Thursday, February 26, 2015

US Sentencing Commission releases report on LWOP sentences in federal system

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Passage of Smarter Sentencing Act is reportedly "very important" to Prez Obama

This notable new USA Today piece, headlined "Bipartisan sentencing bill gets White House support," reports that President Obama indicated at a meeting yesterday with congressional leaders that he was interested and eager to have the Smarter Sentencing Act become law. Here are the details:

President Obama is throwing his support behind a bipartisan proposal to change the nation's sentencing laws by cutting many mandatory minimum sentences in half. That commitment came out of a meeting with 16 members of Congress at the White House Tuesday night, called by the president to gather their ideas on how to overhaul the criminal justice system.

Members of Congress who attended said the main topic of conversation was the Smarter Sentencing Act, a bill sponsored by Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, that would reduce mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders.

Obama supported a similar bill in the last Congress, but the current proposal goes even further. Mandatory life sentences would be reduced to 20 years — effectively cutting life sentences in half because the current life sentence averages 40 years.

Another change: Those convicted of importing drugs into the United States would not be eligible for the reduced sentences unless they were merely couriers whose role was limited to transporting or storing drugs or money.

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, who has introduced a companion bill in the Senate, said Obama "focused specifically" on the Smarter Sentencing Act "and his desire to have it passed."

"It was showing us that this is very important to him, and he has the resources of his administration that he's been willing to put out there," Lee told KSL Radio in Salt Lake City Wednesday.

White House spokesman Frank Benenati said Wednesday that the White House is still reviewing the text of the legislation, but that "it certainly appears" that the Labrador proposal meshes with the president's aims to "make our communities safer, treat individuals more justly and allow more efficient use of enforcement resources."

Obama has signaled his support for sentencing changes as recently as Monday, when he praised governors who had signed similar bills at a White House dinner. "Last year was the first time in 40 years that the federal incarceration rate and the crime rate went down at the same time," Obama said. "Let's keep that progress going, and reform our criminal justice system in ways that protect our citizens and serves us all."

Labrador said that's an important point for Obama to make. "The main obstacle is the perception that sentencing reform will lead to more crime. And I think the opposite is true," he said. "The concern is that we want to continue to be tough on crime, but we want to be smart on crime."...

House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., who also attended the meeting with Obama, would not comment on the meeting. He's been cool to sentencing changes in the past, but Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., said he thought Goodlatte seemed "remarkably open" to the issue.

February 25, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Monday, February 23, 2015

SCOTUS denies review for Eighth Amendment challenge to 15-year mandatory minimum sentence for possessing shotgun shells

I am quite bummed, and more than a bit grumpy, that the Supreme Court this morning denied certiorari review via this new order list of the case of Edward Young, who is serving a "mandatory fifteen-year prison sentence for the crime of possessing seven shotgun shells in a drawer."  I am bummed because, as detailed in this post, I helped file an amicus brief in support of Young's Eighth Amendment claim in the Sixth Circuit and also in support of his SCOTUS cert petition.

I am grumpy because the Supreme Court's willingness to deny review in this case, without even requiring the feds to file a brief in opposition and without any noted dissents, highlights yet again that modern Supreme Court Justices remain much more concerned with whether the worst-of-the-worst state murderers might feel some momentary pain while being executed than with whether Congress and federal prosecutors have gone to far in their application of extreme mandatory prison sentencing terms.   In my amicus brief, I had these concluding sentiments about the Young case and its implications:

The essential facts of this case read like a fictional story about a totalitarian dystopian state imagined by the likes of Franz Kafka or George Orwell: after unintentionally coming into possession 18 of a handful of shotgun shells while helping his widowed neighbor — conduct which is not a crime in his home State or in the vast majority of States in our Union — Edward Young was prosecuted by federal officials using a federal law that mandated a sentencing judge to order Mr. Young to spend the next 15 years of his life locked in a cage.  Disconcertingly, this nightmare tale of extreme punishment is not only true, but it has occurred in the United States of America — a country which was supposedly “conceived in liberty,” Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address, and in which school children still recite their commitment to “liberty and justice for all.”  Pledge of Allegiance (codified in Title 4 of the United States Code § 4)....

[I]f Mr. Young’s fifteen-year mandatory federal prison term based on his harmless possession of shotgun shells is allowed to remain in place without further review, this Court would essentially signal to Congress that it very well could constitutionally make even “overtime parking a felony punishable by life imprisonment.” Rummel v. Estelle, 445 U.S. 263, 274 n.11 (1980).

Edward Young can, and I hope will, continue to assail his prosecution and sentencing via a 2255 petition, but such actions are subject to all sorts of additional difficulties (including the absence of a right to counsel).  Moreover, for me this case was not just about how Young's minor crime was treated by the feds, but whether federal judges believe that the Eighth Amendment provides any limit on the mandatory prison terms that could be imposed by federal authorities.  I strongly believe the Framers thought they were doing something about extreme sentences like the one given to Edward Young when they enacted the Eighth Amendment, but it seems no modern federal judges agree with me on this front.  Grrr.

Prior related posts:

February 23, 2015 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (13) | TrackBack

Senators respond to NY Times criticisms of their sentencing work

I noted and commented here last week on this New York Times editorial about on-going debates over proposed federal sentencing reforms.  Today, the New York Times reprints two letters from the Senators whose work was subject to the Times' criticisms under the headline "Sentencing Reform: 3 Senators Speak Out."  Here are excerpts:

JOHN CORNYN & SHELDON WHITEHOUSE:  “The Roadblock to Sentencing Reform” (editorial, Feb. 17) expressed concerns about our legislation to enable federal inmates to earn earlier release from prison if they complete programs proved to reduce the risk that they’ll commit future crimes.

You worry that our “risk assessment” tools could disproportionately help white prisoners over minorities. But states across the country have found that risk assessments typically lead to results that are fairer for all groups, including minorities.  You yourself wrote last year that data­-based risk-assessment tools have been used in “at least 15 states ...with good results” (editorial, Feb. 17, 2014).  And our bill would emphasize “dynamic” risk factors — things prisoners can change — so that all inmates can lower their risk of recidivism....

We agree that we should reform other aspects of our criminal justice system. But no one should minimize the importance of ending the cycle of recidivism, reducing prison costs and helping inmates succeed upon release.

----

CHUCK GRASSLEY:  I disagree with your editorial.  The reality is that reductions in federal mandatory minimum sentences are misguided.  These sentences are vital in obtaining the cooperation necessary to prosecute leaders in the drug trade. The so-­called Smarter Sentencing Act, sponsored by Senators Mike Lee, Republican of Utah, and Dick Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, would arbitrarily cut in half the mandatory minimum sentences for importing, manufacturing and distributing drugs like heroin, PCP, methamphetamine and cocaine. Enacting such a bill during a well­-documented heroin epidemic would be irresponsible.

