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

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Yet more ACCA messiness out of Maryland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recent related post:

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

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

How SCOTUS Halliburton ruling could have white-collar sentencing echoes

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

"Sentencing Terrorist Crimes"

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 12, 2014

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

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

Federal public defender Sarah Gannett had this to say:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some recent related posts:

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

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some recent related posts:

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

Monday, June 09, 2014

Big US Sentencing Commission hearing Tuesday on reduced drug guideline retroactivity

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some various somewhat recent related posts:

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

Monday, June 02, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are links to all the article in the series:

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

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

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 05, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

President Bartlet urges Congress to pass the Smarter Sentencing Act

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 10, 2014

US Sentencing Commission to vote on reducing drug sentencing guidelines

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some recent related posts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, March 28, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 27, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Killer bride Jordan Graham moves to withdraw murder plea claiming feds breached deal in sentencing arguments ... UPDATE: motion denied!

I am intrigued and amazed to learn via this local article, headlined "Newlywed asks to withdraw guilty plea in husband's murder," that the Montana killer bride has now formally moved to withdraw her guilty plea based on the assertion that the federal prosecutors' sentencing arguments breached the (mid-trial) plea deal struck between defendant Jordan Graham and the feds.  Here are the details: 

The Kalispell newlywed accused of pushing her husband off a cliff last summer asked to withdraw her guilty plea late Tuesday, arguing the agreement she accepted was “illusory” and a “hollow formality.” Jordan Graham, 22, was to be sentenced in Missoula’s U.S. District Court Thursday for the July murder of 25-year-old Cody Johnson along a trail in Glacier National Park. It’s now unclear if the sentencing will proceed as scheduled.

First, U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy will have to rule on Graham’s motion to withdraw her guilty plea. If he accepts the motion, a new trial will be scheduled.  If he rejects her motion, the sentencing could continue as planned.

In Tuesday’s motion, federal public defender Michael Donahoe argued that prosecutors “breached the plea agreement” by suggesting in a sentencing memorandum filed last week that Graham murdered Johnson with both intent and premeditation. That memorandum, and its suggestion that Graham be sentenced to life in prison, rendered December’s plea agreement “nothing but an empty promise” — merely a means by which prosecutors avoided a possible manslaughter verdict, Donahoe said.

Graham accepted the plea agreement near the end of her trial, pleading guilty to second-degree murder.  In exchange, prosecutors agreed to drop a first-degree murder charge — and its contention that Johnson’s death was premeditated.

For a first-degree murder conviction, prosecutors needed to prove there was intent on Graham’s part; intent is not required for a second-degree murder conviction.  “By offering and agreeing to accept a plea agreement to second degree supported by an extreme recklessness plea colloquy, the government effectively removed the issue of defendant’s alleged premeditation as an issue in the case,” Donahoe wrote Tuesday.  “That was the entire purpose of the plea agreement,” he added.

Then came the sentencing memorandum, where prosecutors argued that Graham planned the murder of Johnson on the night of July 7 and should spend the rest of her life in prison  — or at least the next 50 years.

Graham has admitted pushing her husband of eight days off a cliff in Glacier Park during an argument. She was experiencing doubts about their marriage, she said, and shoved Johnson during a heated exchange.  Her intent was not to kill him, Graham said, but rather an instinctive response to Johnson grabbing her arm.

In his sentencing memorandum, assistant U.S. attorney Zeno B. Baucus honed in on evidence that Molloy expressly prohibited from December’s trial.  That evidence included a long, black cloth found in the vicinity of Johnson’s body, which prosecutors theorized Graham used to blindfold her husband before pushing him off a cliff along Glacier Park’s Loop trail. Graham also took away her husband’s car keys, prosecutors contended, and removed his wedding ring before the altercation....

On Tuesday, Donahoe said the prosecution’s return to premeditation theories rendered the plea agreement void — and asked the judge to allow Graham to withdraw her admission of guilt....  “By making what should have been its closing argument to the jury in its sentencing papers, the government has furnished a ‘fair and just reason’ to support defendant’s request to withdraw her plea,” Donahoe wrote. “The government’s plea agreement promise ... is an empty and hollow formality,” he said. “Therefore, the defendant argues that the government’s offer for a plea agreement was and is illusory and in bad faith.”

I expect the government will file a full-throated response to this motion sometime today. And I am sure the government will stress that, by taking a plea to the lesser-charge of second-degree murder, Garaham got an extraordinarily important sentencing benefit: the sentencing range for that charge is a range of 0 to life, whereas a first-degree murder conviction carried a mandatory LWOP sentence. I fully understand why Jordan Graham and her lawyer are troubled that the feds are making a forceful sentencing argument for an LWOP sentence, but I am not sure why its sentencing advocacy alone provide a basis for withdrawing a seemingly otherwise valid (and valuable) plea.

I have been obsessing about the upcoming sentencing in this case with my sentencing students because, as noted in this recent post, I think it provides a great and accessible tutorial on federal plea bargaining and sentencing realities. Little did I expect that this live tutorial would take on this interesting extra lesson.

Previous related posts (with lots of interesting prior comments):

UPDATE:  As this AP article reports, prosecutors do not agree that they breached any promises in this case:

Prosecutors responded Wednesday that they agreed to dismiss the first-degree murder charge but did not agree to ignore other evidence offered at trial in recommending a sentence of 50 years to life.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Kris McLean noted that Graham agreed to plead guilty on Dec. 12 without the benefit of a plea agreement. At that time, U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy reminded Graham that her plea meant she could face a life sentence in federal prison.

The federal government is not limited by the defendant’s description of events in recommending a prison term, McLean wrote in his response Wednesday. He argued the court can consider any information about the background, character and conduct of the defendant when determining a sentence.

The government’s sentencing memo recommends the court consider an upward variance to a sentence of life in prison, but no less than 50 years, in part because “the circumstances surrounding Cody’s death closely resemble conduct that is often associated with a first-degree murder conviction.”

Prosecutors said the fact that Graham was unhappy in her new marriage, that she somehow ended up with the only set of keys to the car Johnson drove into the park on July 7 and the fact that she texted a friend saying if the friend didn’t hear from her at all again that night, “something happened,” indicated Graham was “planning and considering murder.”

Graham is scheduled to be sentenced Thursday by Molloy in Missoula. It was not clear how Graham’s motion might affect the sentencing schedule.

ANOTHER UPDATE:  Unsurprisingly, as this local article reports, the "judge has denied a Kalispell newlywed's request to withdraw her guilty plea for the murder of her husband in Glacier National Park last summer." Here is more:

U.S. District Judge Don Molloy began Thursday's sentencing hearing by considering Jordan Linn Graham's motion to withdraw her guilty plea to second-degree murder....

Molloy ... ruled Thursday that Graham had knowingly and willingly pleaded guilty near the end of her trial last December - and said that plea will remain in place. He made the ruling after hearing brief arguments from both sides. He then proceeded to the sentencing. 

March 26, 2014 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (37) | TrackBack

Monday, March 24, 2014

Bridezilla murderer Jordan Graham's federal sentencing as amazing teaching opportunity

BRIDEZILLARegular readers (or anyone who watches morning television) likely remember the killer newlywed Jordan Graham.  As reported in prior posts here and here, Graham admitted to pushing her new husband from a cliff in Glacier National Park, but at first claimed that she did not mean to do it.  Then, after a federal jury trial was conducted,  but before a jury started deliberating about the charges, Graham entered a plea to second-degree murder in exchange for federal prosecutors agreeing to drop a first-degree murder charge and a count of making a false statement to authorities.

Now, as reported in this local article, headlined "Newlywed murder case unusual for federal court; sentencing Thur," it is now sentencing time. Unsurprisingly, federal prosecutors and Graham's defense team have much different views on what sentence she ought to receive for second-degree murder:

Does pushing your husband off a cliff to his death warrant serving life in prison?  Or 10 years? Or somewhere in between?  On Thursday, U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy must decide what punishment is fitting for Jordan Graham, who pushed her husband off a cliff in Glacier National Park last summer after only eight days of marriage.

After both sides had rested their case in a December trial, 22-year-old Graham pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in the death of 25-year-old Cody Johnson before the jury could enter into deliberations.

The case is relatively unusual for federal court, since accusations of murder are usually tried and sentenced in county courtrooms, but Graham pushed Johnson on federal land, said Jordan Gross, an associate professor of law at the University of Montana who teaches criminal law and criminal procedure. Federal sentencing guidelines are vague on what’s required for second-degree murder. Hence the 90-year difference in sentences the defense and prosecution are asking Molloy to hand down, Gross said.

Graham was charged with first-degree murder, a lesser included charge of second-degree murder and making false statements to law enforcement. For first-degree murder, prosecutors must prove there was intent on the defendant’s part, where intent is not required for a second-degree murder conviction.

Although Graham pleaded guilty, prosecutors rehashed in their sentencing memorandum that Johnson was found without his wedding ring or car keys and hinted at the possibility that Graham had indeed intended to kill her new husband. Graham’s defense team contends that the circumstances of the evening were a recipe for disaster and that the incident was more akin to an accident. “She pleaded guilty, but that doesn’t mean that the prosecution can’t come in and argue her sentence up to life because that’s what the statute says,” Gross said. Federal statutes also don’t stipulate a required minimum sentence.

The benefit of pleading guilty before the jury could return a verdict is that it shows Graham accepts responsibility for her actions, Gross said. “There are shades of acceptance of responsibility,” though, Gross said, adding that in Graham’s case, she didn’t spare Johnson’s family the anguish of taking the stand and reliving their pain during a trial.

Letters from family and friends in support of Graham and letters filed on behalf of the prosecution, also will play a role in Molloy’s determination — and give insight from those who know Graham and Johnson best.

Brad Blasdel, who knew Graham for several years through her family, wrote that she was quiet and shy on the surface but cold and calculating underneath and showed no emotion about Johnson’s death. “Not once did I see any sign of remorse in Jordan for killing Cody,” he wrote, asking Molloy to consider the woman’s callousness during sentencing. “She took Cody’s life with premeditation and malice; now she must give hers,” he continued.

