Thursday, December 12, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Previous related posts:

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

Saturday, November 23, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

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

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

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

Somewhat less high profile, except perhaps for hard-core football fans, is the sentencing of former NFL receiver Sam Hurd.  This 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:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform.

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

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Federal sentencing in Kansas to focus on "market value of deer" illegally killed

As 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.

October 27, 2013 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

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.

Download Childs Sentencing Opinion and Order

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

October 8, 2013 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Monday, September 30, 2013

Advice for the US Sentencing Commission from former USDJ Nancy Gertner

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.

September 30, 2013 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Through the Guideline looking glass, where a prior misdemeanor is really an "aggravated felony"

HumptyAn 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:

"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."

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:

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.

September 24, 2013 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

US Attorney defends fraud guidelines while others urge reform in USSC event

Today 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.

September 18, 2013 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Friday, September 13, 2013

Corporate official gets above-guideline sentence for conspiracy to hide safety violations

A 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" series

I 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:

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"

Jordan-Linn-Graham_2666631bThe 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.

September 6, 2013 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

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:

NEW Quick Facts Publication Series Launched

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:

August 27, 2013 in Data on sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Recommended reading, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

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:

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.

August 15, 2013 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (16) | TrackBack

Thursday, August 01, 2013

Senators Durbin and Lee come together to introduce "Smarter Sentencing Act"

Lee official_photoAs 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:

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-riggers

As 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