Both the Drug Enforcement Administration and the United States attorney in Manhattan have warned that terrorist organizations are using the drug trade to fund their operations. Under Supreme Court rulings, mandatory minimum sentences are the only tool available to Congress to ensure that judges impose adequate and more uniform sentences.

According to the United States Sentencing Commission, unlike in the states, virtually no citizen is in federal prison for drug possession.  Because a “safety valve” eliminates mandatory minimums and lowers sentences for first-time offenders, most federal drug inmates are repeat offenders who did not respond to shorter sentences, and many have extensive criminal histories, including violence.

A few recent related posts on federal sentencing reform:

February 23, 2015 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Friday, February 20, 2015

Can Senator Ted Cruz, who says "Smarter Sentencing Act Is Common Sense," get SSA through Congress?

Long-time readers and most federal sentencing policy gurus know about the long-time discussion of the Smarter Sentencing Act.  The SSA seemingly had lots of bi-partisan support when got through the Senate Judiciary Committee in the last Congress, but the drug warriors helped ensure it did not get any further.

Now we have a new Congress with new leadership in the Senate and, as reported here, a new introduction of a new version of the SSA, the Smarter Sentencing Act of 2015.  In part because new Senate Judiciary Chair Charles Grassley has been a vocal opponent of any significant statutory drug sentencing reform, I am not especially optimistic that the new SSA has a much better chance of passage than the old SSA.  But, as the question in the title of this post highlights, the new SSA appears to have an especially prominent new advocate, as demonstrated by this press release from the office of Senator Ted Cruz tited "Sen. Cruz: Smarter Sentencing Act Is Common Sense." Here is an excerpt from Senator Cruz's remarks last week during the introduction of the new SSA:

The issue that brings us together today is fairness. What brings us together is justice. What brings us together is common sense. This is as diverse and bipartisan array of members of Congress as you will see on any topic and yet we are all unified in saying commonsense reforms need to be enacted to our criminal justice system. Right now today far too many young men, in particular African American young men, find their lives drawn in with the criminal justice system, find themselves subject to sentences of many decades for relatively minor non-violent drug infractions. We’ve seen the impact of these kind of reforms in the states, the states are laboratories of democracy. My home state of Texas implemented similar reforms and from 2005 the state of Texas has seen a 22 percent decrease in crime and a 12 percent decrease in expenditures on criminal justice....

All of us agree, if you have violent criminals, if you have criminals who are using guns, who are using violence, who are dealing drugs to children, the criminal justice system should come down on them like a ton of bricks. But at the same time we need to recognize that young people make mistakes, and we should not live in a world of Le Miserables, where a young man finds his entire future taken away by excessive mandatory minimums.

There surely are issues about which Senator Cruz and I might not always agree (even though were educated around the same time at the same two higher-education institutions). But I completely agree with his view that the Smarter Sentencing Act is a common sense reform seeking to address the real problem that "today far too many young men, in particular African American young men, find their lives drawn in with the criminal justice system [and] find themselves subject to sentences of many decades for relatively minor non-violent drug infractions."

Notably, Senator Cruz in the past has not let GOP establishment figures stop him from being an aggressive and persistent voice for legal reforms he considers important. I am hopeful that Senator Cruz will fight the good fight on the SSA and other sentencing reform measures so as not to let old establishment folks like Senator Grassley keep the SSA and other proposals from coming up for a vote in the Senate.

A few recent and older posts on the "conservative politics" of federal sentencing reform:

February 20, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

AG Holder brags about achievements of DOJ's Smart on Crime initiative

The Department of Justice has just made available these two notable items:

I view both of these documents to be must-reads for any and all sentencing fans, and I will here highlight the data reported by AG Holder in his speech that strike me as most intriguing, as well as the AG's closing policy pitch:

In the year before our Smart on Crime charging policy took effect, roughly 64 percent of federally-charged drug trafficking offenses carried a mandatory minimum sentence. Last year, the new policy brought that number down to approximately 51 percent — a reduction of 20 percent relative to the prior year.  Put another way, we have gone from seeking a mandatory minimum penalty in two out of every three drug trafficking cases, to doing so in one out of two.  That’s a major reduction.  In fact, it is historic.  The Sentencing Commission confirms that these numbers show that federal prosecutors sought mandatory minimum penalties at a lower rate in 2014 than in any other year on record....

Even though mandatory minimums have been charged significantly less frequently under our new policies, the percentage of cases in which we receive substantial cooperation from defendants has remained exactly the same.  This also holds true of the ability of our prosecutors to secure guilty pleas in these cases. In the year before Smart on Crime took effect, our prosecutors won guilty pleas in approximately 97 percent of drug trafficking cases.  A year later, despite significant reductions in our uses of mandatory minimums, this percentage stands at 97.5.  So the notion that the Smart on Crime initiative has somehow robbed us of an essential tool is contradicted not only by our history – but by clear and objective facts....

The work we have done is nothing short of groundbreaking.  But this is no time to rest on our laurels. Significant challenges remain before us.  And a great deal of work remains to be done.

Our prisons are still overcrowded.  Across the country, far too many people remain trapped in cycles of poverty, criminality, and incarceration.  Unwarranted disparities are far too common. Law enforcement is distrusted in far too many places and cops are not appreciated for the tough job they do so well.  And if we hope to build on the record we’ve established so far — and to make the Smart on Crime initiative not only successful, but permanent — it will be incumbent upon all Americans — most especially our Congress — to work together to ensure that all of this is just the beginning. From critical improvements to the juvenile justice system, to a range of back-end criminal justice reforms, we must continue to advance promising, bipartisan legislation to make our communities safer, treat individuals more justly and allow more efficient use of law enforcement resources.

Our efforts over the last six years have laid a strong foundation for a new era of American justice. Congress can help us build on this foundation by passing important, bipartisan legislation like the Smarter Sentencing Act, which would give judges more discretion in determining sentences for people convicted of certain federal drug crimes. And going forward – with measures like this one, and with the tireless work of our United States Attorneys and their colleagues, the strong leadership of our outstanding new Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General, and the robust engagement of the American people – I believe there’s good reason for confidence in where this work will lead us.

February 17, 2015 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

New bipartisan federal prison reform bill introduced (with good chance of passage?)