Cyndi Blasdel called Graham a “quiet instigator” who frequently encouraged bad behavior in others from the time she was a child. After Graham and Johnson’s engagement, Graham’s behavior became increasingly erratic, to the point of murder, Blasdel said. “Jordan Graham knew what she did was wrong and knew the consequences. She needs to be held accountable. She is not a nonviolent offender. Those of us who know her are afraid and some of us still sleep with the lights on,” she wrote.

People who wrote letters on Graham’s behalf, though, urged Molloy to be lenient to the quiet, hardworking woman who they say diligently attended church and served as a mentor to other young women.

Graham’s stepfather, Steven Rutledge, wrote he feels Johnson’s death was a terrible accident. “Why she decided to tell stories about the true events are unknown and unfortunate, but not a reason for a long prison term,” he wrote. Graham is a quiet churchgoer who cares deeply about others, he wrote. “I ask you to grant Jordan some leniency, and a chance at living her life as a young Christian woman.”

If Molloy is lenient, Graham has the potential to become a contributing member of society, her mother, Lindele Rutledge, wrote. Her daughter has shown remorse repeatedly in letters, through phone conversations and during visitation times, Rutledge wrote. “She has never been in trouble with the law. Her only record is a couple of speeding tickets. By showing her leniency she could get a college education and become a better and useful member of society.”...

Graham also likely will address Molloy during Thursday’s hearing in U.S. District Court in Missoula. It will be her opportunity to interact with Molloy outside of the case facts, said Paul Ryan, who has practiced law in Missoula for 20 years. Her comments to the judge will allow her to personally explain why she pushed Johnson and convey if she truly accepts responsibility for her actions, Ryan said.

Johnson’s mother, Sherry Johnson, as well as several other family members, will make comments during the sentencing hearing too. “They’re usually the most emotional and they can certainly carry a lot of weight with the judge,” Ryan said. What Johnson’s family feels is appropriate punishment also will factor into the decision, as will the impact to the victim, he said. “In this case, it was fatal. There can’t be a greater impact on a person than that,” he added.

As the title of this post highlights, I think this upcoming sentencing provides an extraordinary opportunity for me to explore with students critical sentencing issues ranging from views on how offense facts beyond the offense of conviction ought to impact sentencing and whether post-offense behavior by the defendant ought to play a large role at sentencing.  

In this prior post, I noted some of the federal sentencing guideline issues that this case necessarily raises.  Specifically, the guideline for second degree murder, 2A1.2, provides a base offense level of 38 and recommends an upward departure if "the defendant's conduct was exceptionally heinous, cruel, brutal, or degrading to the victim."   Should that apply here?  Also, I believe federal prosecutors have calculated the guidelines to include enhancements for obstruction of justice and without any reduction for acceptance of responsibility based on the lateness of the plea.  Are those fair and proper as sentencing consideration?

I could go on and on, but I want to save some of the fun for my students in class this week.  In the meantime, though, I would love to hear from readers (especially those who are regular sentencing practitioners) about what elements of this high-profile case provide especially good teaching ideas.

Previous related posts (with lots of interesting prior comments):

March 24, 2014 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (12) | TrackBack

Friday, March 21, 2014

"Legitimacy and Federal Criminal Enforcement Power"

The title of this post is the title of thiis new paper by Lauren Ouziel now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

A defining feature of criminal federalism is extreme disparities in case outcomes across state and federal forums.  All else being equal, prosecution in the federal forum entails a significantly higher likelihood of conviction, and a higher penalty.  But why do such disparities exist?  Conventional explanations point to differences among sovereigns’ legal rules, resources and dockets.  These understandings, while valid, neglect to account for a less-tangible source of federal criminal power: legitimacy.

“Legitimacy” refers to the concept, refined through decades of empirical research, that citizens comply with the law, and defer to and cooperate with legal authority, when they perceive both the laws and the authorities to be fair.  A legitimacy-based exploration of the federal criminal justice system significantly enriches our understanding of the sources of federal criminal power.  Distilling those sources, moreover, reveals surprising and counterintuitive implications: to emulate the sources of federal legitimacy in local systems, we need more localized criminal justice.

March 21, 2014 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Thursday, March 20, 2014

"Sentencing in Tax Cases after Booker: Striking the Right Balance between Uniformity and Discretion"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper by Scott Schumacher now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

It has been nearly ten years since the Supreme Court’s seminal decision in United States v. Booker, in which the Court invalidated the mandatory application of the United States Sentencing Guidelines.  In the cases that followed, the Court addressed subsidiary issues regarding the application of the Guidelines and the scope of appellate review.  However, despite — or perhaps because of — these opinions, there is little consensus regarding the status and extent of appellate review, as well as the discretion afforded sentencing courts. More troubling, what consensus there is seems to permit judges to impose any sentence they wish, as long as the appropriate sentencing procedures are followed.  As a result, we are in danger of returning to “the shameful lack of parity, which the Guidelines sought to remedy.”

The Sentencing Reform Act and the Sentencing Guidelines were designed to reduce disparity in sentencing and to reign in what one commentator described as a “lawless system.” However, the Guidelines as ultimately conceived drastically limited the sentencing judge’s ability to impose a sentence that was appropriate for the conduct and culpability of the defendant, creating a different kind of sentencing disparity. The current, post-Booker system provides more guidance than the pre-Guidelines system, but permits sentencing judges to disregard the Guidelines and develop their own sentencing policy.  As a result, rather than having a system that allows for sentences to be tailored to individual defendants, the current system allows sentences to be imposed based on the penal philosophy of individual judges. This will inevitably lead to unwarranted sentencing disparity.

This article traces the recent history of criminal sentencing and, relying on the influential works of John Rawls and H.L.A. Hart on theories of punishment, argues for a better system that allows for both guidance to sentencing judges and appropriately individualized sentencing.  My recommendation, although equally applicable to any federal sentence, will be examined through the lens of tax sentencing.

March 20, 2014 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Monday, March 17, 2014

DC Circuit gives disconcertingly short-shrift to Antwuan Ball's many significant sentencing claims

Very long time readers with very good memories may recall the array of notable post-Booker issues that surround the sentencing of Antwuan Ball following his conviction for crack distribution in Washington DC. As first noted in this prior post (from June 2008!), Ball put the government to its burden of proof concerning allegations of a massive drug conspiracy and murders; a very lengthy jury trial led to Ball being acquitted in November 2007 on every count of a massive racketeering, drug conspiracy and murder indictment save for one crack distribution count related to a $600, half-ounce, hand-to-hand crack-cocaine deal in 2001.

Fast forward to 2011 and, as reported here, the feds are urging the district judge to rely heavily on all sorts of alleged/claimed wrongdoing by Ball to impose a max statutory sentence of 40 years on the crack charge. (Significant side note: in light of the passage of the FSA and Supreme Court's subsequent Dorsey ruling, I am not sure 40 years was in fact the proper stat-max for Ball, but more on that point later.)

Relying on the prosecution's allegations that Ball was the leader of a huge crack consipracy (claims which the jury rejected), the district judge apparently calculated Ball's guideline sentence range to be 292 to 365 months (though again, due to the FSA, I am not sure that was the right guideline range circa March 2011).   This NACDL amicus brief filed in January 2013 indicates that Ball's guideline range would have been only 51 to 71 months absent consideration of acquitted conduct.

As reported here, District Judge Richard Roberts at sentencing declared that he "saw clear evidence of a drug conspiracy [and imposed on Ball a 225-month prison sentence] for his conviction of the 2001 hand-to-hand drug transaction."  At the time of Ball's 2011 sentencing, I noted here that I was quite pleased the acquitted conduct issues preserved in this notable case, and I suggested "some circuit has to question at least the substantive reasonableness of a sentence that is greatly elevated on the basis of acquitted conduct."  

Now fast forward exactly three more years, and I find myself quite disturbed and troubled by how the acquitted conduct issues (and other issues) were given seemingly quite short shrift by a panel of the DC Circuit in its ruling late last week in US v. Jones, No. 08-3033 (DC Cir. Mar. 14, 2014) (available here).  

For starters, as I read the panel opinion in Jones, I find myself persistently wondering whether and how the district court at Ball's 2011 sentencing may have been influenced by the pre-FSA crack statutes and guidelines before the Supreme Court in Dorsey subsequently made clear that post-FSA rules should apply to all post-FSA sentencings.  This issue is not discussed in the Jones opinion (and perhaps it was not raised/preserved), but uncertainty about the application of the FSA at the time of sentencing might arguably alone be reason enough to require resentencing for Ball.

More fundamentally, to reject Ball's acquitted conduct claims, the DC Circuit opinion in Jones only cites to (now dated) post-Booker precedents from all the circuits via this discussion (my emphasis added):

Although we understand why appellants find sentencing based on acquitted conduct unfair, binding precedent of this court establishes that the practice does not violate the Sixth Amendment when the conduct is established by a preponderance of the evidence and the sentence does not exceed the statutory maximum for the crime.  See United States v. Settles, 530 F.3d 920, 923-24 (D.C. Cir. 2008) (citing United States v. Watts, 519 U.S. 148, 156-57 (1997) (per curiam)); Dorcely, 454 F.3d at 371 [D.C. Cir. 2006] (“[A] sentencing court may base a sentence on acquitted conduct without offending the defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury.”).  This is true even when consideration of the acquitted conduct multiplies a defendant’s sentence severalfold.  See Dorcely, 454 F.3d at 370-71.  Appellants, in effect, ask us to reconsider Settles and Dorcely. But not only do those decisions bind us, no subsequent decision by the Supreme Court or another circuit calls their validity into question. Cf. FED. R. APP. P. 35(b)(1) (suggesting contrary decisions by the Supreme Court or by another court of appeals as grounds for en banc review).  Indeed, since the Supreme Court struck down the mandatory federal sentencing guidelines and freed judges “to exercise broad discretion in imposing a sentence within a statutory range,” United States v. Booker, 543 U.S. 220, 233, 243-44 (2005), every numbered circuit has addressed the constitutionality of sentencing based on acquitted conduct, and each one has reached the same conclusion reached by this court. See United States v. White, 551 F.3d 381, 384-86 (6th Cir. 2008) (en banc); United States v. Mercado, 474 F.3d 654, 656-58 (9th Cir. 2007) (collecting cases from every numbered circuit but the Sixth).  

I have emphasized a phrase from the middle of this paragraph because I actually believe there are at least two SCOTUS rulings since the DC Circuit addressed this issue in Settles and Dorcely that arguably "calls their validity into question."  Specifically, just from 2013, the Supreme Court's Peugh decision (basics here) and especially its Alleyne decision (basics here and here) provide a reasonable basis to question the continued validity of severe acquitted conduct guideline enhancements.  A fair reading of Alleyne suggests that judicial fact-finding as to facts which "alter the prescribed range of sentences to which a defendant is exposed and do so in a manner that aggravates the punishment" can be constitutional problematic even if these facts do not raise the applicable statutory maximum sentence.

Critically, I am not asserting that the 2013 SCOTUS rulings Peugh and/or Alleyne now require reversal of old circuit precedents upholding major acquitted conduct enhancements.  But I do strongly believe that 2013 SCOTUS rulings Peugh and/or Alleyne raise significant new questions about old circuit precedents upholding major acquitted conduct enhancements.  Consequently, I find this cursory treatment of what strikes me as a significant sentencing issue in a significant case to be disconcerting.

That all said, perhaps the "optimistic" way to read this opinion is as an invitation to Ball and others to see en banc review of old circuit precedent upholding major acquitted conduct enhancements.  At the very least, given that Ball still likely has a decade in federal prison left for his $600, half-ounce, hand-to-hand crack-cocaine deal in 2001, I hope he seriously considers pursuing further appeals of his sentence.

Some old posts on the Ball case and acquitted conduct sentencing enhancements:

March 17, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (32) | TrackBack

Thursday, March 13, 2014

"Attorney General Holder Urges Changes in Federal Sentencing Guidelines to Reserve Harshest Penalties for Most Serious Drug Traffickers"

The title of this post is the title given by the Justice Department to this press release with AG Holder's statements to the US Sentencing Commission concerning drug guideline reform.  Here are just a few highlights:

The Justice Department strongly supports the Commission’s proposed change to the Drug Quantity Table. If adopted, this amendment would lower by two levels the base offense levels associated with various drug quantities involved in drug trafficking crimes. This would have the effect of modestly reducing guideline penalties for drug trafficking offenses while keeping the guidelines consistent with current statutory minimums – and continuing to ensure tough penalties for violent criminals, career criminals, or those who used weapons when committing drug crimes.

This straightforward adjustment to sentencing ranges – while measured in scope – would nonetheless send a strong message about the fairness of our criminal justice system. And it would help to rein in federal prison spending while focusing limited resources on the most serious threats to public safety. Let me be clear, my primary obligation as Attorney General is to ensure the safety of the American people. The changes that I have implemented over the past year are designed to do exactly that – while making our system more fair and more efficient.

This proposed amendment is consistent with the “Smart on Crime” initiative I announced last August. Its implementation would further our ongoing effort to advance commonsense criminal justice reforms. And it would deepen the Department’s work to make the federal criminal justice system both more effective and more efficient when battling crime and the conditions and behaviors that breed it.

March 13, 2014 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Previewing what AG Holder will say about drug sentencing to US Sentencing Commission

As noted in this prior post, Attorney General Eric Holder is, according to this official agenda, the first scheduled witness at the US Sentencing Commission's important public hearing today on proposed amendments to reduce drug sentencing terms in the federal sentencing guidelines. The full text of what AG Holder says will likely be available on line later today, but this new Washington Post article, headlined "Holder will call for reduced sentences for low-level drug offenders," provides a preview of what he plans to say (which my emphasis below on an especially notable development) and some context for his latest sentencing reform advocacy:

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. on Thursday will urge reduced sentences for defendants in most of the nation’s drug cases, part of his effort to cut the burgeoning U.S. prison population and reserve stiff penalties for the most violent traffickers.

Holder’s proposal, which is expected to be approved by the independent agency that sets sentencing policies for federal judges, would affect 70 percent of drug offenders in the criminal justice system, according to figures provided by Justice Department officials. It would reduce sentences by an average of nearly a year.

“Certain types of cases result in too many Americans going to prison for far too long, and at times for no truly good public safety reason,” Holder plans to tell the U.S. Sentencing Commission, according to excerpts of his testimony provided to The Washington Post. “Although the United States comprises just five percent of the world’s population, we incarcerate almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners.”

Like Holder’s previous criminal justice reforms, the move is likely to be hailed by civil liberties groups and assailed by some lawmakers who think the administration is chipping away at federal policies designed to deter criminals and improve public safety.

The seven-member sentencing panel has proposed an amendment to federal sentencing guidelines and will vote on it as soon as April. Until then, federal judges must refer to current sentencing guidelines. Holder, however, will instruct his prosecutors in a memo Thursday not to press judges to impose the longer sentences in the current guidelines if attorneys for drug offenders seek shorter sentences for their clients that would be permissible under the new policy.

Under current mandatory minimum guidelines, a drug offender convicted of possessing 500 grams of cocaine or 28 grams of crack would face a term of 63 to 78 months. Holder is proposing that the time in such a case be reduced to 51 to 63 months. “By reserving the most severe penalties for dangerous and violent drug traffickers, we can better protect public safety, deterrence and rehabilitation while saving billions of dollars and strengthening communities,” Holder plans to say. The lower sentencing ranges would result in a 17 percent decrease in the average length of time imposed on a drug offender, Justice Department officials said.

Holder’s new sentencing proposal is the latest step in his agenda to revise the criminal justice system. In August, he announced that low-level nonviolent drug offenders with no connection to gangs or large-scale drug organizations would not automatically be charged with offenses that call for severe mandatory sentences. That measure, however, didn’t address the sentencing ranges defendants could face under federal guidelines.

Holder’s latest policy change would reduce the Bureau of Prison population by 6,550 people within five years, according to the Justice Department. Of the more than 216,000 federal inmates, nearly half are serving time for drug-related crimes. At the same time it is seeking to reduce sentences for nonviolent offenders, the Justice Department is putting greater focus on violent traffickers who bring heroin and other drugs into the United States....

Holder’s efforts to reduce the prison population have drawn criticism from Sen. Charles E. Grassley (Iowa), the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, and other lawmakers who say the administration is undermining policies that were set up to deter would-be criminals.

But many of Holder’s criminal justice policies have been praised by civil liberties groups and have bipartisan support in Congress. A bill that Holder and the Obama administration support to reform prison sentences includes both Republican and Democratic sponsors, including Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah).

Last week, at the Conservative Political Action Conference at National Harbor, Md., Republican Texas Gov. Rick Perry said that prison reform is one issue on which he agrees with Holder. “There aren’t many things that the president and the attorney general and I agree about. Know what I mean?” said Perry, who ran for president in 2012.

As noted in this post, I will be off-line most of today in order to travel to and participate in a Sixth Circuit oral argument. But I should be able to provide additional coverage and review of all the sentencing reform action taking place today at the USSC's public hearing before the end of the day.

Some old and newer related posts about AG Holder and the "new politics" of sentencing reform:

March 13, 2014 in Data on sentencing, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Attorney General to testify about drug guideline reform before US Sentencing Commission

I am pleased and very intrigued to now see from this agenda that the first scheduled witness at the US Sentencing Commission's public hearing scheduled to be held tomorrow morning to receive testimony on proposed amendments to the federal sentencing guidelines is none other than the Honorable Eric H. Holder, Jr., Attorney General of the United States. I was already excited about what would develop as the USSC heard from folks about its proposal to cut the drug sentencing guidelines across the board (discussed here), but I now think this hearing could end up being historic as well as interesting. 

I cannot recall the US Attorney General ever testifying directly before the US Sentencing Commission, even in the wake of Blakely and Booker and all the uncertainty and reform that was being robustly discussed by all the branches during the transformation of the federal sentencing system and the guidelines as a result of major SCOTUS ruling. And though I am not an expert on USSC history, I think this may be the first time that a sitting Attorney General has testified directly at a USSC hearing.

This development confirms my view that AG Holder wants federal drug war reform to be a big part of his legacy, and I think any and everyone interested in the federal sentencing system and the broader national war on drugs ought to pay very close attention to what takes place tomorrow morning in the Mecham Conference Center in the Thurgood Marshall Federal Judiciary Building, One Columbus Circle, N.E., Washington, DC.

March 12, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (15) | TrackBack

Sunday, February 23, 2014

"Shadow Sentencing: The Imposition of Supervised Release"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new paper by Christine S. Scott-Hayward concerning a too-rarely examined component of the federal criminal justice system. Now available via SSRN, here is the abstract:

More than 95 percent of people sentenced to a term of imprisonment in the federal system are also sentenced to a term of supervised release.  Since it was first established in the late 1980s, nearly one million people have been sentenced to federal supervised release. The human and fiscal costs of this widespread imposition are significant.  Supervised release substantially restricts an individual’s liberty and people on supervised release receive diminished legal and constitutional protections.  The fiscal costs of supervised release are also high, particularly when almost one third of people on supervised release will have their supervision revoked and will return to prison.

Despite the importance of supervised release, little is known about how and why sentencing judges impose supervised release and what purpose it is supposed to serve in the federal criminal justice system.  In most cases, supervised release is not mandatory and yet judges consistently fail to exercise their discretion in this area and impose supervised release in virtually all cases.

Based on an empirical study of sentencing decisions in the Eastern District of New York, this article uncovers previously unidentified features of supervised release.  It finds that judges widely impose supervised release without any apparent consideration of the purpose served by the sentence.  This article argues that supervised release is over-used and proposes a new framework for its imposition to ensure that courts only impose supervised release on people who need it.

February 23, 2014 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Recommended reading, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (15) | TrackBack

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

After she asked for life sentence, Sister Megan Rice gets 35 months' imprisonment and her co-defendants get 62 for sabotage

As reported in this local piece, an "84-year-old Catholic nun will spend nearly three years in federal prison for breaking into one of the U.S. government's most secure facilities and helping deface a uranium-processing building with human blood, a federal judge ruled Tuesday."  Here is more about the fascinating sentencing conclusion to a high-profile case of law-breaking civil disobedience:

Megan Rice, who turned 84 on Jan. 31, and fellow anti-nuclear activists Michael Walli, 64, and Greg Boertje-Obed, 58, were convicted in May of sabotaging the plant in Oak Ridge, Tenn.  All three are members of the Plowshares movement of Christian pacifists.

U.S. District Judge Amul Thapar in Knoxville, Tenn., sentenced Rice to 35 months in prison for her role in the July 28, 2012, break-in and protest.  The judge sentenced Walli and Boertje-Obed both to five years and two months in prison.  Previously, Thapar had ordered the trio to pay nearly $53,000 in restitution for damaging U.S. government property.  In addition, Walli and Boertje-Obed will have three years of supervised release after their prison terms. The two men received longer sentences based on their past criminal history.

During a four-hour hearing Tuesday, Rice pleaded with the judge not to grant her leniency. "Please have no leniency on me," she said. "To remain in prison for the rest of my life would be the greatest honor you could give me."

Thapar didn't oblige but did say that breaking the law isn't the right way to pursue political goals.  He said he hoped that a significant prison sentence would deter others from following the same path and bring them "back to the political system I fear that they have given up on."

The protesters picked late July 2012 to break in to the Y-12 National Security Complex because it was close to the dates when the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, during World War II.  The three cut through fences and made it through multiple layers of security.  They spent more than two hours in a restricted area and had time to splash blood on the outside of the building where the government processes weapons-grade uranium before security personnel apprehended them....

The three have garnered worldwide attention.  Thousands of letters of support have poured into the court from around the world.  Those include letters from groups such as the Union for Concerned Scientists. While acknowledging the three were convicted of a federal crime, they exposed serious security weaknesses at Y-12, the group said.

Edwin Lyman, a nuclear security expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said in January that the protesters did the nation a public service. "We think, even though they were convicted of a federal crime, there are mitigating circumstances and they made the country safer," Lyman said.

The government has taken the case seriously.  The three have been in custody since their conviction, and prosecutors recommended sentences of six to nine years.  

A key issue Tuesday was how the judge should follow federal sentencing guidelines. Lawyers for the activists that argued the time they already have served is sufficient punishment....  During the hearing, the judge struggled with how to handle the guidelines. "At some point, the law has to command respect, and there is a lawful way to change it," Thapar said.  But he also suggested that Rice's past good works should play a role and wasn't sure how to fit those into the guidelines.  He called a recommended sentence of 6½ years for Rice "overkill."

Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Theodore ... contended the trio's actions were "serious offenses that have caused real harm to the Y-12 National Security Complex."  [And] "they have shown no remorse for their criminal conduct," he said.

Recent related posts:

February 19, 2014 in Booker in district courts, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Monday, February 17, 2014

Sentencing round two for elderly nun and two other peace activists for breaking into a federal defense facility

Sister Megan RiceThis new report from The Guardian, headlined "84-year-old nun who broke into Tennessee weapons plant awaits fate," spotlights a high-profile federal sentencing case (previously discussed in this post) that is scheduled for final sentencing tomorrow morning.  Here are excerpts:

An 84-year-old nun who broke into a Tennessee weapons plant and daubed it with biblical references, will learn on Tuesday whether she will spend what could be the rest of her life in prison.

Two weeks ago, at a sentencing hearing, a judge ordered Sister Megan Rice and her co-defendants, two other Catholic anti-nuclear activists, Greg Boertje-Obed, 58, and Michael Walli, 64, to pay $53,000 for what the government estimated was damage done to the plant by their actions.

All three defendants were convicted of sabotage after the break-in at the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, on 28 July 2012. The charge, under a statute of the US criminal code used against international and domestic terrorism, carries a maximum sentence of up to 30 years. The government have asked for the trio to be given prison sentences of between five and nine years. They would have learned their fate in the January hearing, but it was cut short due to bad weather and rescheduled for Tuesday.

In an interview with the Guardian from Knox county jail as she awaited her fate, Rice said she hoped US district judge Amul Thapar would seize the opportunity to “take his place in history” and sentence them in a way that would reflect their symbolic, non-violent actions – actions she said that were intended to highlight the US stockpile of nuclear weapons they believe is immoral and illegal.

“I hope he will answer his conscience,” said Rice, in an interview 24 hours before the last sentencing hearing. “He knows what to do.” She and her co-defendants have been in prison, mostly in Ocilla, Georgia, for eight months, a period of time her lawyers say is sufficient punishment for the break-in.

Thapar has received hundreds of letters and a 14,000 signature petition pleading for leniency in this case, including from Rice’s religious order, the Society for the Holy Jesus, which asked for a reduced or suspended sentence given “her age, her health and her ministry”. Lawyers for Rice, Boertje-Obed, a Vietnam veteran from Washington DC and Walli, a painter from Duluth, Minnesota, have asked for leniency and say the trio admitted have what they did.

The US government contends that none of the defendants arguments merit leniency. At the hearing on 28 January, it said they did not accept they had committed crimes, took no responsibility for them, showed no contrition and, then, during the trial, proceeded to argue against the laws they had broken. It has described the three, who have previous convictions related to their protest activities, as “recidivists and habitual offenders”.

Jeffery Theodore, assistant US attorney general for the eastern district of Tennessee, told the court that the three “pretty much celebrated their acts”.  At the January hearing, he described their argument that they were trying to uphold international law as “specious and disingenuous” and said there had been no single case where international law has been seen as justification for breaking US laws.  The judge agreed with Theodore that the defendants were not remorseful and that they didn’t accept any responsibilities for their crimes, and said they would not be given downward departures for admitting responsibility.

At the January hearing, four character witnesses for the defendants gave powerful testimony about their strong Christian and pacifist principles, their commitment to helping others and their dedication to their cause. They, and the scores of supporters crowded into the courtroom, also provided an insight into the close-knit nature of the anti-nuclear faith community.

Regular readers are surely not surprised to hear that I find this federal sentencing case very interesting for a number of reasons.  But they may be surprised to learn that US District Judge Amul Thapar used the sentencing break/delay as an opportunity to request that I submit a "friend-of-the-court brief" to assist the Court as it tackled some challenging issues concerning the departure requests made by one of the defendants. I was honored and grateful to be able to provide such assistance directly to the court, and below I have uploaded Judge Thapar's order (which requests my submission at the end) and my submission in response:

Recent related post:

February 17, 2014 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Federal judge urges passage of the Smarter Sentencing Act because of "Prisoners I Lose Sleep Over"

The title of this post is drawn from the headline given to this recent commentary piece in the Wall Street Journal authored by senior US District Judge Michael Ponsor. Here are excerpts:

The Senate Judiciary Committee approved the "Smarter Sentencing Act" by a bipartisan vote of 13-5 on Jan. 30, sending it to the Senate floor.  The legislation is excellent and its passage would mean a long overdue correction of a misguided sentencing regime that Americans — including federal judges like me — have struggled with for more than two decades.

I've been on the federal bench for 30 years, having served 10 years as a magistrate judge and 20 as a U.S. district judge.  My pride in our constitutional system runs bone deep: No system of law has ever existed that tries so hard to be truly fair.  I can take scant pride, however, in the dark epoch our criminal sentencing laws have passed through during my decades handling felony cases....

For years, I could recite the mandatory terms for crack in my sleep: five years for five grams, 10 years for 50 grams, 20 years for 50 grams with one prior conviction, life without parole for 50 grams with two priors — no discretion, no consideration of specific circumstances.  These mandatory terms (unless the defendant cooperated by implicating others) were the same for low-level couriers, called mules, as for high-echelon drug lords.

By passing the Fair Sentencing Act, Congress recognized that this system of mandatory sentences, in addition to being unjust, was to some extent racially skewed since black drug users tend to favor crack, while whites prefer much less harshly penalized powder cocaine. Yet defendants sentenced before the act was passed still languish today, serving out sentences that virtually all members of Congress now recognize as excessive.  And there is not a darn thing anyone can do about it. If you're the one doing the sentencing, this reality will keep you awake at night, believe me.

The Smarter Sentencing Act would reduce 20-year mandatory sentences to 10, 10-year sentences to five, and five-year sentences to two years.  Increased numbers of offenders with very modest criminal records would not face mandatory sentences at all.  If adopted, the law would also permit thousands of prisoners to seek reduction of their prison terms to bring them in line with the Fair Sentencing Act.  None of these changes would reduce the power of judges to slam the really bad actors. But they would permit judges to do what they are paid to do: use their judgment.

Our vast prison apparatus is too costly, but more important, it is unworthy of us as a free people.  This new statute is well named — now is the time for smarter sentencing.

Some recent related posts concerning Smarter Sentencing Act:

February 17, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Thursday, February 13, 2014

"Is possession of child pornography a crime worthy of years in prison?"

The question in the title of this post is the sub-headline of this new Jacob Sullum piece at The piece starts by talking through the recent Paroline argument concerning restitution punishments for child porn downloaders and then moves to these comments:

As a result of congressional edicts, the average sentence in federal child porn cases that do not involve production rose from 54 months in 2004 to 95 months in 2010, according to a 2012 report from the U.S. Sentencing Commission.

Under federal law, receiving child pornography, which could mean viewing or downloading a single image, triggers a mandatory minimum sentence of five years.  Federal sentencing guidelines recommend stiff enhancements based on factors that are extremely common, such as using a computer, swapping photos, or possessing more than 600 images (with each video counted as 75 images).  The maximum penalty is 20 years....

When the Supreme Court upheld bans on possession of child pornography in 1989, its main rationale was that demand for this material encourages its production, which necessarily involves the abuse of children.  But this argument has little relevance now that people who look at child pornography typically get it online for free.  Furthermore, people who possess "sexually obscene images of children" — production of which need not entail abuse of any actual children — face the same heavy penalties.

Another rationale for criminalizing possession of child pornography, mentioned by the sentencing commission in its report, is that these images "validate and normalize the sexual exploitation of children."  Yet the same could be said of explicit arguments in favor of sex with minors, which nevertheless enjoy First Amendment protection.

Even if you agree that possessing child pornography should be a crime, the current penalty structure is clearly out of whack.  Something is seriously wrong with a justice system in which people who look at images of child rape can be punished more severely than people who rape children.

February 13, 2014 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (24) | TrackBack

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Will (and should) former mayor Ray Nagin get a sentence making it likely he dies in federal prison after his corruption convictions?

The question in the title of this post is the first sentencing question that came to mind upon hearing this criminal justice news from a Louisiana federal court this afternoon:

Ray Nagin, the former two-term mayor of New Orleans indicted after he left office, was convicted Wednesday of 20 federal corruption charges for illegal dealings with city vendors, dating back to 2004.  A jury delivered its verdict just before 1 p.m., after six hours of deliberations that followed a nine-day trial.

Nagin, 57, joins a list of Louisiana elected officials convicted of misdeeds while in office, but he is New Orleans' first mayor to be convicted of public corruption.  Under federal sentencing guidelines, he could face a 20-year prison term, possibly more, lawyers have said.

In a case that relied heavily on the testimony of businessmen-turned-convicts -- and a paper trail that showed money changing hands and lucrative city contracts doled out -- prosecutors described a public official "on the take."  Nagin was an opportunist who pursued businessmen under pressure to get government work, targeting them to line his own pockets, prosecutors said....

Nagin was somber and silent as he made his way through a crush of reporters outside of the courthouse -- a far cry from the confidence he showed when he first arrived more than two weeks ago at the start of his trial.  Addressing the press, Jenkins said, "Obviously, I'm surprised. Now we're moving on to the appeal process."

Assistant U.S. Attorney Matt Coman, the lead prosecutor on the case, gave a brief statement. "We are pleased with the verdict and obviously we are very thankful to the jury and the court," he said....

Nagin, a Democrat, was the public face of the city during Hurricane Katrina, making national headlines as he lambasted the federal government for its response to the storm and subsequent flood.

He lives in Frisco, Texas, where he has avoided the spotlight, staying quiet save for an occasional tweet, since his indictment a year ago. Sentencing is set for June 11 before U.S. District Judge Ginger Berrigan.

As the title of this post suggests, I would urge now-convicted Nagin to urge his lawyers to get very focused on the federal sentencing process before they start "moving on to the appeal process." As the article above notes, federal prosecutors are likely to argue that the guidelines applicable here recommend a sentence of decades for Nagin, and judges within the Fifth Circuit tend to be drawn toward imposing within guidelines sentences. Ergo, unless and until Nagin's lawyers start developing some strong sentencing arguments on his behalf, the former mayor of New Orleans may be looking at the real possibility that he gets a federal prison sentence later this year that amounts to a functional life sentence.

February 12, 2014 in Celebrity sentencings, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (12) | TrackBack

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Highlights from Federal Sentencing Reporter issue on “White-Collar Sentencing”

I noted in this recent post that I have the honor of speaking this coming Friday morning at a sentencing seminar in New York City sponsored by Proskauer’s White Collar Defense & Investigations Group. This event has been planned in conjunction with the publication of Federal Sentencing Reporter's latest issue on “White-Collar Sentencing” (Vol. 26.1, October 2013). Helpfully, FSR's publisher has made these two articles from this issue available for download without a subscription:

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

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Terrific white-collar sentencing event highlighting terrific FSR issue on white-collar sentencing

FsrFor reasons that should be obvious, I may be showing a bit of bias in my positive description of an event in New York City at which I will be speaking this coming Friday and which is promoting this recent white-collar sentencing issue of a publication that I help manage.  Nevertheless, as highlighted by the invitation and links in this announcement of the event, I do not think my inherent bias undermines the validity of my excitement and praise for this event:

The Current State of White-Collar Sentencing 

Please join Proskauer’s White Collar Defense & Investigations Group and the Federal Sentencing Reporter (FSR) for a seminar on criminal sentencing, presented in conjunction with the publication of FSR’s latest issue “White-Collar Sentencing” (Vol. 26.1, October 2013). 

Friday, January 24, 2014 
Registration and Breakfast: 8:00 a.m. - 8:30 a.m. 
Program: 8:30 a.m. - 11:30 a.m. 

Eleven Times Square (41st Street and 8th Avenue) 
New York, NY 10036
Register here

Featured speaker Professor Douglas A. Berman, of The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law, author of the nationally acclaimed Sentencing Law and Policy blog, will lead off the program with a discussion of current topics in white-collar sentencing.  This program will feature a review of recent developments in the field, the latest data and statistics, and proposals from distinguished thought leaders on potential improvements to current sentencing policies and procedures.  Our panelists will include current members of the U.S. Sentencing Commission’s Practitioners Advisory Group, academics, and practitioners:

January 19, 2014 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Recommended reading, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Friday, January 17, 2014

"Political odd couples push sentencing reform" ... and have little to show so far

The title of this post is drawn from the headline of this Washington Post entry, with a dash of my cynicism added and explained after an excerpt:

At a time when partisans in Congress don't agree on anything, they have found one area where they can: Reforming America's sprawling and costly prison system.  Nearly 30 years after creating mandatory sentences for drug offenses, an unlikely band of lawmakers is moving forward with their plans to fix what they say is a broken criminal justice system....

The Senate Judiciary Committee is working through several reform bills crafted by lawmakers from the liberal and conservative wings of the two parties to put together a plan, which, they say, will help alleviate the financial and humanitarian costs of the spending guidelines.

So who are these unlikely co-sponsors?  Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) have joined forces and put together a bill that would give judges flexibility when they hand down sentences for nonviolent drug offenders.  A House counterpart to the Durbin- Lee bill is co-sponsored by the unlikely duo of Reps. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) and Bobby Scott (D-Va.).  Another bill, sponsored by Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) would expand that judicial leeway to some non-drug related crimes.

"I think money is driving this debate to some extent but also honesty," Durbin said in an interview.  "After 30 years we ought to take a look at these laws. These aren't the 10 Commandments."  

Overcrowded prisons have been increasingly a strain on federal budgets, costing an estimated $60 billion per year.  Since the mandatory minimum law was implemented in 1986, the prison population has exploded -- from around 58,000 in the late 1980s to more than 217,000 in 2012, according to the Department of Justice and the Bureau of Prisons.

“People are starting to see the unfairness, people who have been kept in jail, sometimes 10, 20, 30, even 50 years for a non-violent crime,” Paul said in an interview. “I personally think if you made a mistake, a youthful mistake, that when you serve your time, and the time should be a reasonable time, that you should be able to get back into society.”

The timing of a reform bill is still uncertain, but Leahy, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, indicated in a statement that a mark-up was in the near future.  "Doing nothing means cutting funding from law enforcement, victim services and crime prevention efforts -- doing nothing makes us less safe," he said.  "We will soon be marking up legislation to address this important issue."  Labrador said House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) has agreed to have a hearing in the House on the issue this year....

It's not the first time this issue has brought the two sides together. The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, that eliminated the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine, was put together by Durbin and Alabama Republican Jeff Sessions as they worked out next to each other in the Senate gym. The bill eventually passed by unanimous consent.

I have grown more cynical and pessimistic about statutory sentencing reforms coming from Congress now that it has been almost a full year since Senators Leahy and Paul started pushing for mandatory minimum reform.  It would seem all political, social and economic forces are in line for major statutory sentencing reform, and yet we continue to hear lots of talk about reform and little tangible action in Congress.  Especially given that it took decades for crack reform talk to become the FSA, and given that the FSA was itself a pretty tepid and incomplete reform, I hope all this talk from Congress is not generating false optimism about significant statutory sentencing reforms coming from Congress.

That all said, I am much more optimistic that other federal sentencing players, especially the US Sentencing Commission and lower court judges, can and will be inspired by all the reform talk in Congress to take tangible action in courtrooms.  Indeed, I think the very important new proposal to cut federal drug sentences across the board (basics here, commentary here) only came to happen because that politically cautious body sensed members of Congress would not be likely to vocally resist a reduction of drug sentencing guidelines.

January 17, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Two professorial perspectives on the USSC's proposal to reduce all federal drug sentences

USSCIn my view, last week brought one of the very biggest (and yet, so far, one of the least discussed) tangible developments in federal sentencing reform in the past few years.  Specifically, as reported here, the US Sentencing Commission voted to publish proposed amendments to the federal sentencing guidelines which include an across-the-board reduction in the sentences recommended for all federal drug offenses.  I am pleased now here to share the insightful reactions to this important development coming from two insightful junior professors:  Professors Kevin Bennardo and Todd Haugh.

 Because Professor Haugh's comments are a bit shorter and more thematic, I will reprint his insights first:

First off, I agree wholeheartedly that this is a very important vote and a “really big deal.” But the reason I feel that way is not necessarily because it lowers penalties for drug trafficking offenders.  While I think the Commission is right to make the proposal and I certainly support it — drug penalties have been too harsh for too long — what’s more important to me than the specifics of the proposal is the willingness of the Commission to make it at all. Let me explain.

According to the Commission’s press release (the actual language of the proposed amendment is available, although it’s hard to find — see here), the proposal will lower the base offense levels in the drug table by two across the board.  That’s nothing to sneeze at because every two level increase equals about another 20% on the final sentence; at the higher sentencing levels, this is significant time.  Yet, with mandatory minimums and prosecutorial charging practices, the Commission believes the prison population will be reduced only by around 6,500 inmates over five years.  With approximately 100,000 federal inmates currently serving time for drug offenses, this reduction, although welcome, is as the Commission admits, “modest.”

But what isn't modest is the Commission’s increasing willingness to propose sentencing reform, i.e., sentencing reduction.  This drug amendment proposal is the most recent example, but there are others.  Last September, the Commission urged Congress to reduce mandatory minimums for drug offences, make the Fair Sentencing Act retroactive, and expand the safety valve.  Around the same time, the Commission held a symposium on economic crimes and appeared to be genuinely considering the ABA’s proposal to remake the fraud guideline, which would lessen the impact of the loss calculation.  And, a little over a year ago, the Commission suggested aligning the penalties for the receipt and possession of child pornography (a majority of judges call the penalty levels for receipt cases “excessive”).  What’s important about these proposals is that every time the Commission comes out in support of (or even hints at) a sentencing reduction, it runs the risk of creating a “shadow guideline” — a hypothetical, less harsh version of a given guideline that, regardless of whether it is ultimately adopted, defense attorneys will argue should sway the court in the post-Booker, variance-driven regime.  This is exactly the sort of thing your original post suggests, and savvy defense lawyers will do it.  The Commission’s concern over creating shadow guidelines (and over the related Congressional reaction) has probably scuttled a number of proposals over the years to reduce unfair and disparity-producing guidelines.  I am happy to see the Commission setting aside the concern of shadow guidelines and Congressional reaction and forging ahead to proactively improve the guidelines as a whole.  While I’m sure some will argue this proposal does too little or comes too late, in my eyes it’s an important and continuing step in the right direction, and it shows a pattern of real leadership.  So, I say go ahead and get excited — even if this amendment doesn't go through for some reason, it sure seems that there will be more positive reforms to come.

And now, here are Professor Kevin Bennardo's insights, which digs very effectively into the nuts and bolts of what the USSC's proposed amendment really does and means:

First, thanks to Doug Berman for the opportunity to share my thoughts on his forum. Second, I very much support the U.S. Sentencing Commission’s preliminary proposed amendment to reduce (most of) the base offense levels in the Drug Quantity Table by two levels. I agree with Doug’s assessment that this proposal is huge news.

However… the proposed amendment brings two hang-ups to my mind — one with the existing structure of the Drug Quantity Table and another with the mechanics of the proposed amendment:

(1) First, the proposed amendment continues to fundamentally bind the Drug Quantity Table to the mandatory minimum sentences set forth in 21 U.S.C. § 841. It simply (and laudably) knocks the levels down two pegs.  Under the proposed amendment, offenders in criminal history category I who distribute a drug quantity that triggers a five year mandatory minimum will receive a base offense level of 24, leading to a range of 51-63 months (the lowest range that encompasses the five year mandatory minimum) rather than the current range of 63-78 months under offense level 26.  Likewise, offenders facing a ten year mandatory minimum will start from a base offense level of 30, leading to a range of 97-121 months (the lowest range that encompasses the ten year mandatory minimum) rather than the current range of 121-151 month under offense level 32.

As I’ve written elsewhere, extrapolating the base offense levels in the Drug Quantity Table from the statutory mandatory minimums works unfairness for those offenders who are not actually subject to a statutory mandatory minimum sentence.  Especially after the Supreme Court’s ruling in Alleyne v. United States and Attorney General Holder’s subsequent directive to federal prosecutors to structure indictments in such a way so as to avoid the operation of statutory mandatory minimum sentences on certain nonviolent, low-level drug offenders, we’ll only see increasing numbers of defendants who are not subject to statutory mandatory minimum sentences even though the sentencing court may find by a preponderance of the evidence that the offender distributed a quantity of drugs that would have triggered a statutory mandatory minimum had it been charged in the indictment and proven beyond a reasonable doubt.  These offenders deserve to be sentenced under a Drug Quantity Table that is wholly uncoupled from the mandatory minimum sentences written into the federal drug statutes, particularly in the wake of the Commission’s recent recommendation to Congress to consider lowering statutory mandatory minimums.  By continuing to extrapolate the base offense levels in the Drug Quantity Table from the statutory mandatory minimums, the proposed amendment fails to address this unfairness.

(2) Second, the proposed amendment to the Drug Quantity Table isn’t truly an “all drugs minus two” revision (like I expected it would be when I first read the press release).  Under the proposed amendment, the lowest base offense level in the Drug Quantity Table remains at 6 and the highest base offense level remains at 38.  Thus, offenders who distribute the smallest and largest drug quantities will see absolutely no change in their guideline calculations under the proposed amendment.  They won’t receive any “minus two” treatment.

For example, an offender who distributes less than 250 grams of marijuana receives base offense level 6 under the current version of the Drug Quantity Table.  Under the proposed amendment, that offender would still receive a base offense level of 6.  (The difference is that under the amended version, all offenders who distribute up to one kilogram of marijuana fall within base offense level 6.)  If the effect is to otherwise shift all base offense levels down by two, why not carry through with the same result at the margins of the Drug Quantity Table?  Why not just retain the same drug quantities as the current Drug Quantity Table and shift the whole thing down by two levels so that the smallest quantities carry a base offense level of 4 and the largest quantities max out at level 36?

While the difference between base offense level 4 and 6 may not be significant to an offender in criminal history category I (although it might be if the offender has other upward offense level adjustments), the difference can be meaningful for an offender in more serious criminal history categories.  For example, at offense level 4, a criminal history category III offender is subject to a guidelines range of 0-6 months and falls in Zone A of the Sentencing Table.  But at offense level 6, the same criminal history category III offender is looking at a guidelines range of 2-8 months and falls in Zone B. For that offender, the difference between offense levels 4 and 6 is a difference of a guidelines sentence that requires no confinement and a guidelines sentence that requires at least two months of community confinement or home detention under section 5C1.1. (Similarly meaningful differences obtain for offenders in criminal history category VI, who get pushed out of Zone B and into Zone C with the jump from offense level 4 to 6.) If the rest of Drug Quantity Table is to be reduced by two levels, why not drop the smallest drug quantities down to offense level 4?

January 14, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Thursday, January 09, 2014

US Sentencing Commission suggests lowering drug guideline sentences across the board!

In a vote that may not be historic but is still very important and a sign of the times, the US Sentencing Commission earlier today voted to publish proposed amendments to the federal sentencing guidelines which include an across-the-board reduction in the sentences recommended for all drug offenses.  This official press release effecively summarizes and contextualizes this proposed amendments and others that were voted upon today at the USSC's public meeting:

The United States Sentencing Commission voted today to publish proposed guideline amendments, including possible reductions to the sentencing guidelines levels for federal drug trafficking offenses.  Another proposed amendment addressed implementation of the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013.

The bipartisan Commission voted to seek comment on a proposed amendment to lower by two levels the base offense levels in the Drug Quantity Table across drug types in guideline §2D1.1, which governs drug trafficking cases. Commission analysis indicates that such a change in the guidelines would result in a reduction of approximately 11 months for those drug trafficking offenders who would benefit, resulting in a reduction in the federal prison population of approximately 6,550 inmates by the fifth year after the change.

With this reduction, the sentencing guideline penalties for drug traffickers would remain consistent with pertinent drug trafficking statutes, including existing 5 and 10 year statutory mandatory minimum penalties, by structuring the Drug Quantity Table based on levels 24 and 30 (which correspond to a guideline range of 51 to 63 months and 97 to 121 months, respectively), rather than the existing levels of 26 and 32 (which correspond to 63 to 78 months and 121 to 151 months, respectively).

“The Commission’s proposal reflects its priority of reducing costs of incarceration and overcapacity of prisons, without endangering public safety,” said Judge Patti B. Saris, Chair of the Commission. A Commission study of offenders who received a reduced sentence pursuant to a similar two-level decrease in guideline levels for crack cocaine offenders in 2007 found no difference in recidivism rates for those offenders released early compared to those who served their full sentence.

“Like many in Congress and in the executive and judicial branches, the Commission is concerned about the growing crisis in federal prison populations and budgets, and believes it is appropriate at this time to carefully consider the sentences for drug traffickers, who make up about half of the federal prison population,” Saris said. “Our proposed approach is modest,” Saris said. “The real solution rests with Congress, and we continue to support efforts there to reduce mandatory minimum penalties, consistent with our recent report finding that mandatory minimum penalties are often too severe and sweep too broadly in the drug context, often capturing lower-level players.”...

Consistent with its responsibility to respond to major legislation affecting federal crimes, the Commission voted to publish a proposed amendment responding to the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013 (Pub. L. No. 113–4).... The Commission also asked for comment on whether the guidelines adequately address the environmental and other harms of drug production operations, in particular the cultivation of marijuana, and requested comments on issues related to the alien smuggling guideline and on resolving circuit court conflicts regarding the sentencing guidelines, among other matters.

The proposed amendments and issues for comment will be subject to a 60-day public comment period running through mid-March. A public hearing on the proposed amendments will be scheduled in Washington, D.C., on March 13, and a hearing concerning issues related to the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act will be held February 13.

For a whole bunch of reasons, this strikes me as HUGE news, and a terrific and fitting application of some of the themes that have been stressed by many members of Congress and by the Attorney General in recent months. Indeed, this action by the USSC, though only now a proposal for comment, strikes me as the most important tangible federal sentencing development since the passage of the Fair Sentencing Act. Let me explain why:

1. This proposed amendment is essentially a statement by the USSC that it believes, in its expert opinion, the current guideline sentences for ALL drug offenses are ALL too harsh. Consequently, even before this amendment becomes official and gets even closer to becoming law, every defendant to be sentenced for ALL drug offenses ought to be arguing for a two-level reduction in the calculated guideline range (and/or a variance from the calculated range) based on the Commission's expert advice and opinion that the current guideline sentences for ALL drug offenses are ALL too harsh.

2. The usual critics of the current drug guidelines as way too harsh are sure to advise the USSC in the days ahead that this proposed amendment is a great idea (and, if they were shrewd, they might push for the amendment reduce sentences even more). Meanwhile, we will get to see if anyone will actively oppose this proposed amendments. In the past, DOJ could often be counted on to oppose any proposed pro-defendant guideline amendment. But these days, in the wake of AG Holder's recent speeches and work, I suspect DOJ will not actively oppose the amendment (and may even support it). If it turn out there is little or no opposition to this amendment, federal judges could and should feel even more confident now and in the near future to lower drug sentences when permitted in the exercise of their post-Booker discretion.

3. If (and when?) this guideline lowering amendment becomes official in November 2014, the US Sentencing Commission will have authority to decide to make it retroactive (as it did with all of recent prior crack amendments). Thus, not only could this amendment start lowering many federal drug sentences now and going foward, there is a chance it could end up lowering many long federal drug sentences already being served.

Perhaps I am at risk of already getting too excited (and counting too many unhatched chickens) concerning this USSC vote.  But especially if this vote was unanimous within the Commission, and especially if it has the formal or even tacit approval of the Department of Justice, I do not think I am completely off base when suggesting this is a really big deal.

January 9, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

"Probability and Punishment"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper by Jacob Schuman now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Imagine two defendants, A and B, who have each been convicted of drug trafficking. Defendant A was arrested with 1,000 grams of crack-cocaine.  Defendant B was arrested with only 100 grams of crack but also a large quantity of cash, which he more than likely, though not certainly, earned by selling 900 grams of crack shortly before his arrest.  Should A and B receive the same punishment?

Federal criminal law says that they should.  This Article will argue that they should not. The probability that A sold 1,000 grams is higher than the probability that B did, so B deserves the lighter sentence.

The justice system can never determine with absolute certainty that an accused defendant committed a particular crime.  To render judgment, therefore, the criminal law must estimate the probability that each defendant is guilty of the offense charged and then translate that probability into specific penal consequences.  The guilt stage of criminal proceedings — the criminal trial — uses what scholars have called a “threshold model” of translation. Under this model, the prosecution may convict a defendant by establishing that the likelihood that he committed the crime charged exceeds a certain “threshold” level of probability.  If it is “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the defendant did the deed, he will receive a guilty verdict.  Otherwise, he will walk free.  Neither outcome will reflect a precise measure of the odds of the defendant’s guilt. A “probabilistic model” of translation, by contrast, would vary the outcome of each trial depending on the probability that the defendant committed the crime of which he is accused.

This Article breaks new ground by demonstrating that the penalty stage of criminal proceedings — the sentencing hearing — also uses a “threshold model.” The United States Sentencing Guidelines instruct federal judges to make a series of factual findings that either add to or subtract from a recommended sentence for every case.  Each adjustment to the recommended sentence depends on whether a certain factual predicate is “more likely than not” to be true — just like at trial, this threshold level of probability fails to precisely measure the odds of the defendant’s culpability.  However, while scholars have offered several important justifications for the threshold model of conviction, these arguments do not hold up for the threshold model of sentencing.  Moreover, the two flaws identified with the threshold model of conviction — inefficiency and unfairness — are not only present at the penalty stage of the proceedings, but in fact are exacerbated by a few unique features of the law of sentencing.

The threshold model of sentencing poses a particular problem when it comes to determinations of drug quantity in the punishment of drug offenders.  Courts often rely on extrapolation and inference to make such determinations, and as a result, they frequently mete out lengthy sentences based on quantity estimations that carry a high risk of error. District courts and policymakers should mitigate the inefficiencies and injustices that result from these fact-findings by incorporating probability into drug quantity determinations at sentencing.

January 8, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Latest USSC quarterly data show (thanks to AG Holder?) record number of judge-initiated below-range sentences

I am intrigued to see that, as reported in Table 4 with the Fourth Quarter FY13 Quarterly Sentencing data report posted here at the US Sentencing Commission's website, there was a notable (though still small) uptick in the number of below guideline sentences imposed by federal district judges during the most recent quarter (from July 2013 to September 2013). Specifically, after a full year in which below-guideline sentence were imposed each quarter in just around 18.5% of all federal cases, in the most recent quarter the rate of judge-initiated below-range sentences jumped to 19.1%.  This marks, I believe, the highest percentage of judge-initiated below-range sentences in any quarter on record.

As the title of this post hints, I am inclined to hypothesize that a few more judges were willing to impose below-guideline sentences in a few more federal cases in the wake of Attorney General Eric Holder's big early August speech to the ABA lamenting excessive use of incarceration in the United States. When the US Attorney General says "too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no truly good law enforcement reason," I surely hope federal judges are listening and thinking even harder about whether to follow harsh guidelines that tend to recommend pretty long prison sentences in most cases.

That all said, the latest new data continue to show the same basic story lines and relatively stability in the operation and application of the advisory federal guideline sentencing system: these data show, yet again, that somewhat more than 50% of all federal sentences are within the calculated guidelines range, and that below-guideline sentences are a result of a prosecutor's request (which occurs in well over 25% of all cases).

December 29, 2013 in Booker in district courts, Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Killer bride in Montana takes a plea deal to second-degree murder just before jury gets case

3E0237FA0F4888A92E8D34325C05D590_292_292As reported in this new AP article, headlined "Woman in newlywed killing case agrees to plead guilty to second-degree murder," a high-profile federal homicide trial has now ended in a high-profile plea deal. Here are the details:

A federal judge accepted a guilty plea Thursday from a Montana newlywed after she reached a surprise plea agreement and said she pushed her husband from a cliff in Glacier National Park. The development came before a jury was set to begin considering the case against 22-year-old Jordan Graham.

In exchange for the plea to second-degree murder, prosecutors agreed to drop a first-degree murder charge and a count of making a false statement to authorities. First-degree murder means a crime is premeditated.

Graham could face a maximum sentence of life in prison on March 27.

In accepting the plea, District Judge Donald Molloy told Graham to recount exactly what happened the night of July 7 when her husband Cody Johnson, 25, fell to his death in the park.

Graham said she told Johnson that she wasn't happy and wasn't feeling like she should after getting married. She said they argued and at one point he grabbed her by the arm. She said she brushed his hand away and pushed him, with one hand on his arm and one on his back. "I wasn't thinking about where we were ... I just pushed," she told the judge. She said she then drove back to Kalispell without calling for help because she was so afraid she did not know what to do.

Earlier in the day, defense attorneys wrapped up their case without testimony from Graham. Instead, they showed the jurors pictures and videos of Graham smiling as she had her hair done and tried on her borrowed wedding dress, then videos of the June 29 wedding and the couple's first dance.

Those images attempted to chip away at the prosecution's image of Graham as a cold, dispassionate woman who didn't want to marry Johnson, and their contention that eight days later she led him to a dangerous precipice in the Montana park and deliberately pushed him to his death....

Both the prosecution and defense rested their cases Thursday after three and a-half days of testimony.  The plea agreement was reached before closing arguments took place.

As for the statutory sentencing basics, here is the sentencing provision of 18 USC 1111, the federal murder statute: "Whoever is guilty of murder in the second degree, shall be imprisoned for any term of years or for life."  The federal sentencing guideline for second degree murder, 2A1.2, provides a base offense level of 38 and recommends an upward departure if "the defendant's conduct was exceptionally heinous, cruel, brutal, or degrading to the victim." Also, I think there could be (and likely will be?) some sentencing debate over whether an adjustment up for a vulnerable victim or an adjustment down for acceptance of responsibility should be applied.

If we assume the guideline level of 38 sticks (and she has no serious criminal history), the USSG Sentencing Table recommends a prison sentence of 235-293 months (just under 20 to 25 years). I suspect the defense team will likely argue for a downward variance from his range, while perhaps the prosecutors will ask for something toward the top of the range. Thus, I would right now put the (way-too-early) over/under betting line for here federal sentence at 20 years' imprisonment.

Previous related posts:

December 12, 2013 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (16) | TrackBack

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Another notable white-collar defendant gets another below-guideline federal sentence

This New York Times article, headlined "Ex-Credit Suisse Executive Sentenced in Mortgage Bond Case," reports on a notable federal sentenced handed down yesterday:

A former top executive at the Credit Suisse Group was sentenced to two and a half years in prison on Friday for inflating the value of mortgage bonds as the housing market collapsed. The prison term makes the executive, Kareem Serageldin, one of the most senior Wall Street officials to serve time for criminal conduct during the financial crisis.

Wearing a dark suit and blue tie, Mr. Serageldin remained stoic as Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein of the United States District Court in Manhattan handed down the sentence, which was less than the roughly five-year sentence called for by nonbinding sentencing guidelines. Judge Hellerstein showed mercy on Mr. Serageldin in part because of what he said was a toxic culture at Credit Suisse and its rivals.

“He was in a place where there was a climate for him to do what he did,” the judge said. “It was a small piece of an overall evil climate inside that bank and many other banks.”

A spokesman for Credit Suisse disagreed with the judge’s remarks, noting that when regulators decided not to charge the bank in connection with Mr. Serageldin’s actions, they highlighted the isolated nature of the wrongdoing, the bank’s immediate self-reporting to the government and the prompt correction of its results.

Mr. Serageldin, 40, led a group at Credit Suisse that traded in mortgage-backed securities. As the housing market soared, his group made hundreds of millions of dollars for the bank by pooling mortgage assets, slicing them up and selling the pieces to investors. Many of those were subprime loans that went to shaky borrowers, however, and banks found themselves holding billions of dollars in sour mortgages when the market collapsed.

Federal authorities began their investigation into Credit Suisse in 2008 after the bank disclosed that Mr. Serageldin’s team had mismarked its mortgage portfolio. The bank suspended the team and cooperated with authorities. Two other traders in that group, David Higgs and Salmaan Siddiqui, were also charged alongside Mr. Serageldin. They all pleaded guilty; Mr. Higgs and Mr. Siddiqui have yet to be sentenced....

“This is the worst day of my life,” Mr. Serageldin told the judge. “I am terribly sorry for what I have done.”

In an unusual moment during the hearing, Judge Hellerstein allowed Mr. Serageldin’s mother to speak about her son. Holding back tears, she told the judge her son had always worked hard to make the family proud. “Please see him in the context of his whole life history,” she told the judge, who commiserated with Ms. Serageldin by telling her that he, too, was the child of immigrants. “Whatever sentence he serves, I will serve.”

The judge asked Mr. Serageldin’s lawyer to explain his client’s misconduct. “This is a deepening mystery in my work,” the judge said. “Why do so many good people do bad things?” Sean Casey, a lawyer at Kobre & Kim, said that Mr. Serageldin was under great pressure during the credit crisis and made a big mistake when confronted with failure for the first time.

Judge Hellerstein said that his sentence was necessary to deter misconduct on Wall Street. “Each person has to look within himself and ask himself what is right, what is wrong,” the judge said. “Even in the worst of times, what is right cannot be sacrificed.”

November 23, 2013 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Latest USSC publication highlights remarkable "disparities"(?) in federal FIP sentences

I am pleased to see that the US Sentencing Commission now has up on its website another terrific new data document in its series of reader-friendly "Quick Facts" publications.  (Regular readers may recall from this prior post that the USSC describes these publications as a way to "give readers basic facts about a single area of federal crime in an easy-to-read, two-page format.")

As I have said before, I think this series is a very valuable new innovation coming from the USSC, and I have already learned a lot and benefited greatly from these publications.  This latest document, which "presents data on offenses under 18 U.S.C. § 922(g), commonly called 'felon in possession' cases," includes these notable data details:

In fiscal year 2012, 5,768 offenders were convicted of violating 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)....

One-quarter (25.2%) of offenders convicted under section 922(g) were assigned to the highest criminal history category (Category VI). The proportion of these offenders in other Criminal History Categories was as follows: 11.7% of these offenders were in Category I; 9.3% were in Category II; 21.1% were in Category III; 18.9% were in Category IV; and 13.8% were in Category V.

10.3% were sentenced under the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) (18 U.S.C.§ 924(e))...

The average sentence length for all section 922(g) offenders was 75 months; however, one-quarter of these offenders had an average sentence of 24 months or less while one-quarter had an average sentence of 96 months or more.

The average sentence length for offenders convicted of violating only section 922(g) and who were sentenced under ACCA was 180 months.

The average sentence length for offenders convicted of violating only section 922(g) but who were not sentenced under ACCA was 46 months.

The title of this post has the term "disparities" in quotes followed by a question mark because these basic sentencing data about a pretty basic federal crime could be interpreted in many disparate ways. Given that all the offenders sentenced for FIP likely were engaged in pretty similar conduct (simple possession of a firearm) and all of them, by definition, had to have a serious criminal record in order to be subject to federal prosecution, one might see lots of unwarranted disparity among this offender group given the extraordinary outcome variations documented here -- in FY2012, over 10% of FIP offenders are getting sent away for an average of 15 years, but another 25% are going away for only 8 years, while another 25% are going away for only 2 years.

Then again, given the apparently varied criminal histories of the FIP offenders, the sentencing variation here surely reflects various (reasoned and reasonable?) judicial assessments of different levels of recidivism risk for different FIP offenders.  I certainly hope that the those being sentenced to decades behind bars for gun possession are generally those with very long rap sheets, and that those getting sent away only for a couple years are those with much more limited criminal histories.

Finally, in addition to noting the profound significance that past crimes clearly have on current sentencing in FIP cases, I must note that it is these past crimes that itself serves to convert the behavior here in to a federal crime.  Indeed, if one takes the Second Amendment very seriously (as I do), the actual "offense behavior" in these cases might often be subject to significant protection as the exercise of a fundamental constitutional right unless and until the person has a disqualifying criminal past.  Proof yet again that the past, at least when it comes to criminal sentencing and constitutional rights, is often ever-present.

November 19, 2013 in Booker in district courts, Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Gun policy and sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Second Amendment issues | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Is sentence disparity reduced if mass murderer Whitey Bulger and drug dealer Sam Hurd get the same LWOP sentence?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by the news of two seemingly very distinct federal sentencings taking place today in which it seems the federal sentencing guidelines are calling for the exact same LWOP sentence. 

Regular readers are already familiar with the case involving Whitey Bulger, whose sentencing is taking place today in federal Court in Boston.  This new USA Today article, headlined "Victim's son: Mobster Whitey Bulger is 'Satan'," highlights just the latest developments in a case in which I sincerely wonder why there is not more of an effort by pro-death-penalty advocates to have an even tougher punishment than LWOP in the mix.

Somewhat less high profile, except perhaps for hard-core football fans, is the sentencing of former NFL receiver Sam Hurd.  This article, headlined "Former NFL player Sam Hurd hopes to avoid life sentence at hearing," provides some background starting this way:

This afternoon at the Federal courthouse in Dallas, U.S. District court judge Jorge Solis is scheduled to begin the sentencing hearing for former Cowboys and Bears receiver Sam Hurd, who pleaded guilty to a single drug trafficking charge in April. Hurd's attorneys will be allowed to present witnesses and evidence to contest the individual allegations against him. At the end of the hearing Solis will decide whether to take the recommendation of the U.S. Probation and Pretrial Services Department of life in prison without parole or give Hurd a lighter sentence. The only certainty is that Hurd will be going to prison.

Hurd was arrested on Dec. 14, 2011 and indicted on Jan. 4, 2012. For the first 19 months, life in prison was not even in the discussion. Five to 20 years was the sentencing range, with precedent and the informed opinions of more objective onlookers and academics backing up that estimate. Since the life sentence recommendation was made in late July, one comment repeated by sources across the spectrum of partiality has been some version of this reminder: You realize life in prison in the federal system means the next time he comes out of prison it'll be in a coffin.

Hurd, who has been housed in the federal detention center in Seagoville, about a 30-minute drive from the Dallas court building, did not respond to an email from SI Wednesday morning. He may have already been relocated to downtown Dallas and unable to access his prison-controlled email account. He called last Friday night and repeated again that he is "ready to be sentenced for what I did, not this other mess. Our system should not work like this.

I have to assume that Hurd is facing a recommended LWOP sentence because of the quantity of drugs being ascribed to him and a guideline sentencing structure that provides that drugs dealers will often be facing the same guideline sentence as mass murderers.

Hurd is, of course, very fortunate that the federal sentencing guidelines are no longer mandatory, and I think it is unlikely he will get an LWOP term today. But this coincidence of these two very different criminals facing the exact same federal guideline sentence provides a high-profile example of how the guidelines can themselves create disparity and especially revelas how misguided it can often be to assume imposition of within-guideline sentences reduce disparity.

UPDATE On Wednesday afternoon, as reported here, Sam Hurd received a 15-year federal prison sentence; on Thursday morning, as reported here, Whitey Bulger received two life terms plus 5 years in the federal pen.

November 13, 2013 in Booker in district courts, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

Thursday, November 07, 2013

"Free at Last? Judicial Discretion and Racial Disparities in Federal Sentencing"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper by Crystal Yang now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

The Federal Sentencing Guidelines were created to reduce unwarranted sentencing disparities among similar defendants.  This paper explores the impact of increased judicial discretion on racial disparities in sentencing after the Guidelines were struck down in United States v. Booker (2005).  Using data on the universe of federal defendants, I find that black defendants are sentenced to almost two months more in prison compared to their white counterparts after Booker, a 4% increase in average sentence length.  To identify the sources of racial disparities, I construct a dataset linking judges to over 400,000 defendants.  Exploiting the random assignment of cases to judges, I find that racial disparities are greater among judges appointed after Booker, suggesting acculturation to the Guidelines by judges with experience sentencing under mandatory regime. Prosecutors also respond to increased judicial discretion by charging black defendants with longer mandatory minimums.

I am always interested in sophisticated analyses of the post-Booker sentencing system, so I am looking forward to finding time to review this article closely. But, as with lots of "disparity" sentencing scholarship, I worry that this article is among those spending lots of time worrying about and trying to figure out whose sentences may be longer after Booker rather than worrying about and trying to figure out if all sentence remain way too long in the federal sentencing system.

November 7, 2013 in Booker in district courts, Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Do nationwide reforms now call for federal judges to sentence below the guidelines in all marijuana cases?

The question in the title of this post is one that I have been thinking about for quite some time, but it has now taking on some real-world salience in the wake of a couple hearings and sentencing decisions by a federal district judge in Baltimore.  Two recent reports from the Baltimore Sun, headlined "Federal judge weighs shift on marijuana sentences," and U.S. judge says government view on marijuana raises 'equal justice' issue" (available here and here, respectively), suggests that at least one federal district judge believes the answer to the question in the title of this post is yes. Here are details drawn from both press reports:

A federal judge said Friday he would consider lighter-than-normal sentences for members of a major suburban marijuana smuggling organization — the latest fallout of the drug's legalization in several U.S. states.

U.S. District Judge James K. Bredar noted that federal authorities announced this summer they would not pursue criminal cases against dispensaries and others legally handling marijuana in states where the drug has been legalized.

Bredar, who called the hearing to discuss the issue, said it might be more appropriate to compare the defendants in the Maryland marijuana case to smugglers of improperly taxed cigarettes rather than treat them as hardened drug traffickers. "It's a serious thing," Bredar said of the group's operation, "but it's not the same as dealing heroin."...

Friday's hearing involved defendants convicted of running a smuggling operation that imported large quantities of marijuana to Howard and Anne Arundel counties from California and New Jersey and laundering the proceeds through an eBay business located in a Jessup warehouse. Twenty-two of the 23 people charged in the case have been convicted; charges against one were dismissed.

Earlier this month, Bredar canceled all of the scheduled sentencings in the case and announced his plan to hold a hearing on changes in Justice Department policy that allow marijuana handlers such as dispensaries and cultivation centers to operate openly in states where marijuana is legal....

At issue in the Maryland case, Bredar said, is whether that shift means the government has decided the drug is less serious now than when federal sentencing guidelines were formulated. "Has the federal government changed its enforcement policy?" Bredar asked.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrea L. Smith said the topic was an appropriate one to discuss, but argued that marijuana remained a serious drug and noted that the case involved guns and violence. She suggested it might be more appropriate to compare marijuana dealing to trafficking in illegally obtained prescription pain pills rather than to cigarette smuggling....

And on a sliding scale of regulated substances, Bredar said, he thought marijuana had moved away from hard drugs and toward tobacco.

Sentences in federal cases are based on guidelines that take into account drug quantities and other circumstances in advising judges on the appropriate prison time. Those rules already recognize that dealing heroin is much more serious than dealing marijuana.

For example, all else being equal, a defendant convicted of dealing between one and three kilograms of heroin would face between nine and 11 years in prison, as would someone who sold between 1,000 and 3,000 kilograms of marijuana. At the same time, a cigarette trafficker would have to evade $100 million in taxes to face that length of prison sentence — a vastly greater weight in tobacco.

The guidelines are advisory and judges can take other factors into account when deciding a sentence. Bredar said he would take particular note of two of those factors when sentencing the defendants: He wants to make sure that defendants around the country are being treated equally and that the sentences reflect the seriousness of the offense....

A federal judge in Maryland handed down lighter prison sentences Monday to defendants in a huge marijuana distribution case, saying that such offenses are "not regarded with the same seriousness" as they were just a few decades ago.

U.S. District Judge James K. Bredar said the federal government's response to marijuana legalization in some states — notably the decision not to pursue criminal cases against dispensaries and others handling the drug in accordance with those states' laws — raises concerns of "equal justice."

In handing down a nearly five-year sentence, Bredar said he felt Scott Russell Segal had committed a significant crime for his role moving hundreds of kilograms of marijuana and laundering the proceeds.

But the judge used his discretion to ignore federal guidelines, which equate marijuana with harder drugs like heroin and called for Segal to receive eight to 11 years in prison. A second defendant also got a shorter sentence than called for in the guidelines. "It's indisputable that the offense is not regarded with the same seriousness it was 20 or 30 years ago when the sentencing guidelines … which are still in use, were promulgated," Bredar said.

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform.

October 29, 2013 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Pot Prohibition Issues, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack