaves loss as a driving factor for the bulk of fraud cases involving identity theft, mortgage fraud and healthcare fraud. "These changes don't go nearly as far as we would have liked," James Felman, a Florida lawyer and member of an American Bar Association task force advocating changes to the guidelines.

U.S. District Judge Patti Saris, the commission's chair, said in a statement that the panel did not consider "the guideline to be broken for most forms of fraud," but that its review had identified "some problem areas where changes may be necessary." 

Prior related post:

January 13, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Friday, January 09, 2015

US Sentencing Commission proposes (modest but significant) changes to the fraud guidelines

Download (1)As reported in this official news release, the "United States Sentencing Commission voted today to publish proposed guideline amendments, including revisions to the sentencing guideline governing fraud." Here are the basics from the release:

The bipartisan Commission voted to seek comment on a proposed amendment to revise guideline §2B1.1 governing fraud offenses by clarifying the definition of “intended loss,” which contributes to the degree of punishment, and the enhancement for the use of sophisticated means in a fraud offense. The proposed amendment also revises the guideline to better consider the degree of harm to victims, rather than just the number of victims, and includes a modified, simpler approach to “fraud on the market” offenses which involve manipulation of the value of stocks.

The proposed revisions to the fraud guidelines come after a multi-year study, which included a detailed examination of sentencing data, outreach to experts and stakeholders, and a September 2013 symposium at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. “We have heard criticism from some judges and members of the bar that the fraud guideline may be fundamentally broken, particularly for fraud on the market cases,” said Judge Patti B. Saris, Chair of the Commission. “Based on our extensive examination of data, we have not seen a basis for finding the guideline to be broken for most forms of fraud, like identity theft, mortgage fraud, or healthcare fraud, but this review has helped us to identify some problem areas where changes may be necessary.”...

Consistent with the Commission’s mission to make the guidelines more efficient and more effective, the Commission also voted today to clarify the provisions allowing for sentence reductions for offenders with mitigating roles in the offense and the provisions governing jointly undertaken criminal activity.  The Commission similarly proposed adjusting the tables based on amounts of money for inflation in an attempt to keep the guidelines current and follow the approach generally mandated by statute for most civil monetary penalties....

The proposed amendments and issues for comment will be subject to a public comment period running through March 18. A public hearing on the proposed amendments will be scheduled in Washington, D.C., on March 12. More information about these hearings, as well as a data presentation on today’s proposed fraud amendment and other relevant data, will be available on the Commission’s web site at www.ussc.gov.

Here are links to new materials already posted on the USSC website this afternoon:

As the title of this post indicates, these new proposed amendments strike me as relatively modest but still quite significant. Most notably, the white-collar defense bar is likely to be very interested in what these changes signal and suggest, and any federal fraud defendants currently serving very long guideline sentences may want to start thinking about whether these proposed amendments might help their cause if they are formally adopted and thereafter made retroactive.

January 9, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Monday, January 05, 2015

Previewing (and predicting) federal sentencing prospects for former Virginia Gov McDonnell

The Washington Post has this lengthy article, headlined "What to expect at former Virginia governor Robert McDonnell’s sentencing," providing an effective preview of a high-profile white-collar sentencing taking place in federal court tomorrow. Here are highlights:

As a federal judge on Tuesday sets the punishment for former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell, he will consider legal issues as well as sweeping personal questions.  U.S. District Judge James R. Spencer will look first to guidelines that call for McDonnell to receive as much as 12 years and seven months for trading the influence of his office to a smooth-talking businessman in exchange for sweetheart loans, lavish vacations and high-end merchandise.

But the judge is not bound by those recommendations.  And his ultimate decision rests, in part, on intangible considerations: How serious was McDonnell’s public corruption?  What penalty might deter others in the former governor’s shoes?  What weight should be given to the good the former governor has done?...

rosecutors want McDonnell to spend at least 10 years and a month in prison.  The former governor’s attorneys believe a sentence of community service — and no time behind bars — would be sufficient.

Both sides will make their best pitches to the judge in person beginning at 10 a.m. McDonnell may offer a personal plea, as may some of his supporters.  Spencer has been given more than 440 letters that friends, family members and others wrote on the governor’s behalf, urging leniency and extolling the virtues of the onetime Republican rising star.  Spencer also has reviewed filings from prosecutors, who have accused McDonnell of feeling no remorse and still seeking to blame others....

The starting point for determining the former governor’s punishment is this: The U.S. probation office — the federal agency tasked with calculating a range of appropriate penalties according to the federal sentencing guidelines — has recommended that McDonnell face between 10 years and a month to 12 years and seven months in prison. There is no parole in the federal system, and if McDonnell were to be incarcerated, he would be able to reduce his time behind bars with good behavior by only 54 days a year, at most.

Spencer is not bound by the probation office’s recommendation — it is merely a technical calculation of how the office believes federal sentencing guidelines should be applied in the case — but experts say he typically heeds its advice....

After Spencer determines the guideline range, he will weigh entirely different factors as he fashions what he considers an appropriate punishment.  Among those that prosecutors and defense attorneys highlighted in McDonnell’s case: the nature and circumstances of his offenses, McDonnell’s personal history and characteristics, and the need to deter others from ending up in similar straits....

A former prosecutor and Judge Advocate General’s Corps officer, Spencer was appointed to the court by President Ronald Reagan in 1986.  Known as a no-nonsense and efficient jurist, he took senior status on the bench last year, meaning he is now semi-retired.  Jacob Frenkel, a former federal prosecutor who now does white collar criminal defense work, said Spencer probably will not impose a decade-long sentence, but defense attorneys’ bid for only probation is something of a “Hail Mary.”

I share the view that it is unlikely McDonnell will get either probation as he wishes or the 10 years in prison sought by the feds. As a betting man, I would put the over-under line at around three years. The nature of the crime and the defendant leads me to think the sentencing judges will be likely to impose a substantial prion term, but still something less (perhaps much less) than half a decade.

Prior related posts:

UPDATE: I just discovered that Randall Eliason at his Sidebars Legal Blog has this lengthy post about the McDonnell sentencing which provides much more detailed review of the interesting guideline calculation issues that are in dispute in the case.  

January 5, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Big 2014 data (and big 2015 plans?) from US Sentencing Commission

The United States Sentencing Commission has closed out 2014 with a release of lots of notable new sentencing data and notice of an notable meeting to kick off 2015.  Here are the data basics/links and the meeting notice via the USSC website:

Final Crack Retroactivity Data Report: This report is the final data report concerning motions for retroactive application of Amendment 750, incorporating the provisions of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 into the guidelines.

Fourth Quarter FY 2014 Sentencing Update

Notice of Public Meeting: January 9, 2015: The Commission will hold a public meeting to vote on publishing proposed guideline amendments. A presentation will also be given on economic crime.

There are lots of notable stories to be found in these data (and to be anticipated with the USSC's noticed meeting).  But most notable, I think, is the quarterly report showing that for all of Fiscal Year 2014 only 46.3% of sentences were imposed within the calculared guideline range and in the final quarter of FY2014 only 43.6% of sentences were within-guideline sentences.  in other words, throughout 2014, a non-guideline sentence became more the norm in federal sentencing than a within-guideline sentence.

Critically, these data are surely skewed significantly by the decision by the US Sentencing Commission in January 2014 to lower drug guideline sentences across the board by two levels (combined with the Justice Department's willingness to allow sentencing judges to give effect to the lowered guidelines before they took effect officially on November 1, 2014).   Now that the lowered guidelines are officially in place, we might expect to see more within-guideline sentence imposed in FY 2015.  But, if the US Sentencing Commission announces in its early 2015 another significant amendment to reduce certain guideline ranges, this pattern could repeat.

In other words, happy data new year from (and to) my favorite judicial branch agency.

December 31, 2014 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Monday, December 15, 2014

Former Virginia Gov McDonnell facing significant (trial?) penalty in his federal guideline calculation

This recent article from the Washington Post, headlined "Early federal sentencing recommendation for McDonnell: At least 10 years in prison," spotlights the seemingly severe sentence recommended by the federal sentencing guidelines for a former Governor's corruption.  Among other notbale aspects of this high-profile sentencing story is the fact that former Virginia Gov Bob McDonnell is now facing a guideline sentencing range that is more than three to four times longer than the longest possible sentence he would have faced had he been willing to plead guilty on terms urged by federal prosecutors.  Here are the notable details at this stage of a developing high-profile sentencing story:

The guidelines recommended by the U.S. probation office are preliminary, and even if finalized, U.S. District Judge James R. Spencer is not required to follow them. But experts said that Spencer typically heeds the probation office’s advice, and judges in his district have imposed sentences within the recommendations more than 70 percent of the time in recent years. “It’s of critical importance,” said Scott Fredericksen, a white-collar criminal defense lawyer. “The fact is, the vast majority of times, courts follow those recommendations closely.”

The matter is far from settled. The probation office recommended a punishment from 10 years and a month to 12 years and 7 months. Calculating an appropriate range of sentences in the federal system is a complicated, mathematical process that takes into account a variety of factors, including the type of crime, the defendant’s role and the amount of loss. The judge has yet to see the arguments from each side.

McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, were convicted in September of lending the prestige of his office to Richmond businessman Jonnie R. Williams Sr. in exchange for $177,000 in loans, vacations and luxury items. McDonnell is scheduled to be sentenced Jan. 6. His wife’s sentencing is scheduled for Feb. 20, and her guideline range is expected to be lower than her husband’s. The probation office has not yet filed a report concerning her.

It is unclear how the probation office determined that the former governor’s crimes necessitate a minimum decade-long sentence. The initial report on the matter is sealed, and people familiar with its contents revealed only the recommended range to The Washington Post.

The range is particularly notable because last December, prosecutors offered to let McDonnell plead guilty to just one count of lying to a bank as part of an agreement that would have meant he could be sentenced to three years in prison at the most and probation at the least. Importantly, though, McDonnell would have been required to sign a statement acknowledging that he helped Star Scientific, Williams’s dietary-supplement company, at the same time the businessman was giving him loot, fully shouldering blame for a relationship he has insisted was not criminal and was driven largely by his wife....

White-collar criminal defense lawyer Matthew Kaiser said McDonnell’s range probably was increased because he was a high-ranking public official, because he took more than one payment from Williams and because the total value of the gifts he received was so high. Kaiser said the probation officer also probably faulted McDonnell because his testimony was contrary to the jury’s verdict.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys will still have an opportunity to argue to the probation officer about whether the range was correctly calculated — although Kaiser said the probation office often “sticks to its guns.” After that, both sides can try to persuade Spencer to modify the recommended range.

Even then, Spencer is not bound by the guideline. Defense attorneys have already begun working vigorously in their bid to sway him toward leniency. This week, they won a legal skirmish with prosecutors so they can file additional pages in their sentencing memorandum — a key document outlining the sentence they believe McDonnell should receive and why. It is unclear whether their efforts to move Spencer away from the probation office’s recommended range will be fruitful.

In the Eastern District of Virginia, where McDonnell is being sentenced, judges imposed sentences within the guideline range more than 70 percent of the time last fiscal year, according to data from the U.S. Sentencing Commission. In about 21 percent of cases, they imposed sentences below the guideline range without a request from prosecutors to do so. Nationally, judges imposed sentences within the guideline range about 51 percent of the time last fiscal year and deviated downward without a request from prosecutors to do so in about 19 percent of cases.

In the McDonnell case, prosecutors are not expected to ask for a sentence below the guideline range.... Brian Whisler, a defense lawyer who used to work as a federal prosecutor in

Richmond, said that Spencer is known to be “largely deferential to the probation office and its sentencing calculations.” Whisler — whose firm, Baker & McKenzie, represented state employees in the McDonnell case — said the judge will likely draw on other cases in the district to inform his conclusion.

The outcome of those might not be to McDonnell’s liking. In 2011, another federal judge in Richmond sentenced former Virginia delegate Phillip A. Hamilton to 9.5 years in prison in a bribery and extortion case. In 2009, a federal judge in Alexandria sentenced former congressman William J. Jefferson to 13 years in prison for accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes — though, notably, that fell well short of the recommended range of 27 to 33 years.

December 15, 2014 in Booker in district courts, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Former basketball star taking (wild?) shot at fighting loss calculation in federal fraud sentencing

TateThis notable article from Connecticut reports that a notable fraud defendant is going to be representing himself as he agrues against how loss is being calculated and used against him in his upcoming federal sentencing.  Here are some of the interesting details:

Ever since being convicted on four felony counts in a real estate scheme, former University of Connecticut basketball star Tate George has been complaining about his legal representation.  He criticized his trial attorney, saying he didn't listen to requests for calling witnesses and other strategies.

After dropping his first attorney, George briefly switched to another, who is also out of the picture.  Now George has received permission from a federal judge to represent himself at his sentencing.

A first-round NBA draft pick, George has more basketball experience than legal experience.  He is best known for hitting "The Shot" at the Meadowlands arena in New Jersey in the final second to defeat Clemson in the NCAA playoffs in 1990, one of the most stunning victories in UConn basketball history.

Before his request was granted this week, federal prosecutors warned George in court papers about "the dangers and perils of self-representation."  They quoted the saying that "he who represents himself has a fool for a client."  Prosecutors told George, "There are many complex rules in court, and that most non-lawyers, including yourself, cannot know all of these rules."

But George, 46, has gone his own way before.  After expressing dissatisfaction with his trial attorney, George began sending letters directly from his prison cell to the federal judge instead of sending them through his attorney.  In at least five letters to U.S. District Court Judge Mary L. Cooper in Trenton, George proclaimed his innocence.

"I understand that my life has no value to all those who have gone about defaming my name, but I beg to differ and will continue to fight to prove my innocence," George wrote to the judge.  "Again, for the record, even though the government refuses to want to hear or admit to the truth above their lies to make me look guilty, there are no losses to report at this time, which means there is no crime or victims.  PERIOD! AS I HAVE SAID, BUT NO ONE SEEMS TO BE LISTENING, THERE ARE MONIES OWED YES, BUT NOT LOSSED!"

As part of his legal strategy, George is saying that the $250,000 investment by former UConn basketball star and NBA player Charlie Villanueva that was never repaid should not be counted as a financial loss.  Since he has promised to repay Villaneuva, George says there is no victim and no loss....  

George has said he was upset that his attorney, David E. Schafer, a federal public defender, said that investors in his case had lost $833,000 when George maintained that the actual loss was zero.  Federal prosecutors say the investors lost more than $2.5 million. At one point, a prosecutor described George as a "baby Madoff," referring to the massive Ponzi scheme operated by now-imprisoned New York City financier Bernie Madoff in which investors lost billions of dollars in a long-running scheme.

George was convicted in September 2013 and could face as many as nine years in prison when he is sentenced. Although he was convicted more than a year ago, his sentencing has been postponed multiple times.

December 7, 2014 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Monday, November 17, 2014

The Marshall Project gets AG Holder to talk about his criminal justice reform work

I am pleased to see that The Marshall Project is now running full steam and has now lots of notable new content on its slick website. Though I am concerned that this notable criminal justice media project, like some others, may end up focusing too much attention on the death penalty, it seems clear that The Marshall Project is going to have lots of material that sentencing fans will want to follow regularly.

Most notably today, The Marhsall Project has posted this exclusive interview with outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder. The piece is headlined "Eric Holder on His Legacy, His Regrets, and His Feelings About the Death Penalty," though I consider the discussion about drug sentencing reform to be most interesting. The piece is a must-read, and here is how it gets started:

The Marshall Project: You’ve been pretty outspoken on criminal justice issues across the board – more outspoken than your boss, actually. What would you single out as your proudest accomplishment in the area of the criminal justice system, and what would you single out as your biggest disappointment?

Holder: In January 2013 I told the people in the Justice Department after the re-election that I wanted to focus on reforming the federal criminal justice system. I made an announcement in August of that year in San Francisco, when we rolled out the Smart on Crime initiative. It was a way of breaking some really entrenched thinking and asking prosecutors, investigators, the bureaucracy – to think about how we do our jobs in a different way – to ask the question of whether excessively long prison sentences for nonviolent offenders really served any good purpose, how we used enhancement papers, moving discretion to prosecutors and asking them to make individualized determinations about what they should do in cases, as opposed to have some big policy sent to them from Washington.

And I think that by and large – not without opposition, to be totally honest – the federal system has embraced that vision. And I think that we have started to see the kind of changes that I hoped we would see.

[MP]: And the biggest disappointment?

Holder: I’m proud of the fact that – in 2010, I guess – we reduced that ratio, the crack-powder, from 100-to-1 to about 17- or 18-to-1. I’m still disappointed that, given the lack of a pharmacological distinction between crack and cocaine, the ratio is not 1-to-1. You know, it was the product of a lot of hard work that the president was intimately involved in. But I think he would agree with me that that number should be at 1-to-1.

[MP]: Before the second term is over, could there be a push for a 1-to-1 ratio?

Holder: That is something that I know the president believes in, that I believe in. One of the things that I’d like to see happen before the end of this administration is that there would be a drug court in every district in this country. As I speak to my successor, the 83rd Attorney General, and as I speak to the president, I’m going to push them to make that a goal for this administration, to have a drug court in every district by the end of Barack Obama’s second term.

November 17, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Prez Obama selects Loretta Lynch to replace Eric Holder as US Attorney General

This brief press release from the White House Friday afternoon made official that it was President Obama's "intent to nominate U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch to be the Attorney General of the United States."  This lengthy Politico article, headlined "Lame duck looms over Lynch confirmation," highlights some politics dynamics surrounding this decision, and closes with a substantive point I care most about:

President Barack Obama will nominate Loretta Lynch to be the new attorney general on Saturday, setting up what could prove the first major post-midterms Senate showdown.

Obama will call for Lynch to be confirmed as soon as possible, but White House aides say he’ll defer to Senate leaders on whether to press ahead with a vote during the coming lame duck session, or to wait until next year, when the Republicans will officially be in the majority.

Senior Democratic aides, meanwhile, said no final decision on timing has been made, but they are strongly leaning towards moving in the lame duck.  A confirmation vote could be used as leverage in other deals the White House and leaders are seeking in the lame duck.

Incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), however, made clear that he’s completely opposed, issuing a statement Friday evening promising “fair consideration,” but that Lynch’s “nomination should be considered in the new Congress through regular order.”

The question is a significant one — there’s precedent in President George W. Bush pushing through Michael Mukasey’s nomination in a lame duck.  But at the outset of what’s supposed to be a new effort toward cooperation, Obama and Senate Democrats would be doing the exact opposite by moving confirming such a senior Cabinet official in between the midterms and the Republican takeover of the majority.

That could give Republicans an easy excuse to point to for blame on future gridlock.  But by waiting until the new GOP members are sworn in, Obama would risk not getting his choice — or any choice — confirmed for the job.

Lynch, a United States attorney from New York, has kept a low profile, but has quietly been in top consideration for weeks at the White House. Lynch would be the second woman in the post, and the second African American, following Holder.  That could make opposition from the Republican Senate more politically difficult, especially as she’s been previously confirmed by acclimation twice previously.

A career prosecutor who’s been confirmed twice by the Senate to one of the most prominent U.S. attorney positions, Lynch has experience with many of the major issues that a new attorney general would confront — including terrorism and financial crimes. She does not have a deep personal relationships with Obama or his close aides, or a resonance with the Democratic base eager to see the president pick fights more post-midterms.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the outgoing Judiciary Committee chairman, issued a statement praising Lynch’s selection, but made no firm commitment on timing.  “I have spoken with the President about the need to confirm our next attorney general in a reasonable time period, and I look forward to beginning that process,” Leahy said.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who’ll head the Judiciary Committee when Republicans take over, said he was generally supportive of Lynch’s nomination but said he was looking forward to learning more about her.  “As we move forward with the confirmation process, I have every confidence that Ms. Lynch will receive a very fair, but thorough, vetting by the Judiciary Committee. U.S. Attorneys are rarely elevated directly to this position, so I look forward to learning more about her, how she will interact with Congress, and how she proposes to lead the department,” Grassley said.  “I’m hopeful that her tenure, if confirmed, will restore confidence in the Attorney General as a politically independent voice for the American people.”...

And timing isn’t the only problem Lynch would face. Sen. Jeff Sessions’ office sent out a reminder to reporters Friday of recent comments by Sens. Sessions, McConnell, Ted Cruz, Mike Lee and Rand Paul all saying that any nominee for attorney general would have to disavow Obama’s plan to provide amnesty to certain illegal immigrants through executive action. Obama has said repeatedly, including at his post-election press conference Wednesday, that he will go forward with the immigration reform executive actions before the year, unless Congress passes an immigration reform bill....

Obama, White House aides have said, sees the next attorney general as being a key figure in helping him complete several issues he sees as fundamental to the legal legacy he wants, including sentencing reform and figuring out a solution to closing the detention center at Guantanamo Bay.

I am very pleased and excited by this news for many reasons, particularly because I think the selection of Lynch at least indirectly suggests that Prez Obama is more interested in moving forward with sentencing reform than in picking fights with the new Congress. Among the various names discussed as possible nominees, I view Lynch as probably the least controversial choice as well as the person most likely to be able, practically and politically, to keep up the sentencing reform momentum that outgoing AG Eric Holder made a signature concern of his final years in his position.

November 8, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

US District Judge Kopf reports on retroactive implementation of new reduced federal drug guidelines in Nebraska

As noted in this post from last week, the start of November2014  marked the official start for the new reduced federal guidelines for drug offenses put in place by guideline Amendment 782.  At his great blog, US District Judge Richard Kopf has this lengthy new post on the practicalities of implementing the Amendment's retroactivity in his district.   I recommend the whole post, from which these excerpts are drawn:

I will take a moment to describe the implementation of Amendment 782 in the District of Nebraska.  We are a small district with a large criminal case load, especially including drug cases.  As of June 30, 2014, on a per-judge basis, we ranked seventh in the nation and first in the Eighth Circuit for criminal cases. Indeed, Amendment 782 may impact over 700 offenders previously sentenced in our court.  Behind the scenes, the implementation of Amendment 782 has had a huge impact on us as we try to fully and fairly implement this important retroactive change to the Guidelines.

With 700 offenders potentially eligible for a sentencing reduction, our district decided that every potentially eligible offender would have his or her case individually scrutinized whether or not a motion had been filed and that every such offender would have a lawyer.  After conferring with the United States Attorney, the Federal Public Defender and our probation office, we issued general (standing) orders....

Four people are responsible for superintending the implementation of Amendment 782: two very senior United States Probation officers who are experts in the Guidelines; the head of the drug prosecution unit of the US Attorney’s office; and the Federal Public Defender.  They have cooperated nicely, and have established internal operating protocols between them.  After the Clerk’s office tracked down the whereabouts of each of the 700 or so offenders through the Bureau of Prisons (a huge task), the group of four sensibly decided upon a “triage” plan.  Offenders who are eligible for release on the earliest possible date (November 1, 2015), get attention first.  Offenders who are eligible later receive attention later.

Ultimately, the Federal Public Defender, or one of his assistants or a Criminal Justice Act panel lawyer, will file a motion for relief when the group of four decide that the time is right.  A probation officer will submit and file as a restricted document a worksheet that includes a calculation under Amendment 782 and the Guidelines.  That worksheet will also include a report on the offender’s institutional adjustment and the probation officer’s recommendation about whether relief should be granted....

After the motion is filed, and the worksheet is submitted, the prosecutor and defense lawyer will confer and in most cases a stipulation will be reached.  Assuming a stipulation is reached, it will be filed.  After that, and without a hearing, relief will normally be granted.  If no stipulation can be reached, then in my cases a hearing will be held.

It is possible that a judge might tentatively conclude not to follow a stipulation. While I cannot speak for the other judges, in my cases, I will hold a hearing to give the parties an opportunity to be heard.  Whether or not the defendant will be present at such a hearing has yet to be determined by me.  In the past, if a dispute of fact arose and the offender could be expected to have unique knowledge of the facts, I have not hesitated to give the offender an opportunity to appear and testify.  It is probable that I will follow the same approach for Amendment 782 factual disputes where the testimony of the offender is critical to the fair resolution of the matter.  However, in the huge majority of cases, this will not be necessary.

In summary, the equitable and effective implementation of Amendment 782 requires a lot of “behind the scenes” work.  We are fortunate to have the cooperative, but always zealous, assistance of prosecutors and defense lawyers, aided by a probation office that is second to none.

November 4, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Friday, October 31, 2014

New reduced federal drug sentencing guidelines about to become official

Hard core federal sentencing nerds know that November 1 is a special day because it is the official date on which any proposed changes to the sentencing guidelines proposed by the US Sentencing Commission become official in the absence of congressional rejection thereof.  Tomorrow, November 1, 2014, is especially notable because it will make official the most significant and consequential reduction in guideline sentencing ranges in history.  This USSC press release, which includes a statement from the chair of the USSC, provides background context for why this is such a big deal: 

[Background:] The United States Sentencing Commission, an independent agency in the judicial branch charged with setting federal sentencing guidelines, voted unanimously in April to reduce sentencing guidelines levels for most drug trafficking offenses and voted unanimously again in July to make that change retroactive.  Because Congress has not acted to disapprove the Commission’s actions, the amendment becomes effective tomorrow.  Offenders sentenced after tomorrow will be sentenced under the new, reduced guidelines, and current prisoners may begin petitioning courts for sentence reductions based on retroactive application of the reduced guidelines. Prisoners can have their sentences reduced if courts determine that they are eligible and a reduction is appropriate, and they may not be released pursuant to such reductions before November 1, 2015.

[Comment by USSC Chair Patti Saris:] “The reduction in drug guidelines that becomes effective tomorrow represents a significant step toward the goal the Commission has prioritized of reducing federal prison costs and overcrowding without endangering public safety.  Commissioners worked together to develop an approach that advances the causes of fairness, justice, fiscal responsibility, and public safety, and I am very pleased that we were able to agree unanimously on this reasonable solution.  I am also gratified that Congress permitted this important reform to go forward.

This amendment is an important start toward addressing the problem of over-incarceration at the federal level. Commission researchers estimate that applying the amendment going forward may reduce the prison population by 6,500 in five years and far more over time, while more than 46,000 current prisoners could be eligible to have their sentences reduced by retroactive application of the amendment.  Still, only Congress can act to fully solve the crisis in federal prison budgets and populations and address the many systemic problems the Commission has found resulting from mandatory minimum penalties.  I hope that Congress will act promptly to pass comprehensive sentencing reform legislation.”

October 31, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Monday, October 20, 2014

"Why Did the Supreme Court Sidestep Sentencing Dispute?"

The title of this post is not merely the question I had for a few Justices after the denial of cert last week in Jones v. US (lamented here and here), it is also the headline of this new National Law Journal article about this decision authored by Tony Mauro.  Here are excerpts:

The U.S. Supreme Court's ­refusal to add a Washington drug case to its docket would not ordinarily get much notice.  But when the court did just that on Oct. 14, it drew wide criticism for missing an opportunity to resolve a long-­running dispute over judicial discretion in ­sentencing.

The court denied certiorari in Jones v. United States, which asked the court to rule that in deciding on a sentence, federal judges should not be able to take into consideration conduct for which the defendant was acquitted.  In the Jones case, the trial judge significantly increased the sentences of three defendants by factoring in drug conspiracy charges that the jury had rejected.

"It is really hard to understand why the court ruled as it did," said University of Illinois College of Law professor Margareth Etienne, a sentencing expert. "It goes against everything the Supreme Court has said for the last 15 years."

Cato Institute senior fellow Ilya Shapiro said, "It's not just high-­profile culture-war issues like same-sex ­marriage and the right to bear arms that the Supreme Court is avoiding like the plague."  Shapiro said the court's action was "another opportunity lost by the Court, another responsibility shirked.  "The issue has been raised in numerous lower court decisions, and in a 2007 Supreme Court case, several justices said it should be taken up if the right case came along.  As recently as Oct. 1, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit mentioned the Jones case in a ruling that criticized the "questionable ­practice" of basing sentences on uncharged or unproven offenses.

An unusual lineup of three justices — Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Ruth Bader Ginsburg — took the rare step of dissenting from the denial of review.  "This has gone on long enough," Scalia wrote. "The present petition presents the non-hypothetical case the court claimed to have been waiting for."

In the case the court denied, a District of Columbia jury found Antwuan Ball, Desmond Thurston and Joseph Jones guilty in 2007 of selling between two and 11 grams of cocaine, relatively small amounts. They were acquitted on racketeering and other charges that they were part of an extensive narcotics conspiracy. Yet, when U.S. District Judge Richard Roberts sentenced the three, he said he "saw clear evidence of a drug conspiracy," and sentenced Ball, Thurston and Jones to 18, 16 and 15 years in prison, respectively — four times higher than the highest sentences given for others who sold similar amounts of cocaine, according to filings with the Supreme Court....

Stephen Leckar, of counsel to Kalbian Hagerty in Washington, who represented the defendants in the petition denied last week, said he was disappointed that the petition fell "one vote short" of being granted certiorari. The fact that conservatives Scalia and Thomas dissented — along with liberal Ginsburg — "ought to be a fire bell in the night" signaling that the issue should be resolved, Leckar said....

The University of Illinois' Etienne speculated that some justices may have felt the facts of the Jones case were "too good" to be a vehicle for making a broad pronouncement on the issue. She explained that Jones involved a judge ignoring an actual acquittal by a jury, whereas a more common scenario is a judge basing an enhanced sentence on conduct that may or may not have been charged or was not part of a plea agreement. Ruling on a case involving an actual acquittal might leave the broader issue unresolved. "It is going to take a while" for the court to revisit the issue, Etienne added. "Until it does, the old adage that one is 'innocent until proven guilty' will continue to have little meaning."

Previous related posts on the Jones case:

October 20, 2014 in Blakely in the Supreme Court, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack

Sunday, October 12, 2014

"Confronting Cognitive 'Anchoring Effect' and 'Blind Spot' Biases in Federal Sentencing: A Modest Solution for Reforming a Fundamental Flaw"

The title of this post is the title of this intriguing new paper by U.S. District Judge Mark Bennett. Here is the abstract:

Cognitive "anchoring effect" bias, especially related to numbers, like sentencing guidelines ranges, is widely recognized in cognitive psychology as an extremely robust and powerful heuristic.  It is a cognitive shortcut that has a strong tendency to undermine judgments by "anchoring" a judgment to an earlier disclosed number, the anchor.  Numerous studies prove anchoring bias produces systematic errors in judgment in wide-ranging circumstances, including judgments by experts — doctors, lawyers, real estate agents, psychologists, and auditors — as well as a variety of decisions by foreign and American federal and state judges.  The anchoring effect occurs even when the anchor is incomplete, inaccurate, irrelevant, implausible, or even random.

Roughly corresponding in time with the developing understanding of the anchoring effect, federal sentencing has undergone a revolution from judges having virtually unlimited discretion, to virtually no discretion, and back to considerable discretion, as the Federal Sentencing Guidelines went from mandatory to advisory in a single monumental U.S. Supreme Court decision, United States v. Booker, 543 U.S. 220 (2005).  Surprisingly, since judges were granted much greater discretion in Booker, the length and severity of federal sentences, for the most part, has not changed.  This remains true despite long-standing, persistent, and widespread dissatisfaction among federal district court judges with the Guidelines and the length of sentences.  This Article argues that this is because judges’ sentences are subconsciously anchored by the calculated Guidelines range.

This Article offers a simple, modest, and practical solution that requires no change in existing law by the Supreme Court or Congress.  It simply requires rearranging the numerical anchoring information in the presentence report and adding additional relevant numerical information to counteract the anchoring effect of the Guidelines.  If federal district court judges are educated about the effect of cognitive anchoring and their own bias-based blind spots to it — their improved awareness can only enhance the fairness of sentencing.

October 12, 2014 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Ninth Circuit panel chastises prosecutors for breaching "fast-track" plea agreement

A Ninth Circuit panel has handed down a lengthy, must-read opinion today in US v. Morales Heredia, No. 12-50331 (9th Cir. Oct. 8, 2014) (available here).  The start of the opinion should make clear to federal practitioners, especially in border districts, why this case is notable:

Every day along the southwest border, previously deported aliens lacking entry documents are arrested, detained, and charged with illegal reentry.  Once convicted, they serve a term of imprisonment, and then are again deported.  The numbers are so great that federal prosecutors in these border states began to resort to an efficient means of securing a conviction: a “fast-track” plea agreement that binds the government and the defendant, but not the district judge.

The government secures the benefit of a streamlined process that minimizes the burden on its prosecutorial resources.  It need not go before a grand jury to secure an indictment; battle motions, including collateral attacks on the underlying deportation; prosecute a jury trial; or oppose an appeal.  The defendant, in turn, waives constitutional and other rights and agrees to a term of incarceration and, often,a term of supervised release ordinarily discouraged by the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines.  What is the incentive for the defendant to take this deal?  The prosecutor binds his office to recommend a four-level downward departure in the offense level now advised by the Guidelines, and to present a “united front” in favor of a reduced sentence to the district judge.  If the judge does not accept this sentence, the defendant may walk away from his guilty plea, and proceedings will begin anew.

Paul Gabriel Morales Heredia (Morales) was one such defendant.  But in Morales’s case, the orderly and efficient plea-bargaining process did not play out as intended.  The government extended the promise of a reduced prison term with one hand and took it away with the other.  The prosecutor’s recommendation of a six-month prison term rang hollow as he repeatedly and unnecessarily emphasized Morales’s criminal history, adding for good measure his personal opinion that “defendant’s history communicates a consistent disregard for both the criminal and immigration laws of the United States.” Morales’s counsel timely objected and sought specific performance of the plea agreement.  The district judge denied this relief on the irrelevant ground that the prosecutor’s statements did not influence him.  We conclude that Morales is entitled to relief, and we vacate his sentence and remand for further proceedings before a different judge.

October 8, 2014 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Monday, October 06, 2014

Trying not to get too excited about SCOTUS relist in Jones/Ball acquitted conduct case

Regular readers likely recall a number of posts about the notable federal drug sentencing case from DC involving Antwan Ball and his co-defendants concerning judicial fact-finding to increase a federal guideline sentence contrary to a jury acquittal. As I noted in this post last week, this case, Jones v. US, No. 13-10026, was consider by the Justices at their "long conference." When there was subsequently no announcement of cert being granted last week, I assumed today's SCOTUS order list (noted here) would include Jones v. US, No. 13-10026, on the long list of cases for which certiorari was denied.

But, while the Justices surprised many court-watchers today by denying cert on all the same-sex marriage cases, they surprised me by "relisting" Jones v. US, as noted in this official docket report, for consideration again at the Court's conference this coming Friday.  This is relatively big news — to the extent that not making a cert decision is big news — because a relist is usually a strong signal that one or more Justices are strongly interested in the case and want some more time to mull over the possibility of a grant of cert or some other significant action.

Still, as the title of this post is intended to connote, I am trying real hard to resist getting excited by the prospect of cert being granted in Jones (and/or in another acquitted conduct case) real soon.  It is quite possible — dare I say perhaps even likely — that this relist is just a sign that a Justice or two is working on a dissent from the denial of cert review and need another few days to put the finishing touches on that dissent.   Indeed, given how crisply the acquitted conduct issue is presented in Jones and how many prior petitions have failed to garner the votes need for a cert grant in recent years, it is hard to imagine that the Justices want or need more time to mull this over.  But, while the Dougie Downer voice in my head will keep telling me not to get too excited by all this, the optimist voice in my head keeps imaginging that the big baseball and Sixth Amendment fans on the Supreme Court, namely Justices Scalia and Sotomayor, are going to convince enough of their colleague to finally be willing to "play Ball" and take up the acquitted conduct issue in Jones v. US.   

Previous related posts on this case and acquitted conduct sentencing enhancements:

October 6, 2014 in Blakely in the Supreme Court, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Concurrence laments "trend" of federal prosecutors seeking "significantly enhanced terms of imprisonment under the guise of 'relevant conduct'"

An otherwise unremarkable federal drug sentence appeal in the US v. St. Hill, No. 13-2097 (1st Cir. Oct. 1, 2014) (available here)  took on some blogworthy character because of a lengthy concurrence by Judge Torruella. Here is the start, heart and close of Judge Torruella's opinion in St. Hill:

I join the court's opinion but write separately to note a disturbing trend in criminal prosecutions.  All too often, prosecutors charge individuals with relatively minor crimes, carrying correspondingly short sentences, but then use section 1B1.3(a) of the Sentencing Guidelines ("Guidelines") to argue for significantly enhanced terms of imprisonment under the guise of "relevant conduct" — other crimes that have not been charged (or, if charged, have led to an acquittal) and have not been proven beyond a reasonable doubt....

St. Hill was subject to an additional six to eight years in prison due to isolated drug sales not directly related to the twenty oxycodone pills which led to his conviction, all of which he was never arrested for, never charged with, never pleaded guilty to, and never convicted of by a jury beyond a reasonable doubt.  This is a prime example of the tail wagging the dog.  Even more disturbing: the government could, if it so chooses, still charge St. Hill for these uncharged crimes in a separate proceeding, and he could be convicted and sentenced again without protection from the Double Jeopardy Clause.  See Witte v. United States, 515 U.S. 389, 406 (1995)....

[I]f the government intends to seek an increase in a criminal defendant's sentence for conduct that independently may be subject to criminal liability, the government should charge that conduct in the indictment.  The Fifth Amendment requires that "[n]o person shall be . . . deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law," U.S. Const. amend. V, while the Sixth Amendment provides an accused with the right to a trial "by an impartial jury," id. amend. VI.  The practice of arguing for higher sentences based on uncharged and untried "relevant conduct" for, at best, tangentially related narcotics transactions seems like an end-run around these basic constitutional guarantees afforded to all criminal defendants.  Cf. Alleyne, 133 S. Ct. at 2162 ("When a finding of fact alters the legally prescribed punishment so as to aggravate it, the fact necessarily forms a constituent part of a new offense and must be submitted to the jury.").  The government's role is to ensure justice, both to the accused and to the public at large; it is not to maximize conviction rates and argue for the greatest possible sentence.  And, while it is unclear to me whether this trend is due to shaky police work resulting in cases that cannot be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, prosecutorial laziness, or other less nefarious factors, it remains troubling regardless....

Nevertheless, as a judge, it is my responsibility to faithfully apply the law as articulated by both the Supreme Court and this court, and I do not dispute that both the Guidelines and our interpretation of them currently condone this questionable process.  See Witte, 515 U.S. at 396, 406 (finding no constitutional violation where the sentence was based in part on a cocaine offense that defendant "clearly was neither prosecuted for nor convicted of"); United States v. Lombard, 102 F.3d 1, 4 (1st Cir. 1996) (finding no constitutional violation where the district court "choose[s] to give weight to the uncharged offenses in fixing the sentence within the statutory range if it finds by a preponderance of evidence that they occurred").  I nonetheless question whether this interpretation should be revisited — either by the courts or by revisions to the Guidelines.

October 5, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Notable new empirical research on citizenship's impact on federal sentencing

I just came across this notable new empirical article on federal sentencing patterns published in American Sociological Review and authored by Michael Light, Michael Massoglia, and Ryan King. The piece is titled "Citizenship and Punishment: The Salience of National Membership in U.S. Criminal Courts," and here is the abstract:

When compared to research on the association between immigration and crime, far less attention has been given to the relationship between immigration, citizenship, and criminal punishment.  As such, several fundamental questions about how noncitizens are sanctioned and whether citizenship is a marker of stratification in U.S. courts remain unanswered.  Are citizens treated differently than noncitizens — both legal and undocumented — in U.S. federal criminal courts?  Is the well-documented Hispanic-white sentencing disparity confounded by citizenship status?  Has the association between citizenship and sentencing remained stable over time?  And are punishment disparities contingent on the demographic context of the court?

Analysis of several years of data from U.S. federal courts indicates that citizenship status is a salient predictor of sentencing outcomes — more powerful than race or ethnicity.  Other notable findings include the following: accounting for citizenship substantially attenuates disparities between whites and Hispanics; the citizenship effect on sentencing has grown stronger over time; and the effect is most pronounced in districts with growing noncitizen populations.  These findings suggest that as international migration increases, citizenship may be an emerging and powerful axis of sociolegal inequality.

October 2, 2014 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

This is your federal sentencing data on drugs (after the minus-2 amendment)

I could not help but think about the famous 1980s "This Is Your Brain on Drugs" campaign from Partnership for a Drug-Free America once I took a close look at the US Sentencing Commission's latest greatest data on federal sentencing appearing now in this Third Quarter FY 2014 Sentencing Update.  The famous "egg" ad make clear that drugs could scramble your brain, and a "Note to Readers" appearing early in the latest USSC data report makes clear that a recent amendment to the drug sentencing guidelines has started to scrambling cumulative federal sentencing data.

Here is the USSC's "Note to Readers," which highlights why it will prove especially challenging to fully assess and analyze federal sentencing practices in FY14 because of mid-year drug sentencing reforms:

On April 30, 2014, the Commission submitted to Congress a proposed amendment to the sentencing guidelines that would revise the guidelines applicable to drug trafficking offenses.  That amendment will become effective on November 1, 2014 and will be designated as Amendment 782 in the 2014 edition of Appendix C to the Guidelines Manual.  Amendment 782 changes the manner in which the statutory mandatory minimum penalties for drug trafficking offenses are incorporated into the base offense levels in the drug quantity table in section 2D1.1 of the Guidelines Manual.  Specifically, the amendment generally reduces by two levels the offense levels assigned to the quantities described in section 2D1.1 and makes corresponding changes to section 2D1.11.  On July 18, the Commission voted to give retroactive effect to Amendment 782, beginning on November 1, 2014.

On March 12, 2014, the Department of Justice issued guidance to all United States Attorneys regarding the sentencing of drug trafficking offenders in anticipation of an amendment to the guidelines lowering the base offense levels for drug trafficking cases. In that guidance, the Attorney General authorized prosecutors to not object to a defense request for a two-level variance from the sentencing range calculated under the current version of the Guidelines Manual in drug trafficking offenses, provided that several other conditions were met.  Judges and probation offices have informed the Commission that in some districts the prosecutors themselves are requesting that the court depart from the sentencing range calculated under the Guidelines Manual and impose a sentence that is two levels below that range.

The data the Commission is reporting in this Preliminary Quarterly Data Report appears to reflect those practices.  On Table 1 of this report, the Commission reports the rate at which the sentence imposed in individual cases was within the applicable guideline range. The rate through the third quarter of fiscal year 2014 was 47.2 percent.  This compares with 51.2 percent in fiscal year 2013. However, as can be seen from Tables 1-A and 1-B, most of this decrease is attributable to sentences imposed in drug offenses. As shown on Table 1-A, the within range rate in cases not involving a drug offense was 53.3 percent through the third quarter of fiscal year 2014, compared with 54.8 percent in fiscal year 2013.

Table 1-B presents data for drug cases only.  As shown on that table, the within range rate for sentences imposed in drug cases through the third quarter of fiscal year 2014 was 30.0 percent, a decrease of more than eight percentage points from the rate of 38.8 percent at the end of fiscal year 2014.  This decrease in the within range rate resulted from an increase in the rate at which the government requested a below range sentence, from 39.4 percent in fiscal year 2013 to 45.7 percent through the third quarter of fiscal year 2014, as well as an increase in the rate of non-government sponsored below range sentences, from 20.8 percent in fiscal year 2013 to 23.5 percent through the third quarter of fiscal year 2014.

Because this change in sentencing practices did not occur until more than five months into the fiscal year, the impact of this change is not fully reflected in the average data presented in this cumulative quarterly report.  The Commission expects a further reduction in the within range rate for drug offenses to be reflected in the data for the completed fiscal year 2014. 

October 1, 2014 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

High-profile commentator Dinesh D’Souza gets below-guideline probation sentence for violating federal campaign finance laws

As reported in this New York Times piece, headlined "D’Souza Is Spared Prison Time for Campaign Finance Violations," another notable white-collar defendant got a below-guideline federal sentence today thanks to judges now having broader post-Booker sentencing discretion. Here are the details:

The conservative author and documentary filmmaker Dinesh D’Souza was spared prison time on Tuesday after pleading guilty earlier this year to violating federal campaign finance laws.

Judge Richard M. Berman of Federal District Court in Manhattan handed down a probationary sentence — including eight months in a so-called community confinement center — and a $30,000 fine, bringing to a close a high-profile legal battle that started with Mr. D’Souza’s indictment in January for illegally using straw donors to contribute to a Republican Senate candidate in New York in 2012.

Mr. D’Souza, who has accused President Obama of carrying out the “anticolonial” agenda of his father, initially argued that he had been singled out for prosecution because of his politics. In April, his lawyer, Benjamin Brafman, filed court papers contending that Mr. D’Souza’s “consistently caustic and highly publicized criticism” of Mr. Obama had made him a government target.

A month later, however, on the morning he was scheduled to go on trial, Mr. D’Souza pleaded guilty. “I deeply regret my conduct,” he told the court. Even with his fate hanging in the balance, Mr. D’Souza plowed ahead with his thriving career as a right-wing provocateur. Over the summer, while awaiting his sentencing, he published the book “America: Imagine a World Without Her,” which reached No. 1 on The New York Times’s nonfiction hardcover best-seller list, and a companion documentary film that has made $14.4 million at the box office.

The government charged Mr. D’Souza, 53, with illegally arranging to have two people — an employee and a woman with whom he was romantically involved — donate $10,000 each to the campaign of an old friend from Dartmouth College, Wendy E. Long, with the understanding that he would reimburse them in cash for their contributions. Ms. Long was challenging Senator Kirsten E. Gillibrand, a Democrat.

According to prosecutors, Mr. D’Souza lied to Ms. Long about the donations, reassuring her that “they both had sufficient funds to make the contributions.” Ms. Long pressed Mr. D’Souza on the issue after the election, and he acknowledged that he had reimbursed the two people, the government said, but told Ms. Long not to worry because she had not known about it.

When Mr. D’Souza entered his guilty plea, Judge Berman said he could face up to two years in prison. The federal sentencing guidelines call for 10 to 16 months, but the final decision is up to the judge’s discretion. “Judges are all over the map on these reimbursement cases,” said Robert Kelner, a campaign-finance lawyer at Covington & Burling.

Mr. D’Souza’s lawyers asked for leniency, arguing in a court filing that their client had “unequivocally accepted responsibility” for his crime. “We are seeking a sentence that balances the crime he has regrettably committed with the extraordinary good Mr. D’Souza has accomplished as a scholar, as a community member and as a family member,” they wrote, requesting that he be sentenced to probation and community service at the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater San Diego.

The government rebutted Mr. D’Souza’s claims, highlighting both the seriousness of his offense and what it called “the defendant’s post-plea failure to accept responsibility for his criminal conduct.” According to the government, Mr. D’Souza assumed a different posture with respect to his case when he was not before the court. It cited a television interview he gave two days after his plea in which he “repeatedly asserted that this case was about whether he was selectively prosecuted.”

This story reminds me why I am so sad Bill Otis no longer comments on this blog; I am so eager to hear from him directly whether he thinks this case is yet another example of, in his words, allowing "naïve and ideologically driven judges" to make sentencing determinations and therefore further justifies embracing mandatory sentencing schemes that would always require judges to impose prison terms on these sorts of non-violent offenders because these sorts of offenses do great harm even if they do not involve violence.

Based on my limited understanding of the crime and criminal here, I feel fairly confident asserting that a prison term for Mr. D’Souza would have achieved little more than spending extra federal taxpayer dollars without any real public safety return on that investment. But Bill and I rarely see eye-to-eye on these matters, and thus I am eager for a distinct perspective in this notable white-collar case.

September 23, 2014 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Monday, September 22, 2014

Sixth Circuit reverses Ponzi scheme sentence because loss calculation failed to credit monies paid out

This morning a Sixth Circuit panel has handed down a notable ruling about loss calculations in the federal sentencing of a Ponzi schemer.  Here is how the panel opinion in US v. Snelling, No. 12-4288 (6th Cir. Sept. 22, 2014) (available here) starts and concludes:

Defendant-Appellant Jasen Snelling appeals a 131-month prison sentence imposed pursuant to a plea agreement.  In the agreement, Snelling admitted to charges of conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud, obstruction of justice, and tax evasion for his part in an investment scheme that defrauded investors of nearly $9 million.  Snelling challenges the sentence based on an allegedly faulty Guidelines-range calculation that employed a loss figure that did not take into account the sums paid back to his Ponzi scheme’s investors in the course of the fraud.

For the reasons below, we vacate the sentence of the district court and remand the case for resentencing.....

Admittedly, there is intuitive appeal to the government’s argument that Snelling should not be allowed to benefit from the payments he made “not to mitigate the losses suffered . . . but to create the means to convince new victim-investors to pay him even more money.”  We need not reflect, however, on whether it is unseemly for Snelling to benefit from the money he paid out to investors in an effort to perpetuate his Ponzi scheme. Undoubtedly, it is.  The only question we must consider is whether the district court correctly applied the Guidelines and whether it used a correct Guidelines range.

An accurately calculated Guidelines range is necessary for a procedurally reasonable sentence — any error in calculating the Guidelines range cannot survive review.  See Gall v. United States, 552 U.S. 38, 49 (2007); see also United States v. Bolds, 511 F.3d 568, 579 (6th Cir. 2007) (“[W]e must ensure that the district court correctly calculated the applicable Guidelines range which are the starting point and initial benchmark of its sentencing analysis.”) (internal alterations and quotation marks omitted).  As appealing as the government’s argument may be, it does not comport with the text of the Guidelines. Accordingly, the district court was in error when it declined to reduce the loss figure by the value of the payments made by Snelling to his investor victims in perpetuating his Ponzi scheme.

September 22, 2014 in Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Woman who bought guns for killer gets (way-above-guideline) eight-year federal prison sentence

As reported in this post last month, a high-profile federal gun case in upstate New York involved federal prosecutors seeking a statutory maximum sentencing term of 10 years in prison when the applicable guideline recommend only 18 to 24 months for the offense.  This new local article, headlined "Woman tied to firefighter ambush sentenced to 8 years," details that the feds today were successful in securing a way-above-guideline federal gun sentence in the case:

The woman convicted of buying guns for a man that were used to kill two firefighters on Christmas Eve 2012 was sentenced to eight years in prison on federal charges Wednesday. The sentence, imposed by U.S. District Judge David Larimer, will run concurrent with a state sentence Dawn Nguyen is now serving of 16 months to four years.

On June 6, 2010, Nguyen bought the semiautomatic rifle and shotgun that William Spengler Jr. used when he fatally shot two volunteer firefighters Dec. 24, 2012. She claimed on a federal firearms transaction form that the guns were for her, when she was purchasing them for Spengler.

"I'm sure Miss Nguyen wishes she could take back that decision she made on that June day, but life is not like that," Larimer said in federal court Wednesday morning. Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Noto in court Wednesday had argued that Nguyen's actions directly led to the Christmas Eve killings. "She should have foreseen the possibility of serious harm," said Noto....

Spengler had previously served 17 years in prison for fatally beating his grandmother with a hammer in 1980.

Larimer on Wednesday said he believed Nguyen knew of Spengler's dangerousness, and that she likely knew the facts behind Spengler's killing of his grandmother. Speaking of Spengler's past crime, Larimer said, "that should raise not one but hundreds of red flags that maybe this is not the kind of person who you want to be giving guns to."

Nguyen's lawyer Matthew Parrinello maintained that Nguyen did not know the specifics of Spengler's earlier crime. "This was a quirky, weird, crazy neighbor that she knew," said Parrinello. "But he was very nice, very kind and he did things for her family."

Dawn Nguyen on Wednesday faced the court room — which was packed with police officers, West Webster, N.Y., volunteer firefighters and her relatives — and told the crowd that she was sorry for her actions.

Related prior posts:

September 17, 2014 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Gun policy and sentencing, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Terrific collection of materials on-line as USSC's "Annual National Seminar Goes Paperless"

Though not nearly as historic or controversial as Bob Dylan going electric, I was still excited and intrigued to see a new item on the US Sentencing Commission's website announcing that this week's upcoming USSC Annual National Seminar "is going paperless." What this means, as the notice explains, is that all of the USSC's Seminar materials are now available online at this link

I recommend that everyone interested in federal sentencing data and developments take the time to click through and scroll down through the USSC's Seminar agenda. One can find lots of interesting articles, data runs and presentation materials that provide information and insights about modern federal sentencing that would be hard to find anywhere else. Kudos to the Commission for going paperless and for enabling folks like me who cannot make it to this year's event to still access a lot of the materials that are to be presented.

September 16, 2014 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Monday, September 08, 2014

Intriguing concurring sentiments about federal child porn downloading cases from Judges Noonan and Reinhardt

Late last week, two judges on the Ninth Circuit made noteworthy an otherwise forgettable decision in US v. Hardrick, No. 13-50195 (9th CIr. Sept. 4, 2014) (available here), through their concurring opinions in a run-of-the-mill affirmance of federal conviction of a child pornography downloader.  Here is the text of Judge Noonan's Hardrick concurring addition:

I write to underline the need for further action to discourage a crime whose actual extent is unknown but whose commission is increasingly prosecuted as a serious federal offense. As pointed out in a thoughtful communication by Alexandra Gelber, Assistant Deputy Chief, Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section of the Criminal Division of the Department of Justice: Those convicted of the crimes of possessing, receiving, or distributing child pornography typically have no criminal record but “include professors, teachers, coaches, fathers, lawyers, doctors, foster parents, adoption agency owners, and more.”  See Alexandra Gelber, Response to “A Reluctant Rebellion” 7 (July 1, 2009), http://www.justice.gov/criminal/ceos/downloads/ReluctantRebellionResponse.pdf. Obviously, lack of criminal history is not a defense.  It is equally obvious that this kind of defendant is normally law-abiding and, unless suffering from some psychological impairment — the probability Judge Reinhardt effectively develops — could be expected to obey the law in this area if aware of its provisions and especially if aware of its sanctions. Why should the government not advertise the law and its penalty?  Better to stop a crime’s commission than mop the consequences.

Judge Reinhardt's comment are a bit more extended, and here are excerpts:

Like Judge Noonan, I concur in the unanimous opinion of the court. Also, like Judge Noonan, I am disturbed about the practical impact of the child pornography laws upon otherwise law-abiding individuals.  I do not agree, however, that advertising the legal consequences is a solution to the problem.  Rather, it is my view that “psychological impairment” is in most, if not all, cases the cause of the criminal conduct.  Whether psychiatric treatment rather than incarceration would be the proper response by state authorities is a matter that I would hope would be given more serious consideration than it has until now.  Surely sentences of five to twenty years for a first offense of viewing child pornography are not the solution.  See 18 U.S.C. § 2252(b)(1).  Nor are mandatory sentences of fifteen to forty years for a second.  See id.....

I do not profess to know the solution to the problem of how to cure the illness that causes otherwise law-abiding people to engage in the viewing of child pornography.  I know only that lengthy sentences such as the one in this case, ten years (and below the guidelines at that) for a first offense, cannot be the answer.

There is nothing new in what I say here, but it is a problem that I believe deserves more attention than we have given it thus far.  Many lives of otherwise decent people have been ruined by psychological problems they are not presently capable of controlling. Incarcerating them will not end the horror of child pornography or the injury it inflicts on innocent children.  All it accomplishes is to create another class of people with ruined lives — victims of serious mental illness who society should instead attempt to treat in a constructive and humane manner.

September 8, 2014 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Thursday, September 04, 2014

Former Virginia Gov McDonnell (and wife) now facing high-profile federal sentencing after jury convictions on multiple charges

As detailed in this FoxNews report, headlined "Ex-Virginia governor, wife found guilty on corruption charges," a high-profile federal criminal trial is now over and a high-profile federal sentencing process is about to begin. Here are the basics:

Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife Maureen were convicted Thursday on a range of corruption charges in connection with gifts and loans they accepted from a wealthy businessman, marking a stunning fall for the onetime rising Republican star.

A federal jury in Richmond convicted Bob McDonnell, 60, of 11 of the 13 counts he faced; Maureen McDonnell was convicted of nine of the 13 counts she had faced. Both bowed their heads and wept as a stream of "guiltys" kept coming from the court clerk. The verdict followed three days of deliberations, after a five-week trial.

Sentencing was scheduled for Jan. 6. Each faces up to 30 years in prison. After the verdict was read, FBI agent-in-charge Adam Lee said the bureau will "engage and engage vigorously in any allegation of corruption."  Assistant Attorney General Leslie Caldwell, head of the Justice Department's criminal division, said the state's former first couple "turned public service into a money-making enterprise."

The former governor, up until his federal corruption case, was a major figure in national politics and had been considered a possible running mate for presidential candidate Mitt Romney in 2012.  The couple, though, was charged with doing favors for a wealthy vitamin executive in exchange for more than $165,000 in gifts and loans.  They also were charged with submitting fraudulent bank loan applications, and Maureen McDonnell was charged with one count of obstruction.

The former governor testified in his own defense, insisting that he provided nothing more than routine political courtesies to former Star Scientific CEO Jonnie Williams. Maureen McDonnell did not testify.  His testimony and that of others exposed embarrassing details about Maureen McDonnell's erratic behavior and the couple's marital woes as the defense suggested they could not have conspired because they were barely speaking....

Prosecutors claimed that the McDonnells turned to Williams because they were grappling with credit card debt that once topped $90,000 and annual operating shortfalls of $40,000 to $60,000 on family-owned vacation rental properties. Two of the loans totaling $70,000 were intended for the two Virginia Beach rent houses.  Williams said he wrote the first $50,000 check to Maureen McDonnell after she complained about their money troubles and said she could help his company because of her background selling nutritional supplements.

My (way-too-quick) rough review of likely applicable sentencing guidelines suggests that the McDonnells are likely facing guideline sentencing ranges of 10 years or even longer based on the offense facts described here. I presume they should be able to get some top-flight attorneys to make some top-flight arguments for below-guideline sentences. But, at least for now, I am inclined to urge former Gov McDonnell to expect to be celebrating his 65th (and maybe also his 70th) birthday in the graybar hotel.

September 4, 2014 in Celebrity sentencings, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (13) | TrackBack

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

"A 'Holocaust in Slow Motion?' America's Mass Incarceration and the Role of Discretion"

The provocative title of this post is the title of this provocative new article available via SSRN and authored by (former federal prosecutor) Mark W. Osler and (current federal judge) Mark W. Bennett. Here is the abstract:

Numbers don’t lie: America has suffered an explosion in imprisonment that has been fundamentally unrelated to actual crime levels. In this article, a federal District Court Judge and a former federal prosecutor examine the roots of this explosion with a focus on the discretion of Congress, the United States Sentencing Commission, federal prosecutors, and judges. This dark period may be in its twilight, though, and the authors conclude by describing specific actions each of these four groups could take to dismantle the cruel machinery of mass incarceration.

September 2, 2014 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

Thursday, August 28, 2014

At third federal sentencing, elderly child porn defendant gets one year in prison and lawyer pledges SCOTUS appeal

Regular readers and hard-core federal sentencing fans are familiar with the long-running dispute over the sentencing of child porn downloader Richard Bistline.  The latest chapter of this saga, but apparently not the last, unfolded in federal district court yesterday as reported in this Columbus Dispatch article, headlined "Child-porn possessor finally gets harsher sentence: 1 year in prison." Here are excerpts:

A Knox County man at the center of a fight about prison sentences for people convicted of possessing child pornography won’t be out of the spotlight anytime soon.  Richard Bistline, 71, was sentenced yesterday to a year and a day in federal prison by U.S. District Judge George C. Smith, who also ordered 10 years of supervised release.  Bistline also must register as a sex offender.

Bistline’s attorney, Jonathan T. Tyack, immediately said he will appeal the case in the hope that it eventually will be considered by the U.S. Supreme Court....

It was the third time that Bistline, of Mount Vernon, had been sentenced for his 2009 conviction on one count of possession of child pornography.  Sentencing guidelines set Bistline’s prison term at five to six years, although judges have discretion.

His case pingponged from district court to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals twice after federal Judge James Graham refused to sentence Bistline to lengthy prison time. Instead, he sentenced him in 2010 to one day in prison, 30 days of home confinement and 10 years of supervised probation.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Deborah Solove appealed, arguing that prison time was needed, and the 6th Circuit ordered Graham to resentence Bistline.  In 2013, Graham ordered the same sentence with three years of home confinement. Solove appealed again, and the 6th Circuit ruled that the sentence still was not adequate.

Graham was removed from the case, paving the way for Smith’s sentence yesterday.  “The 6th Circuit has clearly spoken and is requiring me to impose a custodial sentence,” Smith said.  “I hope my colleagues and the sentencing commission continue to shed light on these very important policies.”  Smith then stayed the sentence and said Bistline could remain out on bond until his appeal is decided.

Tyack had asked Smith to sentence his client to one day in prison and 10 years of supervised probation.  “At the end of the day, the Court of Appeals is attempting to dictate to this court what sentence it should impose,” Tyack said. “It’s inappropriate.”

Tyack said he hopes the Supreme Court will arrive at that conclusion in Bistline’s case. “He’s caught up in a legal fight that will ultimately define the boundaries between the court of appeals and district court,” Tyack said.

Bistline, a former Michigan schoolteacher with no criminal record, was arrested after a task force investigating online crimes against children downloaded images of child pornography that had come from Bistline’s home computer. A search of the computer revealed 305 images and 56 videos of children posing naked or involved in sex acts with adults. Solove said Bistline sought out child pornography for more than a year for sexual gratification. She asked for a five-year prison sentence.

Tyack said in court documents in May that “a 71-year-old inmate with Mr. Bistline’s health problems is likely to suffer greater punishment than the average inmate because the Bureau of Prisons often fails to provide adequate or even necessary medical treatment.” Bistline has a pacemaker, high blood pressure and hearing loss, among other medical problems.

Graham has been outspoken about Bistline’s case and about the federal sentencing guidelines for defendants who have been charged with possession of child pornography. He wrote a lengthy law-review article about the case that was published in December, and he has spoken about the guidelines at court hearings for other defendants charged with child-porn possession.

August 28, 2014 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

"Rebellion: The Courts of Appeals' Latest Anti-Booker Backlash"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new essay about federal sentencing and appellate practices by Alison Siegler available via SSRN.  Here is the abstract:

For over twenty-five years, federal courts of appeals have rebelled against every Supreme Court mandate that weakens the United States Sentencing Guidelines. Since the Court made the Guidelines advisory in United States v Booker, the rebellion has intensified, with the appellate courts consistently ensuring adherence to the Guidelines by over-policing sentences that fall outside the Guidelines and under-policing within-Guidelines sentences.  The courts of appeals are now staging a new revolt, creating appellate rules — carve-outs — that enable them to reject meritorious challenges to within-Guidelines sentences.

Part I describes the previous rebellions.  Part II introduces the current rebellion.  Part II.A discusses what I term the “stock carve-out,” an appellate rule that violates the sentencing statute and the Sixth Amendment by allowing sentencing judges to ignore mitigating arguments regarding defendants’ personal characteristics.  Part II.B discusses the “§ 3553(a)(6) carve-out,” a rule that similarly violates the statute and precedent by allowing sentencing judges to ignore disparity arguments.  Part III concludes.

August 27, 2014 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 (3) | TrackBack

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Though guidelines recommend two years or less, feds request 10-year max for woman who bought guns for killer

An interesting and challenging federal sentencing is scheduled this week in upstate New York, and one of many reasons the case is noteworthy is because federal prosecutors are requesting a statutory maximum sentencing term of 10 years in prison when the applicable guideline recommend only 18 to 24 months for the offense.  This recent local article, headlined "U.S. asks for Nguyen to get 10 years," provides the context and details: 

Federal prosecutors want a judge to ignore sentencing guidelines and sentence Dawn Nguyen to 10 years in prison. While Nguyen likely did not know that firearms she bought for William Spengler Jr. would be used in an ambush of volunteer firefighters, she did "place two tactical military-style weapons in the capable hands of a man who she knew had already killed his own grandmother," say court papers filed Thursday by Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Noto.

Nguyen is scheduled to be sentenced in U.S. District Court on Thursday for her conviction in three federal crimes: lying on a federal firearms transaction when she bought a shotgun and semiautomatic rifle in June 2010; passing those weapons onto a man — Spengler — whom she knew was a convicted felon; and possessing the guns while she was a marijuana user.

The request for a 10-year sentence sets up a rare occurrence in federal court — a decision by a judge as to whether the crimes were so extraordinary that the guidelines should be bypassed.  The guidelines, while only advisory, are designed to ensure comparable punishments for comparable crimes.  A judge has the discretion in unusual cases to sentence up to the maximum, which for Nguyen is 10 years for each crime.

To make his decision, U.S. District Judge David Larimer will have to weigh the question that has long been central to Nguyen's offenses: Should she be held responsible for the Christmas Eve 2012 violence spree during which Spengler killed his sister and two volunteer firefighters?...

Nguyen has pleaded guilty to the federal crimes. She also was convicted in state Supreme Court of lying on the firearms purchase form when she said the guns were for her. State Supreme Court Justice Thomas Moran sentenced her to 16 months to four years in state prison.

In June 2010, Nguyen and Spengler went to Gander Mountain in Henrietta where she bought the weapons for Spengler, who could not own guns because of his past crimes. On the morning of Christmas Eve 2012, Spengler fatally shot his sister, Cheryl, then started a blaze that largely destroyed his Lake Avenue home and others along the Lake Road strip. He then lay in wait for firefighters, ambushing them with the guns bought by Nguyen. He fatally shot West Webster volunteer firefighters Michael Chiapperini, 43, and Tomasz Kaczowka, 19.

The 10-year sentence "is what the victims have asked for," U.S. Attorney William Hochul Jr. said Friday of the families of the slain firefighters.  "It's absolutely critical that the judge keep in mind the chain of events started by Dawn Nguyen," Hochul said.

In a letter to the court, Nguyen, now 25, said that Spengler told her he wanted the guns for hunting, and she did not know enough about guns to find that unusual.  She wrote that she knew Spengler had been imprisoned for the death of his grandmother, but she did not know exactly what he had done.

Her attorney, Matthew Parrinello, said Friday that the request by prosecutors for a 10-year sentence is a "media grab."

"She committed a crime and she has already been punished," he said, noting Nguyen's state prison sentence. Parrinello wants Larimer to use the sentencing guidelines, and have the federal sentence run concurrent with her state sentence.

Prosecutors are asking that the federal sentence not be served until after Nguyen completes her state sentence, which would further increase the time she has to spend in prison.

The 25-page sentencing brief submitted by federal prosecutors in this notable case is available at this link and it make for an interesting read.

August 26, 2014 in Booker in district courts, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Will third time be a charm in federal sentencing of child porn defendant Richard Bistline?

Regular readers and those who follow closely federal sentencing of child pornography offender will recall the name Richard Bistline: as detailed in posts linked below, the Bistline's sentencing created a kind of battle royale between US District Judge James Graham and the Sixth Circuit.  This coming week, as reported in this Columbus Dispatch article, Bistline is scheduled to be resentenced yet again, this time by a different district judge after Judge Graham's prior sentences were twice found to be substantively unreasonable by the Sixth Circuit.  Here are excerpts from the Dispatch article providing the backstory:

Are federal sentencing guidelines for possessing child pornography too harsh?  Calling the guidelines “draconian,” U.S. District Judge James L. Graham has become increasingly vocal in his criticism from the federal bench in Columbus.

Possessing child porn is vastly different from distributing or producing it, Graham said in an interview last week. “The purveyors or producers of these images deserve the most severe punishment we can give them.  My concern is the people who end up possessing it.”

Richard Bistline, a Knox County man, is to be in federal court on Wednesday to be sentenced for the third time for child-porn possession.  His case thrust Graham into the spotlight in 2010 after the judge sentenced Bistline, of Mount Vernon, to one day in prison, 30 days of home confinement and 10 years of probation.  The recommended sentence under federal guidelines was five to six years.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Deborah A. Solove appealed Graham’s sentence to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled that the penalty did not reflect the seriousness of the offense.  The appeals court ordered Graham to resentence the defendant.  But a defiant Graham again sentenced Bistline to a single day in prison, although he increased the home confinement to three years.  Solove again appealed, and the 6th Circuit court again ruled that Graham’s sentence was too lenient.  The court removed Graham from the case.

Judge George C. Smith is to sentence Bistline on Wednesday....

Graham says the guidelines for child-porn possession are outdated.  Adding points for looking at child porn on a computer is unjustified, he said, because nearly all of it is accessed that way.  Adding points for possession of numerous images is unjustified because “current technology produces numerous images with one key stroke or mouse click,” he said....

In its second Bistline ruling, the appeals court wrote that possessing child porn “is not a crime of inadvertence, of pop-up screens and viruses that incriminate an innocent person.”  Possession becomes a crime “when a defendant knowingly acquires the images — in this case, affirmatively, deliberately and repeatedly, hundreds of times over, in a period exceeding a year."

Graham isn’t alone in his contention that the guidelines are outdated.  A 2013 U.S. Sentencing Commission report on federal child-porn guidelines noted that many of the sentencing enhancements designed to further punish the worst possessors now apply to most offenders....

Other men who have pleaded guilty to one count of child-porn possession in federal court in Columbus, as Bistline did, have received multiple-year sentences.  Among them: former special deputy sheriff Todd R. German of Union County, sentenced last year to four years; former Reynoldsburg teacher Matthew Fisher, sentenced in 2011 to three years; and former Columbus doctor Philip Nowicki, sentenced in 2011 to two years.

Graham said most of the child-porn-possession defendants he sees have no previous criminal record and “are involved in viewing these images as a result of what appears to be a form of addiction I think is becoming more and more prevalent in today’s society, affecting people of all ages.”  Just by being found guilty, he said, they face ruined lives, for both themselves and their families.  “They need to stop it,” he said. “The men who are doing this are going to get caught.”

Prior related posts:

August 24, 2014 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Thursday, August 14, 2014

US Sentencing Commission finalizes its policy priorities for coming year

As detailed in this official press release, the "United States Sentencing Commission today unanimously approved its list of priorities for the coming year, including consideration of federal sentences for economic crimes and continued work on addressing concerns with mandatory minimum penalties." Here is more from the release:

The Commission once again set as its top priority continuing to work with Congress to implement the recommendations in its 2011 report on federal mandatory minimum penalties, which included recommendations that Congress reduce the severity and scope of some mandatory minimum penalties and consider expanding the “safety valve” statute which exempts certain low-level non-violent offenders from mandatory minimum penalties....

The Commission also set out its intention to consider potential changes to the guidelines resulting from its multi-year review of federal sentences for economic crimes. “For the past several years, we have been reviewing data and listening to key stakeholders to try to determine whether changes are needed in the way fraud offenses are sentenced in the federal system, particularly in fraud on the market cases,” Saris said.  “We look forward to hearing more this year from judges, experts, victims, and other stakeholders on these issues and deciding whether there are ways the economic crime guidelines could work better.”

The Commission will continue to work on multi-year projects to study recidivism comprehensively, including an examination of the use of risk assessment tools in the criminal justice system.  The Commission will also consider whether any amendments to the guidelines or statutory changes are appropriate to facilitate consistent and appropriate use of key sentencing terms including “crime of violence” and “drug trafficking offense.”

The Commission is undertaking new efforts this year to study whether changes are needed in the guidelines applicable to immigration offenses and whether structural changes to make the guidelines simpler are appropriate, as well as reviewing the availability of alternatives to incarceration, among other issues.

The official list of USSC priorities is available at this link, and I found these items especially noteworthy (in addition to the ones noted above):

(4) Implementation of the directive to the Commission in section 10 of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, Pub. L. 111–220 (enacted August 3, 2010) (requiring the Commission, not later than 5 years after enactment, to “study and submit to Congress a report regarding the 3 impact of the changes in Federal sentencing law under this Act and the amendments made by this Act”)....

(10) Beginning a multi-year effort to simplify the operation of the guidelines, including an examination of (A) the overall structure of the guidelines post-Booker, (B) cross references in the Guidelines Manual, (C) the use of relevant conduct in offenses involving multiple participants, (D) the use of acquitted conduct in applying the guidelines, and (E) the use of departures.

August 14, 2014 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Noting the push for reforming the fraud federal sentencing guidelines

This lengthy new AP article, headlined "Sentencing Changes Sought for Business Crimes," discusses the on-going push to reform the federal sentencing guidelines for fraud offenses.  Here are excerpts:

The federal panel that sets sentencing policy eased penalties this year for potentially tens of thousands of drug dealers.  Now, defense lawyers and prisoner advocates are pushing for similar treatment for an arguably less-sympathetic category of defendants: swindlers, embezzlers, insider traders and other white-collar criminals.

Lawyers who have long sought the changes say a window to act opened once the U.S. Sentencing Commission cleared a major priority from its agenda by cutting sentencing ranges for nonviolent drug dealers.  The commission, which meets Thursday to vote on priorities for the coming year, already has expressed interest in examining punishments for white-collar crime. And the Justice Department, though not advocating wholesale changes, has said it welcomes a review.

It's unclear what action the commission will take, especially given the public outrage at fraudsters who stole their clients' life savings and lingering anger over the damage inflicted by the 2008 financial crisis.

Sentencing guidelines are advisory rather than mandatory, but judges still rely heavily on them for consistency's sake.  The discussion about revamping white-collar sentences comes as some federal judges have chosen to ignore the existing guidelines as too stiff for some cases and as the Justice Department looks for ways to cut costs in an overpopulated federal prison system....

The commission's action to soften drug-crime guidelines is a signal that the time is ripe, defense lawyers say.  Just as drug sentences have historically been determined by the amount of drugs involved, white-collar punishments have been defined by the total financial loss caused by the crime.  Advocates hope the commission's decision to lower sentencing guideline ranges for drug crimes, effectively de-emphasizing the significance of drug quantity, paves the way for a new sentencing scheme that removes some of the weight attached to economic loss.

A 2013 proposal from an American Bar Association task force would do exactly that, encouraging judges to place less emphasis on how much money was lost and more on a defendant's culpability.  Under the proposal, judges would more scrupulously weigh less-quantifiable factors, including motive, the scheme's duration and sophistication, and whether the defendant actually stole money or merely intended to.  The current structure, lawyers say, means bit players in a large fraud risk getting socked with harsh sentences despite playing a minimal role....

No one is seeking leniency for imprisoned financier Bernie Madoff, who's serving a 150-year sentence for bilking thousands of people of nearly $20 billion, or fallen corporate titans whose greed drove their companies into the ground.  But defense lawyers are calling for a sentencing structure that considers the broad continuum of economic crime and that better differentiates between, for example, thieves who steal a dollar each from a million people versus $1 million from one person.

Any ambitious proposal will encounter obstacles.  It's virtually impossible to muster the same public sympathy for white-collar criminals as for crack-cocaine defendants sentenced under old guidelines now seen as excessively harsh, which took a disproportionate toll on racial minorities.  The drug-sentencing overhaul also was promoted as fiscally prudent, because drug offenders account for roughly half the federal prison population.  Tea Party conservatives and liberal groups united behind the change.

In comparison, the clamor for changing white-collar guidelines has been muted. The Justice Department, already criticized for its paucity of criminal prosecutions arising from the financial crisis, has said it's open to a review but has not championed dramatic change. "I don't think there's a political will for really cutting back or retooling the guidelines," said Columbia University law professor Daniel Richman.

August 13, 2014 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Eleventh Circuit finds probation sentence for public corruption substantively unreasonable

All federal sentencing fans and white-collar practitioners will want to be sure to check out a lengthy opinion today from the Eleventh Circuit in US v. Hayes, No. 11-13678 (11th Cir. Aug 12, 2014) (available here). This start to the majority opinion in Hayes highlights why the substance of the ruling is noteworthy:

“Corruption,” Edward Gibbon wrote more than two centuries ago, is “the most infallible symptom of constitutional liberty.” EDWARD GIBBON, THE HISTORY OF THE DECLINE AND FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE, Vol. II, Ch. XXI, at 805 (David Womersley ed., Penguin Classics 1995) [1781].  And so, although unfortunate, it is perhaps not surprising that, even today, people continue to pay bribes to government officials with the expectation that they will make decisions based on how much their palms have been greased, and not what they think is best for the constituents they serve.

In this criminal appeal involving corruption in Alabama’s higher education system, we consider whether the district court abused its discretion by imposing a sentence of three years of probation (with a special condition of six to twelve months of home confinement) on a 67-year-old business owner who — over a period of four years — doled out over $600,000 in bribes to a state official in order to ensure that his company would continue to receive government contracts, and whose company reaped over $5 million in profits as a result of the corrupt payments.  For the reasons which follow, we hold that such a sentence was indeed unreasonable.

Adding to the fun and intrigue of the ruling, Judge Tjoflat has a dissent that runs almost twice as long as the extended majority opinion.  Here is how it gets started (with footnotes omitted):

I fully agree with the court that the sentence of probation Hayes received in this case of massive public corruption is shockingly low and should not have been imposed.  In appealing the sentence, the Government treats the District Court as the scapegoat, as if placing Hayes on probation was all the court’s doing.  The truth is that it was the Government’s doing.  To ensure that Hayes was given adequate credit for cooperating in its investigation, the Government deliberately led the District Court to abandon the Sentencing Guidelines, which called for a prison sentence of 135 to 168 months, and then to ignore the Supreme Court’s explicit instructions, in Gall v. United States, 552 U.S. 38, 128 S. Ct. 586, 169 L. Ed. 2d 445 (2007), on the procedure to use in fashioning an appropriate sentence.  This set the stage for the court’s adoption of a fictitious Guideline range of 41 to 51 months and its creation of a downward variance to a sentence of probation.

In appealing Hayes’s sentence to this court, the Government deliberately avoids any discussion of the District Court’s procedural error.  To the contrary, it accepts the fictitious Guideline range the court adopted.  All it complains of is the variance from that fictitious range to a sentence of probation, arguing that it is substantively unreasonable.  Because it invited the procedural error, which, in turn, led to the complained-of substantive error, the “invited error doctrine” precludes the Government from prevailing in this appeal.  Yet the court fails to acknowledge that a procedural error has occurred.  Instead, it assesses the substantive reasonableness of Hayes’s procedurally flawed sentence — something the Supreme Court prohibits — and thereby avoids the need to grapple with the Government’s invited error.  I dissent from the court’s failure to invoke the doctrine and to send the Government hence without day.

In part I of this opinion, I briefly recount the facts giving rise to Hayes’s conviction and sentencing. In part II, I describe how the Guidelines are supposed to operate and will show how the Government and the District Court misapplied the Guidelines and set the stage for the sentence at issue.  Part III outlines the role the courts of appeals play in reviewing a defendant’s sentence, pinpoints the procedural errors in this case, and explains why the invited error doctrine precludes the Government from capitalizing on its induced error and obtaining relief.  Part IV concludes.

August 12, 2014 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Monday, July 28, 2014

Fascinating Fourth Circuit split over how federal sentencing problems should inform guideline interpretation

I just noticed a notable ruling by a split Fourth Circuit panel from late last week in US v. Valdovinos, No. 13-4768 (4th Cir. July 25, 2014) (available here). The precise legal issue concerning guideline interpretation in Valdovinos is not all that compelling, but how the judges dispute the right way to resolve the issue surely is.  Here is how the panel majority opinion (running 18 pages) concludes:

For the foregoing reasons, we hold that North Carolina’s legislatively mandated sentencing scheme, not a recommended sentence hashed out in plea negotiations, determines whether an offender’s prior North Carolina conviction was punishable by more than a year in prison.  Because Valdovinos’s offense of conviction was indeed punishable by imprisonment exceeding one year, it qualifies as a predicate felony under Section 2L1.2(b)(1)(B) of the Guidelines [thereby enhancing his sentence].  We appreciate the fervor and policy arguments of our friend in dissent.  Indeed, we can agree with many of the latter.  What we cannot agree with is that “application of relevant precedent” does not require the result here.  Carachuri and Simmons do just that.  The judgment of the district court is affirmed.

Here is how Judge Davis's remarkable dissenting opinion (running 30 pages) gets revved up and concludes (emphasis in the original):

Our disagreement as to the outcome in this case stems, I think, less over the content and application of relevant precedent and more from a fundamental disagreement regarding our role as arbiters of a flailing federal sentencing regime.  Where, as here, we have been presented with a choice in how to interpret the interstices of federal sentencing law, and where one choice would exacerbate the harmful effects of over-20 incarceration that every cadre of social and political scientists (as well as an ever-growing cohort of elected and appointed officials, state and federal, as well as respected members of the federal judiciary) has recognized as unjust and inhumane, as well as expensive and ineffectual, this insight can and should inform our analysis.  I deeply regret the panel’s failure to take advantage of the opportunity to do so here....

Here, in a tiny corner of the chaotic morass that is federal sentencing law, Mr. Valdovinos has offered us a measured approach, to a novel issue of federal sentencing law, that adheres to Supreme Court and our relevant circuit precedents and is consistent with our values. If accepted by this panel, his argument, which is surely more than merely “clever”, see ante, at 8, would affect a tiny number of federal cases drawing legal relevance from North Carolina’s historical (and now superseded) sentencing regime. And Mr. Valdovinos’s sentence in this case likely would be reduced to a bottom guideline of 15 months, instead of the bottom guideline sentence he received, 27 months.  He’d soon be on his way home to Mexico, if not already arrived.

That the majority declines the opportunity to decide this case on the foundations discussed herein is regrettable, a choice that not only ignores the growing wisdom informed by widespread acknowledgement of our unjust federal sentencing jurisprudence, but actually hinders its progress.  Would that my friends could see that it’s a new century, complete with a host of profound and valuable insights at our avail.  I discern no compelling reason why, in the performance of our adjudicative responsibilities, which every member of the panel has unfailingly carried out to the best of our ability in this case and in full accordance with our solemn oath to “administer justice,” 28 U.S.C. § 453, we ought not to draw on these insights.

One of them is that sometimes, in our shared quest for justice under law, it requires so little of us to achieve so much.  Respectfully, I dissent.

July 28, 2014 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

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

As reported in this post a few months ago, US Sentencing Commission First Quarter FY14 Quarterly Sentencing data included some big news: for the first time, less than half of all federal sentences imposed were technically "within-guideline" sentences.  To be exact, in that quarter, only around 49% of the 18,169 sentences imposed were within-guideline sentences.

Today, the USSC released, via this document, its Second Quarter FY14 Quarterly Sentencing data, and it remains the case that a slight majority of federal sentences are being imposed outside the guidelines. But, as Table 4 on this latest data run reveals, this reality is partially a product of the fact that in the second quarter of FY14 there was a record-high percentage of above-guideline sentences (2.5%) and a record-high percentage of government-sponsored below-guideline sentences (28.6%).  In this last quarter, notably, there was actually a small downtick in the number of below guideline sentences imposed by federal district judges (from 20.7% of all federal cases down to 20.1%).

As I have said before, I believe all the recent talk about the need for federal sentencing reform is likely finding expression in the way both federal prosecutors and federal judges are now using their sentencing discretion.  The data from the last few quarters suggest that, as we hear ever more public policy groups and politicians on both the right and the left echoing AG Eric Holder's call for less reliance on long terms of incarceration, more federal prosecutors and federal judges feel ever more justified in seeking/imposing more sentences below the guidelines.

July 22, 2014 in Booker in district courts, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Monday, July 21, 2014

How many of nearly 50,000 federal prisoners need a lawyer to help with drug sentence reduction efforts? How many will get a lawyer?

The questions in the title of this post are my first "practical aftermath" questions in the wake of the US Sentencing Commission's big, important vote late Friday to make its new reduced drug offense guidelines fully retroactive (basics here).  As hard-core federal sentencing fans likely already know, most lower federal courts have ruled that federal prisoners do not have a Sixth Amendment right to counsel applicable at the sentence modification proceedings judges must conduct to implement reduced retroactive sentencing guidelines.  Consequently, none of the nearly 50,000 federal drug offense prisoners who may soon become eligible for a reduced sentence have any right to legal assistance in seeking this reduced sentence.

Fortunately for many federal prisoners seeking to benefit from previous guideline reductions, many federal public defender offices have traditionally made considerable efforts to provide representation to those seeking reduced sentences.  But even the broadest guideline reductions applied retroactively in the past (which were crack guideline reductions) applied only to less than 1/3 of the number of federal prisoners now potentially eligible for reductions under the new reduced drug guidelines.  I suspect that pubic defenders are unlikely to be able to provide significant legal help to a significant number of drug offenders who will be seeking modified sentences under the new reduced drug guidelines.

I raise this point not only to highlight the legal services need created by the USSC's big, important vote late Friday to make its new reduced drug offense guidelines fully retroactive, but also to wonder aloud whether lawyers who have been gearing up to help with clemency applications might be now usefully "detailed" to help with retroactive application of reduced drug sentences.  In contrast to clemency petitions, in which legal arguments are somewhat less important than equitable claims, the proper application of new reduced drug offense guidelines can involve various legal issues that may really need to be addressed by sophisticated legal professionals.

Some recent related posts on reduced drug guideline retroactivity:

July 21, 2014 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (19) | TrackBack

Friday, July 18, 2014

USSC votes for full (though slightly delayed) retroactivity of new reduced drug guidelines

I just received this early report via a credible source as to what the US Sentencing Commission did this afternoon on the issue of making its new lower guidelines retroactive:

The Commission just voted unanimously to make the "drugs minus 2" amendment retroactive with a single limitation -- no order reducing a sentence can take effect until Nov. 1, 2015.  This is later than the Judicial Conference recommended (they proposed that it effect in May 2015 to give courts and probation time to prepare)....

The Commission predicts that more than 46,000 will be eligible to seek a reduction.  Part of the reason for the delayed effective date is to make sure each inmate is released with a re-entry plan and the opportunity for transitional steps such as halfway houses or home confinement.

UPDATE:  Here is a link to the USSC's official press release about its vote, which starts this way:

The United States Sentencing Commission voted unanimously today at a public meeting to apply a reduction in the sentencing guideline levels applicable to most federal drug trafficking offenders retroactively, meaning that many offenders currently in prison could be eligible for reduced sentences beginning November 2015.

The Commission voted unanimously in April to amend the guidelines to lower the base offense levels in the Drug Quantity Table across drug types, which may mean lower sentences for most drug offenders going forward.  Today the Commission decided that judges could extend that reduction to offenders currently in prison, but with a requirement that reduced sentences cannot take effect until November 1, 2015.  Under the guidelines, no offender would be released unless a judge reviews the case to determine whether a reduced sentence poses a risk to public safety and is otherwise appropriate.

“This amendment received unanimous support from Commissioners because it is a measured approach,” said Judge Patti B. Saris, chair of the Commission. “It reduces prison costs and populations and responds to statutory and guidelines changes since the drug guidelines were initially developed, while safeguarding public safety.”

Congress has until November 1, 2014 to disapprove the amendment to reduce drug guidelines. Should Congress choose to let the guideline reductions stand, courts could then begin considering petitions from prisoners for sentence reductions, but no prisoners could be released pursuant to those reductions before November 1, 2015.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Here is a link to the official statement in response to this vote from AG Eric Holder, which runs this single paragraph:

“The department looks forward to implementing this plan to reduce sentences for certain incarcerated individuals. We have been in ongoing discussions with the Commission during its deliberations on this issue, and conveyed the department's support for this balanced approach. In the interest of fairness, it makes sense to apply changes to the sentencing guidelines retroactively, and the idea of a one-year implementation delay will adequately address public safety concerns by ensuring that judges have adequate time to consider whether an eligible individual is an appropriate candidate for a reduced sentence. At my direction, the Bureau of Prisons will begin notifying federal inmates of the opportunity to apply for a reduction in sentence immediately. This is a milestone in the effort to make more efficient use of our law enforcement resources and to ease the burden on our overcrowded prison system."

July 18, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Huge reduced drug guideline retroactivity decision expected from US Sentencing Commission on 7/18

As this official public notice reports, on July 18, 2014 at 1pm EDT, the US Sentencing the Commission will hold a public meeting at which "the Commissioners will vote on whether or not to retroactively apply, in whole or in part, [its recent guideline] amendment reducing the drug quantity table by two levels." At the risk of overstating the importance of this vote, I am inclined to assert that it may be the most practically consequential USSC decision in nearly a decade. The (slightly misleading) headlines of these two media discussions of the coming vote helps to highlight why:

It is likely hard for anyone who has not followed federal sentencing very closely for decades to fully appreciate all the dynamic challenges that this vote presents for the US Sentencing Commission (as well as for the US Department of Justice and for all those who work day-to-day the federal sentencing system).  Helpfully, this extended BuzzFeed article by Evan McMorris-Santoro provide a primer on some of the issues swirling around this important USSC vote.  The article's headline highlights its themes: "Despite Rhetoric, Obama Administration Pushes To Keep Thousands Of Felons In Jail Under Old Rules: The Justice Department announced major changes to the way federal drug crimes are punished this year. But the rules for existing convicts might be different — and many White House allies are angry."

Some recent related posts on reduced drug guideline retroactivity:

July 17, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Monday, July 14, 2014

Are federal drug sentences for mules now too short?

Drugs and dogsThe question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable and fascinating new article in the New York Times headlined "Second Thoughts on Lighter Sentences for Drug Smugglers." Here are excerpts:

For years, a steady parade of drug smugglers have tried all sorts of ways to ferry contraband into the United States through Kennedy International Airport in Queens, posing a challenge not only to Customs and Border Protection officers, but also to federal prosecutors.

To avoid clogging up the court, the United States attorney’s office in Brooklyn has embraced a strategic approach that allows couriers to plead guilty and offer information in return for lighter sentences.  The policy reflected a view among many prosecutors that the mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related offenses — which require prison terms of five years and higher in these smuggling cases — were too harsh on defendants who were typically nonviolent and disadvantaged.

But in recent months, changes in drug sentencing have served to further lower punishments for these couriers.  A year ago, drug couriers regularly faced three years in prison; now they might face guidelines starting at only a few months, or no prison time at all.

The changes are raising questions of whether the pendulum has swung too far.  Some prosecutors say that couriers have little to no incentive to cooperate anymore.  Border patrol officials grumble that they are working to catch smugglers, only to have them face little punishment.  And judges who once denounced the harsh sentencing guidelines are now having second thoughts....

The debate over what constitutes a fair sentence for drug crimes has persisted for decades.  Critics — many of them judges in this court — have said that sentencing guidelines and mandatory minimum punishments had become hugely problematic. Nonviolent drug offenders, like couriers or people selling marijuana on the street, could face longer guideline sentences than an underground gun dealer.  And until recently, possession of five grams of crack warranted a minimum five-year sentence.  To get the same sentence for powdered cocaine possession, 500 grams would be required.

Various reforms have been instituted to address the inequities in sentencing.  In 1994, a “safety valve” provision allowed nonviolent first offenders on drugs — which describes most couriers — to avoid mandatory minimums if they admitted to all prior criminal conduct.  And in 2010, Congress passed legislation toward balancing the crack versus cocaine disparity....

In August, the United States attorney general, Eric H. Holder Jr., ordered prosecutors nationwide to charge couriers and other low-level drug offenders who met certain criteria in a way that did not result in mandatory-minimum sentences.  (Guideline sentences must still be considered, but they are not mandatory.)

Then, in April, the United States Sentencing Commission voted to reduce sentencing guidelines for drug crimes by two points, or several months.  The reduced guidelines go into effect in November, pending congressional approval, but prosecutors in many districts have agreed to apply them now.

The changes made things more difficult in Brooklyn, where prosecutors still wanted to give low-level couriers an incentive to avoid trials and to assist in prosecutions against larger drug distributors. Believing they had to further sweeten the deal, prosecutors agreed to give an additional four points off those reduced sentences for couriers who agreed to cooperate.

As a result, drug-courier defendants can now face sentencing guidelines that suggest no prison time.

My first reaction to this piece is to suggest that it's a nice change of pace for federal judges to now view at least some federal sentencing guidelines to be too lenient and that any problems this creates can and should be addressed through judicial discretion to sentence above the guidelines, case-by-case, as needed and appropriate.  But I imagine this viewpoint is not very satisfying for federal prosecutors and investigators who depend on the threat of severe sentences to get mules to cooperate to their satisfaction.

For additional intriguing and diverse reactions to these intriguing new drug sentencing realities, check out these posts from other informed bloggers:

July 14, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

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