This article from The Hill, headlined "Senators unveil prison reform bill," reports on the latest iteration of a bipartisan federal criminal justice reform proposal.  Here are the details: 

Two members of the Senate Judiciary Committee are reintroducing a prison reform bill they say will achieve a major goal of criminal justice reformers: reducing the size of the federal inmate population. Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) pushed the Corrections Oversight, Recidivism Reduction, and Eliminating Costs for Taxpayers in Our National System (CORRECTIONS) Act at a press conference Tuesday.

The law is meant to reduce the number of people — currently just over 210,000 — incarcerated in federal prisons.  The package proposed by the two senators takes a more moderate approach to reducing prison populations than other proposals that would implement reductions to mandatory sentences.  It also supports programs that help prisoners avoid returning to crime after being released.

Prisoners would undergo a risk assessment to determine whether they present a low, medium or high risk of committing another offense.  Prisoners determined to have a low or medium risk of offending again would be eligible to earn time off of their sentences by participating in recidivism reduction programs, including drug counseling or vocational training, a release from Whitehouse’s office said.

In total, prisoners can earn 25 percent of their sentence off through the law. The bill, though, prevents certain types of prisoners, like those serving time for sex offenses or terrorism, from benefiting from the law. "We want to go forward with what's passable without subjecting the bill to the kind of Willie Horton-type critique that it might receive,” Whitehouse said of the decision not to have the law cover some types of prisoners....

Cornyn and Whitehouse said they are open to debating additional measures, including changing the mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug crimes. But they touted their measure as a good starting point for a larger conversation about criminal justice. “This is a debate that we welcome,” Cornyn said when asked whether sentencing reform could conceivably be added to the bill. “There's a lot of things we can do to improve our criminal justice system, and there's a lot of it being discussed. Things like mandatory minimums, sentencing reform, over criminalization, particularly of the regulatory environment. There are a lot of things we can do better.”

"Given the new open amendment process in the United States Senate, anybody who's got a good idea and 60 votes — 59 plus theirs — can offer it by way of an amendment," he added.

Whitehouse said that having a criminal justice bill moving through the Senate could buoy other ideas for reforming the criminal justice system.  "I think if this bill proves to be a catalyst for further legislation in the area of sentencing reform and criminal justice reform, John and I would have no objection to that,” he said....

Some, including Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), have been reluctant to support changes to the mandatory sentences. But Grassley recently expressed an openness to having his committee consider the idea in an interview at a conservative event last month.

As the title of this post highlights, I have little idea if this CORRECTIONS Act has a real chance at passage. But I am keeping my fingers crossed.

February 11, 2015 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Monday, February 09, 2015

Briefs seeking SCOTUS review of 15-year mandatory federal sentence for possessing shotgun shells

As regular readers may recall from this post, a few months ago a Sixth Circuit panel rejected an Eighth Amendment challenge brought by Edward Young, who is serving a "mandatory fifteen-year prison sentence for the crime of possessing seven shotgun shells in a drawer."  I helped file an amicus brief on in support of Mr. Young's claim in the Sixth Circuit, and now I have  helped put together another amicus brief in support of his SCOTUS cert petition.  

The SCOTUS cert amicus, which can be downloaded below, makes a number of distinct points based in part on the (little-known) fact that the Supreme Court has never reviewed on the merits a federal term-of-years sentences under modern Eighth Amendment doctrines.  Writing along with Prof Michael J. Zydney Mannheimer, this brief starts and ends this way: 

This Court has never addressed how the Eighth Amendment’s proportionality and procedural safeguards for defendants facing the most serious penalties are to be applied when federal courts consider a challenge to a federal sentence. Both the original meaning of the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause and modern Eighth Amendment jurisprudence reasonably suggest that the proportionality and procedural safeguards in the Eighth Amendment should have a more robust application when federal courts are reviewing federal sentences, especially when a severe sentence significantly conflicts with state punishment norms.

These realities call for this Court to take up Mr. Young’s petition for certiorari and declare unconstitutional his fifteen-year mandatory federal prison term based on his harmless possession of shotgun shells in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1).  The vast majority of U.S. States do not even criminalize possession of shotgun shells by a convicted felon (surely because mere passive possession of ammunition alone is neither inherently dangerous nor a ready instrument of crime absent possession of a firearm).  The handful of States that do criminalize this possession offense treat the crime as a misdemeanor or set a statutory maximum prison sentence for the offense well below the 15- year mandatory minimum federal term Mr. Young received. Moreover, Amici are unaware of any case from any State or locality in which a defendant received any prison sentence of any duration for offense conduct that involved only the harmless possession of a small number of shotgun shells. Legislative enactments and state practices thus provide in this case potent objective evidence of a national consensus against Mr. Young’s federal punishment....

Perhaps a majority of this Court has come now to the view that the Eighth Amendment functionally and formally provides no restrictions whatsoever on how severe Congress may punish adults through prison terms for conduct it deems criminal, and that only structural provisions like the Commerce Clause “impose[] real limits on federal power” and establish “boundaries to what the Federal Government may do” in the exercise of its police powers through the federal criminal justice system.  Alderman v. United States, 562 U.S. ___ (2011) (Thomas, J., dissenting from the denial of certiorari).  But, as explained above, a sounder originalist and modern understanding of the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause is as a constitutional provision that can operate to protect individual Americans from the most extreme application of severe mandatory prison terms for the most minor transgression of federal law.  Indeed, if Mr. Young’s fifteen-year mandatory federal prison term based on his harmless possession of shotgun shells is allowed to remain in place without further review, this Court would essentially signal to Congress that it very well could constitutionally make even “overtime parking a felony punishable by life imprisonment.” Rummel v. Estelle, 445 U.S. 263, 274 n.11 (1980).

  Download Young v US Cert Amicus

Prior related posts:

February 9, 2015 in Examples of "over-punishment", Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Thursday, February 05, 2015

"Could 2015 be the year Congress finally gets serious about criminal-justice reform?"

The title of this post is the subheading of this new Mother Jones piece which carries this main headline: "On These 5 Things, Republicans Actually Might Work With Dems to Do Something Worthwhile." Here are highlights (mostly) from the start and end of the piece:

Recently, bipartisan momentum has been building behind an issue that has historically languished in Congress: criminal-justice reform. Recent Capitol Hill briefings have drawn lawmakers and activists from across the political spectrum—from Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) to Koch Industries general counsel Mark Holden, whose boss, conservative megadonor Charles Koch, has made reform a key philanthropic priority.

The emergence of this unlikely coalition has been building for some time: Liberals have long been critical of the criminal-justice status quo, and many "tough on crime" conservatives — growing concerned by the staggering costs of mass incarceration and the system's impingement on liberty — are beginning to join their liberal and libertarian-minded colleagues. In the past, bills aimed at overhauling the criminal-justice system have stagnated on Capitol Hill, but the bipartisan players who are coming together to push for change means that there are some reforms that could realistically gain traction, even in this divided Congress....

Earned-time credits....

Easing up mandatory minimums....

Juvenile-justice reform....

Reducing recidivism....

Sealing and expunging records....

Despite the bipartisan efforts, many experts still believe that there are plenty of issues that could pose serious obstacles to compromise. Beyond the disagreement on mandatory minimums, there's potential conflict on the role of for-profit prisons, which conservatives praise and Democrats like Booker loathe. Additionally, support for loosening drug penalties — particularly for marijuana — is growing broadly popular, but powerful Republicans remain vocal opponents....

There is one especially powerful force pushing along reform: The federal government is expected to spend nearly $7 billion on prisons this year, and conservatives in charge of Congress will be under pressure to bring down costs. "With every Congress, I'm hopeful for reform," Hurst says. "But this Congress' argument is based on money, not humanity, which is why it's more realistic that it'd happen."

February 5, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

A positive perspective on possible prison reform emerging from Congress

This lengthy new article in The National Journal provides an interesting and informative look at the politics and people at the center of federal sentencing and prison reform discussions. The piece's headlined highlights its themes: "This Is How Justice Reform Can Actually Happen This Year: Chuck Grassley's power will change the dynamics of sentencing reform. But there's still a bipartisan way forward in the Senate." The full piece is a must-read for anyone closely following congressional reform realities, and here is how the article starts:

The rise of Sen. Chuck Grassley to the head of the Judiciary Committee has made a lot criminal-justice reform advocates nervous.

Four months ago, before Republicans took back the Senate, it appeared that reducing mandatory minimums had overcome crucial hurdles.  The Smarter Sentencing Act, which would reduce mandatory minimums for some drug offenders, passed out of committee in January 2014 and attracted a roster of high-profile backers, from former GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan to progressive leader Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. Potential 2016 presidential candidates such as Sens. Rand Paul and Ted Cruz had decried mandatory minimums.  Even President Obama and the Koch brothers, who have spent millions against him, agreed the sentencing requirements had to be reduced.

But, like many conservatives who came to power in an era when Republicans branded themselves as the "tough on crime" party, Grassley has made it clear that he sees the steady reduction in violent crime in the United States over the last 30 years as a direct reflection of more-effective policing strategies.  And he believes that mandatory minimum laws that ensure criminals stay locked up have been key to that progress.

Grassley's posture toward mandatory minimums has given some advocates pause. "I do think we can work with him," Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., a member of the Judiciary Committee, said of Grassley.  "He knows some changes need to be made, but it does influence how far you can go if the chairman stands opposed."

In a Democratic-controlled Congress, many saw a clear path for reducing mandatory minimums.  A handful of vocal GOP supporters have continued to say justice reform should remain a key priority in the new Senate.  But with Grassley in charge, the path forward for criminal-justice reform will likely look very different.

And we may get our first true glimpse of it next week — when GOP Sen. John Cornyn of Texas introduces a rare bill that could actually get through Congress and be signed by the president.  That legislation would be similar to what was known as the Recidivism Reduction and Public Safety Act in the 113th Congress.  That bill was also bipartisan but far less contentious than the Smarter Sentencing Act among the Republican rank-and-file. Even Grassley voted it out of committee last year, where it passed 15 to 2.  Many of the same members are still sitting on the committee with a few GOP additions, including Thom Tillis of North Carolina and David Perdue of Georgia.

The bill next week will focus on transitioning prisoners back into the community after they have served their time. It requires that each inmate undergo a risk assessment to evaluate his or her propensity for recidivism.  Then it allows those deemed medium- and low-risk to earn credits for participating in programs such as job training or substance abuse counseling.  Certain well-behaved and low-risk offenders could then use those credits to serve out the final days of their sentences under some kind of community supervision.

Grassley's office insists that it is early, and no decisions have been made on what bills will make it through the committee.  There is an attorney general to confirm and more on the committee's docket that comes before discussions about far-reaching justice reform.  But, shuffling down the hallways of the Dirksen Senate Office Building in January, Grassley rattled off his top three goals for the committee. "Juvenile-justice reform, patent trolling, and ... prison reform," he said.  "There are some things where there is a pretty good shot of getting some bipartisan agreement."  And, if the Senate GOP's No. 2 introduces the bill, it will make it harder for Grassley to ignore.

February 4, 2015 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

A test for the Kochs' influence: seeking justice and freedom for Weldon Angelos

Download (1)If the wealthy truly have extraordinary influence on modern federal politics and policies, a notable defendant serving a mandatory 55-year sentence as a result of a few small marijuana sales ought to be getting out of prison before too long.  I say this because, according to this Daily Beast piece, my former client Weldon Angelos is now a "poster boy" for the latest Koch-brothers-backed political effort.  This piece is headlined "The New Face of the Koch Campaign" and here is its subheading: "A father of two was sentenced to 55 years in jail for selling pot. The Koch brothers want to help set him free and make him the face of their new campaign for criminal justice reform."  Here are excerpts:

Weldon Angelos could have hijacked a plane and spent less time in jail.  But due to mandatory sentencing laws, the father of two was sentenced to 55 years in jail for selling pot — a term so long even the judge who gave it to him protested its injustice.  A group backed by the Koch brothers agrees, and is now fighting to get him out of prison.

Angelos is an extreme case: even though the crime was considered non-violent, Angelos carried a firearm during a series of marijuana sales to a Salt Lake City police informant —  so federal mandatory minimums required that he be put in jail until he’s 80 years old. Judge Paul Cassell protested the sentence when he was forced to make it in 2004, a move he told The Daily Beast he considers “the most unjust, lengthy sentence that I had to hand down.”...

Angelos is now 35 years old and has spent some 11 years behind bars.  He has more than 40 years left to go.  Even though his crime was non-violent, parole is not an option at the federal level.  His only hope for relief from his sentence is an order by the president.

“If we’re going to deprive someone of liberty, and deal with the high cost of incarceration, it better solve a problem.  And in this case, it doesn’t solve any problem,” argued Mark Osler, Angelos’ lawyer, who filed a clemency petition on his behalf in 2012.

This is where the Koch brothers come in.  The case is being highlighted by Koch-backed group Generation Opportunity, which targets millenials, in a broader campaign to press for criminal justice reforms this year.  They will kick off the campaign with a documentary highlighting Angelos’ predicament, premiering at Washington, D.C.’s Newseum next week. “[This year] offers a unique moment in history in which people of different backgrounds and political leanings are coming together to facilitate a substantive dialogue on how to fix [the criminal justice system],” said Evan Feinberg, the group’s president. “We can work towards a more just system that reflects the rule of law without overcriminalizing non-violent offenses.”

The new campaign will target the overcriminalization of non-violent crime, mandatory minimum laws, and helping criminals who have served their sentences reintegrate into society.  The demilitarization of police and the excesses of civil asset forfeiture will also be addressed.

Generation Opportunity worked with Families Against Mandatory Minimums on the documentary.  FAMM founder Julie Stewart was in the room during Angelos’ first sentencing hearing.  It was, she said, a severe example of a worrisome trend in the criminal justice system....

“A lot of people just thought that because of the amount of time my brother was [sentenced to], he had done something terrible, just because of the ignorance that is out there about mandatory sentencing,” said Lisa Angelos, Weldon’s older sister and advocate. “Before the case, I had no idea that this was possible in America.”  The judge who was forced to hand down the sentence, Paul Cassell, said the Angelos case is an example of “clear injustice marring the public perception” of the federal courts — and victimizing taxpayers who have to pay to keep him locked up.

“We have in place in our country today some very draconian penalties that distort our whole federal sentencing scheme,” Cassell said.  “When people look at a case like Weldon Angelos and see that he got 55 years, and they see other cases where victims have gotten direct physical or psychological injuries and don’t see a similar [result] from the system, they start to wonder if the system is irrational.”

When he was sent to prison, Angelos’ children were small, now both are in their teens. Without their father, the family fell on hard financial times.  His children rarely talk to him, Weldon’s sister says, because they can’t afford a cell phone on which they can be reached.  “When I tell him stories about his kids, you can tell how very hard it is for him to hear it… to know that he can’t be here,” Lisa Angelos said. “It’s destroyed him in many ways.”

The Angelos’ have waited for more than two years for word on their executive clemency request.  The average successful clemency request takes approximately four years, according to his lawyer.  Weldon Angelos deserves clemency, Osler said, because his sentencing “doesn’t correlate in this country with what’s wrong, and what those wrongs deserve.”

Long-time readers are likely familiar with the Angelos case, which came to my attention on a few months after I started this blog 11 years ago. I litigated pro bono, unsuccessfully, Weldon's 2255 motion with claims (that I still find compelling) that his prosecution and sentencing involved violations of the Second, Fifth, Sixth and Eighth Amendments. I continue to hope Weldon will receive clemency or some other form of relief soon not merely to remedy the injustice of his extreme prosecution and sentencing, but to vindicate critical constitutional principles.

Related prior posts providing some Angelos case history:

February 3, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Examples of "over-punishment", Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

SCOTUS unanimously rejects defense effort to limit reach of sentence enhancement in federal robbery statute

The US Supreme Court this morning handed down an impressively short unanimous opinion in Whitfield v. US, No. 13-9026 (S. Ct. Jan. 13, 2015) (available here), which swiftly rejects a bank robber's attempt to limit the reach of a provision of the statute with which he was convicted.  Here is the start of the opinion by Justice Scalia for the Court, as well as a few passages that my most interest sentencing fans:

Federal law establishes enhanced penalties for anyone who “forces any person to accompany him” in the course of committing or fleeing from a bank robbery. 18 U. S. C. §2113(e).  We consider whether this provision applies when a bank robber forces someone to move with him over a short distance....

In an attempt to support his position that “accompany” should be read to mean “accompany over a substantial distance,” Whitfield observes that a forced-accompaniment conviction carries severe penalties: a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years, and a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.  In 1934, a forced-accompaniment conviction could even be punished with death.  Act of May 18, 1934, ch. 304, §3, 48 Stat. 783. The severity of these sentences, Whitfield says, militates against interpreting subsection (e) to capture forced accompaniment occurring over a small distance.

But it does not seem to us that the danger of a forced accompaniment varies with the distance traversed.  Consider, for example, a hostage-taker’s movement of one of his victims a short distance to a window, where she would be exposed to police fire; or his use of the victim as a human shield as he approaches the door.  And even if we thought otherwise, we would have no authority to add a limitation the statute plainly does not contain.  The Congress that wrote this provision may well have had most prominently in mind John Dillinger’s driving off with hostages, but it enacted a provision which goes well beyond that.  It is simply not in accord with English usage to give “accompany” a meaning that covers only large distances.

January 13, 2015 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Saturday, January 10, 2015

SCOTUS orders new briefing and argument on ACCA's constitutionality in Johnson!?!?!

The US Supreme Court on Friday afternoon added a remarkable twist to what had been a small sentencing case, a case which had its (first) SCOTUS oral argument earlier this Term, via this new order:

13-7120 JOHNSON, SAMUEL V. UNITED STATES

This case is restored to the calendar for reargument. The parties are directed to file supplemental briefs addressing the following question: "Whether the residual clause in the Armed Career Criminal Act of 1984, 18 U. S. C. §924(e)(2)(B)(ii), is unconstitutionally vague."  The supplemental brief of petitioner is due on or before Wednesday, February 18, 2015.  The supplemental brief of the United States is due on or before Friday, March 20, 2015.  The reply brief, if any, is due on or before Friday, April 10, 2015.  The time to file amicus curiae briefs is as provided for by Rule 37.3(a). The word limits and cover colors for the briefs should correspond to the provisions of Rule 33.1(g) pertaining to briefs on the merits rather than to the provision pertaining to supplemental briefs.  The case will be set for oral argument during the April 2015 argument session.

As some readers likely know, and as Will Baude effectively explains in this new post at The Volokh Conspiracy, "Justice Scalia has been arguing with increasing force that the Act is vague, and the reargument order suggests that there’s a good chance he may finally have convinced his colleagues that he’s right."

This strikes me as huge news, especially because I think any ruling that part of ACCA is unconstitutionally vague would be a substantive constitutional judgment that should get applied retroactively to hundreds (and potentially thousands) of federal prisoners serving mandatory minimum terms of 15 years or more. US Sentencing Commission data suggests that perhaps 5000 or more federal defendants have been sentenced under ACCA over the last decade, though I would guess the majority of these cases did not hinge on the ACCA subprovision that SCOTUS might now find unconstitutional.

January 10, 2015 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Monday, January 05, 2015

"Is Obama Finally Ready To Dial Back The War On Drugs?"

Meme1The title of this post is the headline of this lengthy Forbes piece by Jacob Sullum, which provides preview of sorts of of some of the biggest federal criminal justice issues to keep an eye on in the year to come. The piece merits a full read, and here are excerpts:

Some critics of the war on drugs — a crusade that Obama had declared “an utter failure” in 2004 — predicted that he would improve in his second term.  Safely re­elected, he would not have to worry that looking soft on drugs would cost him votes, and he would finally act on his avowed belief that the war on drugs is unjust and ineffective.  As Obama embarks on the third year of his second term, it looks like the optimists were partially right, although much hinges on what he does during the next two years.  Here are some of the ways in which Obama has begun to deliver on his promises of a more rational, less punitive approach to psychoactive substances:

Marijuana Legalization. Although the federal government cannot stop states from legalizing marijuana, it can make trouble for the ones that do by targeting state­licensed growers and retailers.  Under a policy announced in August 2013, the Justice Department has declined to do so, reserving its resources for cannabis operations that violate state law or implicate “federal law enforcement priorities.”...

Federal Marijuana Ban.... Contrary to the impression left by the president, the executive branch has the authority to reschedule marijuana without new legislation from Congress. In September, a few days before announcing that he planned to step down soon, Holder said whether marijuana belongs in the same category as heroin is “certainly a question that we need to ask ourselves.” Since the Controlled Substances Act empowers Holder to reclassify marijuana, it would have been nice if he had asked that question a little sooner. Still, Holder was willing to publicly question marijuana’s Schedule I status, something no sitting attorney general had done before.

Sentencing Reform.  Obama supports the Smarter Sentencing Act, which would make the 2010 crack penalty changes retroactive, cut the mandatory minimums for certain drug offenses in half, and loosen the criteria for the “safety valve” that allows some defendants to escape mandatory minimums.  Beginning last year, Holder has repeatedly criticized our criminal justice system as excessively harsh. Under a new charging policy he established last year, hundreds of drug offenders could avoid mandatory minimums each year....

Clemency.  After a pitiful performance in his first term, Obama has signaled a new openness to clemency petitions.  Last April an unnamed “senior administration official” told Yahoo News the administration’s new clemency guidelines could result in “hundreds, perhaps thousands,” of commutations.  Obama’s total so far, counting eight commutations announced a few weeks ago, is just 18, but he still has two years to go....

A few months ago, Obama chose former ACLU attorney Vanita Gupta, a passionate critic of the war on drugs who emphasizes its disproportionate racial impact (a theme Obama and Holder also have taken up), to head the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.  A year before her appointment, Gupta had criticized Holder’s moves on drug sentencing as an inadequate response to mass incarceration.  The previous month, she had endorsed marijuana legalization. The next two years will show whether Gupta’s appointment is a sop to disappointed Obama supporters or a signal of bolder steps to come.

If Obama actually uses his clemency power to free thousands, or even hundreds, of drug war prisoners, that would be historically unprecedented, and it would go a long way toward making up for his initial reticence.  He could help even more people by backing sentencing reform, which has attracted bipartisan support in Congress.  And having announced that states should be free to experiment with marijuana legalization, he could declare the experiment a success....

If none of those things happens, Obama’s most significant drug policy accomplishment may be letting states go their own way on marijuana legalization.  Even if our next president is a Republican drug warrior, he will have a hard time reversing that decision, especially given the GOP’s lip service to federalism.

This piece reviews some important basics, though hard-core sentencing fans know that there is a lot more the Obama Administration could be doing to radically reshape the battlefield in the modern federal drug war.

On the marijuana front, for example, DOJ could (and I think should) play an significant role defending Colorado as it gears up a response to the recent Supreme Court suit brought Nebraska and Oklahoma attacking its marijuana reform efforts. In addition, DOJ could (and I think should) be willing to interpret broadly the recent provisions enacted by Congress precluding it from using funds to interfere with state medical marijuana reform efforts.

On the broad drug war front, Prez Obama and DOJ could not only support the Smarter Sentencing Act but even try to give renewed life to the Justice Safety Valve Act. The JSVA, which Senator Rand Paul introduced and robustly promoted, would effectively reform the operation of all mandatory minimum sentencing provisions. Also Prez Obama and DOJ, especially in light of renewed concerns about racial biases in criminal justice systems, could (and I think should) return to the issue of crack sentencing reform. Specifically, given the apparent success of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which only reduced the crack-powder disparity from the ridiculous 100-1 ratio to a ghastly 18-1, the Prez ought to get behind what I would call the Fully Fair Sentencing Act to eliminate any and all crack-powder sentencing disparity completely.

January 5, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Pot Prohibition Issues, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Notable NPR coverage of the "Human Casualties Of Mandatory Sentencing"

Download (3)I am pleased and intrigued to see that National Public Radio seems to be starting a deep dive into some of the personal stories surrounding the debate over federal mandatory minimum.  This introduction, headlined "From Judges To Inmates, Finding The Human Casualties Of Mandatory Sentencing," sets up the discussion this way:

This year, everyone from Attorney General Eric Holder to Tea Party Republicans in Congress has argued those stiff mandatory minimum prison sentences do more harm than good for thousands of drug offenders. Legislation to cut the tough-on-crime penalties has stalled on Capitol Hill, but it's likely to be reintroduced in 2015. Meanwhile, the White House and the Justice Department have taken the unprecedented step of asking for candidates who might win early release from prison through presidential pardons or commutations in the final years of the Obama presidency. That effort, known as Clemency Project 2014, is moving slowly.

Amid the backdrop of debate inside Washington and across the country, NPR decided to focus on the human toll of these mandatory prison sentences. We talked with judges who expressed tearful misgivings about sending people away for the rest of their lives for crimes that involved no violence and a modest amount of drugs. We found a newly-released inmate trying to reacquaint herself with her community in the Florida panhandle and rebuild ties with her grieving children after 17 years away from home. And we went inside a medium-security prison in New Jersey to find a lifer who says he deserves another chance. These people acknowledge they broke the law and accept the need for punishment. But they say their decades-long incarcerations cast a shadow that lingers over their families, damage that far outweighs the wrongs they did to put them in prison.

The series' first lengthy piece here is titled "Judge Regrets Harsh Human Toll Of Mandatory Minimum Sentences," has lots of good content and quotes from Judge John Gleeson and Professors Rachel Barkow and Bill Otis.

December 16, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Friday, December 05, 2014

District Judge pushes federal prosecutors to back off extreme trial penalty sentence

As reported in this Reuters article, headlined "Prosecutors rethink convict's sentence after judge cites Holder," a federal judge earlier this week put some bite into the Attorney General's advocacy for reducing reliance on extremely long prison term by urging local federal prosecutors to reconsider an extreme sentence driven by application of mandatory minimum sentencing provisions. Here are the details of an interesting on-going sentencing story:

Prosecutors are reconsidering a 50-year sentence for a convicted robber and drug dealer, after a judge on Wednesday suggested they call Attorney General Eric Holder to ask him whether it was fair to "punish" a man for rejecting a plea deal and opting for a trial.

Randy Washington, 27, the Bronx man who faced the lengthy term after turning down a 10-year plea deal and getting convicted at trial, had been scheduled for sentencing in New York federal court on Wednesday.  But the hearing was adjourned so prosecutors could rework a deal carrying a shorter sentence, after U.S. District Judge Richard Sullivan repeated his criticism that the 50-year mandatory minimum sentence appeared to "punish" Washington for going to trial.

Sullivan even suggested prosecutors call Holder himself to ask if their actions comport with his recent directive cautioning prosecutors against routinely using the threat of harsher sentences to induce defendants to plead guilty.  "He won't look with pride on what you're doing here today," Sullivan said....

In September, Holder issued a memo advising prosecutors to avoid employing the prospect of longer mandatory minimum prison terms in plea talks.  Sullivan cited the memo Wednesday in criticizing the sentence for Washington, who was convicted of robbery, narcotics and related charges.

In July, Sullivan said the potential 50-year term was legal but "unnecessary and unjust" and in a rare move pushed Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara's office to seek a reduced sentence. In response, prosecutors offered to drop a 10-year enhancement based on a prior felony conviction for Washington.

They separately offered Washington a new 25-year deal, which Washington rejected as it included an appellate waiver, a provision Sullivan questioned on Wednesday. "I'm not sure there's great consistency in the position that says, 'We agree that 50 years is too long, but it's too long only if you give up your appellate rights,'" he said.

After prosecutors consulted with Bharara himself, Assistant U.S. Attorney Telemachus Kasulis told Sullivan they would consider a 25-year deal without requiring Washington to waive all of his appellate rights. Sentencing was rescheduled for Dec. 12.

December 5, 2014 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

SCOTUS hears argument on application of mandatory minimum sentencing provision in Whitfield

The Supreme Court has another notable criminal justice case on tap for oral argument this morning, and this effective SCOTUSblog preview, titled "Parsing “accompany” in the federal bank robbery statute," provides all the details and context.  Here is how the preview starts and ends: 

One part of the federal bank robbery statute, 18 U.S.C. § 2113(e), provides that a bank robber who “forces another person to accompany him” will receive a minimum sentence of ten years in prison, with a life sentence as a maximum.  [Tuesday December 2] the Court will hear oral arguments on how broadly this provision should apply — and in particular, whether it should apply to a North Carolina man who, while attempting to elude capture after a failed bank robbery, required the elderly woman in whose home he was hiding to move with him from one part of her home to another.  [This] hearing could also tell us whether the Justices regard this case as a run-of-the-mill statutory interpretation case or instead — like last month’s Yates v. United States and last Term’s Bond v. United States  — as the latest in a series of criminal cases in which overzealous federal prosecutors have overstepped their authority....

At last month’s argument in Yates, Justice Samuel Alito — who is normally the government’s most reliable ally in criminal cases — suggested to the lawyer arguing on behalf of the United States that, although the federal government had a variety of good arguments, it was nonetheless asking the Justices to endorse too expansive an interpretation of a federal law targeting the destruction of evidence.  Whitfield and his lawyers no doubt hope that the Justices will be equally dubious of the government’s interpretation in this case.  On the other hand, although Whitfield ultimately proved to be a bumbling bank robber, his conduct was unquestionably far more grave than John Yates’s destruction of some undersized fish: even if he only intended to hide from police after the failed bank robbery and never meant to harm [his elderly victim], she did die.  And that may be enough to make several of the Justices less skeptical, and significantly more serious, at Tuesday’s oral argument.

UPDATE: Via SCOTUSblog, I see that the transcript in Whitfield v. United States is now avaiable here

December 2, 2014 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Massachusetts special commission urges repeal of all drug mandatory minimums

DownloadAs reported in this local article, "a special commission studying the state's criminal justice system recommended eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for all drug offenses in Massachusetts."  Here is more about the commission's work and recommendations to date:

The commission also voted to recommend parole eligibility for all state prison sentences after an inmate has served at least two-thirds of the lower end of their sentence, except in cases of murder or manslaughter, and to maintain the current parole eligibility standards in houses of correction of half-time served on sentences of 60 days or more.

The commission, formed over two years ago, is trying to produce an in-progress report before the end of the year to inform Governor-elect Charlie Baker's administration. Baker, during his campaign for governor, voiced support for striking mandatory minimums for non-violent drug offenses as part of a broader approach to combat substance abuse.

The Special Commission to Study the Commonwealth's Criminal Justice System on Tuesday began debating legislative recommendations members plan to make to strengthen post-release supervision, improve prisoner reentry outcomes and reduce recidivism, and address overcrowding in the state's jails and prisons.

"Drug offenses are a huge reason we have so much overcrowding in the prison system," said Patty Garin, a criminal defense attorney and co-director of the Northeastern University Law School Prisoners Assistance Program. Garin and other commission members argued judges should be able to practice evidence-based sentencing, and suggested mandatory minimums disproportionately impact poorer communities and communities of color.

The 9-2 vote, with Attorney General Martha Coakley's representative abstaining, came over the objections of Cape and Islands District Attorney Michael O'Keefe, who sits on the commission. O'Keefe did not attend Tuesday's meeting, but submitted a letter expressing his opposition and later told the News Service that mandatory minimums are a tool prosecutors "use and use very effectively to stem the flow of drugs into communities."

"We utterly reject this notion that the criminal justice system is warehousing these non-violent drug offenders. That simply is not the case. People have to work extremely hard to get themselves into jail here in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts," O'Keefe said.

The commission was formed by Gov. Deval Patrick and the Legislature in 2012, and Undersecretary of Criminal Justice Sandra McCroom said she hopes to publish a report by the end of the year, though she acknowledged that all of the commission's work likely won't be completed by then. Patrick has also reconstituted the Sentencing Commission, which has met twice over the past two months and whose work could coincide with the criminal justice commission's recommendations....

Public Safety Secretary Andrea Cabral, who does not have a vote on the commission, said she would have carved out an exception from the mandatory minimum recommendation for trafficking crimes. While supporting enhanced drug treatment options, she said not all people convicted of drug offenses are struggling with addiction, and some are driven by money. "I think there should be a line drawn on trafficking," Cabral said.

Others on the commission, including Garin and Anthony Benedetti, chief counsel at the Committee for Public Counsel Services, argued that judges should be given discretion even in trafficking cases, expressing confidence that harsh sentences will be issues for those who deserve them. Worcester County Sheriff Lewis Evangelidis, a Republican, and a staff member representing Judiciary Committee Vice Chairman Rep. Chris Markey (D-Dartmouth) voted against the recommendation to do away with mandatory minimum sentences. "To me it's overreaching and too broad," said Evangelidis, a former state representative....

O'Keefe, the recent past president of the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association, expressed concern that if the Legislature were to eliminate mandatory minimum drug sentences, the courts would see defendants shopping for more lenient judges to avoid prison time. "Mandatory minimum sentences came into being in the first place to ensure relative uniformity in the sentencing of individuals distributing drugs," O'Keefe said....

Attorney General-elect Maura Healey has also backed ending mandatory minimums for non-violent drug offenses, and during her campaign called for expanding the use of drug courts.

November 19, 2014 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Investigation reveals "mandatory" Minnesota gun sentence not imposed in majority of cases

635518507863570129-sent-5This interesting local investigative press report from Minnesota provides further evidence that mandatory minimum sentencing schemes are rarely applied consistently or evenly.  The article is headlined "Mandatory sentences not always the case for Minnesota gun crimes," and here are excerpts:

Hennepin County judges have come under fire recently for their sentencing habits. Several top Minneapolis leaders are claiming some judges are soft on gun crimes, allowing dangerous criminals back on the streets when they could be in prison. To separate fact from fiction, KARE 11 Investigators analyzed every sentence for every felony gun crime during the past three years. We found that judges do not hand down mandatory minimum sentences in the majority of gun crime cases.

Under Minnesota law there is a mandatory minimum amount of time criminals who use a gun should be sentenced to serve in prison. But our KARE 11 investigation found the amount of time they are sentenced to prison, if they get prison time at all, varies greatly from court to court and judge to judge....

Our analysis of sentencing data provided by the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission reveals in gun cases across all of Minnesota, judges give less than the mandatory minimum sentence 53% of the time. In Hennepin County, that jumps to 56%. Judge Richard Scherer, Judge Susan Robiner, Judge Mark Wernick, Judge Joseph Klein and Judge Daniel Moreno downward depart from mandatory sentencing in felony gun cases in more than two thirds of the cases they oversee. "And that's too much" said Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman.

Freeman's office routinely butts heads with district judges when it comes to sentencing in gun cases, especially when the conviction is for a felon being in possession of a handgun. On average in Minnesota, prosecutor's object to a judge's reduced sentence in gun cases only 12% of the time. But in Hennepin County, it happens in nearly 30% of gun cases. "I think the numbers speak for themselves. There's a different climate on this bench than there is elsewhere in this state," said Freeman.

But 4th District Chief Judge Peter Cahill disagrees. He says judges cannot be a rubber stamp for police and prosecutors, and the most important thing for them is to be fair and impartial. "We can't worry about stats," said Cahill. When KARE 11 Investigative reporter A.J. Lagoe asked Chief Judge Cahill if mandatory did not mean mandatory in Minnesota, Cahill responded, "not really." He says calling the state's mandatory minimum sentences mandatory is a "bit of a misnomer."

Cahill said the issue is very complex, and added "If you read the statute specifically, the legislature gave the court the ability to depart from the gun sentencing scheme." There is a section in Minnesota's minimum sentencing law that allows judges to disregard mandatory sentencing in gun cases if there are "substantial and compelling" reasons to do so. “If you read the statute specifically, the legislature gave the court the ability to depart from the gun sentencing scheme.”

Are there truly "substantial and compelling reasons" to hand down a lesser sentence in the majority of gun cases? It depends on who you ask. In the wake of a series of deadly summer shootings, Minneapolis's Police Chief Janee Harteau said, "we are arresting people who should have been kept in jail." Harteau and City Council President Barb Johnson began publically calling out Hennepin County judges for being soft on gun crimes and allowing dangerous criminals back on the street unnecessarily. "I am calling to them publicly this time to take gun crime seriously," said Johnson. "The penalties are there, impose them! When someone is arrested with a gun they need to do time!"

Minnesota sentencing statutes have a section referred to by the legal community as "mandatory mandatory sentences." If you're convicted a second time for a gun offense, judges are given no wiggle room. The law requires them to hand down at least the mandatory minimum. "Those are what we call hard 'mandatories' where there's no leeway for the court and we do impose those," said Chief Judge Cahill.

But KARE 11's investigation found that's not always the case. Take for example the rap sheet of Khayree Copeland. Copeland was busted in 2008 as a juvenile for possession of a short barreled shotgun. In 2011, now an adult, he was caught again with a gun. As a felon in possession, the mandatory minimum sentence he was facing was five years in prison. However Judge Robiner sentenced him to probation. Later that same year, Copeland was arrested again while carrying a handgun. His second offense as an adult, this time the law requires he get the "mandatory- mandatory" five years. But court records show Judge Richard Scherer gave him only four years in prison. "Members of my office protested both times and rightly so," said Freeman....

NOTE: While Hennepin judges see far and away more gun crime cases than any other jurisdiction, Carlton County judges are the most likely to cut a defendant a break. Judges there gave less than the mandatory minimum 100% of the time in the past three years.

November 18, 2014 in Gun policy and sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

"A Comprehensive Administrative Solution to the Armed Career Criminal Act Debacle"

The title of this post is the title of this notable and timely new piece authored by Avi Kupfer and available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

For thirty years, the Armed Career Criminal Act (“ACCA”) has imposed a fifteen-year mandatory minimum sentence on those people convicted as felons in possession of a firearm or ammunition who have three prior convictions for a violent felony or serious drug offense.  Debate about the law has existed mainly within a larger discussion on the normative value of mandatory minimums. Assuming that the ACCA endures, however, administering it will continue to be a challenge.  The approach that courts use to determine whether past convictions qualify as ACCA predicate offenses creates ex ante uncertainty and the potential for intercourt disparities.  Furthermore, the Supreme Court's guidance on sentencing ACCA defendants has been unclear.  The resulting ambiguity creates inequity between defendants and fails to give them fair warning of the statute's scope.  This ambiguity also depletes the resources of courts, defendants, and prosecutors and prevents the statute from realizing its full potential of deterring violent crime.

This Note argues that rather than allowing this debacle to continue, Congress should delegate to a federal agency the task of compiling a binding list of state statutes that qualify as predicate offenses.  Under this approach, the states would assist the federal agency by providing initial guidance on their ambiguous statutes.  The U.S. Sentencing Commission has the manpower, subject familiarity, and institutional incentives to build and maintain the appendix, and state sentencing commissions would make ideal partners. In states that do not have sentencing commissions, comparable agencies and even properly incentivized attorneys general may be able to aid the federal Sentencing Commission. Congress should leverage this undertaking to resolve related definitional questions about the meaning of a violent crime in other areas of federal law.

November 12, 2014 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack