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):
- You be the federal sentencing judge: "Newlywed Admits to Pushing Husband off Cliff"
- Seeking pre-trial sentencing views in high-profile federal murder prosecution of homicidal bride
- Killer bride in Montana takes a plea deal to second-degree murder just before jury gets case
- Bridezilla murderer Jordan Graham's federal sentencing as amazing teaching opportunity
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.
Monday, March 24, 2014
Bridezilla murderer Jordan Graham's federal sentencing as amazing teaching opportunity
Regular 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):
- You be the federal sentencing judge: "Newlywed Admits to Pushing Husband off Cliff"
- Seeking pre-trial sentencing views in high-profile federal murder prosecution of homicidal bride
- Killer bride in Montana takes a plea deal to second-degree murder just before jury gets case
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.
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:
- Extended examination of ugliness of acquitted conduct enhancement
- Latest chapter in notable federal acquitted conduct case from DC
- "When Acquitted Doesn't Mean Acquitted"
- Practitioner’s Note: Acquitted Conduct in the News (Again)
- Strong commentary on acquitted conduct sentencing
- Sincere questions about acquitted conduct sentencing
- Amicus brief in Sixth Circuit acquitted conduct case focused on statutory issues
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.
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:
- Attorney General to testify about drug guideline reform before US Sentencing Commission
- Notable talk of sentencing reform at CPAC conference
- "With Holder In The Lead, Sentencing Reform Gains Momentum"
- Lots of (mostly positive) reactions to AG Holder's big sentencing speech
- "Holder and Republicans Unite to Soften Sentencing Laws"
- Rand Paul begins forceful pitch in campaign against federal mandatory minimums
- Another notable GOP member of Congress advocating for federal sentencing reform
- Conservative group ALEC joins the growing calls for sentencing refom
- Effective Heritage analysis of federal MMs and statutory reform proposals
- Smarter Sentencing Act passes Senate Judiciary Committee by 13-5 vote
- Will Tea Party players (and new MMs) be able to get the Smarter Sentencing Act through the House?
- Are "hundreds of career prosecutors" (or mainly just Bill Otis) now in "open revolt" over AG Holder's support for the Smarter Sentencing Act?
- Senate Judiciary Committee approves Recidivism Reduction and Public Safety Act
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.
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:
- You be the judge: should guidelines be followed in federal sentencing of elderly nun and two other peace activists?
- Sentencing round two for elderly nun and two other peace activists for breaking into a federal defense facility
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
This 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:
Order in US v. Walli: Download MEO in CR-12-107 with Friend Brief Request
My submission in US v. Walli: Download Berman Friend Brief for Judge Thapar
Recent related post:
- You be the judge: should guidelines be followed in federal sentencing of elderly nun and two other peace activists?
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:
- Rand Paul begins forceful pitch in campaign against federal mandatory minimums
- Another notable GOP member of Congress advocating for federal sentencing reform
- Conservative group ALEC joins the growing calls for sentencing refom
- Smarter Sentencing Act passes Senate Judiciary Committee by 13-5 vote
- Will Tea Party players (and new MMs) be able to get the Smarter Sentencing Act through the House?
- Are "hundreds of career prosecutors" (or mainly just Bill Otis) now in "open revolt" over AG Holder's support for the Smarter Sentencing Act?
- Very eager to provide very thorough and fair coverage of prosecutors' views on Smarter Sentencing Act
- Effective Heritage analysis of federal MMs and statutory reform proposals
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 Reason.com. 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.
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.
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:
The Current State of White-Collar Sentencing by Mark D. Harris, Anna G. Kaminska and Samantha Springer
Why the Federal Sentencing Guidelines Should Be Scrapped by Judge Jed S. Rakoff
Sunday, January 19, 2014
Terrific white-collar sentencing event highlighting terrific FSR issue on white-collar sentencing
For 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
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:
- Mark D. Harris – Partner, Proskauer Rose LLP, Board of Editors, Federal Sentencing Reporter
- Sharon Cohen Levin – Chief, Asset Forfeiture Unit in the Criminal Division of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York
- Seetha Ramachandran – Deputy Chief, Asset Forfeiture and Money Laundering Section of the DOJ’s Criminal Division
- Mark H. Allenbaugh – Partner, Law Offices of Mark H. Allenbaugh
- Wes Reber Porter – Associate Professor, Golden State University School of Law
- Matthew Benjamin – Associate, Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP
- Mei Lin Kwan-Gett – Partner, Wilkie Farr & Gallagher LLP
- David Deitch – Member, Ifrah Law
- Marcus A. Asner – Partner, Arnold & Porter LLP
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.
Tuesday, January 14, 2014
Two professorial perspectives on the USSC's proposal to reduce all federal drug sentences
In 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?
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.
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.
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).
Thursday, December 12, 2013
Killer bride in Montana takes a plea deal to second-degree murder just before jury gets case
As 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:
- You be the federal sentencing judge: "Newlywed Admits to Pushing Husband off Cliff"
- Seeking pre-trial sentencing views in high-profile federal murder prosecution of homicidal bride
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.”
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 SI.com 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:
Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform.
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.
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
Sunday, October 27, 2013
Federal sentencing in Kansas to focus on "market value of deer" illegally killedAs reported in this unavoidably amusing article, headlined "Value of deer key in Kansas hunting camp sentencing," a federal district judge is going to be required to do a market analysis of illegally hunted deer in order to properly calculate the federal guideline range of a couple of hunting scoundrels. Here are the details:
For years, hunters trekked to Camp Lone Star near Coldwater where prosecutors say they paid thousands of dollars to illegally kill deer in Kansas. On Monday, what is believed to be one of the largest criminal investigations involving the illegal taking of deer draws to a close with the re-sentencing of two Texas brothers who ran the operation from 2005 to 2008.
James Bobby Butler Jr., the owner and operator of the hunting camp, and his brother, Marlin Jackson Butler, who worked as a guide, admitted in 2011 to violating the Lacey Act, a federal law that prohibits the interstate transport of any wildlife taken in violation of state regulations. The brothers, both from Martinsville, Texas, pleaded guilty to felony charges of conspiracy to violate the Lacey Act and violation of the Lacey Act....
The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, in its decision last year, said the district court made a mistake in 2011 in calculating sentences based on the full price of a guided hunt, rather than the actual retail value of the animals.
U.S. District Judge Monti Belot is expected to hear testimony at Monday’s hearing about the market value of deer as well as the conduct of the Butler brothers in other uncharged poaching incidents to come up with new sentences. He must also rule on the appropriateness of a hunting and guiding ban for James Butler.
John Brooks, the agent from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who led the investigation, is expected to take the stand for the government. The defense plans to call several people who hunted at the camp. Both sides are also bringing in expert witnesses to testify as to the market value of antlers and other deer parts....
James Butler was initially sentenced by the late U.S. District Judge Wesley Brown to 41 months in prison and ordered to pay a $25,000 fine and $25,000 in restitution. Marlin Butler was initially sentenced to 27 months in prison and ordered to pay a $10,000 fine and $10,000 in restitution. Those initial sentences were thrown out by the appeals court when it sent the case back for re-sentencing.
Wednesday, October 09, 2013
District Judge Graham gets in a final word on child porn sentencing despite Sixth Circuit reversals
I am about to head off line for the bulk of the day in order to head down to the Queen City in order to watch the full en banc Sixth Circuit consider crack sentencing modification rules in Blewett. (I hope late tonight to report on what I see in the argument, perhaps with a prediction as to the outcome.)
For my last word before I go to watch the Sixth Circuit in action, I am pleased to post a recent opinion by US District Judge James Graham that provides its own kind of last word about the Sixth Circuit's recent sentencing work in a child pornography downloading case that the Sixth Circuit took out of Judge Graham's hands. The opinion in US v. Childs (which can be downloaded below) is relatively brief, and it starts and winds down this way:
This is a disturbing case. Defendant is charged with one count of possession of child pornography. I am called upon to decide whether to accept a plea agreement which requires me to impose a sentence which is roughly only one sixth of the lowest sentence recommended by the United States Sentencing Guidelines (“the Guidelines” or “U.S.S.G.”). This is disturbing not because I disagree with the sentence, but because I am convinced that under the law of the Sixth Circuit announced in United States v. Bistline, 665 F.3d 758, 761-64 (6th Cir. 2012)(“Bistline I”), I would not have been free to select such a sentence without the government’s agreement....
The Sixth Circuit's decision in Bistline I blurs the distinction between mandatory and advisory by requiring more deference to congressionally created guidelines than that accorded to Sentencing Commission-created guidelines. Just what implications this might have under Apprendi was not discussed by the Sixth Circuit.
There have been some very important developments since the Sixth Circuit's decision in Bistline I. In its Report to Congress: Federal Child Pornography Offenses (Dec. 2012), www.ussc.gov/Legislative_ and_ Public_ Affairs/ Congressional_ Testimony_ and_ Reports/ Sex_ Offense_ Topics/ 201212_ Federal_ Child_ Pornography_ Offenses/ (visited October 1, 2013), the Sentencing Commission publicly declared that the existing guidelines for child pornography offenses were flawed and in need of repair. In a letter to Judge Patti B. Saris, Chair of the Commission, dated March 5, 2013, Anne Gannon, National Coordinator for Child Exploitation Prevention and Interdiction, responded to the Commission’s report on behalf of the Department of Justice. See Letter from Anne Gannon, Nat’l Coordinator for Child Exploitation Prevention and Interdiction, Office of the Deputy Attorney General, U.S. Dep’t of Justice, to Honorable Patti B. Saris, Chair, U.S. Sentencing Comm’n (Mar. 5, 2013), available at http://sentencing.typepad.com/files/doj-letter-to-ussc-on-cpreport. pdf (visited Sept. 30, 2013). The Department expressed its agreement with many of the Commission’s conclusions, noting that the report “reflects a significant amount of detailed research and thoughtful analysis" and thanking the Commission for "undertaking the important task of laying the foundation for reforming sentencing practices involving non-production child pornography offenses." Id. at 1.
Nevertheless, on June 27, 2013, four months after the Commission’s report, the Sixth Circuit filed its opinion in United States v. Bistline, 720 F.3d 631 (6th Cir. 2013)(“Bistline II”) reaffirming it's holding in Bistline I, with no mention whatsoever of the Commission’s findings or the extent of the Department of Justice's concurrence. As a judge who has regularly sat on the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals by designation for more than two decades, I find this inexplicable. Many of the Commission’s criticisms of the child pornography guidelines, including criticisms which the Justice Department concurred in, are identical to the ones I expressed in my sentencing colloquy in Mr. Bistline’s case. The Sentencing Commission’s criticism of the crack cocaine guidelines was cited as a reason for diminished deference for those guidelines in Kimbrough, and that part of the Kimbrough decision was cited by the Sixth Circuit in Bistline I to explain why the Supreme Court decided that the crack cocaine guidelines were entitled to less deference. See Bistline I, 665 F.3d at 763. In light of the fact that, in the interim, the Commission had spoken on the child pornography guidelines, why would the court not revisit the applicability of Kimbrough when it decided Bistline II? It seems clear to me that under Kimbrough, the child pornography guidelines should be accorded less, not more, deference than others.
It is a tragic irony that sentencing judges in the Sixth Circuit are required to give enhanced deference to guidelines which the independent Commission, relied upon so heavily by the Supreme Court in upholding the Guidelines, has now declared flawed and in need of reform. It is even more tragic that offenders in this circuit will have to rely on prosecutorial discretion, not judicial discretion, in order to receive a just and fair sentence in these cases.
October 9, 2013 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Kimbrough reasonableness case, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack
Tuesday, October 08, 2013
"Native American Sentencing Disparity and the Case of Dana Deegan"
The title of this post is the title of this notable event taking place next week at the University of North Dakota School of Law. Long-time readers may vaguely recall this 2010 post about the Eighth Circuit panel's split ruling affirming the defendant's within-guideline sentence in US v. Deegan, No. 08-2299 (8th Cir. May 25, 2010) (available here). I called the Deegan case remarkable in part because of the criminal offense (second-degree murder of a newborn due to neglect), in part because of the offender (the newborn's mother, a Native American who has suffered a long history of physical and sexual abuse), and in part because of a must-read 50+ page dissent by Judge Myron Bright.
I am very pleased that the (under-explored) sentencing issues spotlighted by one case and one dissent has now prompted a full panel discussion. And I am very sad that I am unable to skip out on all my classes to head out to Grand Forks for this event; the topics and speakers looks like it would be worth the trip:
Schedule of Speakers:
Overview of the Disparity Problem and its Origins
- BJ Jones, Director, Tribal Judicial Institute & Chief Justice of the Turtle Mountain Tribal Court of Appeals
- Chris Ironroad, Associate Attorney at Sonosky, Chambers, Sachse, Endreson & Perry, LLP
Impact of Disparity on Native Americans - The Case of Dana Deegan
- Judge Myron H. Bright, United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit
- Judge David E. Ackerson, St. Louis County, Minnesota
- Sarah Deer, Assistant Professor of Law, William Mitchell College of Law
- Marmie Jotter, sister of Dana Deegan and licensed psychotherapist
How the Guidelines Unfairly Treat Domestic Violence Victims
- Radmilla Cody - Ms. Navajo Nation 1997-98 and recording artist
Monday, September 30, 2013
Advice for the US Sentencing Commission from former USDJ Nancy GertnerI am genuinely unsure if the US Sentencing Commission gets to keep working if we end up having a federal government shut-down this week. But I am sure that the USSC starts an official new fiscal year as of tomorrow morning and that any government shut-down is not going to keep federal defendants from being sentenced and that the USSC will be up-and-running in some capacity both sooner and later. For those reasons, I am pleased right now to be able to post these comments sent my way by former federal district judge (and now Harvard law professor) Nancy Gertner about what the USSC ought to be doing as FY 2014 in the federal sentencing system gets underway:
At a time when the “common law of sentencing,” is being shaped in federal district courts, why does the Sentencing Commission only post Circuit Court decisions on its web site? In 2012, sentences that had been appealed on the grounds of unreasonableness were affirmed 95 percent of the time. And that rate has remained steady on the national level: In 2011, the affirmance rate was roughly 94 percent; in 2010 it was approximately 96 percent; and in 2009, 97 percent affirmances. In my circuit, the First Circuit, not a single sentence was deemed unreasonable on appeal in 2011 or 2012, and only a handful of cases qualified in the immediately preceding years. In effect, as with other areas of law where the standards of review are forgiving (think evidentiary appeals on forensic issues which are reviewed for “abuse of discretion” and rarely overturned), the appellate courts are not defining substantive sentencing standards, and imposing only minimal procedural ones.
Clearly most of the meaningful sentencing developments -- the substantive sentencing standards, the guideline analysis and trenchant critique -- are happening at the district court level in the decisions of judges like John Gleeson and Jack Weinstein (S.D.N.Y.), Mark Bennett (N.D. Iowa), Ellen Huvelle (D.C.), Paul Friedman (D.C.) and Lynn Adelman (E.D. Wisconsin). While not all judges take the time to write formal sentencing opinions, those that do should have their work circulated by our “expert” Commission rather than being ignored.
If the Commission is interested in minimizing disparity in sentencing in a post-Booker world (which should be one of its goals -- hardly the only one), what better way than to make certain that the opinions of district court judges are communicated more broadly to the federal bench? When these judges offer a reasoned analysis of the Guidelines or an alternative way of analyzing the cases, why not ensure that other judges see their work and decide whether to follow it? Other judges can look at their reasoning– not as binding precedent, but as a template for the cases they see, e.g. here’s one approach to firearms cases, non violent drug offenders, white collar cases, etc. If a common law of sentencing is ever to evolve -- supplementing (or in some cases supplanting) the Guidelines -- why not assist in its development? In a common law system, decisional law establishes standards. Uniformity is not enforced from above -- as in civil code countries -- but evolves from reasoned judicial decisions. In effect, with advisory Guidelines, we have a hybrid system -- Guidelines and decisional law.
To look at the Commission web site, there is only one orthodoxy -- the Guidelines, and Appellate Court decisions that rarely say much of anything. In fact, the message conveyed by the web site is that the Commission is not interested in uniformity as a general matter, just one kind of uniformity -- the uniform enforcement of its flawed product, the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines. Teach the Guidelines. Describe appellate court decisions affirming whatever the district courts do without meaningful analysis. Ignore the fine work of the judges trying to create meaningful standards where it counts the most, in the sentencing of individuals.
Tuesday, September 24, 2013
Through the Guideline looking glass, where a prior misdemeanor is really an "aggravated felony"An oft-quoted passage from the famous Lewis Carroll novel Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There came to mind as I was reading a recent Fifth Circuit's sentencing ruling. Here is the passage I have in mind:
This first paragraph from the unanimous panel ruling in United States v. Ramirez, No. 13-10473 (5th Cir. Sept. 23, 2013) (available here), should make plain why this literary reference seems apt:
"When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less."
"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."
"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master — that's all."
Efrain Hernandez Ramirez pled guilty to one count of illegal reentry following removal and at his sentencing, the district court applied an eight-level enhancement based on a prior conviction for an aggravated felony. The aggravated felony in question was a New York state misdemeanor conviction for third-degree sexual abuse of a fifteen-year-old girl. Ramirez appeals, arguing that his misdemeanor conviction cannot be an aggravated felony. For the following reasons, we AFFIRM.
Wednesday, September 18, 2013
US Attorney defends fraud guidelines while others urge reform in USSC eventToday notable events in the federal sentencing reform arena were not confined only to today's U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on federal mandatory minimums (discussed here and here). Also starting today was a two-day event in NYC in which the U.S. Sentencing Commission is discussing potential reform to the federal fraud guidelines. This Reuters report, headlined "U.S. prosecutor cautions against white-collar sentencing revamp," provides a few notable highlights from the events in NYC:
The U.S. Justice Department opposes a wholesale revamping of white-collar criminal sentences that defense lawyers and some judges have urged, a top federal prosecutor said on Wednesday.
But Melinda Haag, the U.S. attorney in San Francisco, said the department was open to limited changes in white-collar sentencing that could reduce sentences in some fraud cases. The comments came as the U.S. Sentencing Commission is weighing revisions to advisory sentencing guidelines used by judges for securities, healthcare, mortgage and other fraud offenses.
Defense lawyers, the American Bar Association, some judges and others have criticized the guidelines, saying they emphasize financial losses caused by crime over all other factors, sometimes resulting in sentences that are too severe.
Haag, speaking at a symposium on white-collar sentencing in New York, said the Justice Department believes the current guidelines "result in tough but fair sentences in the vast majority of the cases." But she suggested that the department may be open to some changes, saying certain categories of cases, such as securities cases involving frauds on the market, warrant "careful study" by the commission. "Despite our questions and concerns, however, we do agree that in some cases, loss may overstate the seriousness of the offense," Haag said.
A growing number of judges have imposed terms less than prescribed by the guidelines, which became advisory rather than mandatory following a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2005.
U.S. District Judge Loretta Preska, sitting on a panel with Haag, cited the case of Joseph Collins, a former partner at the law firm Mayer Brown, who was convicted for his role in a fraud at commodities broker Refco Inc. With losses calculated at $2.4 billion, Preska said under the guidelines Collins faced life in prison. She instead sentenced him in July to a year in prison, citing his community service and the fact he didn't financially benefit from the scheme. "This was absurd, absolutely absurd," she said.
Haag said the Justice Department recognized there "may be issues in some high-loss cases." But she said the department didn't believe a wholesale change was needed to the fraud sentencing guidelines or the loss table used to calculate sentences. She said it was a relatively small number of cases that had caused judicial concern. Citing commission statistics, she said 54 percent of economic crime cases involve less than $120,000 in losses and 83 percent involve less than $1 million.
Haag also argued that in some big cases involving investment fraud like Ponzi schemes, judges "don't seem to hesitate in imposing lengthy prison terms, noting the devastation these fraud schemes wreak on other people and the greed that motivated most of the defendants before them."...
In the last 18 months, federal prosecutors have handled investment fraud cases involving 800 defendants and more than $20 billion, she said. For the FBI, investment fraud is now 60 percent of its white-collar case load, she said.
Nonetheless, she said "certain categories of cases warrant careful study by the commission and potentially narrowly tailored amendments" to the fraud sentencing guidelines. Among the suggestions she gave would be for the Sentencing Commission to review how the guidelines treat loss in certain securities fraud cases where a drop in stock value by a few dollars per share can turn into a billion dollar loss.
Friday, September 13, 2013
Corporate official gets above-guideline sentence for conspiracy to hide safety violationsA helpful reader alerted me to this federal sentencing story from West Virginia which provides a useful reminder that federal judges sometimes use their increased post-Booker sentencing discretion to impose sentences above recommended guideline ranges (and may do so even for a defendant who has pleaded guilty and cooperating with authorities). Here are the notable particulars from a lengthy article about a notable white-collar sentencing that followed a high-profile workplace disaster:
A former longtime Massey Energy official will spend 3 1/2 years in prison for his admitted role in a decade-long conspiracy to hide safety violations from federal safety inspectors. David C. Hughart, 54, of Crab Orchard, was sentenced Tuesday afternoon to 42 months in jail and three years of supervised release after he pleaded guilty to two federal charges as part of an ongoing federal probe of Massey's safety practices.
U.S. District Judge Irene Berger ordered Hughart to serve a full year more than the high end of the 24- to 30-month recommended under advisory federal sentencing guidelines. The judge said the stiffer sentence was needed to account for the safety risks Hughart's crimes created and to serve as a warning to other mining officials not to put production before safety. "This sentence will promote respect for the law," Berger said.
The Hughart sentencing is another step forward as U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin and his top assistant, Steve Ruby, continue what is likely the largest criminal investigation of a coal-mine disaster in modern times. The probe started with the deaths of 29 miners on April 5, 2010, in an explosion at Massey's Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County, and has so far prompted four convictions and expanded well beyond Upper Big Branch....
Hughart is cooperating with prosecutors, having pleaded guilty to one felony count of conspiracy to defraud the government by thwarting U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration inspections and one misdemeanor count of conspiracy to violate MSHA standards.
During a plea hearing in February, Hughart had implicated former Massey CEO Don Blankenship in the conspiracy, and Hughart's family has said Hughart is being wrongly scapegoated while Blankenship and other top Massey executives have faced no criminal charges. "He was a slave to this industry, and Don Blankenship will never see the inside of a courtroom," Hughart's son, Jonathan Hughart, told reporters after Tuesday's sentencing hearing.
Through his lawyer, Blankenship has denied any wrongdoing. And on his blog, Blankenship has said Hughart lied about him and was fired from Massey for drug use and stealing from the company.
Prosecutors have said that former executives and board members of Massey "may be, or may become" targets in the ongoing federal criminal investigation....
Earlier Tuesday, Hughart's $10,000 personal recognizance bond was revoked by U.S. Magistrate Judge R. Clarke VanDervort after Hughart was arrested on Aug. 30 on charges of possession of painkillers and anti-anxiety medication without a valid prescription. Hughart's bond required him to comply with all local, state and federal laws....
While Hughart hasn't been convicted of the drug charges, the arrest increased his recommended sentence under federal advisory guidelines by nine months. Hughart's lawyer, Michael R. Whitt, had urged Berger to issue a lighter sentence, arguing that Hughart's crimes could not be linked to any mining injury -- let alone to the Upper Big Branch Disaster -- and that his client was caught up in the "corporate culture" at Massey.
Whitt told Berger that Hughart's life has been ruined, with him going from an affluent lifestyle and a six-figure mine official salary to losing his home and becoming essentially destitute. "I think he has the message already," Whitt said. "He already knows without spending another day in jail."
Prosecutors, though, had asked for a stiff sentence, noting the "risk to human life and health" created by the conspiracies that Hughart participated in at Massey. "The defendant risked the lives and health of hundreds of coal miners," Ruby told Berger during Tuesday's hearing.
Previously in the Upper Big Branch probe, a former miner at the operation, Thomas Harrah, was sentenced to 10 months in jail after he admitted to faking a foreman's license when he performed key mine safety examinations at the mine between January 2008 and August 2009, and then lied to investigators about his actions.
Berger sentenced a former Upper Big Branch security director, Hughie Elbert Stover, to 36 months in jail after Stover was convicted of two felonies: making a false statement and obstructing the government probe of the mine disaster.
And in January, the judge sentenced former Upper Big Branch superintendent Gary May to 21 months in jail and a $20,000 fine after he pleaded guilty to plotting to skirt safety rules and cover up the resulting hazards....
During Tuesday's hearing, Hughart apologized for his actions and told Berger he had learned from his early days as a miner that "advance notice" of inspections was the way things were done. "I accepted that as the practice, and I understand now it is a serious issue, and it is against the law," Hughart said.
Berger noted previous evidence in the Upper Big Branch cases that suggested MSHA inspectors knew about -- and perhaps even cooperated with -- mine operators having pre-inspection notice. "Advance notice was apparently a common practice in the industry," Berger said. "It's difficult to believe that the only people who were unaware of these practices were the MSHA inspectors."
Terry Ellison, whose brother, Steve Harrah, died at Upper Big Branch, attended Tuesday's court proceedings. "I came for the 29 miners," Ellison said. "I don't want them to be forgotten. There was no reason they should have been killed that day."
September 13, 2013 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack
Thursday, September 12, 2013
US Sentencing Commission releases more documents in its great new "Quick Facts" seriesI am so very pleased to see and to be able to report that the US Sentencing Commission is continuing to produce a steady stream of documents as part of its terrific new 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 is a very valuable new innovation coming from the USSC, and I have already learned a lot and benefited greatly from these latest two publications in the series:
- Marijuana Trafficking Offenses (September 2013)
- Methamphetamine Trafficking Offenses (September 2013)
September 12, 2013 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Pot Prohibition Issues | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack
Tuesday, September 10, 2013
You be the federal sentencing judge: "Newlywed Admits to Pushing Husband off Cliff"The title of this post is drawn from the headline of this notable new local "real crime" story that is all the buzz this morning in lots of national media outlets. Based on the reported facts reprinted below, I am very interested in hearing reader instincts about what might be a fitting federal punishment for this killer bride (who is in federal custody because she committed her crime at a national park):
The wife of a 25-year-old Kalispell man, who was found dead in Glacier National Park in July, is now charged with his murder. Jordan Linn Graham, 22, appeared in federal court in Missoula on Monday on a charge of second degree murder in the death of her husband, Cody Lee Johnson.
Court documents allege the newlywed wife pushed her husband off a cliff in Glacier National Park during an argument just a week after they were married. Charging documents reveal Jordan Linn Graham told a friend she was having second thoughts about getting married to Cody Lee Johnson. Graham then told her friend she intended to discuss the matter with Johnson that night, Sunday, July 7. She followed up with a text message that read, "But dead serious. If you don't hear from me at all again tonight, something happened."
The next day, Monday, July 8, Johnson was reported missing when he failed to show up for work. Around 8:30 p.m. on Thursday, July 11, a Glacier National Park ranger was dispatched to the Lake Mcdonald Camp Store for a visitor reporting a dead body. The affidavit states that Graham was identified as the person who told the ranger she found a dead body.
Johnson's body was recovered the next day below a popular viewpoint on the Going-to-the-Sun Road called "The Loop." Graham was interviewed by FBI special agents on July 16, which was nearly one week after the disappearance of her new husband. It was then that she admitted to law enforcement that she lied about Johnson's death.
She told the FBI agent she and her husband were arguing on July 7 as they walked the Loop Trail. Documents say at one point, she turned to walk away, but Johnson grabbed her arm. Graham said she turned around and removed his hand from her arm. She went on to say that "she could have just walked away, but due to her anger, she pushed Johnson with both hands in the back and as a results, he fell face first off the cliff." During an initial interview with law enforcement, Graham said that Johnson left the house late with friends in a dark-colored car late on the night in question.
Graham faces a federal charge of second degree murder. If convicted, she could face life in prison.
The U.S. Sentencing Guidelines provide a base offense level of 38 for second-degree murder in section 2A1.2, which corresponds to an advisory guideline sentencing range of just under 20 to 25 years (assuming no significant criminal history). But I would expect a guilty plea here which alone, thanks to an acceptance of responsibility downward adjustment, could reduce the advisory range to 14 to 18 years. That said, the defendant's prior lies about the crime could lead to an obstruction of justice enhancement, and it is especially interesting to consider whether federal prosecutors could or should also argue for another offense level upward adjustment here based on abuse of a position of private trust.
Of course, the defendant might be able to secure a guilty plea to only a voluntary or involuntary manslaughter charge, which could and would alone dramatically reduce the applicable guideline sentence range (as evidenced here and here), perhaps even to a guideline level so low that the advisory range might even permit a within-guideline sentence involving an alternative to incarceration. And, of course, with the federal sentencing guidelines only advisory, a federal sentencing judge could surely develop under various 3553(a) factors various arguments to justify a sentence perhaps as high as life and as low as straight probation.
Though I am not teaching my upper-level sentencing course until next semester, I sincerely hope (and somewhat expect) that this case will stay in federal court and stay in the headlines for some time. As the discussion above is meant to highlights, this case serves as an interesting and accessible example of just how much discretionary sentencing play there is in the "joints" of the modern federal sentencing system for both litigants and judges.
UPDATE: The FBI affidavit which provided the basis for charges in this case is now available via this link.
September 10, 2013 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (22) | TrackBack
Friday, September 06, 2013
"McSentencing: Mass Federal Sentencing and the Law of Unintended Consequences"The title of this post is the title of this provocative new paper by Melissa Hamilton now available via SSRN. And this abstract suggests the content of the article is as delicious as the title:
The law of unintended consequences conjectures that any legislative act will yield unanticipated, and likely undesirable, outcomes. Federal sentencing law is no exception. Federal sentencing reforms enacted in the 1980s were designed to achieve uniformity and proportionality in meting out punishments. Congress expected that the creation of a presumptive guidelines system and the frequent imposition of mandatory minimum sentencing laws would effectively operate to provide federal judges with a consistent and uniform set of rules to follow, while substantially curbing judicial discretion. The emergent sentencing system relies substantially on a mechanized system of assembly-line justice in which judges are demoted to merely terminal actors in issuing sentences. This Article posits that the system is a form of McDonaldization of society, a popular concept that recognizes the model of fast food consumerism is an ideal type of the bureaucratization of a modern rational system in America today. The federal sentencing system is intended by the reform legislation to comprise a sort of McSentencing in that the outputs — sentences — are produced through an automated process involving discrete quantifications of harm. The result is mass sentencing based on an extensive and refined rules and procedures manual, i.e., the guidelines, and relevant mandatory minimums.
As with the fast food chain, McSentencing offers such benefits as predictability, calculability, efficiency, and control. Theoretically, McSentencing should beget consistent, uniform, and normative punishments. Yet, as with any rational system, unintended consequences necessarily follow purposive legislative action. This Article explains how the federal sentencing system earns the McSentencing label and then addresses significant unanticipated consequences which have ensued. The actors in the proposed assembly-line of sentencing — the sentencing commission, prosecutors, probation officers, judges — have reacted to the reforms and to each other in ways that have biased the ability for the sentencing reforms to achieve the intended objectives. The federal sentencing system is in crisis as a result. This Article offers a unique perspective by utilizing the theoretical constructs of McDonaldization and the law of unintended consequences as orienting devices for a case study on federal sentencing law. Statistical measures derived from various government datasets supplement the analysis with empirical perspectives.
Tuesday, August 27, 2013
In praise of the US Sentencing Commission's new "Quick Facts" series
I am very pelased to see and to be able to report that the US Sentencing Commission has launched a notable new series of reader-friendly publications. This posting from the USSC's webpage explains:
The Commission presents a new publication series called "Quick Facts." These publications will give readers basic facts about a single area of federal crime in an easy-to-read, two-page format.
I think this is a terrific new innovation coming from the USSC, and I have already learned a few things from these first two publications in the series:
Thursday, August 15, 2013
How should the US Sentencing Commission's priorities and work be impacted by AG Holder's recent sentencing speech and actions?
The question in the title of this post is prompted in part by the fact that, as I write this post, the US Sentencing Commission is in the midst of a formal public meeting in DC which has as its final agenda item "Vote on Final Policy Priorities for 2013–2014." It is also motivated by the fact that the Attorney General Eric Holder's potent remarks to the ABA earlier this week, covered lots of federal sentencing ground, made the profound claim that our "criminal justice system ... is in too many respects broken," ordered lots of sentencing-focused reforms to the policies and practices of federal prosecutors, and yet did not make a single mention of the U.S. Sentencing Commission (though he did reference a bit of USSC research).
The USSC has usefully posted on this helpful webpage many of the informed and copious comments it received over the summer, and that includes this detailed 18-page letter to the Commission from AG Holder's Department of Justice which actually previewed back in July many of the themes and ideas stressed in AG Holder's speech. (That USSC page also has posted my own little four-page contribution discussing what I think should now be priorities for the Commission.)
But, of course, all the July comments sent to the US Sentencing Commission came before Holder's big speech a few days ago. And I am certain my own recommendations to the USSC might have been at least stated somewhat differently if I had the AG's text and policy changes in hand when I authored them. More broadly, I suspect lots of different folks may have lots of different views about just how the USSC ought to consider and respond to what AG Holder did and said earlier this week. I would really like to hear some of these views in the comments.
Some recent and older related posts about AG Holder's speech the new federal politics of sentencing:
- "With Holder In The Lead, Sentencing Reform Gains Momentum"
- AG Holder to announce new charging policies to avoid some drug mandatories
- More reporting on (and now seeking reactions to) AG Holder's big sentencing speech
- Some sentencing-related highlights from AG Holder's remarks today to the ABA
- Key follow-up documents from AG Holder's big sentencing speech
- Shouldn't AG Holder's speech impact federal judges at sentencing ... such as Jesse Jackson Jr.'s?
- Lots of (mostly positive) reactions to AG Holder's big sentencing speech
UPDATE: Following its public meeting today, the USSC released this press release which starts this way: "The United States Sentencing Commission today unanimously voted on its list of priorities for the coming year, including consideration of federal drug sentences and continued work on addressing concerns with mandatory minimum penalties." Here is more from the release:
The Commission set as its top priority continuing to work with Congress to implement the recommendations in its 2011 report on federal mandatory minimum penalties, which included recommendations that Congress reduce the severity and scope of mandatory minimum penalties and consider expanding the “safety valve” statute which exempts certain low-level non-violent offenders from mandatory minimum penalties.
The Commission also set out as an important new priority reviewing the sentencing guidelines applicable to drug offenses, including consideration of changing the guideline levels based on drug quantities. Drug offenders account for nearly half of all federal inmates, and an adjustment to the Drug Quantity Tables in the sentencing guidelines could have a significant impact on sentence lengths and prison populations.
“With a growing crisis in federal prison populations and budgets, it is timely and important for us to examine mandatory minimum penalties and drug sentences, which contribute significantly to the federal prison population,” Judge Patti Saris, Chair of the Commission, said. “These reviews are key components of the Commission’s ongoing work to further the goals of the Sentencing Reform Act that the federal sentencing scheme and the guidelines be flexible, certain, and fair.”
The Commission noted in its priorities a focus on fulfilling its statutory mandate to work to reduce overcapacity in federal prisons. “The Commission is looking forward to a serious and thoughtful reconsideration of some of the sentencing guidelines which most strongly impact the federal criminal justice system,” Judge Saris said. “I am glad that members of Congress from both parties and the Attorney General are engaged in similar efforts.”...
The Commission annually identifies policy priorities in accordance with its statutory authority and responsibility to periodically review, analyze, and revise federal sentencing guidelines. The Commission published tentative priorities and invited public comment in May and received more than 14,000 letters of public comment in response.
Thursday, August 01, 2013
Senators Durbin and Lee come together to introduce "Smarter Sentencing Act"As reported via this press release from the offices of Senator Dick Durbin, another notable pair of Senators from the two parties have put aside other differences to come together to support and promote federal sentencing reform. (Since the press release comes from Senator Durbin's office, I have Senator Lee's picture posted.) Here are the basics:
With federal prison populations skyrocketing and nearly half of the nation’s federal inmates serving sentences for drug offenses, Assistant Majority Leader Dick Durbin (D-IL), Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) have introduced the Smarter Sentencing Act, to modernize our drug sentencing polices by giving federal judges more discretion in sentencing those convicted of non-violent offenses. Making these incremental and targeted changes could save taxpayers billions in the first years of enactment.
“Mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenses have played a huge role in the explosion of the U.S. prison population,” Durbin said. “Once seen as a strong deterrent, these mandatory sentences have too often been unfair, fiscally irresponsible and a threat to public safety. Given tight budgets and overcrowded prison cells, judges should be given the authority to conduct an individualized review in sentencing certain drug offenders and not be bound to outdated laws that have proven not to work and cost taxpayers billions.”
“Our current scheme of mandatory minimum sentences is irrational and wasteful,” Lee said. “By targeting particularly egregious mandatory minimums and returning discretion to federal judges in an incremental manner, the Smarter Sentencing Act takes an important step forward in reducing the financial and human cost of outdated and imprudent sentencing polices.”
The United States has seen a 500 percent increase in the number of inmates in federal custody over the last 30 years, in large part due to the increasing number and length of certain federal mandatory sentences. Mandatory sentences, particularly drug sentences, can force a judge to impose a one-size-fits-all sentence without taking into account the details of an individual case. Many of these sentences have disproportionately affected minority populations and helped foster deep distrust of the criminal justice system.
This large increase in prison populations has also put a strain on our prison infrastructure and federal budgets. The Bureau of Prisons is nearly 40 percent over capacity and this severe overcrowding puts inmates and guards at risk. There is more than 50 percent overcrowding at high-security facilities. This focus on incarceration is also diverting increasingly limited funds from law enforcement and crime prevention to housing inmates. It currently costs nearly $30,000 to house just one federal inmate for a year. There are currently more than 219,000 inmates in federal custody, nearly half of them serving sentences for drug offenses.
The bipartisan Durbin-Lee-Leahy bill is an incremental approach that does not abolish any mandatory sentences. Rather, it takes a studied and modest step in modernizing drug sentencing policy by:
• Modestly expanding the existing federal “safety valve”....
• Promoting sentencing consistent with the bipartisan Fair Sentencing Act: The bipartisan Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 – which was authored by Senator Durbin and unanimously passed the Senate before it was signed into law – reduced a decades-long sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenses. Unfortunately, because of the timing of their sentences, some individuals are still serving far-too-lengthy sentences that Congress has already determined are unjust and racially disparate. The Smarter Sentencing Act allows certain inmates sentenced under the pre-Fair Sentencing Act sentencing regime to petition for sentence reductions consistent with the Fair Sentencing Act and current law....
• Increasing individualized review for certain drug sentences: The Smarter Sentencing Act lowers certain drug mandatory minimums, allowing judges to determine, based on individual circumstances, when the harshest penalties should apply. The Act does not repeal any mandatory minimum sentences and does not lower the maximum sentences for these offenses....
The bipartisan Smarter Sentencing Act is supported by faith leaders from the National Association of Evangelicals to the United Methodist Church. It is supported by groups and individuals including Heritage Action, Justice Fellowship of Prison Fellowship Ministries, the ACLU, Grover Norquist, the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the NAACP, the Sentencing Project, Open Society Policy Center, the American Bar Association, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, the Constitution Project, Drug Policy Alliance, Brennan Center for Justice, and Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
I am going to need to see the text of this new bipartisan Smarter Sentencing Act before opining about whether it is a terrific reform proposal or just a very good one. But, even without seeing the specifics, I can note and praise the willingness and ability for these Senators, who likely do not agree on too many issues, coming together to give effect to their shared view that the federal sentencing system need to be made smarter.
Some recent and older related posts about the new federal politics of sentencing:
- "Right on Crime: The Conservative Case for Reform" officially launches
- "NAACP, right-wing foes get friendly" when it comes to prison costs
- "Conservatives latch onto prison reform"
- NAACP head recognizes Tea Party favors some progressive criminal justice reforms (and sometimes more than Democrats)
- "Prison-Sentence Reform: A bill to give judges flexibility to impose shorter sentences deserves conservatives’ support."
- Wall Street Journal pitch for the Prez to get behind the Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013
- Justice Safety Valve Act gets bipartisan introduction in House of Representatives
- "Bipartisan Legislation To Give Judges More Flexibility For Federal Sentences Introduced"
- Rand Paul begins forceful pitch in campaign against federal mandatory minimums
- Another notable GOP member of Congress advocating for federal sentencing reform
- "As Prisons Squeeze Budgets, GOP Rethinks Crime Focus"
- Could significant federal criminal justice reforms become more likely if the GOP wins Senate in 2014?
August 1, 2013 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (20) | TrackBack
Thursday, July 25, 2013
Waaaaay below federal guideline prison sentences (but big fines) for UBS bid-riggersAs reported in this Wall Street Journal, headlined "US set back on bid-rig sentencing," a federal district judge in NYC yesterday handed down a set of white-collar sentences that were far below calculated guideline ranges and far below the sentences being sought by federal prosecutors. Here are the details:
US District Judge Kimba Wood of the Southern District of New York handed Peter Ghavami, the former co-head of UBS' municipal-bond reinvestment and derivatives desk, an 18-month sentence. Prosecutors had sought at least 17½ years and as long as 21 years, 10 months for Ghavami, who also served as the Swiss bank's head of commodities at one point.
The much harsher sentence proposed by the government would have been longer than the 11-year term given in 2011 to Galleon hedge-fund founder Raj Rajaratnam for his insider-trading conviction.
But Judge Wood, a one-time nominee to become US attorney general who also sentenced former Drexel Burnham Lambert executive Michael Milken to 10 years in prison, raised questions about the government's method of calculating losses in the case, which it had pegged at about $25 million.
She also praised Ghavami's "admirable history" and noted that he faces other penalties including a $1 million fine and deportation to Belgium, where he is a citizen. Because Ghavami, 45 years old, is not a US citizen, he also has to serve in a "low security" prison instead of a "miminum security" camp.
One of Ghavami's former colleagues, Gary Heinz, 40, a former vice president on UBS' municipal-bond reinvestment desk, was given a 27-month sentence Wednesday, while Michael Welty, 49, another former vice president, got 16 months. Prosecutors had asked for at least 19½ years for Heinz and about 11 years or more for Welty.
Last summer, a New York jury found the three former UBS employees guilty of leading a scheme that caused municipalities to pay millions of dollars more for bond deals than they needed to pay. The case dealt with an obscure corner of the bond market in which local governments raise money from investors through bond deals, then invest the proceeds in investment products that banks and others are supposed to sell in a competitive process....
In the UBS bond-rigging case however, prosecutors sought stiff penalties for actions that took place before the financial crisis, from 2001 to 2006. The three former UBS employees caused cities, states and other municipalities to lose $25 million, the government alleged. "For years, these executives corrupted the competitive bidding process and defrauded municipalities," said Scott D. Hammond, deputy assistant attorney general in the Antitrust Division's criminal-enforcement program, in a statement.....
"We're extremely pleased with the sentence," said Charles Stillman, a lawyer for Ghavami. Ghavami intends to start serving his sentence as soon as possible, instead of waiting to see how his appeal of the case turns out, Stillman added. Ghavami's fine of $1 million was five times greater than the maximum suggested by the government.
Heinz and Welty were fined $400,000 and $300,000, respectively, both more than the government suggested. Marc Mukasey, Heinz's lawyer, said "We're happy that the government's outrageous sentencing request was soundly rejected." Welty's lawyer, Gregory Poe, said that the jury acquitted Welty of wire fraud and said he will appeal the conspiracy convictions, and "we hope to clear his name." He added that his client is grateful that Judge Wood rejected the government's sentencing position.
Over the past half-decade, the Justice Department has pursued the muni-bond cases as part of an effort to punish Wall Street banks for shortchanging cities and states. Prosecutors have enjoyed some victories, so far gathering six convictions and 13 guilty pleas. Several were sentenced before Wednesday, with prison terms ranging from six months to four years. Firms affected by the investigation have paid $745 million in restitution, penalties and disgorgement....
It remains to be seen whether this week's sentencing setback will affect the government's strategy in the other pending sentencing hearings. Two former JP Morgan Chase. employees, two former Bank of America employees and three others involved with the case await sentencing. One case remains pending and awaiting trial.
Last year, three former employees of General Electric were convicted for their roles in conspiracies related to bidding for municipal-bond-proceeds reinvestment. Two were sentenced in October to three years in prison and the third received a four-year term.
At the hearing Wednesday, prosecutors argued that the former UBS officials deserved more prison time than the former GE employees, while Judge Wood said she didn't see the cases as that different. She also expressed doubt that anyone could accurately quantify losses in cases where the bidding process had been corrupted. In the case of the three UBS officials sentenced Wednesday, federal prosecutors also sought fines of $20,000 to $250,000 in the case. Prosecutors called their actions a "sophisticated financial fraud" that went on for years and "victimised municipalities and other bond issuers".
There are obviously lots of interesting aspects to this sentencing story. I am especially eager to praise Judge Wood for using big financial penalties — which make the government money and seem especially fitting for crimes of greed — while refusing to use big imprisonment terms — which cost the government money and seem unlikely to impact public safety for non-violent white-collar criminals. Relatedly, given that this article suggests that all other comparable big-rigging defendants have received sentences ranging from 6 to 48 months, I find stunning and deeply troubling that federal prosecutors were advocating in these cases for sentences ranging from more than 130 months to 260 months. Nice effort to avoid unwarranted sentencing disparities via your advocacy here, DOJ. (Not!)
July 25, 2013 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack
Wednesday, July 24, 2013
"Critical Analysis of Acquitted Conduct Sentencing in the U.S.: 'Kafka-Esque', 'Repugnant', 'Uniquely Malevolent' and 'Pernicious'?"The title of this post is the title of this paper recently posted on SSRN and authored by Orhun Hakan Yalincak. Here is the abstract:
The use of acquitted at sentencing is a highly contested practice in sentencing theory and policy. In federal court and many state courts across the United States, once a defendant is convicted, judges are routinely permitted, in fact, required to increase a defendant’s sentence based on relevant conduct, of which he was acquitted at trial, or conduct for which he was never charged. This essay highlights the issues that arise from the use of acquitted conduct sentencing under the now advisory U.S. Sentencing Guidelines. The use of acquitted conduct under the relevant conduct provisions of the Guidelines has resulted in substantially longer prison sentences with a disparate impact on racial and ethnic minorities. Acquitted conduct sentencing treats the offence admitted by a defendant, or proven to a judge or jury’s satisfaction beyond a reasonable doubt as simply a starting point in calculating a defendant’s sentence; the modified real offense approach, which incorporates relevant conduct and mandates consideration of acquitted conduct, determines the end sentence.
This essay concludes that use of acquitted conduct should be prohibited both on constitutional and normative grounds. While it is outside the scope of this essay to offer a comprehensive solution or alternative to the use of acquitted conduct at sentencing, the key observation is that, since the common thread linking the constitutional and normative issues arise from the fragmented nature of U.S. sentencing policy, the solution must start with re-conceptualizing the theories underlying sentencing in the U.S.
Tuesday, July 23, 2013
Second Circuit finds stat max white-collar sentences procedurally unreasonableThe Second Circuit panel has today handed down a significant reasonableness ruling in US v. Juncal, No. 10-1800 (2d Cir. July 23, 2013) (available here), which should be of special interest to all white-collar sentencing practitioners. The last seven pages of the per curiam panel opinion and the entire nine pages of the concurrence by Distict Judge Underhill (sitting by designation) are must reads for sentencing fans, and the few paragraphs I will reprint here help highlight why.
The per curiam panel opinion find procedurally unreasonable 20-year sentences given to defendants who were part of a conspiracy "which involved a scheme to obtain a three billion dollar loan supposedly intended to finance construction of a pipeline across Siberia [that] resulted in no actual loss." Here is part of the panel opinion's explanation for why these sentences were procedurally unreasonable:
Here, appellants’ lawyers highlighted significant issues with the intended loss calculation both in their briefs and at sentencing. Given the low risk that any actual loss would result — what hedge fund would fall prey to a purported coalition of Buryatian nationals and Yamasee tribesmen using AOL email accounts to offer five billion dollars in collateral for a loan to build a pipeline across Siberia? — counsel argued that a 30 point mega-enhancement vastly overstated both the seriousness of the offense, and the danger of appellants to their community. The Guidelines acknowledge that potentiality; application note 3(C) to U.S.S.G. § 2B1.1 indicates that a downward departure may be warranted where the offense level resulting from a loss calculation overstates the seriousness of an offense. But the sentencing court never resolved appellants’ significant arguments. At Sampson’s hearing the District Court did draw a comparison between other financial crimes and this case, but it never resolved the question raised by the appellants — whether treating intended loss like actual loss under all the circumstances of this case leads to a sentence consistent with the dictates of section 3553(a).
The concurring opinion by Judge Underhill is even more potent as it advocates for a broader ruling that the sentences here are substantively unreasonable, and here is how it gets started
In my view, the loss guideline is fundamentally flawed, and those flaws are magnified where, as here, the entire loss amount consists of intended loss. Even if it were perfect, the loss guideline would prove valueless in this case, because the conduct underlying these convictions is more farcical than dangerous. If substantive review of sentences actually exists other than in theory, it must be undertaken at least occasionally. This would have been an appropriate case in which to do so, because it raises so starkly the problems with the loss guideline. Until this Court weighs in on the merits of the loss guideline, sentences in high-loss cases will remain wildly divergent as some district judges apply the loss guideline unquestioningly while others essentially ignore it. The widespread perception that the loss guideline is broken leaves district judges without meaningful guidance in high-loss cases; that void can only be filled through the common law, which requires that we reach the substantive reasonableness of these sentences.
Thursday, June 20, 2013
"White-Collar Sentences Get a Fresh Look"The title of this post is the headline of this notable new Wall Street Journal article, which gets started this way:
A hearing scheduled for Friday in a Houston federal court on whether to substantially reduce former Enron Corp. Chief Executive Jeffrey Skilling's 24-year prison sentence comes at a time of growing debate about the rules for punishing white-collar criminals.
Individuals convicted of federal crimes are sentenced using a set of guidelines in which "points" are added or subtracted relating to various aspects of a person's conduct and the crimes involved. Over the past several decades, the potential penalties for a range of crimes have greatly increased in severity, with particularly large increases in certain types of fraud cases, according to legal experts.
Critics of the guidelines in white-collar cases contend that they have come to rely too much on financial-loss calculations, which can quickly mushroom when the crime involves a public company whose stock price falls in connection with the misdeeds. In certain cases, a public-company executive could face life in prison, said James Felman, a Tampa, Fla., defense attorney and member of a recently formed American Bar Association task force looking at proposing revisions in the guidelines for economic crimes.
The U.S. Sentencing Commission, the guideline-writing body created by Congress in the 1980s, has identified possible revision of the economic-crime rules as a priority. The commission has scheduled a September symposium in New York to get input on possible changes.
The guidelines "should be scrapped in their entirety," said Jed Rakoff, a New York federal judge and member of the new ABA Task Force, in a speech earlier this year. For instance, putting heavy emphasis on the calculated loss in determining fraud sentences "does not fairly convey the reality of the crime or the criminal," said Judge Rakoff, a Clinton appointee and longtime critic of aspects of the guidelines. He recommended replacing the arithmetic calculation system with one where judges could use a broad set of factors, none of which would automatically carry extra weight.
More judges seem to be departing from the guidelines. A Sentencing Commission study issued last December found that the percentage of fraud cases in which federal judges gave sentences below the guideline recommendation jumped to 23% of cases for 2007 to 2011 from 9.6% for 1996 to 2003. These percentages don't include cases where the Justice Department recommended a below-guideline sentence for reasons that included cooperation by the defendant in an investigation.
The increasing gap between the guideline calculations and actual sentences was a factor in the Sentencing Commission's decision to look at revising the economic-crime rules, said one person familiar with the matter.
June 20, 2013 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack
Wednesday, June 19, 2013
Guest post with more thoughtful perspectives on PeughI am very pleased to have received and to now have time to post the following "quick thoughts" of Professor Todd Haugh concerning last week's SCOTUS Puegh decision (basics here):
First, Justice Sotomayor is really establishing herself as the Court's current sentencing scholar, particularly as to Guidelines issues. By my quick tally, since taking her seat in 2009, she has drafted or significantly contributed to seven or eight important sentencing cases, while others are at two or three. I imagine her status as the Court's only member to have regularly sentenced defendants as a trial court judge has something to do with this -- she often seems to be the voice expressing the practicalities of sentencing (both from the defendants' and judges' standpoints), which has carried the day in Peugh and some of her other recent opinions (Pepper and Southern Union come to mind, as does the Alleyne concurrence). Scalia's and Breyer's overall impact may prove to be greater, but Sotomayor appears to be asserting herself in this area (and willing to spar with Alito).
Second, following that thought and in line with some of the comments [to this prior Peugh post ], the Peugh opinion is about the actual practice of federal sentencing versus how the system operates in theory. The dissent was sunk by its first argument -- that the Guidelines do not constrain district court discretion. While in theory, based on the language and structure of 3553(a) and the Court's reasonableness review jurisprudence, that may be true (and every defense attorney argues in the hopes of making it true), the realities of in-the-trenches sentencing demonstrate that increased Guideline ranges equal increased sentences (and thus risk of increased punishment under ex post facto analysis). This fact is well-documented by the Commission's recent Booker report, it's yearly data, it's survey of judges; and a host of academic articles concerning the psychological process of judges when sentencing (i.e., anchoring and adjustment, etc. -- see footnote 1 in Judge Calabresi's concurrence in Ingram [discussed here]). It's why DOJ advocates to members of Congress and the Commission for additional sentencing enhancements -- increased risk to defendants of higher punishments means more bargaining power for prosecutors. Query whether the majority's argument weakens if variance rates climb both in number and, most importantly, length.
Third, while I don't think this opinion is going to have huge practical effects on federal sentencing because the Seventh Circuit was an outlier (and there is likely harmless error in many of those cases), the opinion may have a lot of rhetorical value. Defendants basically got a win-win here -- assurance that they will be sentenced under the most favorable Guidelines per the majority and lots of juicy language to quote when they argue for a variance per the dissent. I would expect to see Peugh cited in a lot of future federal sentencing memos.
Judges, however, may have gotten the short end of the stick because they now face even more complexity when they determine sentences (a trend that has continued since Booker). Before Puegh, they had to calculate the Guidelines, then decide on departures, then consider a 3553(a) variance (seven factors; four purposes of punishment). Now, Peugh suggests courts should also consider how the evolution of the Guideline at issue (pre- and post-offense) weighs on the sentence. That could mean at least two more Guideline calculations (1987 version if Doug Berman is your defense counsel and the current, harsher version of the Guidelines if you are facing a prosecutor who reads this blog), but it could mean even more (what about Guideline ranges before and after major changes by the Commission, e.g., before and after SOX or Dodd-Frank, to demonstrate that evolution?).
Recent related posts:
- SCOTUS concludes Ex Post Facto Clause still limits application of new guidelines after Booker
- Guidelines are "the lodestone" of federal sentencing (as well as "the starting point and the initial benchmark")
- Lots of reasonable debate over the guidelines and reasonable review from Second Circuit judges
Tuesday, June 18, 2013
Seeking comments on what to say in comments to the US Sentencing Commission about its prioritiesA wise colleague wisely suggested to me that this year might be an especially wise time to convert all my ideas and concerns about the work of the US Sentencing Commission into formal comments for formal submission to the USSC as a formal response to this formal statement of the USSC's proposed priority policy issues for the amendment cycle ending May 1, 2014.
The USSC's six-page Federal Register statement of tentative priorities lists just about every topic that has consumed the recent work of the Commission, ranging from mandatory minimums to post-Booker sentencing patterns to the child porn guidelines to the drug guidelines to economic crimes and lots of stuff in between (including even some back-end sentencing stuff like the compassionate release guidelines). Nevertheless, there are still plenty of topics not mentioned that I think should be high on the Commission's agenda, ranging from the impact of sequester on the operation of the federal criminal justice system to the enduring need for serious guideline simplification to the overwhelming problem of undue sentencing severity.
Here is the official statement of the official rules for submitting official public comments to the USSC:
The Commission hereby gives notice that it is seeking comment on [its] tentative priorities and on any other issues that interest ed persons believe the Commission should address during the amendment cycle ending May 1, 2014. To the extent practicable, public comment should include the following: (1) a statement of the issue, including, where appropriate, the scope and manner of study, particular problem areas and possible solutions, and any other matters relevant to a proposed priority; (2) citations to applicable sentencing guidelines, statutes, case law, and constitutional provisions; and (3) a direct and concise statement of why the Commission should make the issue a priority.
Appropriately, the final line in the USSC's notice includes this fitting kicker: "Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 994( g), the Commission also invites public comment that addresses the issue of reducing costs of incarceration and overcapacity of prisons, to the extent it is relevant to a proposed priority."
So, to the extent practicable, I would love to hear from readers about what they think I should make sure to put into my formal comments to the USSC. I have until July 15 to get this done, but I would very much like to have a document ready to send out not long after I enjoy the rocket's red blare this coming Independence Day.
Friday, June 14, 2013
Lots of reasonable debate over the guidelines and reasonable review from Second Circuit judges
With thanks to the readers who alerted me, I wanted to alert everyone else to todays Second Circuit opinion in US v. Ingram, No. 12-1058 (2d Cir. June 14, 2013) (available here). The per curiam opinion, which affirms a below guideline drug sentence, is not at all notable (and runs only 3 pages).
But the concurring opinions are both must reads: the first is by Judge Calabresi and runs 14 pages, the second is by Judge Raggi and runs 17 pages to explain why she thinks the prior 14 pages are all washed up. As a reader put it, the two Second Circuit jurists here "have at it on various psychological, philosophical, and practical matters concerning sentencing under the Guidelines."
Wednesday, June 12, 2013
Bipartisan House Overcriminalization Task Force schedules first hearing for June 14I learned via this NACDL press release that Representative Jim Sensenbrenner Chairman Sensenbrenner has scheduled the first hearing of the Overcriminalization Task Force for this Friday, June 14, 2013, at 9:00 a.m. at 2237 Rayburn House Office Building." Here is more background and details via the release:
On May 7, 2013, The House Committee on the Judiciary voted unanimously to create the “Overcriminalization Task Force of 2013.” At a press briefing that day, Judiciary Committee and Overcriminalization Task Force leaders expressed agreement on the need to address several important issues, including the erosion of the mens rea (or criminal intent) requirement in federal criminal law, the often unnecessary duplication of state law in the federal code, overincarceration, and the explosion of regulatory offenses that some estimate may now number as high as 300,000, among other issues. Members also expressed the need to address mandatory minimum sentences.
According to Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), “The task force will be authorized for six months and will be led by Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations Subcommittee Chairman Jim Sensenbrenner and Ranking Member Bobby Scott.” It will “conduct hearings and investigations and issue a report on overcriminalization in the federal code, as well as possible solutions.” The task force is made up of five Democrats and five Republicans, and will include Judiciary Committee Ranking Member John Conyers (D-MI) and Chairman Goodlatte as ex-officio members....
The topic of this first hearing is “Defining the Problem and Scope of Overcriminalization and Overfederalization.” [And here are the scheduled witnesses:]
Mr. Steven D. Benjamin, President, National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers
Mr. John Malcolm, Rule of Law Programs Policy Director, The Heritage Foundation
Mr. William N. Shepherd, Chair, Criminal Justice Section, American Bar Association
The Honorable George Terwilliger, III, Partner, Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP
A webcast of the hearing as well as the written testimony of the witnesses will be made available [at this link].
"What the Sentencing Commission Ought to Be Doing: Reducing Mass Incarceration"The title of this post is the title of this notable new article by Judge Lynn Adelman available via SSRN. With three new members of the US Sentencing Commission, the piece is especially timely, and here is the abstract:
The United States presently incarcerates about 2.3 million people. We imprison people at a higher rate than any other country and now house more than a quarter of the world’s prisoners. Incarcerating so many people raises important moral issues because the burden of incarceration is borne largely by minorities from impoverished inner city communities. Further, those incarcerated suffer detriments that go far beyond the legislated criminal penalty and doom many offenders to a continuing cycle of re-incarceration. Over-incarceration is also very costly.
The federal government contributes significantly to this problem. Every week it locks up a record number of people, presently about 216,000. While some states have recently reduced their prison populations, the federal prison population continues to increase. The principal reason for this is federal sentencing law. Since Congress enacted the Sentencing Reform Act (“SRA”) creating the Sentencing Commission and directing it to establish sentencing guidelines, the average federal sentence has more than doubled. Federal prisons are now at 138% of capacity and consume an ever-increasing share of the federal criminal justice budget.
There are only two ways that we can reduce the prison population: by sending fewer people to prison and imprisoning people for shorter lengths of time. Many observers believe that the sentences called for by the federal sentencing guidelines, which were mandatory until 2005 when the Supreme Court decided United States v. Booker and made them advisory, are too severe and could be significantly reduced without endangering public safety. The Commission, however, has shown no interest in making guideline sentences less harsh. Rather, its principal concern is that since Booker judges are imposing too many below guideline sentences and thereby creating disparity. Thus, it recently asked Congress to require sentencing judges to give additional weight to the guidelines and provide additional justification for sentences varying substantially from the guidelines, and to require appellate courts to presume the reasonableness of guideline sentences and to strictly scrutinize sentences based on policy disagreements with the guidelines. These restrictions would, of course, increase the federal prison population.
My essay argues that it serves no useful purpose for the Commission to continue to make its top priority curtailing judicial discretion in the name of reducing disparity. I contend not only that the system created by the SRA and the guidelines failed but that any system principally designed to reduce disparity will fail. I argue that, instead of attempting to curtail judicial discretion, the Commission should focus on the problem of over-incarceration. The Commission is statutorily authorized and institutionally well-positioned to address this problem and, by doing so, it could have a positive impact on the entire American criminal justice system. I propose that the Commission take such actions as modifying the guidelines to expand the use of probation, reducing the severity of numerous guidelines, developing a release program for elderly prisoners, lobbying Congress regarding mandatory minimum sentences, calling public attention to over-incarceration and others. I also contend that if the Commission is intent upon reducing disparity, the best way to do so is by making the guidelines less severe and thus making it more likely that judges will follow them.
Some recent related posts:
- Prez Obama makes three great new nominations to the US Sentencing Commission
- If (and when?) confirmed, will Judge William Pryor champion federalism concerns within the US Sentencing Commission?
- "How can a member of the US Sentencing Commission promote federalism?"
- Senate confirms new USSC Commissioners Barkow, Breyer and Pryor
Monday, June 10, 2013
Guidelines are "the lodestone" of federal sentencing (as well as "the starting point and the initial benchmark")The title of this post is drawn from the key word in a key paragraph that captured my attention in what is otherwise a straight-forward opinion by the Supreme Court today in Peugh (basics here). Here is the context from a paragraph that effectively summarizes the conclusions of the Peugh majority opinion per Justice Sotomayor:
Major kudos to Justice Sotomayor for adding a fitting new term to the post-Booker federal sentencing lexicon. Kudos also to the majority Court for stressing these enduring modern federal sentencing realities in the course of reaching its conclusions:
"The federal system adopts procedural measures intended to make the Guidelines the lodestone of sentencing. A retrospective increase in the Guidelines range applicable to a defendant creates a sufficient risk of a higher sentence to constitute an ex post facto violation."
When Peugh committed his crime, the recommended sentence was 30 to 37 months. When he was sentenced, it was 70 to 87 months.... Such a retrospective increase in the measure of punishment raises clear ex post facto concerns. We have previously recognized, for instance, that a defendant charged with an increased punishment for his crime is likely to feel enhanced pressure to plead guilty. See Carmell, 529 U.S., at 534, n.24; Weaver, 450 U.S., at 32. This pressure does not disappear simply because the Guidelines range is advisory; the defendant will be aware that the range is intended to, and usually does, exert controlling influence on the sentence that the court will impose....
On the Government’s account, the Guidelines are just one among many persuasive sources a sentencing court can consult, no different from a “policy paper.” Brief for United States 28. The Government’s argument fails to acknowledge, however, that district courts are not required to consult any policy paper in order to avoid reversible procedural error; nor must they “consider the extent of [their] deviation” from a given policy paper and “ensure that the justification is sufficiently compelling to support the degree of the variance,” Gall, 552 U.S., at 50. Courts of appeals, in turn, are not permitted to presume that a sentence that comports with a particular policy paper is reasonable; nor do courts of appeals, in considering whether the district court’s sentence was reasonable, weigh the extent of any departure from a given policy paper in determining whether the district court abused its discretion, see id., at 51. It is simply not the case that the Sentencing Guidelines are merely a volume that the district court reads with academic interest in the course of sentencing.
And kudos also to Justice Thomas for providing a slightly competing vision of the post-Booker world via passages in his dissent like the following that, I suspect, will end up in many more defense sentencing submissions than government ones:
[T]he Guidelines do not constrain the discretion of district courts and, thus, have no legal effect on a defendant’s sentence. Second, to the extent that the amended Guidelines create a risk that a defendant might receive a harsher punishment, that risk results from the Guidelines’ persuasive force, not any legal effect....
Petitioner next argues that the Guidelines limit district court discretion because sentences falling outside the Guidelines are more likely to be reversed for substantive unreasonableness. Brief for Petitioner 25. I doubt, however, that reversal is a likely outcome when a district judge can justify his sentence based on agreement with either of two Guidelines — the old or the new. If a district court calculated the sentencing range under the new Guidelines but sentenced the defendant to a below-Guidelines sentence that fell within the range provided by the old Guidelines, it would be difficult to label such a sentence “substantively unreasonable.” To do so would cast doubt on every within-Guidelines sentence issued under the old Guidelines.
I have long suggested that defense attorneys regularly and in every case calculate, and submit to a sentencing court prior to sentencing, the "old" sentencing ranges that would have applied under the original 1987 version of the federal sentencing guidelines which were first promulgated by the original US Sentencing Commission. The above-quoted passages from Justice Thomas now would enable sentencing courts to feel confident that a sentence within the range suggested by the 1987 guidelines should nearly always be deemed reasonable.
June 10, 2013 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack