Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Fascinating new OIG report examines implementation of former AG Holder's "Smart on Crime" initiative

I just came across this fascinating new report from the US Justice Department's Office of the Inspector General. The title of the lengthy report itself spotlights why the report is both fascinating and timely: "Review of the Department’s Implementation of Prosecution and Sentencing Reform Principles under the Smart on Crime Initiative." The full report runs 70 dense pages and even the executive summary is too lengthy and detailed to reproduce fully here. But these excerpts should whet the appetite of all sentencing nerds:

In August 2013, the U.S. Department of Justice (Department) and then Attorney General Eric H. Holder, Jr., announced the Smart on Crime initiative, which highlighted five principles to reform the federal criminal justice system. Smart on Crime encouraged federal prosecutors to focus on the most serious cases that implicate clear, substantial federal interests. In the first principle, the Department required, for the first time, the development of district-specific prosecution guidelines for determining when federal prosecutions should be brought, with the intent of focusing resources on fewer but the most significant cases. The second principle of Smart on Crime announced a change in Department charging policies so that certain defendants who prosecutors determined had committed low-level, non-violent drug offenses, and who had no ties to large-scale organizations, gangs, or cartels, generally would not be charged with offenses that imposed a mandatory minimum prison sentence.

The Office of the Inspector General (OIG) initiated this review to evaluate the Department’s implementation of the first two principles of Smart on Crime, as well as the impact of those changes to federal charging policies and practices. We assessed the 94 U.S. Attorney’s Office districts’ implementation and the impact of the Smart on Crime policy on not charging drug quantities implicating mandatory minimum sentences in circumstances where the defendants were low-level, non-violent offenders with limited criminal histories. We also assessed the implementation and impact of the policy that required prosecutors to consider certain factors before filing a recidivist enhancement that would increase the sentence of a drug defendant with a felony record pursuant to 21 U.S.C. § 851.

On May 10, 2017, the Attorney General issued a new charging and sentencing policy to all federal prosecutors that effectively rescinds the specific charging policies and practices outlined by Smart on Crime. We did not review this new policy as part of this review, which examined the implementation of the prosecution and sentencing reform principles under the Smart on Crime initiative....

We found that the Department made progress implementing the first two Smart on Crime principles, but we also identified several shortcomings in its efforts, including some failures to update national and local policies and guidelines and a lack of communication with local law enforcement partners regarding changes to these polices and guidelines in some instances.

We found that, while the Department issued policy memoranda and guidance to reflect its Smart on Crime policies, the U.S. Attorneys’ Manual (USAM), a primary guidance document for federal prosecutors, was not revised until January 2017, more than 3 years after Smart on Crime was launched, even though Department officials established a deadline of the end of 2014 to do so. Further, we determined that 74 of 94 districts had developed or updated their local policies to reflect the Smart on Crime policy changes regarding mandatory minimum charging decisions. Of the remaining 20 districts, some provided incomplete information to the OIG as to whether they had updated their prosecution guidelines or policy memoranda to reflect the Smart on Crime policy changes regarding mandatory minimum charging decisions in drug cases; in others, the district policies provided appeared to be inconsistent with the Smart on Crime policies in whole or in part; and some told us that they relied on the Holder memoranda for direction but did not develop or update any of their district policies or guidance documents to reflect the Smart on Crime policy changes.

We also found that 70 of 94 districts had incorporated Smart on Crime recidivist enhancement policy changes into their districts’ prosecution guidelines or policy memoranda. However, of the remaining 24 districts, 20 provided information to the OIG with respect to recidivist enhancements that appeared to be inconsistent with the 2013 Holder memoranda in whole or in part, or reported to the OIG that they followed the Holder memorandum but did not specifically revise their district policies to reflect Smart on Crime policy changes. The four remaining districts provided information that did not reflect the Smart on Crime policy changes on filing recidivist enhancements. Finally, we found that 10 districts failed to update their policies to reflect Smart on Crime policy changes with regard to both mandatory minimum charging decisions and recidivist enhancements....

We further found that the Department’s ability to measure the impact of the first two Smart on Crime principles is limited because it does not consistently collect data on charging decisions. For example, while the Legal Information Office Network System (LIONS), the U.S. Attorneys’ Offices’ case management system, allows federal prosecutors generally to track information about their cases, data fields relevant to Smart on Crime were not always present or updated.

Due to these limitations, the Department has relied on U.S. Sentencing Commission (USSC) data to assess the impact of the first two Smart on Crime principles. However, using USSC data to measure the impact of Smart on Crime’s charging policies is challenging because the USSC collects data from courts on sentencing decisions by judges and does not receive data from prosecutors about their charging decisions. In that regard, the USSC data does not allow assessments regarding charges that prosecutors could have brought but chose not to bring.

Nevertheless, based on our own analysis of USSC sentencing data over the period from 2010 through 2015, we found that sentencing outcomes in drug cases had shifted in a manner that was consistent with the first two principles of Smart on Crime. This was reflected by significantly fewer mandatory minimum sentences being imposed in drug cases nationwide, as well as a decrease in mandatory minimum sentences for those defendants who might otherwise have received such a sentence in the absence of the 2013 Holder memoranda....

We also found that some regions in the country diverged from these overall national trends. For example, while drug convictions decreased nationally by 19 percent, the decrease was far larger in the Southwest Border region. Further, the West, Pacific Northwest, and Hawaii and Island Territories regions actually showed increases in the number of drug convictions. As a result, we determined that national trends should not be interpreted in such a way as to conclude that Smart on Crime had a uniform impact across all the nation’s districts.

June 20, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, June 16, 2017

Historic criminal justice reform signed into law in Louisiana, which has historically been highest incarcerating state

As reported in this local article, "bills signed into law Thursday morning by Gov. John Bel Edwards aim to change Louisiana's reputation as the most imprisoned state in the country." Here are some the sentencing details from the press article (though the folks should be sure to check out this summary of the full package of bills which covers an array of other issues including victim services and reentry concerns):

"With this ambitious package, Louisiana is projected to reduce the prison population by 10 percent and save $262 million over the next decade," according to the bills' package summary [available here]. "Seventy percent of these savings — an estimated $184 million — will be reinvested into programs and policies proven to reduce recidivism and support victims of crime."

The legislation signed into law includes:

Senate Bill 139 [which provides] alternatives to incarceration like drug rehabilitation. Expands probation eligibility to third-time nonviolent offenders, as well as first-time, lower-level violent offenders. It also gives opportunities for release. Consolidates eligibility for parole consideration for prisoners convicted of nonviolent, non-sex offenses at 25 percent of sentence served....

Senate Bill 220 [which alters sentencing rules to make sure law] focuses prison space on serious and violent offenders. It does this by removing less serious crimes to the violent crimes list and merging redundant theft and burglary offenses.

Senate Bill 221 [which addresses] repeat offenders by lowering the mandatory minimum sentence for second and third offenses.

Senate Bill 16 [which provides that] most people sentenced to life as juveniles receive an opportunity for parole consideration after serving a minimum of 25 years in prison.

June 16, 2017 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, June 08, 2017

More interesting new "Quick Facts" publications from the US Sentencing Commission

The US Sentencing Commission has released two notable new Quick Facts covering "Drug Trafficking Offenses" and "Federal Offenders in Prison" as of February 2017. (As the USSC explains, "Quick Facts" are publications that "give readers basic facts about a single area of federal crime in an easy-to-read, two-page format.")  Here are a few of the many intriguing data details from these two small data-filled publications:

June 8, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Four Senators write to AG Sessions with pointed questions about the Sessions Memo on charging and sentencing

As detailed in this press release from Senator Mike Lee, "Sens. Mike Lee (R-UT), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Cory Booker (D-NJ), and Rand Paul (R-KY) sent a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions Wednesday, seeking answers about the Department of Justice’s May 10, 2017 memorandum, directing federal prosecutors to pursue the most serious offense possible when prosecuting defendants."  The three-page letter is available at this link, and it starts this way:

We write concerning the Department of Justice's May 10, 2017 memorandum directing federal prosecutors to "pursue the most serious, readily provable offense." The Department's new policy ignores the growing bipartisan view that federal sentencing laws are in grave need of reform.  In many cases, the new policy will result in counterproductive sentences that do nothing to make the public safer. And it appears to force the hand of the prosecutors closest to each case to seek the highest possible offense rather than enable them to determine an appropriate lesser charge, which can help guard against imposing excessive sentences.

Among the six pointed questions (with sub-questions) that end the letter are these that strike me as especially interesting:

Pursuant to the Department's new policy, prosecutors are allowed to apply for approval to deviate from the general rule that they must pursue the most serious, readily provable offense.  The memo, however, does not explain how the Department will decide whether to grant approval to deviate from the general rule.  What factors will the Department consider in making these decisions? How often do you anticipate that prosecutors will request approval to deviate from the Department's charging policy? How often do you expect such requests will be granted?  Will Main Justice track how frequently attorneys seek departures from the new policy?

Are there any federal criminal offenses carrying mandatory minimum sentences that you believe are unfair?  Do you believe that all applications of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c) result in fair sentences?  If the answer to either of those questions is "no," why do you believe the Department's new policy allows enough discretion to individual prosecutors to result in fair outcomes in cases implicating these statutes?

 Prior recent related posts: 

June 7, 2017 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Senators Grassley and Feinstein working on enhanced federal penalties for synthetic opioid offenses

This slightly confusing new NPR story, headlined "Lawmakers Consider Tough New Penalties For Opioid Crimes, Bucking Trend," suggests that the only kind of sentencing reform being now discussed in Congress involves increasing rather than decreasing drug offense sentences.  Here are the still opaque details as reported by NPR (with my emphasis added, for subsequent comment):

For nearly four years now, an unusual coalition of Republicans and Democrats has worked to reduce mandatory prison terms for many federal drug crimes.  But that bipartisan movement may be shallower than it appears. Indeed, Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, who both supported a cut-back on some drug punishments, are preparing a bill that would create tough new penalties for people caught with synthetic opioid drugs.  Grassley chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Feinstein is the panel's ranking member.

A draft of the legislation reviewed by NPR suggests the plan would give the attorney general a lot more power to ban all kinds of synthetic drugs, since criminals often change the recipe to evade law enforcement.  It would impose a 10-year maximum sentence on people caught selling them as a first offense. That would double if they do it again.

Michael Collins of the Drug Policy Alliance, which advocates for lighter punishments for drug offenders, has seen language in the proposal. He said he thinks it's a bad idea. "These synthetic drugs are added to heroin often outside the U.S., but the bill takes such a broad approach that it's penalizing individuals who sell drugs at a low level inside the U.S., and so it's going to do nothing to deter and stop the supply of drugs," Collins said.

Collins said drug addiction is a public health challenge. He said sending more people to prison won't help, just as it didn't help in the crack cocaine era a few decades ago. "The problem is really we've been here before with this approach in terms of the war on drugs and ramping up sentences, and we know that escalating sentences ... does nothing to help the opioid epidemic," Collins said. "In fact, it only serves to increase the prison population."

Many people inside the Justice Department disagree. Just last week, federal prosecutors in Utah announced charges against a half-dozen people in suburban Salt Lake City.  Authorities say two of them quit their jobs at eBay to embark on a new enterprise. They allegedly ordered a version of the synthetic opioid fentanyl by mail from China, then pressed the drug into counterfeit pills and sold them online to customers across the country.

U.S. Attorney John Huber brought the case. "Like much of the country, we are not escaping the heroin and opioid epidemic and this latest version or brand of it with the fentanyl danger just makes it that much more pressing of a concern for us," Huber said.  The alleged ringleader — 27-year-old Aaron Michael Shamo — could spend the rest of his life in prison if he's convicted under the current drug laws.  "Mr. Shamo faces a mandatory life minimum sentence if he's convicted and that shows how serious this is, when you're dealing in such large quantities of such a dangerous substance," Huber said. "This is as serious as it gets."

As this NPR story already indirectly indicates, severe federal sentences are already on the books for serious drug dealers who traffic in fentanyl, and I am pretty sure a first offense of even a small amount of fentanyl dealing already carries a mandatory maximum sentence of decades. Thus, I think the highlighted line from the article here meant to report that Senators Grassley and Feinstein are working on a bill that would have a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence for even low-lever, first-time dealing of fentanyl.

I am not yet going to criticize a bill I have not yet seen, nor am I going to criticize the instinct of many legislators and law enforcement officials that drastic action needs to be taken in response to the still growing opioid epidemic.  But I am certainly prepared to express disappointment that leaders like Senators Grassley and Feinstein still apparently think that new mandatory minimum sentencing provisions serve as a wise and appropriate response to a national drug problem.

June 6, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Discouraging account of the state of federal criminal justice reform come summer 2017

On the heels of big talk in summer 2013 from then-Attorney General Eric Holder about criminal justice reforms, some pundits (as noted here) were quick to suggest that momentum for major federal sentencing reform might be unstoppable. Ever the political pessimist, I was then quite hopeful but still not all that optimistic that Congress would find a way to enact some sweeping federal statutory sentencing reforms before too long.

But fast forward four years to the coming summer 2017, and there no seems to be very little reason to be hopeful or optimistic about anything getting done in this space anytime soon. This new Marshall Project feature article by Justin George highlights that this is not only a story of a new Prez and Attorney General with different criminal justice priorities, but also a story of reform voices on the left and right coming to battle each other in ways that may ensure there in no path forward. The article is headlined "Can This Marriage Be Saved?: Left and right came together on criminal justice reform. Then Trump happened." Here are a few notable excerpts:

John Malcolm [is] a legal scholar at the Heritage Foundation, the influential conservative think tank [and] a member of an unlikely alliance that hopes to end America’s status as the world’s most prolific jailer: liberals who find the criminal justice system racist, inequitable, and inhumane are joining forces with conservatives — such as Malcolm — who find it wasteful, harmful to families, and heavy-handed. Last year, reformers on both sides agreed to support a proposed law that would relax mandatory minimum sentences, giving federal judges somewhat more discretion in sentencing and helping low-level offenders avoid prison time. It was a modest proposal, compared to the size of the problem, but the bill attracted a rare amount of bipartisan support in Washington.

Despite that support, however, the measure failed to pass Congress. Some Republicans wanted the law to include a provision on “mens rea” reform, which would expand the category of crimes in which a defendant’s criminal intent is a factor in determining guilt. Democrats, convinced that such a provision would make it harder for prosecutors to go after corporate crime, resisted. The bill stalled, then died—and so did some of the spirit of common cause. Last year, as the contentious presidential election neared its conclusion, the alliance started to come undone.

Liberal members of the coalition, such as Jesselyn McCurdy, a lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union, say that the reform bill failed because obstructionist Republicans didn’t want to give President Obama anything he could claim as a bipartisan achievement on the verge of the election. But, as Malcolm sees it, it was Democrats, confident that Hillary Clinton would be president and that the Republican grip on Congress would be loosened, who decided that they no longer needed to compromise. “People’s positions became hardened,” Malcolm said. Conservatives, he added, also bristled at the “anti-police” rhetoric of the Black Lives Matter movement and at the left’s emphasis on the racial disparities of the criminal justice system.... Groups from the right and left still meet regularly on criminal justice issues, including at a monthly work luncheon that Malcolm hosts, at the Heritage Foundation. But momentum has been hard to regain. “Hurt feelings are impacting meaningful discussion,” Malcolm said. “For the right, the criticism of the left is ‘Your messaging stinks, and you don’t make it easy to pass stuff, because you make this difficult for conservatives to sign on to,’ ” Kevin Ring, the president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said. “And, for the left, the criticism of the right was ‘You didn't try that hard.’ ”...

But [Senator Mike] Lee, who still believes that a reform bill can get through Congress, said he is not so sure Sessions will be an impediment. “Jeff Sessions is in a different role now — he’s no longer a lawmaker,” Lee said. “I’ve had conversations with people in the White House and elsewhere in the administration in which I’ve explained to them this could be a really good bipartisan win, a nice bipartisan moment, and I’ve been working with the administration to figure out what level of comfort they have with it and what we need to do in order to move forward.” (The Department of Justice said that Sessions was not available for comment, and the White House did not respond to requests to interview Kushner for this story.)...

But the only notable criminal justice measures showing signs of life in the House so far this year would only create more opportunities to put people in prison or to hand out longer sentences, such as a measure expanding the powers of federal probation officers to arrest anyone who interferes with their work. Given this inhospitable climate, Ring, of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said that perhaps the best course for reformers is to hope for “benign neglect” from the Trump administration and to focus on repairing the damage done to the alliance by the “emotional fallout” of 2016. Maybe, he said, “this is time for us to put our head down and start winning hearts and minds.”

June 6, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, June 04, 2017

Federal District Judge Mark "Bennett says 80% of the mandatory sentences he hands down are unjust"

The quote in the title of this post's headline is just one of a number of notable lines from this extended CNN article headlined "The judge who says he's part of the gravest injustice in America." Here is some of the context and particulars from the article:

[U.S. District Court Judge Mark] Bennett seems exasperated, exhausted almost, as he explains he must sentence [Susan] Rice to a full five years -- the mandatory minimum required by law. It is a sentence he deems unjust, too much for a low-level addict, just for being caught with a certain weight of drugs.  

Bennett makes sure the record reflects he felt strongly enough to request that Iowa's US Attorney consider waiving the mandatory minimum. He accepts the defense mitigation that Rice had never been in trouble before she was in her 50s, when she began drinking heavily after a bad divorce and was introduced to meth. She met a mid-level dealer who offered her a mattress in his basement and free meth if she would drive him around. A willing drug mule to feed her addiction? Yes. But not the drug trafficker or conspirator whom the charges and mandatory minimum sentences were designed to target, the judge believed.

His plea fell on deaf ears.  He was told there was no option for Rice to be treated as an exception to the law. "I strongly disagree with that decision," the judge says firmly from the bench.  It is not the first time he has felt this way. Bennett says 80% of the mandatory sentences he hands down are unjust -- but that he is handcuffed by the law, which leaves no room for judicial discretion to consider a sentence based on individual circumstances of the defendant. 

Too often, Bennett says, low-level nonviolent drug addicts dealing to feed their habit end up being sentenced like drug kingpins.  Bennett says if he had the power, he would jail Rice for perhaps a year, or 18 months.  Across the street in a state courthouse, she would have been put on probation, he says.  "I think it's a miscarriage of justice," Bennett says. "But you know people are entitled to their own sense of what justice is."

Bennett hoped the tide was turning after members of both parties began pushing for sentencing reform on both state and federal levels, arguing it had been a huge mistake.  Now Jeff Sessions, Donald Trump's attorney general, has instructed that the law governing mandatory minimums be enforced with renewed vigor. "If you are a drug trafficker," Sessions said after issuing his memo to prosecutors, "we will not look the other way. We will not be willfully blind to your misconduct."

Bennett thinks this approach is unjust. "I basically couldn't live with myself if I didn't speak out," he says, standing in the center of his courtroom only hours after sentencing Rice. "I'm compelled to talk about it because I think it's one of the gravest injustices in the history of America."  Year after year, giving out those sentences, is wearing on him.  "The burden of having given so many unjust sentences is a very heavy thing for me to carry around," Bennett says beginning to choke up. "I do not consider myself soft on crime, but I consider myself opposed to mandatory minimums for low level non-violent drug dealers who are basically addicts," he says....

The National Association of Assistant US Attorneys, made up of those who prosecute federal cases, supports Sessions' push to charge the most serious crime that is provable.  "It's an effective way of protecting the public and it has served us well for an awful long time," the group's president Larry Leiser says.  "People who were eligible for mandatory minimums are truly people who are involved in significant quantities of these very dangerous substances."  He rejects recent efforts to relax sentencing laws.  And he rejects the view the law unfairly catches non-violent addicts who are simply feeding their addiction by selling drugs.  And he hails the provision that lets offenders help themselves to lower sentences if they in turn help the authorities take serious criminals off the streets.

June 4, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Saturday, June 03, 2017

NPR covers debate over federal sentencing and mandatory minimums in three parts

This past week, National Public Radio ran a notable three-part series with conversations about modern federal sentencing realities on its Morning Edition program.  Here are the links, headings and brief descriptions of who what talking about what:

Mass Incarceration Is A Major U.S. Issue, Georgetown Law Professor Says

Rachel Martin talks to Georgetown University Law professor Paul Butler about the ongoing and new challenges facing the nation regarding the criminal justice system.

Former Prosecutor On Why He Supports Mandatory Minimums

Attorney General Sessions told federal prosecutors to seek the harshest penalties possible against defendants.  Former federal prosecutor Bill Otis tells Rachel Martin why he supports the guidelines.

A Federal Judge Says Mandatory Minimum Sentences Often Don't Fit The Crime

NPR's Rachel Martin speaks to federal Judge Mark Bennett of Iowa, who opposes mandatory minimum charging and sentencing guidelines for nonviolent drug offenses.

June 3, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Notable new talk of notable new mandatory minimum sentences in Congress

The Hill has this notable new article headlined "GOP pushes new minimum sentencing laws."  Here are excerpts:

The debate over criminal justice reform has taken a head-spinning turn on Capitol Hill.  After months of debate over whether to curb mandatory minimum prison sentences, Republicans are now going in the opposite direction.

A new border security bill includes mandatory minimum sentences for certain immigrants who try to re-enter the country after they’ve already been deported and for people convicted of violent crimes against judges and police officers. The Hill reviewed a draft copy of the legislation, which is still being hammered out by Sen. John Cornyn (Texas), the No. 2 Senate Republican, and House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas).

The legislation includes “Kate’s law,” a measure named for Kathryn Steinle, a 32-year-old woman killed in 2015 by a felon who had been deported but returned to the United States. The law effectively creates a three-strike rule. Immigrants with prior aggravated felony convictions or two prior convictions for illegal re-entry would get a mandatory 5-year sentence.

President Trump repeatedly talked about Steinle during his presidential campaign as he backed policies cracking down on legal and illegal immigration.

The legislation also incorporates Cornyn’s Back the Blue Act, which creates a 30-year mandatory minimum sentence for killing a judge or federal law enforcement officer; a 10-year minimum for assault if the judge or law enforcement officer is seriously injured; a 20-year mandatory minimum if a deadly or dangerous weapon was used in the assault; and a 10-year minimum for fleeing after killing, attempting to kill or conspiring to kill a judge or law enforcement office. The law defines a law enforcement officer as any federally funded public safety officer or judicial officer for a public agency, including firefighters.

The new legislation represents a shift in the battle over mandatory minimum sentences and criminal justice reform more broadly. Over the last several years, momentum for eliminating mandatory sentencing laws gained steam with the backing not only of former President Barack Obama, but also from conservatives such as Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Charles and David Koch, the conservative GOP mega-donors and political heavyweights.

With the election of Trump, however, there are some signs that things are now moving in a different direction. Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions have vowed to empower law enforcement and crack down on illegal immigration....

Cornyn’s work on the new bill appears to represent another shift given his past work on the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act. That legislation, which Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) spearheaded alongside Lee and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), called for reducing mandatory minimums for certain drug crimes. Cornyn was one of the first 15 original co-sponsors of that legislation, which never made it to the floor for a vote....

Cornyn said the new legislation is in draft form and still evolving. “We don’t have a final product,” he told The Hill on Thursday. “We’ve been sharing some language with the Department of Homeland Security and the House so there isn’t a final product. I know people like to comment on leaked draft documents, but I don’t find that very productive.”

When asked for his response to claims that provisions in his bill contradict his past support for reform, Cornyn said his bill is not a statement about mandatory minimums generally. “I’m not opposed to all mandatory minimums,” he said. “For example, felons carrying guns, I like the five-year mandatory minimum because it acts as a deterrent and saves lives.”...

Kevin Ring, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said he understands Cornyn's reasoning for supporting minimums for certain crimes. “But just because you support some [mandatory minimums], doesn’t mean you should support the worst,” he said. “These are incredibly broad and expensive.”

Ring claims the provisions in Cornyn’s bill will cause more damage than any good Grassley's and Durbin’s reforms would have done in terms of reducing the prison population. “These are two of the biggest prison expanding proposals we’ve seen combined into one massive bill,” he said. “We can’t possibly build prisons fast enough to keep up with the influx we’d have.”

Without seeing the particulars of the new mandatory minimums (MMs) being developed by Senator Cornyn, I am not yet prepared to weigh in on just how much of an impact they could have on the federal prison population. I am hopeful that the US Sentencing Commission might have an opportunity to analyze the possible impact of any and all new MMs before they come up for a vote in any committees or before the full Congress.

If Senator Cornyn and other GOP members are strongly and aggressively committed to moving forward with new MMs for certain violent offenses and/or repeat immigration offenders, advocates of progressive reforms might be strategically wise to urge adding to any bill parallel provisions that reduce or eliminate MMs for certain nonviolent offenses and/or first-time offenders. Like many advocates of federal sentencing reform, I generally think all forms of mandatory minimums generally do more harm than good. But lengthy mandatory minimums for nonviolent and first offenders seem to me to be especially pernicious, and thus I would urge those troubled by the lemons of new proposed MMs try to find a way to make some sentencing reform lemonade.

May 30, 2017 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Reactions to Sessions Memo on DOJ charging/sentencing policies keep on coming

I highlighted in this post and this post some of the early reactions to the new charging and sentencing memorandum released earlier this month by Attorney General Jeff Sessions (basics here). Reactions in various forms and formats just keep on coming, so here I will highlight a few more from various authors and outlets that struck me as worth noting:

From CNN here, "State AGs to Sessions: Rescind criminal charging guidance"

From Crime & Consequences here, "Restoration of Honesty: Jeff Sessions' Charging Instructions"

From The Crime Report here, "Memo to Sessions: Why Treatment for Drug Addiction Makes More Sense Than Prison"

From The Federalist here, "Sessions Has Neither The Authority Nor The Evidence To Pursue A New Drug War"

From Law360 here, "Sessions Memo Could Create Friction In Plea Negotiations"

From the New York Daily News here, "The true toughness Jeff Sessions must show"

From the New York Law Journal here, "The Sessions Memo: Back to the Past?"

Prior recent related posts: 

UPDATE: A helpful reader pointed out this Washington Post commentary from a former US Attorney headlined "Jeff Sessions to federal prosecutors: I don’t trust you." It starts this way:

Last week Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced policy changes directing federal prosecutors to charge people suspected of crime with the “most serious, readily provable offense” available in every federal case.  In doing so, he promised that prosecutors would be “un-handcuffed and not micromanaged from Washington.”

That justification is laughable.  In actuality, the announcement demonstrates a stunning lack of faith in the decisions of line-level prosecutors.  It imposes — rather than removes — the handcuffs for prosecutors, returning us to the policy of the 1990s and 2000s, when incarceration and corrections spending spiked without a measurable impact on drug use or public safety.

May 21, 2017 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Highlighting how the Sessions Memo may have particular impact for drug trafficking cases in certain districts

News2-2-Graph-SentencingWith thanks to commenter Daniel for the tip, I just saw this notable local article from New Mexico providing a notable local perspective on the potential impact of the new Sessions federal charging/sentencing memo.  The article is headlined "Two Steps Back: How Jeff Sessions’ memo on federal prosecutions could take New Mexico back to a harsher era," and here are excerpts:

A directive from newly appointed US Attorney General Jeff Sessions instructing prosecutors to seek the most severe charges available threatens to stunt recent progress toward less federal prison time for low-level drug offenders in New Mexico, defense lawyers and drug policy reform advocates tell SFR.

“Drug mule” cases make up many of the drug crimes prosecuted in federal court in New Mexico, federal public defender John Butcher says. Some low-level drug runners who get caught mid-shipment are apprehended in Albuquerque, the first overnight stop on Amtrak’s Southwest Chief train from Los Angeles to Chicago. Others are picked up throughout the federally designated “High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area,” which runs east from Farmington down to Santa Fe and into Albuquerque before blanketing most of the southern border from Roswell on. The vast majority of federal drug charges in the state are for trafficking. Possession and brokering drug deals comprise a smaller percentage of crimes.

Drug mule cases, most often involving nonviolent and low-level drug offenders, were among those singled out in a memo issued by former attorney general Eric Holder in August 2013. It encouraged prosecutors not to charge such people with crimes that could trigger stiffer mandatory minimum sentences, which prevent judges from sentencing defendants to prison for fewer than a predetermined number of years. For example, since 1986, federal law has mandated that a person convicted of holding five kilograms of cocaine with intent to distribute be sentenced to a minimum of 10 years in prison for a first offense.

Holder asked prosecutors to back off. If somebody was arrested with five kilograms of cocaine, but was not an organizer, did not have deep ties to criminal groups and wasn’t carrying a gun or another indicator of violent intent, prosecutors were asked not to charge that person with the quantity that would have triggered the 10 years. Data from the US Sentencing Commission suggests that some federal prosecutors in New Mexico may have heeded Holder’s directive. It shows that the percentage of sentenced federal drug offenders who received mandatory minimums immediately dropped from 42 percent in 2013 to 25 percent in 2014, and even fell to 20 percent in 2015, the most recent year for which information is available. That’s about half the figure from 2006, the first year the commission began tracking this data. The decrease came even as the number of people prosecuted for trafficking rose from an average of 586 between 2010 and 2012—before the Holder directive—and 646 between 2014 and 2016.

But Sessions has now directed prosecutors to reverse course. The new attorney general wants federal prosecutors to seek the most serious and readily provable charge against all defendants—regardless of circumstance. “This is going to go after the low-level minimum participants with minor records, because they’re the ones who were getting breaks [under Holder],” Butcher tells SFR. “Breaks” didn’t mean that low-level runners weren’t being charged or sentenced to prison after 2013, he says. But in some cases, they weren’t getting the book thrown at them. Butcher suggests the new policy will have an outsized effect in New Mexico, with its relatively higher number of trafficking cases involving nonviolent offenders....

Since 2013, Santa Fe’s Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program, wherein police work with case managers and the local district attorney to enroll low-level offenders in treatment programs, has served as a national example for non-punitive approaches to drug use.  District Attorney Marco Serna doesn’t think there’s much overlap between those who would qualify for LEAD and those who could be charged with a federal drug crime, but he acknowledges that the city’s approach stands in contrast to Sessions’ hardline.  “For nonviolent crimes, we have our own state and local statutes, and luckily I get to influence how we handle it in the first district,” Serna says. “And we won’t be taking that approach.”

Prior recent related posts: 

UPDATE: I just saw this notable new New York Times article which drills even deeper into the impact of the Holder Memo by identifying a number of low-level federal drug offenders who seemingly benefited from more lenient charging practices.  The piece is headlined "5 Years, or 20? How Sessions’ Get-Tough Order Would Extend Prison Stays." and it is interesting to see the cases profiled in the article and even more interesting to consider whether the offenders in the article might have been able, even if charged with more serious offenses, been able to avoid the application of a mandatory minimum sentence through the statutory safety valve or through providing cooperation.

May 18, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, May 15, 2017

Senator Rand Paul criticizes new Sessions Memo while promising to reintroduce Justice Safety Valve Act

In this new CNN commentary, headlined "Rand Paul: Sessions' sentencing plan would ruin lives," Senator Rand Paul provides a lengthy criticism of the new charging and sentencing memorandum released late last week by Attorney General Jeff Sessions (basics here).  Here are a few excerpts:

The attorney general on Friday made an unfortunate announcement that will impact the lives of millions of Americans: he issued new instructions for prosecutors to charge suspects with the most serious provable offenses, "those that carry the most substantial guidelines sentence, including mandatory minimum sentences."

Mandatory minimum sentences have unfairly and disproportionately incarcerated a generation of minorities. Eric Holder, the attorney general under President Obama, issued guidelines to U.S. Attorneys that they should refrain from seeking long sentences for nonviolent drug offenders.

I agreed with him then and still do. In fact, I'm the author of a bipartisan bill with Senator Leahy to change the law on this matter. Until we pass that bill, though, the discretion on enforcement -- and the lives of many young drug offenders -- lies with the current attorney general.

The attorney general's new guidelines, a reversal of a policy that was working, will accentuate the injustice in our criminal justice system. We should be treating our nation's drug epidemic for what it is -- a public health crisis, not an excuse to send people to prison and turn a mistake into a tragedy.

And make no mistake, the lives of many drug offenders are ruined the day they receive that long sentence the attorney general wants them to have....

I want to go the opposite way from the attorney general. That's why I've partnered with Senator Leahy and once again will be reintroducing the Justice Safety Valve Act. This isn't about legalizing drugs. It is about making the punishment more fitting and not ruining more lives.

The legislation is short and simple. It amends current law to grant judges authority to impose a sentence below a statutory mandatory minimum. In other words, we are not repealing mandatory minimums on the books -- we are merely allowing a judge to issue a sentence below a mandatory minimum if certain requirements are met.

We need this legislation because while there is an existing safety valve in current law, it is very limited. It has a strict five-part test, and only about 23% of all drug offenders qualified for the safety valve.... Each case should be judged on its own merits. Mandatory minimums prevent this from happening.

Mandatory minimum sentencing has done little to address the very real problem of drug abuse while also doing great damage by destroying so many lives, and most Americans now realize it.... Pew Research found that 67% of Americans want drug offenders to get treatment, not prison, and over 60% want an end to mandatory minimum sentences.

I urge the attorney general to reconsider his recent action. But even more importantly, I urge my colleagues to consider bipartisan legislation to fix this problem in the law where it should be handled. Congress can end this injustice, and I look forward to leading this fight for justice.

I am quite pleased to see Senator Paul astutely use the new Sessions Memo to justify reintroduction and a renewed campaign for his elegant Justice Safety Valve Act (JSVA).  For a host of reasons, most notably simplicity, the JSVA has long been my favorite piece of proposed legislation to deal with the problems created by mandatory minimum sentencing statutes.   Along with Harlan Protess back in 2013, as detailed here, I even took to the pages of the Wall Street Journal to urge then President Obama to throw his support behind the JSVA. 

Given that Prez Obama never expressed support for the JSVA and that this bill never even got a vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee when under control by Democrats, I am not optimistic that the Sessions Memo will be enough to seriously enhance the JSVA's passage prospects.  But I am encouraged to see Senator Paul continuing to be an active and vocal and effective pace-setter for reform of federal mandatory minimum sentencing provisions and practices.

May 15, 2017 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Some more notable reactions to the Sessions Memo

I highlighted in this prior post some first-cut reactions to the new charging and sentencing memorandum released yesterday by Attorney General Jeff Sessions (basics here). Now I will highlight a few more I have seen:

From NBC News here, "Attorney General Sessions Charts Course Back to Long Drug Sentences"

From BuzzFeed News here, "Former Federal Judges Say Sessions’ New Policy Will Take Power Away From The Courts"

Also from BuzzFeed News here, "Republicans And Democrats Are Blasting The "Dumb On Crime" Sessions Order For Tougher Sentencing"

From the Wall Street Journal here, "As Jeff Sessions Pushes for Tougher Drug Sentences, Previous Policy Gets Mixed Grades"

From the Washington Examiner here, "Former US attorneys hate Jeff Sessions' memo on tougher sentences"

Prior recent related posts: 

May 14, 2017 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Friday, May 12, 2017

Some notable first-cut reactions to the Sessions Memo

The Hill already has two articles reporting on some notable reactions to the new Sessions Memo.  The reactions are not surprising, but they are still interesting:

Obama AG slams Sessions for shift to harsher sentencing

GOP senator: Sessions's push for tougher sentences highlights 'injustice'

Eric Holder is the AG referenced in the headline of the first article, and Senator Rand Paul is the one referenced in the headline of the second one. Senators Mike Lee and Tom Cotton also are quoted in the second article, and long time readers of this blog can likely guess the nature of their takes on the Sessions Memo.

Last but certainly not least, Bill Otis has reactions here at Crime & Consequences under the heading "Jeff Sessions Returns DOJ to Sound Charging Policy." Here are choice excerpts (emphasis in original):

This has been reported as "new" guidance, but it's not. It's the return of the "most serious readily provable" standard that governed charging policy during most of my 18-year tenure in the US Attorney's Office, a tenure that ended last century. The policy continued during the George W. Bush Administration.

It was right then and it's right now. It amounts to telling prosecutors to charge what the defendant actually did. This is so obviously correct -- aligning the allegations with the facts -- that I have a hard time seeing any serious objection to it.

It does allow exceptions -- that is, in practice, more lenient charging -- in unusual cases. That too seems obviously correct, together with the Attorney General's caveat that such cases must, indeed, be out of the heartland, and the reasons for leniency should be documented and approved by a more senior AUSA or the USA himself. This prevents inattentive, inexperienced or irresolute AUSA's from doing their own thing (or being bullrushed by an aggressive or smooth-talking defense lawyer).

On its face, this policy is not that much of a change from the one Eric Holder adopted, but there is an important change in emphasis and purpose....

It will be attacked by the Left as likely to produce longer sentences. That's probably so. However, there is a ready mechanism by which such sentences can be avoided: Mr. Nicey might consider quitting the smack business and getting a normal job like everybody else. I'm just not a partisan of the notion that it's always the public that has to change. Instead, in both practical and moral senses, we'll be better off when we insist that it's the criminal who has to change. We don't need less serious charging. We need less crime.

Criminals make choices. We should give them enhanced incentives to make better ones, for them and for us. The Attorney General's directive does just that.

Prior recent related post: 

May 12, 2017 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (28)

Misreporting of the Sessions Memo and the challenge of nuance in prosecutorial charging policies

I have already had the pleasure of speaking with a couple of thoughtful members of the media about the new charging and sentencing memorandum released today by Attorney General Jeff Sessions (basics here), and those conversations have already reinforced my sense of how challenging it is to fully and fairly assess the import and impact of the "Sessions Memo" in our modern sound-bite world. But while I can understand and sympathize with media members struggling to fully understand and contextualize the Sessions Memo, I felt compelled to blog my frustration with media efforts like this one from the New York Daily News that in their headline and lead get the basic story fundamentally wrong:  

Attorney General demands prosecutors seek max sentences for drug offenders

Attorney General Jeff Sessions is taking the war on drugs nuclear, ordering federal prosecutors across the country to pursue the longest prison sentences possible for drug offenders and others in a reversal of Obama-era policies.

This is just flat out wrong, as the very text of paragraph four of the short Sessions Memo makes plain (with my emphasis added): "prosecutors must disclose to the sentencing court all facts that impact the sentencing guidelines or mandatory minimum sentences, and should in all cases seek a reasonable sentence under the factors in 18 U.S.C. § 3553."

I think it fair (though still an incomplete short-hand) to talk about the Sessions Memo demanding prosecutors to seek tougher or harsher or longer sentences, but it is dangerously wrong to assert that the Sessions memo requires pursuit of "max sentences" or "the longest prison sentences possible."  Indeed, it seems that AG Sessions very much believes that his Memo actually provides even "more play in the joints" than pre-Holder era prosecutorial guidelines.  This is evidence by the text of this speech he gave today in New York talking about his new memo, which includes these excerpts:

Charging and sentencing recommendations are bedrock responsibilities for any federal prosecutor.  And I trust our prosecutors in the field to make good judgements.  They deserve to be unhandcuffed and not micro-managed from Washington.   Rather, they must be permitted to apply the law to the facts of each investigation.  Let's be clear, we are enforcing the laws Congress passed – that is both our fundamental mission and constitutional duty.

Going forward, I have empowered our prosecutors to charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense.  It means we are going to meet our responsibility to enforce the law with judgment and fairness.  It is simply the right and moral thing to do.  But it is important to note that unlike previous charging memoranda, I have given our prosecutors discretion to avoid sentences that would result in an injustice.

Prior recent related post: 

May 12, 2017 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

AG Sessions issues new tougher charging and sentencing guidelines to federal prosecutors

As reported in this official Justice Department press release, "Attorney General Jeff Sessions today issued the attached memorandum [available here] establishing charging and sentencing policies for the Department of Justice." The press release further reports:

This policy was formulated after extensive consultation with Assistant U.S. Attorneys at both the trial and appellate level, as well as U.S. Attorneys and Main Justice Attorneys. It ensures that the Department enforces the law fairly and consistently, advances public safety and promotes respect for our legal system.

Attorney General Sessions will issue further remarks on the new policy later this morning.

This memorandum is relative short and to the point, and here is some of its key language:

Charging and sentencing recommendations are crucial responsibilities for any federal prosecutor.  The directives I am setting forth below are simple but important.  They place great confidence in our prosecutors and supervisors to apply them in a thoughtful and disciplined manner, with the goal of achieving just and consistent results in federal cases.

First, it is a core principle that prosecutors should charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense. This policy affirms our responsibility to enforce the law, is moral and just, and produces consistency.  This policy fully utilizes the tools Congress has given us.  By definition, the most serious offenses are those that carry the most substantial guidelines sentence, including mandatory minimum sentences.

There will be circumstances in which good judgment would lead a prosecutor to conclude that a strict application of the above charging policy is not warranted.  In that case, prosecutors should carefully consider whether an exception may be justified.  Consistent with longstanding Department of Justice policy, any decision to vary from the policy must be approved by a United States Attorney or Assistant Attorney General, or a supervisor designated by the United States Attorney or Assistant Attorney General, and the reasons must be documented in the file.

Second, prosecutors must disclose to the sentencing court all facts that impact the sentencing guidelines or mandatory minimum sentences, and should in all cases seek a reasonable sentence under the factors in 18 U.S.C. § 3553.  In most cases, recommending a sentence within the advisory guideline range will be appropriate. Recommendations for sentencing departures or variances require supervisory approval, and the reasoning must be documented in the file.

This AP article about this new AG Sessions' memo provides this brief and effective account of what these directions change:

The directive rescinds guidance by Sessions’ Democratic predecessor, Eric Holder, who told prosecutors they could in some cases leave drug quantities out of charging documents so as not to trigger long sentences. Holder’s 2013 initiative, known as “Smart on Crime,” was aimed at encouraging shorter sentences for nonviolent drug offenders and preserving Justice Department resources for more serious and violent criminals.

Though Holder did say that prosecutors ordinarily should charge the most serious offense, he instructed them to do an “individualized assessment” of the defendant’s conduct. And he outlined exceptions for not pursuing mandatory minimum sentences, including if a defendant’s crime does not involve violence or if the person doesn’t have a leadership role in a criminal organization.

This development is a very big deal, although it is not especially surprising and the thousands of federal prosecutors who implement this policy around the nation will ultimately determine how dramatically federal charging and sentencing practices change in the months and years ahead.  (And one interesting point for the historical record: the AG Sessions charging and sentencing memo is dated May 10, but it would seem the brouhaha over the Comey firing delayed its official public release.)

Prior recent related post: 

May 12, 2017 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Tuesday, May 09, 2017

New buzz about AG Sessions considering new tougher charging guidance for federal prosecutors

I had the great honor and privilege tp speak earlier today to a terrific group of judges, along with a terrific lawyer from the US Sentencing Commissions, about federal sentencing trends and developments.  We started the discussion with a particular focus on drug cases, and I mentioned that I was expecting to see new, probably tougher, charging guidelines emerging from the Department of Justice under its new leadership.  This new Washington Post article, headlined "Sessions weighs return to harsher punishments for low-level drug crimes," suggests my informed speculation here may quite soon be reality. Here are excerpts from the piece:

Attorney General Jeff Sessions is reviewing policy changes set in place by the Obama administration that eliminated harsh punishments for low-level drug crimes and could direct federal prosecutors to again charge drug offenders with crimes carrying the most severe penalties, according to U.S. officials.

The change, if adopted, would overturn a memo by then-Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. that instructed prosecutors to avoid charging low-level defendants with drug offenses that would trigger severe mandatory minimum sentences. Only defendants who met certain criteria, such as not belonging to a large-scale drug trafficking organization, a gang or a cartel, qualified for the lesser charges under Holder’s instructions.

If new charging instructions are implemented, it would mark the first significant move by the Trump administration to bring back the drug war’s toughest practices — methods that had fallen out of favor in recent years as critics pointed to damaging effects of mass incarceration.

“As the Attorney General has consistently said, we are reviewing all Department of Justice policies to focus on keeping Americans safe and will be issuing further guidance and support to our prosecutors executing this priority — including an updated memorandum on charging for all criminal cases,” Ian Prior, a department spokesman, in a statement to The Washington Post.

Sessions has recently peppered his speeches to law enforcement groups throughout the country with tough-on-crime rhetoric and urged Justice Department lawyers to prosecute more drug and gun cases.

The attorney general is considering having his prosecutors bring the most severe charges against drug traffickers, whether they are low-level defendants or not, according to officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. Sessions also may allow prosecutors to use more “enhancements” to make sentences even longer. Under what’s referred to as “Section 851” of the Controlled Substances Act, defendants charged with a federal drug, firearm or immigration crime may face enhancements if they have previously been convicted of a felony drug offense.

Holder told his prosecutors four years ago that they should stop using enhancements except in certain cases — such as when the defendant was involved in the use or threat of violence — in an effort, he said, to make punishments more fairly fit the crime.

Holder’s changes came in August 2013 during a growing push among lawmakers and civil rights groups to roll back the strict charging and sentencing policies created in the 1980s and 1990s at the height of the war on drugs. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) was one of the sponsors of bipartisan criminal-justice legislation that would have reduced some of the mandatory minimum sentences for gun and drug crimes — a bill that Sessions opposed and helped derail....

The Holder memo was also supported by many of the U.S. attorneys in the Obama administration. But some prosecutors across the country fought Holder’s broad effort to eliminate mandatory minimum prison sentences for certain drug offenders, saying it damaged their ability to build cases from the ground up against major drug organizations.

As I noted in this post a few months ago, the new Attorney General has already issued directives that lead me to suspect that we would be seeing a formal new "Sessions Memo" that seeks to remove some of the "play in the joints" that former AG Eric Holder introduced through prior charging memorandum issued back in 2010 and 2013. Indeed, I have been a bit surprised we have not yet seen new directives from AG Sessions yet in this arena, and this new Post article leads me to suspect a Sessions Memo could be coming out any day now.

UPDATE:  This New York Times article, headlined "Sessions to Toughen Rules on Prosecuting Drug Crimes," suggests that new charging guidance from AG Sessions could be released any day now.  Here is a key paragraph from the article that provides additional context for this important coming federal criminal justice development:

Current and former government officials have said for weeks that Mr. Sessions’s new policy could come at any time. They said Tuesday that they expected to see it finalized shortly, and Mr. Sessions himself has foreshadowed the announcement this year, calling for a return to tougher federal charging policies in speeches and issuing memos telling prosecutors to anticipate policy shifts.

May 9, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Friday, May 05, 2017

Stories of severe federal sentences and the judges forced to impose them

Two different news sources this morning have these two equally interesting pieces about federal sentencing practices and federal judges struggling with their sentencing responsibilities:

May 5, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

Florida legislative debate provides interesting sign of the modern mandatory-minimum drug sentencing times

This new local article from Florida, headlined "Steube bill aimed at curbing overdoses sparks drug sentencing debate," highlights how legislators even in traditionally "tough" states are starting to have much more nuanced discussions about mandatory minimum sentencing proposals. Here are the interesting details:

Legislation aimed at tackling the opioid epidemic in Florida sparked a debate about mandatory minimum drug sentences in the state Senate Tuesday, prompting an amendment that put the measure sponsored by two Southwest Florida lawmakers in jeopardy.

Rep. Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton, and Sen. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, have been pushing a bill that would establish penalties for the possession of large amounts of fentanyl — a powerful synthetic opioid often laced with heroin — and its many derivatives.  Manatee and Sarasota counties were the top two communities in the state for fentanyl-related deaths per capita in 2015, according to the Florida Medical Examiners Commission.  Fentanyl was responsible for 911 deaths across Florida in 2015, and continues to be a major health crisis across the state.

But mandatory minimum drug sentences have come under increasing scrutiny nationwide and there is bipartisan concern in the Florida Legislature about what many lawmakers view as overly harsh sentencing laws.  The fentanyl bill — with the mandatory minimums included — already has passed the House, but both Republicans and Democrats in the Senate took aim at the sentencing aspect of the bill Tuesday.

The Senate amended the bill — over Steube’s objections — to strip out the mandatory minimums, which included at least three years in jail for possession of between four and 14 grams, at least 15 years for possession of between 14 and 28 grams and at least 25 years for possession of more than 28 grams. That amendment may kill the bill. Boyd does not seem inclined to push for it now, saying in a text message: “I don’t believe the bill deals with this deadly opioid problem” as amended.

Boyd said if the House takes up the Senate bill he would seek to strip off the sentencing amendment. But that likely would keep it from clearing the Senate. Steube noted that the amended legislation still makes possession of large amounts of fentanyl a crime for the first time.  “We’re still taking — in my opinion — a good step in the right direction,” Steube said of the amended bill.

The Senate debate showed the appetite within the chamber for criminal justice reform, an issue that has been championed by Republican Senate President Joe Negron.

Some lawmakers argued that any reforms tackling mandatory minimum sentences should be done in a comprehensive way and that the fentanyl bill was not the right place to start the discussion. “I have some concerns about how we have these bills come along and we put minimum mandatories on them every year,” said Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island. But Bradley added that the Senate needs to have a “global discussion” about the issue and argued against the amendment.

Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, countered that “it’s the right conversation to have because minimum mandatories don’t work in my opinion.”  Judges need to have discretion over when to crack down and when to show leniency added Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs. Tough drug sentencing laws can destroy lives, he said.

Steube said he is sympathetic to concerns about mandatory minimums but believes reform efforts should start with a drug such as marijuana that is not deadly.  “I certainly didn’t want this bill to be the bill that’s talked about,” he said.

The amendment was proposed by Sen. Randolph Bracy, one of the few Democrats in the chamber to chair a committee.  The Orlando lawmaker was not expecting the amendment to generate such a robust debate.  He hopes to address the issue of mandatory minimums in a broad way in his committee next year.

May 2, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Highlighting prosecutorial efforts to prevent rolling back of mandatory minimums

This new Slate article highlights the state of debate over mandatory minimums in various states.  The piece is headlined "Mandatory Minimums Don’t Make Us Safer: Many states are realizing this and changing the rules.  But district attorneys seem intent on blocking the progress." Here is how it gets started:

Mandatory minimum sentences are among the most lasting and damaging result of previous eras of draconian drug policy.  They include, for example, laws requiring at least two years in prison for all drug crimes within 1,000 feet of a school.  Enforcement can lead to irrational outcomes, locking people up for very minor crimes and stripping away discretion from judges.

Moreover, research has shown that tough-on-crime policies like mandatory minimums have not been effective at reducing crime.  Instead, mandatory minimum laws have been shown to cause expanded racial disparities in sentencing.  States that shifted away from minimums have seen lower prison populations and bigger cost savings. And all 17 states that decreased their prison populations over the last decade saw a reduction in crime rates.

Many states are leading the charge in doing away with mandatory minimum laws.  From Massachusetts to Iowa to Florida, momentum has grown in state legislatures this year to rewrite laws that guarantee long sentences for low-level offenders.  The reform has, in most places, won broad bipartisan support, from elected officials, judges, advocacy groups on the right and the left, and law enforcement officials.

One of the only major groups to consistently oppose reforming mandatory minimums is district attorneys.  In almost every state considering reform, local DAs and DA associations have lined up against it, arguing that reducing mandatory sentences would lead to an upswing in drug abuse.  No matter that this fearmongering is likely untrue.  The national scare over opioid use and overdose is fueling the district attorneys’ campaign for tougher drug laws.

The district attorneys claim they need the threat of a long, mandatory sentence as leverage to cajole defendants into pleading guilty to lower crimes and that mandatory minimums ensure a measure of consistency in sentencing.

Boil away this rhetoric and you get to the heart of the argument: “It’s all about power,” said Kevin Ring, the president of the advocacy group Families Against Mandatory Minimums.  “Mandatory minimums have given DAs — who already had unreviewable charging authority — the ability to pick sentences and cut judges out of the picture.”

The article goes on the discuss developments and debates over mandatory minimums in Massachusetts, Iowa, Nebraska, Florida and Pennsylvania.  And, as regular readers know, this dynamic has also been on full display in the federal system in recent years where various current and former prosecutors (including the current Attorney General) have been the loudest voices opposing proposed federal statutory reforms seeking to reduce the severity of mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug offenses.

May 2, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, April 27, 2017

"Mandatory Minimum Policy Reform and the Sentencing of Crack Cocaine Defendants: An Analysis of the Fair Sentencing Act"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article by David Bjerk just published by the Journal of Empirical Studies. Here is the abstract:

The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 (FSA) affected the U.S. federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws for crack cocaine offenders, and represented the first congressional reform of sentencing laws in over 20 years.  A primary goal of this legislation was to lessen the harshness of sentences for crack cocaine offenders and decrease the sentencing gap between crack defendants and powder cocaine defendants.  While the mean sentence length for crack offenders fell following the implementation of the FSA, these changes appear to primarily reflect the continuation of ongoing sentencing trends that were initiated by a variety of noncongressional reforms to federal sentencing policy that commenced around 2007.  However, the FSA appears to have been helpful in allowing these trends to continue past 2010.

April 27, 2017 in Booker in district courts, Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, New crack statute and the FSA's impact | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Reviewing the realities of a new sheriff in charge at the US Department of Justice

The Hill has this lengthy new article, headlined "Sweeping change at DOJ under Sessions," reviewing various ways in which the new Attorney General has set forth new policies and set a new tone for the work of the Department of Justice. Regular readers will find everything in the article familiar, but some of the commentary about DOJ changes are still new and notable. Here are excerpts:

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has brought sweeping change to the Department of Justice. In just two months as the nation’s top cop, Sessions has moved quickly to overhaul the policies and priorities set by the Obama administration....

Alex Whiting, faculty co-director of the Criminal Justice Policy Program at Harvard Law School, said it appears Sessions is resurrecting the tough on crime policies last seen during the George W. Bush administration.  “Obama moved away from that approach, and I think in the criminal justice world there seemed to be a consensus between the right and left that those policies, those rigid policies of the war on drugs and trying to get the highest sentence all the time, had failed,” he said.  “I don’t know if he is really going to be able to persuade the department to follow his lead on this.”

In March, Sessions asked the remaining U.S. attorneys appointed by former President Obama to resign.  While previous administrations took the same step, Whiting questioned whether Sessions would be able find 94 prosecutors who will back the DOJ’s new approach.  “He can order and it will have an effect, but how far this gets implemented and with what kind of energy I think is really an open question, and if they will be able to persuade the rank and file to return in a full-fledge way to those policies,” he said.

In a statement to The Hill, DOJ spokesman Ian Prior said Sessions and the Justice Department are focused on fighting violent crime and protecting the public. “When it comes to sanctuary cities, all we are requiring is that they, just like every other individual in the United States, follow Congress’ duly enacted laws,” he said. “If requiring individuals and entities to follow the law and combating violent crime are seen as dramatic reversals, then we fully support such a sea change.”

While the attorney general has acknowledged that overall crimes rates are at historic lows, he has warned that trend is about to reverse. Even if that’s true, Inimai Chettiar director of the Justice Program at the Brennan Center for Justice argued that arresting and incarcerating people is not the solution. “Mass incarceration is not contributing to mass crime declines, but it doesn’t appear Jeff Sessions knows that,” she said.

Advocates of scaling back mandatory minimums for prison sentences are expecting to see a major shift in the way crimes are prosecuted. “To the extent the Obama administration was saying, let’s be a little more judicious in the use of mandatory minimums, I think Sessions plans to put his foot on the gas and apply them anywhere and everywhere,” said Kevin Ring, vice president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums.

President Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner raised eyebrows late last month when he took a meeting with Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Mike Lee (R- Utah), the lead sponsors on the criminal justice reform bill that stalled in the last session of Congress.  While Sessions has never been a fan of efforts to reduce mandatory minimums, Chettiar called the meeting encouraging. “Kushner is supportive of criminal justice reform. … I think it’s possible there’s a strong advocate there,” she said.

Ring, however, isn’t holding his breath. “One day he’s on the Hill talking sentencing reform then next day he’s visiting the Middle East,” Ring said of Kushner. “He’s got two easy gigs — passing sentencing reform and bringing peace to the Middle East. Good luck with that.

Law enforcement groups that support Sessions, meanwhile, say the new attorney general is focused on the right things. “I think Sessions has brought a new focus to the core mission of the department, which is to make sure the nation is safe and secure in its law and make sure law enforcement operations are focused on the thing that matters most, preventing crime,” said Jonathan Thompson, executive director of the National Sheriffs’ Association.

Thompson said Sessions is taking a more holistic approach in preventing crime. “I think there’s a tendency to look at people who are incarcerated and say I really wish they weren’t there, but unfortunately they make personal choices,” he said. “The attorney general is saying you have to look at that end. You have a crime problem that could be growing and how do we respond to it? Obviously something worked.”

UPDATE: Over at Crime & Consequences, Bill Otis has this lengthy new post discussing at length everything that he thinks is wrong about the comments by Alex Whiting reprinted above near the start of the excerpt.  Everyone interested in the work of DOJ should check out Bill's post, and here is how it concludes:

Finally, I don't know who Prof. Whiting talks to at DOJ, but the career people I talk to are thrilled with Jeff Sessions' priorities, and are chomping at the bit -- not reluctant -- "to follow his lead on this."

If the sentencing "reform" people had a good case on the merits, why do they need to resort to this amount of deceit?

April 16, 2017 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

How many prior sentenced federal prisoners might now have "Dean claims" (assuming Dean is retroactive)?

As reported in this post from yesterday, and as explained a bit more via this write-up I provided to the fine folks at SCOTUSblog, the Supreme Court yesterday in Dean v. United States, No. 15-9260 (April 3, 2017) (available here) ruled that the Eighth Circuit had been wrong to hold that, "in calculating the sentence for [a] predicate offense, a judge must ignore the fact that the defendant will serve the mandatory minimums imposed under §924(c)."  According to the government's briefing in Dean, most of the circuits had also ruled like the Eighth Circuit (incorrectly) on this statutory sentencing issue — though I suspect that, in practice, a number of district courts did not consistently ignore 924(c) mandates when sentencing predicate offenses.

Given this background, I was surprised I did not think of the question in the title of this post until former AUSA Steven Sanders sent me an email with this query: "Any thoughts on whether Dean applies retroactively on 2255, on the (Montgomery) theory that the decision opens up the range of punishment and thus is substantive for Teague purposes?"   Regular readers familiar with my views about finality rules and sentencing errors (basics here, law review article here) should expect me to have plenty of thoughts about Dean retroactivity, most of which center around the view that Dean qualifies as retroactive.  Put simply, Dean seems to me to be a substantive ruling that applies retroactively.

Assuming Dean is retroactive, this recent "Quick Facts" publication from the US Sentencing Commission suggests there could be thousands (perhaps even tens of thousands) of federal prisoners with plausible Dean claims.  Specifically, that publication indicates that, in Fiscal Year 2015, over 1100 federal defendants were convicted under both section 924(c) and another predicate offense not carrying a mandatory minimum, and that the average sentence for this group was over 11 years in prison. Assuming 2015 was a fairly representative year — and the USSC publication actually suggests a larger number of defendants getting longer sentences in prior years — it is possible that well over 10,000 defendants (and maybe many more) could be in federal prison serving sentences that were imposed based on an understanding of applicable sentencing principles that Dean has now disrupted.

For various procedural and practical reasons, I doubt we will see thousands of "Dean resentencings" in the federal courts in the coming months even if thousands of prisoners got sentenced based on the wrong understanding of the applicable laws here.  But I do expect that there will be many more than just a handful or "Dean resentencing" efforts.

April 4, 2017 in Gun policy and sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, March 30, 2017

White House adviser Jared Kushner and Senate Judiciary Chair Charles Grassley meet on federal criminal justice reform

This new AP article reports that "Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley met with White House adviser Jared Kushner about criminal justice reform Thursday, giving supporters a small sign of encouragement that the issue could be revived under President Donald Trump."  Here is more context (but not much of substance) about the meeting:

[A reform] bill died in the Senate last year over conservative opposition, and its future has seemed unclear under Trump.  Attorney General Jeff Sessions, then a senator from Alabama, was a fierce opponent.  Former President Barack Obama was an enthusiastic backer of the effort, and supporters were skeptical that Trump would be as well, since he had dubbed himself "law-and-order candidate" and talked about a country in crisis, with terrorism in big cities and attacks on police.

Grassley, R-Iowa, confirmed the meeting with Kushner, Trump's adviser and son-in-law, which was first reported by BuzzFeed News, but would not comment on its substance.  The White House did not have immediate comment.  On whether the bill could be revived, Grassley said, "We're trying to reach some accommodation, if there needs to be any adjustment to the bill we had last year."

An unusual coalition — including the American Civil Liberties Union and the conservative Koch Industries — says the system is broken and supports changes.  Grassley and Texas Sen. John Cornyn, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, and Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Senate Democrat, were sponsors of the bill.  House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., has also been a strong supporter of the effort.

Advocates were encouraged by the meeting.  Holly Harris of the Justice Action Network said she is hopeful that lawmakers in Congress are paying attention to several successful state efforts to make similar changes.  And given the bipartisan support, she said, it's legislation that has a real chance of passing. "Congress needs to prove it can accomplish something, and this is the perfect issue," she said.

I am disinclined to call this one meeting a sign that federal statutory sentencing reform is in the works again, but it is an encouraging developments nonetheless for those eager to see Congress do some more reform work in this space.

March 30, 2017 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Monday, March 20, 2017

Split Louisiana Supreme Court refuses to allow jury to hear about potentially applicable mandatory minimum sentence for habitual offender

I just learned today about an interesting set of opinions handed down last week by the Louisiana Supreme Court in Louisiana v. Guidry, No. 2016-KK-1412 (La. March 15, 2017) (available here).  This lengthy local article about the decision, headlined "Jurors shouldn't be told possible mandatory minimums for repeat offenders, La. Supreme Court rules," provides this basic summary of the ruling and its context:

Louisiana jurors should not be told of possible mandatory minimum sentences defendants might face under the state's habitual offender law, because the knowledge could distract from their duty to determine guilt or innocence in a case, the Louisiana Supreme Court said in a split decision issued late Wednesday (March 15).

In a 5-2 ruling, the high court said the issue of possible mandatory minimums for repeat defendants "is too far attenuated from the guilt phase of trial to be discussed before a jury," and for a trial judge to allow such disclosure constitutes error. Chief Justice Bernette J. Johnson and Justice John L. Weimer dissented.

The decision comes in response to the Orleans Parish case of Corei Guidry, an accused drug dealer whose trial before Criminal District Court Judge Byron C. Williams has been stayed over this issue since last July.  Guidry, 29, faces 10 to 50 years if found guilty of possession with the intent to distribute heroin. Should he be convicted of what would be his fourth felony offense, District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro's office would have the post-trial option to file a multiple-offender bill.  If Guidry's prior history of three or more felony convictions can be proven at a post-conviction hearing, the judge would be required under state law to impose a mandatory minimum sentence of 50 years to life.

Here is how the majority opinion in this case begins:

The issue presented in this case is whether the trial court may allow a criminal jury to be informed of the possible mandatory minimum sentence faced by the defendant if, after a conviction on the offense being tried, he were to be sentenced under the Habitual Offender Law. For the reasons set forth below, we find the district court erred in denying the State’s motion in limine, which sought to disallow the defendant from mentioning in argument the mandatory minimum sentence the defendant could be subject to under the Habitual Offender Law should the State seek to enhance his sentence under that law and should the court find the State has proved all of the elements to warrant enhancement of the sentence. We find the issue of the possible mandatory minimum sentences that may be imposed if the defendant is convicted and the State successfully pursues enhancement of the sentence under the Habitual Offender law is too attenuated from the guilt phase of trial to be discussed before a jury, because it shifts the focus of the jury from its duty to determine guilt or innocence to issues regarding sentencing, possibly causing confusion of the issues and inviting the jury to speculate as to why a defendant may be facing such a term of imprisonment. Accordingly, we reverse the district court’s ruling.

And here is how the chief dissenting opinion starts:

I respectfully dissent and would deny the writ because the state has shown no abuse of discretion in the trial court’s denial of the state’s motion to prohibit the defense from referencing the possible life sentence that defendant will all but certainly face if convicted and adjudged a habitual offender. It has long been settled that it is within the trial judge’s discretion, in instances in which a specific punishment is not statutorily mandated, to permit or deny instruction or argument as to sentencing. The majority has accepted the invitation of the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office to establish a new per se rule which will substantially limit trial court discretion to control the information given to the jury. Under this new rule, any reference — whether by the court or in argument from the parties — to the enhanced sentence a defendant will face if he is convicted and adjudged a habitual offender, will be impermissible, unless perhaps the defendant elects to testify and subject himself to cross-examination about his prior convictions.

The trial court has the discretion to permit or prohibit references to sentencing, other than for those sentences automatically mandated by statute, because the trial judge sits in the best position to determine whether the penalty provisions at issue, including those applicable under the Habitual Offender Law, constitute “law applicable to the case,” of which the jury should be apprised under the circumstances of the particular prosecution.

I am unpersuaded that the trial court abused its discretion here by refusing to prohibit the defense from referencing the potential habitual offender sentence, especially in light of the overwhelming evidence that the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office almost reflexively (through his assistant district attorneys) institutes habitual offender proceedings upon securing the conviction at trial of a defendant with a prior felony. The prosecuting attorneys in Orleans Parish routinely wield the Habitual Offender Law, both during pre-trial plea negotiations and, in the event that tactic fails to yield a guilty plea, after obtaining a conviction at trial, to secure the harsher punishment of even non-violent offenders.

As the start of the dissenting opinion hints, there is a significant back-story to both the substantive and procedural issues surrounding this Louisiana case and the application of the state's Habitual Offender law.  Because various opinions in Guidry engage in that back-story in various ways, the full opinion is definitely worth a full read.

March 20, 2017 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

AG Sesssions issue memo directing US Attorneys focus on "drivers of violent crime" ... and indicating change to Holder's charging memos forthcoming

As reported via this official DOJ Press release, "Attorney General Jeff Sessions today directed federal prosecutors nationwide to engage in a focused effort to investigate, prosecute and deter the most violent offenders." Here is more from the release:

This builds on the announcement last week of the creation of the U.S. Department of Justice Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety, which is central to the Attorney General’s commitment to combatting illegal immigration and violent crime, such as drug trafficking, gang violence and gun crimes, and to restoring public safety to all of the nation’s communities.

“Turning back our nation’s recent rise in violent crime is a top priority for the Department of Justice, and it requires decisive action from our federal prosecutors,” said Attorney General Sessions. “I’m urging each of them to continue working closely with their counterparts at all levels, and to use every tool we have to put violent offenders behind bars and keep our citizens safe.”

In a memo to federal prosecutors in the department’s 94 United States Attorney’s Offices, the Attorney General made clear that prosecuting violent criminals is a high priority and prosecutors should work closely with their federal, state, local and tribal law enforcement partners to target the most violent offenders in each district. Working together, law enforcement at every level should determine which venue – federal or state – would best get those identified immediately off our streets and punished appropriately for their crimes.

The memo states when federal prosecution is determined appropriate, federal prosecutors should ensure the individuals driving violent crime in their district are prosecuted using the tools at their disposal, which may include firearms offenses, including possession and straw purchasing offenses; possession of a firearm during and in relation to a violent crime or drug trafficking offense; Hobbs Act robbery; carjacking; violent crime in aid of racketeering; Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act; and drug offenses under the Controlled Substances Act, among others.

The memo is available at this link, and hard-core federal sentencing fans might be most intrigued by a line that appears at the end of the memo which states that "an updated memorandum for charging in all criminal cases will be forthcoming."  That line suggests to me that pretty soon we will be seeing a formal new "Sessions Memo" that seeks to remove some of the "play in the joints" that former AG Eric Holder introduced through prior charging memorandum issued back in 2010 and 2013.

March 8, 2017 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)

Sunday, March 05, 2017

"Women in Prison: Should they be treated differently from men?"

The title of this post is the title of a lengthy new examination of the incarceration rates of women in recent years just published here by the CQ Researcher, which seeks to provide "in-depth reporting on issues in the news." The full report requires a subscription, but here is the preview via the CQ Researcher website:

The number of women in state and federal prisons has surged since 1978 by nearly 800 percent — twice the growth rate for men.  Mandatory sentences for drug offenses enacted during the 1980s and 1990s have hit women particularly hard, many experts say.  But some prosecutors and Republicans dispute the claim that the so-called war on drugs has disproportionately hurt women.  They say mandatory sentencing has reduced crime, helped break up drug rings and ended sentencing disparities.

Reformers hope states' recent efforts to reduce prison populations and spend more on drug treatment will help women. But they say women still remain an afterthought in the penal system.  For example, reformers say courts and prisons rarely recognize women's responsibility as mothers or the factors underlying their participation in crime, such as domestic abuse.  The justice system, women's advocates say, needs to think creatively about how to help female prisoners.  Meanwhile, in the juvenile system, girls often receive harsher punishments than boys who commit similar offenses.

March 5, 2017 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

Justices seem disinclined to limit federal judicial sentencing discretion in Dean

The US Supreme Court yesterday heard oral argument in Dean v. United States.  The case will resolve a circuit split over whether federal district judges, when sentencing a defendant convicted of firearms offenses under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c) that carry lengthy consecutive mandatory-minimum terms, may significantly reduce the sentence for underlying predicate offenses because of the firearm mandates.  The oral argument transcript, available here, is a interesting read for a bunch of reasons.  And I have a little summary of the argument posted here at SCOTUSblog.  Here is how that posting starts: 

It has now been more than a year since Justice Antonin Scalia passed away, but his jurisprudential spirit seemed to fill the courtroom yesterday as the Supreme Court heard oral argument in Dean v. United States At issue in Dean is whether a trial judge, when sentencing a defendant convicted of firearms offenses under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c) that carry lengthy consecutive mandatory-minimum terms, may significantly reduce the sentence for underlying predicate offenses because of the severity of the mandated consecutive sentences.  During the oral argument, several justices endorsed the government’s contention that allowing a judge to give a nominal sentence for the underlying predicate offenses in these circumstances would largely negate Congress’ purpose in enacting Section 924(c).  But, echoing statutory interpretation principles that Scalia often championed in federal criminal cases, the justices also stressed that the text of the applicable sentencing statutes did not clearly foreclose the trial judge’s exercise of judicial sentencing discretion.  This textualist point may carry the day for the defendant. 

March 1, 2017 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Florida legislators talk of repealing mandatory minimums for nonviolent offenses

As reported in this local article, headlined "In major Tallahassee reversal, mandatory sentences called a waste of taxpayer money," there is a notable movement to repeal some mandatory minimum sentences in the Sunshine State.  Here are the details:

Cynthia Powell is serving a 25-year sentence for selling 35 pills for $300 in 2002. Her incarceration at Homestead Correctional Institution costs taxpayers an average of $18,064 per year — or $451,600 by the time she is released in 2023.

The Florida Senate Criminal Justice Committee concluded Tuesday that’s money poorly spent. It voted unanimously for SB 290, which would end minimum mandatory sentences for nonviolent offenses like Powell’s.  The measure represents a major shift from the tough-on-crime bills of the last two decades that filled prisons and created what both liberals and conservatives now believe has been a subclass of lifers in jail and a waste of tax money.  The “prison diversion bill” would save the state $131 million in avoided costs and put 1,001 fewer people in jail, said Sen. Daryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, the bill’s sponsor.

The measure would allow judges to depart from the 118 minimum mandatory sentences in Florida law but excludes drug traffickers.  It restores the Florida Sentencing Commission, which existed from 1982 to 1997, but limits its scope to determining the severity ranking that adds points to an offender’s record based on certain offenses. Anyone who commits a violence offense, is not eligible for the court’s leniency.

Reforming Florida’s legacy of harsh sentencing is one of several reforms being pushed by a coalition of liberal and conservative advocates that were passed unanimously by the Senate committee on Tuesday. “We are in an interesting juncture in our society and the Legislature, where Democrats and Republicans in both chambers agree that it’s really time to look at our criminal justice system and start to make some reforms,” said Sen. Randolph Bracy, D-Orlando, chairman of the committee....

Greg Newburn, director of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a conservative group that supports ending mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent crimes, said “dozens of states have already made the decision to move in this area.” They include Georgia, Oklahoma and North Carolina. “The results are uniform,” he said. “We get lower crime. We get smaller prison populations. They’ve closed prisons and saved tens of millions of dollars.”

If Powell, the Homestead inmate, had sold two fewer pills in 2002, she would have gotten a 15-year sentence, he said. If she sold them today, it would be a seven-year sentence. Instead, she won’t be released until 2023. “There are many other people in similar situations who simply don’t need to be there,” he said. “It’s a waste of money. We receive no public safety benefit whatsoever.”

His organization supports full repeal of mandatory minimum drug laws — as states such as Michigan, New York and Delaware have done — but he considers the piecemeal progress proposed by the Senate “a good reform.”

Jim DeBeaugrine of the Center for Advanced Justice, a sentencing reform advocacy group, warned the committee that giving drug offenders shorter sentences will only keep them out of prison if they receive treatment for substance abuse and mental health issues. “If you try to do it on the cheap, the results of this outcome are compromised,” he said. “The only way you will ever end the issue of mass incarceration is you’ve got to stop putting so many people in prison.”

February 23, 2017 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (23)

Sunday, February 19, 2017

"I sentenced criminals to hundreds more years than I wanted to. I had no choice."

13FRISK-master675The title of this post is the headline of this recent Washington Post commentary authored by former federal judge Shira Scheindlin. Here are excerpts from a lengthy piece that merits a full read:

In my nearly 22 years as a U.S. district judge in New York, I sentenced roughly 1,000 defendants. Thankfully, not all were subject to “mandatory minimum” sentences — in which Congress has imposed a required statutory punishment for a particular crime. But many were; 145 federal crimes still require a minimum sentence, including distribution of narcotics, immigration violations and identity theft, just to name a few.

Every first-year law student learns that sentencing has four goals: retribution, incapacitation, deterrence and rehabilitation. Yet thanks mostly to the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 and the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, I was often prohibited from assessing a defendant’s history, personal characteristics or role in the offense. In sentencing, where judgment should matter most, I could not exercise my judgment. I felt more like a computer than a judge. And I was not alone. Over the years, many of my colleagues on the federal bench felt the same frustrations.

This problem upset me as soon as I was appointed in 1994. Mandatory minimums were almost always excessive, and they made me feel unethical, even dirty. After seven years, my patience had run thin and my conscience was troubled; I began to consider resigning. I sought the advice of a revered mentor, a federal judge with more than 30 years of experience. He pointed out that quitting would serve nobody, as another judge would be required to impose identical sentences anyway. He also said that if I left, the bench would lose a judge who could advocate for criminal justice reform through her decisions. So I remained. But to this day, I am pained by many of the sentences I was required by law to impose. While I bore the title “Honorable Judge,” I felt less than honorable and more like a complicit tool of an unjust system....

Judicial discretion in sentencing matters. Many judges, including me, routinely sentence below the guidelines, particularly for first-time, nonviolent drug offenders. Indeed, in 2015 only 36.5 percent of all drug offenses nationwide resulted in a guideline-compliant sentences. Between 2005 and May 2016, when I retired from the bench, I sentenced more than 200 defendants convicted of narcotics offenses and imposed a lighter-than-advised sentence more than 80 percent of the time. Had I sentenced at the top of the guidelines’ range, these defendants would have served more than a millennium of additional prison time.

After I left the bench, Peter Dubrowski — my last law clerk — and I decided that we would review the sentencing protocols for each of those 200 defendants. As I expected, we found strikingly similar storylines. The overwhelming majority of the defendants were indigent. Seventy-two percent had children to support, and many of the defendants were under the age of 25 — barely adults themselves. More than half had not graduated from high school, most had not obtained a GED, and barely 5 percent had attended college. A majority battled alcohol addiction, drug addiction or both, and had begun abusing substances by age 14. Most were unemployed. Most came from single-parent homes, and most had at least one parent who was, or had been, incarcerated....

Does the length of the sentence deter people outside the courtroom from committing crimes? This is a popular idea in our country. Over time, I came to believe it is fiction. If this effect was real, my fellow judges and I would have seen narcotics arrests and prosecutions decline over the years. They never did. No young man on the street was ever deterred from criminal activity by the sentence given to a buddy. “Contrary to deterrence ideology and ‘get tough’ rhetoric,” says a report from the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit that studies criminal punishment, the evidence “fails to support” deterrence.

February 19, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11)

Thursday, February 09, 2017

Prez Trump signs three crime-fighting executive orders, including one to create a “Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety”

As reported and summarized in this CBS News report, this morning "President Trump signed three executive actions Thursday aimed at bolstering law enforcement and targeting violent crime and criminal drug cartels." Here is more:

The first executive order, according to what Mr. Trump outlined during the signing ceremony in the Oval Office, is meant to direct the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security to “undertake all necessary and lawful action to break the back of the criminal cartels that have spread across our nation and are destroying the blood of our youth and many other people.” The president signed the action Thursday after swearing in Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Among other powers, the action gives broad authority to increase intelligence and lawn enforcement information sharing with foreign powers in order to crack down on “transnational criminal organizations” and their subsidiaries. It also instructs an interagency panel to compile a report on crime syndicates within four months.

“These groups are drivers of crime, corruption, violence, and misery,” the order reads. “In particular, the trafficking by cartels of controlled substances has triggered a resurgence in deadly drug abuse and a corresponding rise in violent crime related to drugs.”...

The president signed two other actions Thursday, including one that creates a task force within the Justice Department dedicated to “reducing violent crime in America.” The “Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety” will have administrative and financial support from the Attorney General’s office, according to the text of the order.

The last action directs the DOJ to implement a plan to “stop crime and crimes of violence against law enforcement officers.” The order itself instructs the department to “pursue appropriate legislation...that will define new Federal crimes, and increase penalties for existing Federal crimes, in order to prevent violence against Federal, State, tribal, and local law enforcement officers.” That recommended legislation could include “defining new crimes of violence and establishing new mandatory minimum sentences for existing crimes of violence.” The order also directs a thorough evaluation of all grant funding programs currently administered by the Justice Department.

I am intrigued by all three of these orders, but I want to read the full orders before I comment on these.  Helpfully, the White House now has them available via these links:

Presidential Executive Order on a Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety

Presidential Executive Order on Enforcing Federal Law with Respect to Transnational Criminal Organizations and Preventing International Trafficking

Presidential Executive Order on Preventing Violence Against Federal, State, Tribal, and Local Law Enforcement Officers

February 9, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Thursday, February 02, 2017

House Judiciary Chair Goodlatte says sentencing reform is part of his agenda

As detailed in this press release, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte yesterday discussed his agenda for the 115th Congress in a speech given to the Federalist Society at the National Press Club. Only a small section of the prepared remarks addressed criminal justice and sentencing reform, but what was said was still somewhat encouraging:

The Judiciary Committee also has the solemn responsibility to ensure our laws are fair, efficient, and enforced. Under my leadership, the Committee will continue to advance an agenda that ensures our federal criminal laws are designed to appropriately punish wrongdoers, are effectively and appropriately enforced, safeguard civil liberties, increase public safety, and work as efficiently as possible.

Both Ranking Member Conyers and I remain committed to passing bipartisan criminal justice reform. We must rein in the explosion of federal criminal laws, protect innocent citizens’ property from unlawful seizures, and enact forensics reforms to identify the guilty and quickly exonerate the innocent. We must also reform sentencing laws in a responsible way and improve the prison system and reentry programs to reduce recidivism.

Additionally, it’s imperative that we continually examine federal criminal laws to ensure they protect civil liberties while also providing law enforcement with the tools needed to fight crime and keep us safe.

February 2, 2017 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, January 30, 2017

Is VP Pence going to be a key player for possible federal sentencing reform?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this interesting new Daily Caller article headlined "Want Drug-Sentencing Reform? Look To Mike Pence, Congressman Says. Here are the details:

Criminal-sentencing reform proponents in Congress are “hopeful” that Vice President Mike Pence will be an ally, helping them to work with the new law-and-order administration to pass legislation to cut mandatory minimum sentencing for drug-law offenders. “I’ve got reason to be hopeful,” House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz told reporters at a morning session of the Seminar Network, a large group of wealthy libertarian and conservative donors gathered in Palm Springs by Charles and David Koch....

Speaking to reporters alongside Sen. Mike Lee, also of Utah, Chaffetz said, “Gov. Pence, having been a governor, he understands this. In the end, he’s done some wise things. And I also think you will see concerted support from conservative governors who will buoy up any support in the White House.”

“If you’re going to be tough on crime, you better be smart about it.  And there are hardened criminals who do need to spend the rest of their lives in prison.” But, he added, we need to fix the problem of repeat offenders spending years in prison for drug crimes.

Doug Deason, a Seminar Network donor with an interest in sentencing reform, highlighted the White House’s new legislative director, Marc Short, as another reason to be hopeful. Before joining the administration, Short was a longtime adviser to Pence and a lead deputy in the libertarian Koch network. “He cares passionately about criminal justice reform,” Deason said.  Deason, a Texas businessman who is president of Deason Capital Services, was less enthusiastic about Sessions, telling reporters, “I’m glad they got him out of the Senate, they got him out of the way!”

Chaffetz defended Sessions, however, pointing to the Fairness in Sentencing Act the Alabama senator shepherded through in 2010, reducing the difference between sentences for crack cocaine and powder cocaine. “I think last year we were caught up in presidential politics… and I think he’s in a different position now,” Chaffetz said....

“We were so close last time,” Lee, a member of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, lamented to reporters at the seminar.

January 30, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Making the case again against mandatory minimums

Mark Holden has this new op-ed, given the headline "Mandatory minimums are a crime in themselves," which discusses the well-known case of Weldon Angelos and then articulates the effective arguments against mandatory minimum sentencing statutes generally. Here are excerpts:

America's criminal justice system is broken. Too many of our fellow citizens are rotting behind bars, unable to atone for their mistakes, contribute to their communities and lead lives of meaning and fulfillment. It's not just a crisis — it's a crime in and of itself.

If you don't believe us, just go to the Sundance Film Festival this weekend. There you'll see a trailer for a new documentary about Weldon Angelos and his firsthand experience with the criminal justice system.  As a lawyer with Koch Industries, I learned about Weldon Angelos when he became the poster child for the unfair and unjust sentences that are all too common, especially for low-level and nonviolent offenders....

Even though he was a first-time, nonviolent offender [convicted of multiple marijuana distribution and gun possession charges], Weldon Angelos received a staggering 55-year prison sentence with a release date of October 2051. He would have received a shorter sentence for being a murderer or terrorist....

Weldon's story, thankfully, has a happy ending. Last May, after 12 years in prison, a federal court granted him an immediate reduction to his sentence. In a show of true compassion, the federal prosecutor who prosecuted him in the first place initiated this effort. Weldon has since returned to his family and his life — a life that only months ago seemed would be spent behind bars.

Yet the laws behind such grossly unjust punishments are still on the federal books. So are many other mandatory sentencing laws. Rolling them back — or repealing them outright — is one of the most important reforms before Congress.

This is especially important for federal drug offenders, over 260,000 of whom have been sentenced under mandatory minimums. Distressingly, 86 percent of current drug offenders in federal prison committed nonviolent crimes, and the same number were low-level offenders.

The case against mandatory minimum sentencing laws is simple. While initially created with good intentions, they typically do far more harm than good. Mandatory minimums empower prosecutors to a dangerous degree. They alone have the power to bring charges against offenders — if they bring ones associated with high mandatory minimums, the judge has little choice but to accept it, even if other charges might be more appropriate. Nowhere else in America's criminal justice system are judges and juries so powerless.

And while they are supposed to lower crime rates, studies have shown that mandatory minimums have had only a minor effect at best. Hardened criminals — the real bad guys — are still usually able to get favorable deals, while low-level ones get stuck with the harshest possible sentences. Last but not least, mandatory minimums create perverse incentives for the police themselves. If authorities truly felt Weldon was a threat to public safety, they would have arrested him the first time he sold marijuana to the informant. Instead, law enforcement allowed him to sell drugs two more times to enhance the sentence. This is fundamentally unjust.

The evidence points to the inescapable conclusion that mandatory minimums must be reformed, and fast. Congress has an opportunity to make law enforcement jobs less dangerous, enhance public safety for all, bring communities together, and help countless people improve their lives — people like Weldon Angelos. It's time to restore justice to America's criminal justice system.

January 22, 2017 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (14)

Friday, January 06, 2017

An optimistic accounting of many areas for bipartisan federal criminal justice reform ... and good lines of inquiry for AG nominee Jeff Sessions

The week brought this extended commentary by Mark Holden at The Hill under the headline "Criminal justice reform is ripe for bipartisan achievement." I recommend the piece in full, and here are highlights of the reforms urged (with Holden's accounting of "reason it could pass" left out so readers will be encouraged to click through):

Criminal justice reform has been one of the few policy areas where Republicans and Democrats have forged bipartisan consensus.  They have come close to passing reform the past two years, and now it’s up to GOP lawmakers to pick up where they left off. Leaders as diverse as Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) agree that the current system is broken....

That’s why it’s critical that leaders in Congress take up criminal justice reform. If they focus on six key areas of reform, there’s a real possibility that legislation could pass in both the House and Senate, even with the Senate’s 60-vote threshold, a bar not easily achieved on other issues.

Here are the six areas of reform — and the reasons they have a viable path to becoming law.

First, we need to reform the grand jury process and rein in prosecutorial overreach. As Judge Kozinski has advocated, lawmakers should require open file discovery, so prosecutors hand over all evidence favorable to an accused person, and also establish truly independent prosecutorial review units to investigate abuses....

Second, we must protect every citizens’ Sixth Amendment rights.  When it comes to federal cases, Congress should ensure that all individuals — regardless of income level – have an adequate chance to retain counsel before they appear in court.  It should also explore the model that some states have moved to, which allows defendants to choose a private lawyer from a list of options, rather than being appointed a lawyer who may not offer a competent defense....

Third, the punishment must fit the crime. Congress should reform mandatory minimums that don’t make sense and increase the use of “safety valves,” which allow judges to use their discretion for non-violent offenses if the offender meets certain requirements. These reforms are particularly important for low-level and non-violent offenders (mostly involving drug crimes), who too often languish in prison for years or even decades at a time at great cost to their families and our society at large.....

Fourth, prisons should leave individuals better off than when they came in. Prison rehabilitation programs have proven to reduce the chance of re-offense and save taxpayer dollars....

Fifth, Congress should give worthy individuals a chance to rejoin society and find fulfillment in their lives.  Lawmakers could start by “banning the box” from federal employment applications so that individuals with a record can be considered for government jobs.  Congress, however, should not mandate that companies “ban the box,” but should allow them to voluntarily do so.  Congress should also clear the record of qualifying youth and non-violent federal offenders; limit solitary confinement for juveniles; and establish effective rehab, educational, and vocational programs so that every individual leaves prison a better person than when they came....

Finally, Congress needs to dramatically scale back the federal criminal code and ensure that all criminal laws have adequate criminal intent, also known as “mens rea.”  The criminal code is a stunning 27,000 pages and comprises an estimated 4,500-6,000 criminal laws — and that doesn’t even include the thousands of additional federal regulations that impose criminal punishments. Many penalize people who had no idea they were committing a crime — missing a basic historical requirement that once existed in the criminal law to protect people from being unfairly prosecuted....

Any one of these reforms would improve our federal justice system — and have a profound effect on our society.  Taken together, they will make communities safer, support our brave law enforcement officers, save taxpayer dollars, and empower individuals in need of a second chance.  That’s precisely why Republicans and Democrats alike will have a difficult time answering to their constituents if they resist such reforms.  Doing so would be a clear political move that overlooks the millions of Americans who would be better off as a result of this bipartisan achievement.

If President-elect Trump and the GOP Congress take up criminal justice reform, it will be a sure sign that they are willing to look beyond party lines in order to improve people’s lives.  That would be good start to putting individuals’ safety and wellbeing ahead of partisan politics.

As the title of this post suggests, I think this piece's accounting of six areas in need of reform would provide a fantastic guide for questions for Senator Jeff Sessions during his hearings to serve as Attorney General. These questions can be softball (e.g., do you believe prison rehabilitation programs can be valuable?) or tough (e.g., do you think there should be more means for federal inmates to earn sentence reduction for participating in prison rehabilitation programs). And I welcome readers to use the comment to make more suggestions for additional soft or tough questions on these or other fronts.

Critically, and as I hope to outline more fully in a post over the weekend, I feel very strongly that those Senators who support federal criminal justice reforms ought to use the Sessions' confirmation hearing to do much more that just simply attack the Senator for long-ago acts or statements claimed to be evidence of racism or insensitivity.  Instead, by crafting astute questions concerning specific area of the federal criminal justice system in need of reform, members of the Judiciary Committee could and should be able to get Sessions to express support for — or at least a lack of opposition to — many of the bipartisan reforms discussed above and widely embraced inside the Beltway in recent years.

January 6, 2017 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

GOP Senate Judiciary Chair Chuck Grassley says federal sentencing reform a priority after Trump nominations completed

This lengthy new Politico article, headlined in full "Senators plan to revive sentencing reform push: Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley says he's not done yet pressing a cause with broad bipartisan support," brings some welcome new year good news for advocates of federal sentencing reform.  Here are the details, with a couple of lines emphasized for subsequent commentary:

Criminal justice reform — the great bipartisan hope of 2016 that ended in disappointment — may not be dead just yet. Senate Judiciary Committee Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) plans to take up a bill to revamp U.S. sentencing laws and reform prisons soon after his panel clears the high-profile nominations from Donald Trump. A similar measure passed his committee overwhelmingly last year before stalling out in the face of opposition from law-and-order conservatives.

But Grassley told POLITICO he will soon try again. "The committee will begin the year working through the attorney general and Supreme Court nominees, but criminal justice reform will be one of the legislative bills I plan to bring up early on,” he said in a statement. “It cleared the committee with a broad bipartisan majority in the last Congress, and I don't expect that to change.”

The chief authors of the criminal justice overhaul, led by Grassley and Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), will continue to try to drum up more support among senators, while “educating” the Trump administration about their bill’s merits, Grassley said.  The legislation isn’t expected to be substantially different than last year’s version.

Criminal justice reform could’ve been one of the bright, bipartisan spots in an otherwise contentious election year. But despite support from President Barack Obama, powerful congressional Republicans, and a sprawling network of groups from the left and right, the legislation never made it to the floor.  That was partly due to the determined efforts of law-and-order conservatives to steamroll it — and there's little to suggest that if the legislation heads to the Senate floor, that dynamic would change.

Nevertheless, Durbin approached Grassley after the election and pressed the chairman about whether the duo should make another run at it this year, Durbin recalled in a recent phone interview. Grassley was in. And once the chairman tees up the bill this year in his committee, its supporters expect a bipartisan vote similar to the 15-5 tally it received in October 2015.

Durbin and Grassley’s aides have been discussing a strategy to advance the bill in 2017. Aiding their cause is the fact that three opponents — GOP Sens. David Vitter of Louisiana, Jeff Sessions of Alabama and David Perdue of Georgia — are leaving the committee this year, stirring hope that the vote count in favor of the measure could be higher. Vitter no longer serves in the Senate, Sessions is expected to be confirmed as attorney general and Perdue is shifting committees. Replacing them on the influential panel are Sens. Ben Sasse of Nebraska, Mike Crapo of Idaho and John Kennedy of Louisiana. “I think the committee will be just as strong. It may be stronger,” Durbin said. “When you have people like Grassley and Durbin and [Senate Majority Whip John] Cornyn and [Sen. Patrick] Leahy for goodness sakes … it ought to be enough for us.”...

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is rarely eager to take up policy fights that divide his conference — and Democrats point a finger at him as a prime reason why criminal justice reform stalled last year. “The problem we ran into is Sen. McConnell, who didn’t want to call the bill to the floor. He was concerned about the impact on the election and also that the House wasn’t going to take it up,” Durbin said. The question remains going forward, he added, "whether McConnell will give us a chance.” McConnell aide Don Stewart responded that the majority leader spoke several times about the issue in 2016 and “doesn’t need Sen. Durbin to be his spokesman.”

The president-elect ran on a law-and-order platform, but Trump doesn't appear to have weighed in on the Senate measure during his campaign. Another wildcard factor is Sessions, Trump’s pick to become the attorney general.  As a senior member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, he was a fervent opponent of the sentencing overhaul and one of the five votes against it.

But Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), another supporter of the criminal justice reform effort, speculated that once Sessions becomes the attorney general, his chief objective will be on enforcing what Congress sends him — even if he disagrees with it — rather than slipping into the role of legislator and try to change the laws. “He’s going to be focused on being the nation’s top law enforcement official,” Tillis said. “I don’t necessarily see him weighing in heavily on public policy choices that President Trump makes.”

Durbin said he intends to press Sessions on his views of criminal justice reform and how he’ll handle the issue at the Justice Department when the two meet privately to discuss about his bid to become attorney general on Wednesday.  Though Sessions had wanted to meet earlier, Durbin said Senate Democrats decided as a caucus to not meet with any Cabinet selections until the new year. “I want to know after all of the speeches he gave on the floor against criminal justice reform, what we can expect of him as attorney general,” Durbin said. “I don’t know what he’ll say.”

Still, others speculate that after Washington endures partisan wars over repealing Obamacare and confirming polarizing presidential nominees, Trump will be looking for a bipartisan win. Criminal justice reform could deliver one. “I know we have enough votes to send this to the president’s desk,” Tillis said. Stressing his desire to avoid legislative gridlock, Tillis added: “The election was not a Republican mandate. The election was a results mandate.”

This story is both encouraging and not all that surprising given the events of the last few years surrounding the proposal, debates and modifications of the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act. The two lines I have emphasized reflect two coming developments that I think are crucial to this developing 2017 federal sentencing reform story:

1. I think it would be a policy mistake, despite the 2015 Judiciary Committee success of the SRCA, for that bill to serve the essential template for new Senate reform legislation. In my view, there are a host of ways a new and improved federal sentencing reform bill could and should be much more streamlined AND I think a new bill could and should garner even more bipartisan support if it also were to include some modest (or even aggressive) mens rea reforms.

2. I think Senators Sessions and Durbin are really critical players here, especially over the next few weeks, as Sessions develops and articulates his priorities as Attorney General and as Durbin seeks to explain why the horrific uptick in violent crime in his own Chicago (Which Prez-Elect Trump has been tweeting about) should not be a reason to tap the brakes on any further federal sentencing reforms.

January 4, 2017 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

"The Obama Legacy: Chipping Away at Mass Incarceration" ... but ...

The quoted portion of the title of this post is the headline of this notable new commentary authored by Marc Mauer.  Perhaps appropriately given the "Obama Legacy" label, the piece is focused mostly on the federal sentencing system.  And, in my view inappropriately, the piece gives Prez Obama a little too much credit for some of what I consider to be his "day late and dollar short" work in this arena.  With that set up, here are excerpts (with two lines emphasized that really rankles me, as I will explain after the excerpt):

As President Obama prepares to leave office, the United States still holds the dubious honor of having the highest incarceration rate in the world, with 2.2 million people behind bars. In order to assess his impact on the criminal justice system, it’s necessary to examine the policy shifts that got us here in the first place.

In 1980 there were 24,000 people in the federal prison system, about 25% of whom were serving time for a drug offense. By the time Obama was elected in 2008, that number had ballooned to 201,000 people, nearly half of whom were locked up for a drug offense.

There are two key reasons for the population explosion — both rooted in the war on drugs.  First, President Reagan encouraged federal law enforcement agencies and prosecutors to emphasize drug arrests. Second, Congress adopted mandatory sentencing policies — frequently applied to drug offenses — that established a “one size fits all” approach to sentencing. Federal judges were obligated to impose prison terms of 5, 10, 20 years — or even life — largely based on the quantity of drugs involved. They were not permitted to take any individual factors, such as histories of abuse or parenting responsibilities, into account to mitigate those sentences. The racial disparities from these sentencing policies were particularly extreme.

The most egregious of these policies were tied to crack cocaine offenses.  Someone possessing as little as five grams of the drug (about the weight of a sugar packet) would face a minimum of five years in prison.  That threshold was significantly harsher than the mandatory penalty for powder cocaine, which required a sale of 500 grams of the drug (a little over a pound) to receive the same penalty.  Since 80% of crack cocaine prosecutions were brought against African Americans, the racial disparities from these sentencing policies were particularly extreme.

Momentum for reforming the crack cocaine mandatory minimum laws predated the Obama administration, and had growing bipartisan support when the President took office.  The President signed the Fair Sentencing Act into law in 2010, reducing sentencing severity in a substantial number of crack cases.  Then in 2013, Attorney General Eric Holder issued a memorandum to federal prosecutors calling on them to avoid seeking mandatory prison terms in low-level drug cases, which has cut the number of cases with such charges by 25%.

While the changes in sentencing laws have helped to reduce the federal prison population, the highest profile of Obama’s reforms is his use of executive clemency to reduce excessively harsh drug sentences.  That is a story of both politics and policy.  During Obama’s first term he used his clemency power far less than his predecessors — a pattern that was sharply criticized by many reform groups and editorial  boards. But after launching a “clemency initiative” in 2014, the President has commuted the drug sentences of more than 1,100 individuals (with promises of substantially more by the time he leaves office).  Notably, in about a third of these cases, the individuals had been sentenced to life without parole due to mandatory sentencing policies....

Perhaps the most significant aspect of President Obama’s work in regard to criminal justice reform has been his role in changing the way we talk about the issue. After a disappointing first term in which these issues received only modest attention, Obama’s last years in office framed criminal justice reform as a top priority. Among a series of high-profile events during his second term was the President’s address on mass incarceration at the NAACP national convention, at which he concluded that “mass incarceration makes our country worse off.”

Mass incarceration did not come about because there is a shortage of ideas for better approaches to public safety — it was the result of a toxic political environment where legislators favored political soundbites over evidence. By using the bully pulpit to frame justice reform as a major issue, Obama provided some coverage for mainstream legislators to support sound policy options.

It is difficult to be optimistic that the incoming administration will look favorably on criminal justice reform.  Leading Republicans, such as House Speaker Paul Ryan, may be persuasive in making the conservative argument for reform.  But President-elect Trump’s “tough on crime” rhetoric, which paints many incarcerated people as “bad dudes,” suggests progress at the federal level will be a challenge.  Realistically, opportunities for justice reform are more likely at the state level. Many local officials are already convinced of the need for sentencing reform and reentry initiatives, and they may be less influenced by the political climate in Washington. If so, such changes at the local level may ultimately gain traction in a Trump White House as well.

1.  The first line emphasized above makes me extra crazy because it falsely portrays Prez Obama as a bold leader who used the bully pulpit in order to provide "coverage for mainstream legislators to support sound policy options."  This could not be more backwards: Prez Obama was a timid and disappointing follower here, as his July 2015 NAACP speech about the need for reform came only AFTER "mainstream" politicians ranging from Rand Paul to Corey Booker, from Ted Cruz to Patrick Leahy, from Rick Perry to Deval Patrick, from Bobby Jindal to Jim Webb, from Chuck Grassley to Dick Durbin, from Jim Sensenbrenner to Bobby Scott, from Raul Labrador to Elijah Cummings, from Judy Chu to Mia Love, from Newt Gingrich to even Chris Christie had all spoken in some significant ways about the need for significant criminal justice reform and especially sentencing reform (and I am sure I am leaving out many others).

2.  The second line emphasized above makes me crazy for more "inside baseball" reasons: given that this commentary makes much of the "egregious" crack/powder cocaine sentencing policies that were only partially fixed by the FSA, the commentary ought to take a moment to note that Prez-Elect Trump has nominated as Attorney General the most prominent and vocal GOP Senator who was complaining loudly about the 100-1 crack/powder laws before doing so was popular or comment.  As noted in this post and recently reported by the Wall Street Journal, " Mr. Sessions was for years Congress’s most avid supporter of cutting the disparity between sentences for crack and powder cocaine, at a time when other lawmakers were loath to be seen as soft on crime."  

I really respect so much of the work Marc Mauer does in his commentary and through The Sentencing Project, but these troublesome statements reflect what I am seeing as the worst tendencies of the "commentariat class" since the election.  Specifically, even though Prez Obama's record on sentencing reform is relatively unimpressive (especially as compared to his record on lots of other issues), many on the left seem eager to assert that Prez Obama really achieved a lot in this arena and then go on to gnash teeth about reform momentum being halted now that there is a new sheriff in town.  This narrative entirely misses, in my opinion, not only (a) the reality that Prez Obama himself retarded reform momentum in many ways (e.g., by getting such a late start on clemency, by resisting mens rea reforms that could have been included in bipartisan sentencing reform bills), but also (b) the (significant?) possibility that many GOP leaders in Congress who have actively promoted and worked hard on federal sentencing reform bills will keep up that work in the years to come.

December 21, 2016 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (17)

Friday, December 16, 2016

"Why Congress May Bring Criminal Justice Reform Back to Life"

The title of this post is the headline of this effective new Marshall Project analysis by Bill Keller, which carries the subheadline " Four reasons a bipartisan bill has a better chance than you think." Here are excerpts:

It’s no wonder criminal-justice reformers woke up from Election Day 2016 with a sense of existential gloom. Given candidate Donald J. Trump’s law-and-order bluster, his dystopian portrayal of rising crime and an ostensible war on the police, and a posse of advisers who think the main problem with incarceration is that we don’t do enough of it, the idea that justice reformers have anything to look forward to is at best counterintuitive.

It is reasonable to expect that President Trump and his choice for attorney general, Jeff Sessions, will dismantle at least some of what their predecessors leave behind. Based on what they have said, the Trump-Sessions Justice Department may well roll back federal oversight of troubled police forces, escalate the war on drugs, enlarge the share of the corrections business that goes to private companies, accelerate deportations of undocumented immigrants and use the threat of financial sanctions to challenge so-called sanctuary cities....

But those inclined to look for silver linings may find one on Capitol Hill.... I can think of four reasons the prospects of federal reform are actually better in 2017.

First, it is not an election year. Nothing makes members of Congress squirm like the specter of attack ads portraying them as coddlers of criminals. There is reason to think those Willie Horton-style gotchas have lost some of their potency, but the prospect tends to make members of Congress more risk-averse in even-numbered years. And the lobbying alliance in favor of reform has grown and diversified and offers supportive candidates some political cover. It now includes significant numbers of police executives and prosecutors, who say our tendency to over-criminalize and over-punish wastes money and human potential without making us safer.

Second, President Obama will be gone. Some of the resistance to this year’s sentencing bill was a reluctance to give the president a parting victory. His heartfelt embrace of criminal-justice reform in the final years of his presidency was — through no fault of his own — the kiss of death in a hostile Congress.

Third, at least one of the hard-core Senate opponents of sentencing reform will no longer be there. That would be Jeff Sessions, the Republican senator from Alabama. True, as attorney general he will be in a position to encourage a presidential veto. But he will not be joining the obstructionists who this year never let a bill come to a vote at all. The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Charles Grassley, said in October that if his party leadership had brought the bill to the floor, it would have garnered 65 to 70 votes — enough to override a veto.

And fourth, the Republican leadership will be looking very hard for bipartisan successes to demonstrate that Washington is no longer in a state of ideological paralysis. On the short list of things Congress could do to reassure voters that government is back in business, criminal justice ranks near the top. The subject attracts libertarians who have come to see the machinery of criminal justice as another example of overbearing government, conservative Christians who see the criminal justice morass as dehumanizing, fiscal conservatives who have noticed that incarceration is expensive, and policy wonks who see a “corrections” system that largely fails to correct.

December 16, 2016 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, December 09, 2016

"How Many Americans Are Unnecessarily Incarcerated?"

Unnecessarily_IncarceratedThe question in the title of this post is the title of this notable new report from The Brennan Center.  The report's preface serves as a useful overview of its coverage and findings, and here are extended excerpts from the preface:

While mass incarceration has emerged as an urgent national issue to be addressed, the reforms currently offered are dwarfed by the scale of the problem. The country needs bolder solutions. How can we significantly cut the prison population while still keeping the country safe? This report puts forth one answer to that question. Our path forward is not offered as the only answer or as an absolute. Rather, it is meant to provide a starting point for a broader discussion about how the country can rethink and revamp the outdated sentencing edifice of the last four decades.

This report is the product of three years of research conducted by one of the nation’s leading criminologists, experienced criminal justice lawyers, and statistical researchers. First, we conducted an in-depth examination of the federal and state criminal codes, as well as the convictions and sentences of the nationwide prison population (1.46 million prisoners serving time for 370 different crime categories) to estimate how many people are currently incarcerated without a sufficient public safety rationale. We find that alternatives to incarceration are more effective and just penalties for many lower-level crimes. We also find that prison sentences can safely be shortened for a discrete set of more serious crimes.

Second, based on these findings, we propose a new, alternative framework for sentencing grounded in the science of public safety and rehabilitation. Many have argued that regimented sentencing laws should be eliminated and replaced with broad judicial discretion. Others counter that this would reinstate a system wherein judges are free to deliver vastly divergent sentences for the same crime, potentially exacerbating racial disparities and perpetuating the tradition of harsh sentences. This report proposes a new solution, building on these past proposals. We advocate that today’s sentencing laws should change to provide default sentences that are proportional to the specific crime.

Many have argued that regimented sentencing laws should be eliminated and replaced with broad judicial discretion. Others counter that this would reinstate a system wherein judges are free to deliver vastly divergent sentences for the same crime, potentially exacerbating racial disparities and perpetuating the tradition of harsh sentences.

This report proposes a new solution, building on these past proposals. We advocate that today’s sentencing laws should change to provide default sentences that are proportional to the specific crime committed and in line with social science research, instead of based on conjecture. These defaults should mandate sentences of alternatives to incarceration for lower-level crimes. For some other crimes that warrant incarceration, they should mandate shorter sentences. Judges should have discretion to depart from these defaults in special circumstances, such as a defendant’s criminal history, mental health or addiction issues, or specifics of the crime committed. This approach is grounded in the premise that the first principle of 21st century sentencing should be to protect public safety, and that sentences should levy the most effective, proportional, and cost-efficient sanction to achieve that goal. It aims to create more uniform sentences and reduce disparities, while preserving judicial discretion when needed....

Based on these findings, this report issues the following recommendations to safely reduce the prison population....

  • Eliminate Prison for Lower-Level Crimes Barring Exceptional Circumstances: State legislatures and Congress should change sentencing laws to mandate alternatives to prison as the default sentences for certain lower-level crimes. These include drug possession, lesser burglary, minor drug trafficking, minor fraud or forgery, minor theft, and simple assault — offenses that now account for 25 percent of the prison population. Alternative sanctions — such as community service, electronic monitoring, probation, restitution, or treatment — should be the default for such crimes instead. Judges should have flexibility to depart and impose a prison sentence if certain enumerated factors are present — for example, repeat serious offenses or heinous circumstances of the crime.

  • Reduce Sentence Minimums and Maximums by Law: State and federal legislatures should reduce the current minimums and maximums prison stays set by laws, or guidelines. These ranges should be proportional to the crimes committed, with judges retaining discretion to depart when appropriate. We recommend that legislators consider a 25 percent cut as a starting point to determine how to reduce sentences for the six major crimes that make up the bulk of the current prison population: aggravated assault, murder, nonviolent weapons offense, robbery, serious burglary, and serious drug trafficking. Sentences would be shorter, but still substantial. For example, the average inmate convicted of robbery now serves 4.2 years. A 25 percent cut would reduce the prison stay to 3.1 years. A similar analysis can be applied to other crimes for which prison may be warranted to determine whether sentences can be safely shortened.

  • Retroactively Apply Reforms: Current inmates should be permitted to petition judges for retroactive application of the two reforms above, on a case-by-case basis. This would allow for safe release of prisoners whose sentences no longer serve a justifiable public safety purpose.

  • Complementary Recommendations: Prosecutors should use their discretion to seek alternatives to incarceration or shorter prison stays in line with the recommendations of this report. Further, the nearly $200 billion in savings from implementing this report’s recommendations can be reinvested in proven crime prevention tactics and in alternatives to incarceration proven to reduce recidivism. While the first steps many states have taken toward prison reform are welcome, they have not gone far enough. It took roughly four decades to build mass incarceration. Yet, at current rates of decline, it will take even longer to undo it.

December 9, 2016 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (25)

Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Recalling the work of AG-designee Senator Jeff Sessions on crack/powder sentencing reform

NA-CM623_SESSIO_16U_20161206163606The Wall Street Journal has this new article flagging the sentencing reform work of Senator Jeff Sessions, who is Prez-Elect Donald Trump's pick to serve as our next Attorney General. The article is headlined "Jeff Sessions, Civil-Rights Groups Find Some Common Ground on Crack Sentencing: Attorney-general pick, targeted for his record on race, advocated for parity in cocaine punishments." Here are excerpts:

Civil-rights groups are set to battle Sen. Jeff Sessions’s nomination as attorney general over what they see as his disturbing record on racial equality. But there is one chapter in the former prosecutor’s career where they share a sliver of common ground.

Mr. Sessions was for years Congress’s most avid supporter of cutting the disparity between sentences for crack and powder cocaine, at a time when other lawmakers were loath to be seen as soft on crime. There has been a growing consensus that harsh penalties for crack, typically bought and sold on city streets, have taken an undue toll on African-American communities, while black leaders have long viewed the disparity as little short of racist.

To Mr. Sessions’s critics, the issue doesn’t come close to compensating for his career-long opposition to expanding civil-rights protections and reducing mandatory sentences, and more broadly for what they see as a general indifference to issues important to minorities.

But to the Alabama senator’s supporters, it is an overlooked part of a résumé they say is sometimes caricatured. “This was a personal agenda item for him,” said Matt Miner, Mr. Sessions’s former chief counsel. “This law was not calibrated to target serious drug dealers and was disproportionately affecting African-Americans, and it offended him.”

In a rare bipartisan move, Mr. Sessions and Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois ultimately struck a deal in 2010 to reduce, though not eliminate, the sentencing disparity. Mr. Sessions hung a copy of the resulting legislation, signed by President Barack Obama, in a prominent spot in his office next to his desk, Mr. Miner said....

In 1995, the U.S. Sentencing Commission tried to put the sentencing guidelines on par, but Congress rejected the proposal. Weeks later, riots broke out in the federal prison in Talladega, Ala., and spread to other federal facilities, an uprising the Bureau of Prisons attributed partly to Congress’s rejection of the cocaine measure. Mr. Sessions, then Alabama’s attorney general, was elected to Congress the following year. His first sentencing bill, in 2001, lowered the sentencing disparity to 20-to-1.

Mr. Sessions declined to comment for this article. But he told The Wall Street Journal at the time that the crack penalties were unfair and in many cases made cities less safe, not more so. On the Senate floor, he cited studies showing that African-Americans made up 84% of defendants sentenced for trafficking crack but only 31% of those sentenced for powder. “The five-gram trigger point for crack that was intended to protect African-Americans has resulted in heavy penalties for African-Americans, penalties that lack a rational basis,” Mr. Sessions said in 2002. He reintroduced the proposal in 2006 and 2007.

The Fair Sentencing Act, ultimately signed into law in 2010, raised the trigger for a five-year sentence to 28 grams of crack and the 10-year trigger to 280 grams of crack. The triggers for powder cocaine remained at 500 and 5,000 grams.

Advocates for criminal-justice changes aren’t expecting much support from Mr. Sessions on some of their other priorities. “It’s not entirely clear why he supported the Fair Sentencing Act,” said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, which worked with Mr. Sessions on the issue for years. Mr. Sessions has opposed efforts to reduce sentences for nonviolent drug offenders and to investigate law-enforcement agencies accused of violating civil rights.

Others are even more downbeat.

“He has taken positions so diametrically opposed to civil and human rights that there is little hope he would bring the sense of hope and openness he brought to the Fair Sentencing Act to the job of attorney general,” said Wade Henderson, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. “I consider it a one-off where he could show he was more enlightened and less doctrinaire than some of his colleagues.”

Mr. Henderson’s group is one of 145 organizations that signed a letter opposing Mr. Session’s nomination. The letter cites racially insensitive remarks allegedly made by Mr. Sessions; his unsuccessful prosecution of three black voting-rights activists on fraud charges; his support for voter ID laws that many activists say are designed to tamp down minority voting; and his opposition to a 2009 law expanding federal prosecution of hate crimes....

Kevin Ring, vice president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums and himself a former offender, said he hopes Mr. Sessions will at least leave discretion to federal prosecutors rather than ordering them to seek maximum penalties. “I’m looking for a silver lining,” he said.

A few prior related posts on Senator Sessions and sentencing reform:

December 7, 2016 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, December 01, 2016

NC Republican Senator reiterates his commitment to federal statutory sentencing reform

This notable new local story from North Carolina, headlined "Tillis says he may not return if bills like sentencing changes aren’t passed," provides further reinforcement for my generally positive perspective on the prospects for federal statutory sentencing reform in 2017. Here are excerpts:

Sen. Thom Tillis said Wednesday that he may not seek re-election in 2020 unless a sweeping overhaul of the nation’s prison sentencing system is passed. Tillis, R-N.C., has sought to make revamping the nation’s criminal justice system one of his signature issues since arriving in Washington in 2015, leaning on his experience in pushing through North Carolina’s Justice Reinvestment Act when he was state House speaker in 2011.

Tillis said North Carolina showed that such measures could get done, even over doubts that anything less than a tough-on-crime stance would be politically damaging. He told a forum on juvenile justice in Washington that “I don’t run again until 2020, and if we’re not able to get things like this done, I don’t have any intention of coming back.”...

He expressed frustration that the Senate hasn’t been able to move the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015, a bipartisan measure that would reduce prison sentences for some nonviolent drug offenses, give judges more discretion with lower-level drug crimes and provide inmates early release opportunities by participating in rehabilitation programs....

Republicans and conservatives – from Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, to Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., to the Koch brothers – found themselves largely in agreement with Obama, the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union on the need for sweeping changes to reduce prison sentences.

But the Senate bill has been in legislative limbo. Some conservative lawmakers, such as Sens. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., and Ted Cruz, R-Texas, suggested that reducing sentences would lead to dangerous criminals being released. Even a much-heralded compromise in April to ease critics’ concerns failed to get the bill to the Senate floor.

Tillis, who appeared at Wednesday’s forum hosted by The Washington Post with Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., said he had a solution for breaking the deadlock. “We need to tell the far-right and the far-left to go away and have people in the center solve the problem,” Tillis told the audience. “It is time to tell the far-left and the far-right to get productive or get out of the way because we need to solve this problem.”

December 1, 2016 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Some sentencing question after Georgia jury verdicts of guiltly on all counts of murder, child cruelty and sexting for Justin Ross Harris

9859581_GA horribly awful (and high-profile and very interesting) state criminal case resulted yesterday in a jury verdict of guilt on all counts.  This new CNN article, headlined ""Jury finds Justin Ross Harris guilty of murder in son's hot car death," provides some details about the case that has prompted some sentencing questions for me.  Here are excerpts (with emphasis added on points that prompt follow-up sentencing questions):

A jury in Georgia on Monday found Justin Ross Harris guilty of murder in the 2014 death of his 22-month-old son, Cooper. Harris, 35, was accused of intentionally locking Cooper inside a hot car for seven hours. On that same day, Harris was sexting with six women, including one minor, according to phone records.

In addition to three counts of murder, Harris was found guilty of two counts of cruelty to children for Cooper's death, and guilty of three counts relating to his electronic exchanges of lewd material with two underage girls.  "This is one of those occasions where actions speak louder than words," Cobb County Assistant District Attorney Chuck Boring said after the verdict. "He has malice in his heart, absolutely."

The trial, which spanned almost five weeks, was moved to the Georgia coastal town of Brunswick from Cobb County, outside Atlanta, after intense pretrial publicity. It was briefly interrupted by Hurricane Matthew. The Glynn County jury of six men and six women deliberated for 21 hours over four days.  Jurors considered the testimony of 70 witnesses and 1,150 pieces of evidence, including the Hyundai Tucson in which Cooper died in a suburban Atlanta parking lot.

Justin Ross Harris waived his right to testify in his own defense. Cobb County prosecutors argued that Harris intentionally locked Cooper inside his car on a hot summer 2014 day because he wanted to be free of his family responsibilities. Harris' lawyers claimed the boy's death was a tragic accident brought about by a lapse in memory. 

It was June 18, 2014, when Harris, then 33, strapped his son into a rear-facing car seat and drove from their Marietta, Georgia, home to Chick-fil-A for breakfast, then to The Home Depot corporate headquarters, where he worked. Instead of dropping Cooper off at day care, testimony revealed Harris left him in the car all day while he was at work.  Sometime after 4 p.m. that day, as Harris drove to a nearby theater to see a movie, he noticed his son was still in the car. He pulled into a shopping center parking lot and pulled Cooper's lifeless body from the SUV. Witnesses said he appeared distraught and was screaming. "'I love my son and all, but we both need escapes.' Those words were uttered 10 minutes before this defendant, with a selfish abandon and malignant heart, did exactly that," said Boring in his closing argument.

The prosecution argued that Harris could see his son sitting in his car seat in the SUV. "If this child was visible in that car that is not a failure in memory systems," Boring argued. "Cooper would have been visible to anyone inside that car.  Flat out."  If Cooper was visible, Boring said, "the defendant is guilty of all counts."  After the verdict, jurors told the prosecution that the evidence weighed heavily in their decision, Boring said.

Digital evidence showed that on the day his son died, Harris exchanged sexual messages and photos with six women, including one minor. State witnesses testified that Harris lived what prosecutors described as a "double life."  To his wife, family, friends and co-workers, Harris was seen as a loving father and husband. But unbeknownst to them, Harris engaged in online sexual communication with multiple women, including two underage girls, had extramarital sexual encounters in public places and paid for sex with a prostitute.

Harris' defense maintained that his sexual behavior had nothing to do with Cooper's death. "The state wants to bury him in this filth and dirt of his own making, so that you will believe he is so immoral, he is so reprehensible that he can do exactly this," said defense attorney H. Maddox Kilgore during his closing argument.  Kilgore argued that Cobb County police investigators focused only on matters that fit the state's theory and ignored all the evidence that pointed to an accident. "You have been misled throughout this trial," Kilgore told jurors.  The defense lawyer continued to maintain his client's innocence after the verdict. He said he plans to appeal the verdict. "When an innocent person is convicted there's been some breakdowns in the system and that's what happened here," Kilgore told reporters outside the courthouse. "From the moment we met Ross Harris we've never, ever once wavered in our absolute belief that he is not guilty of what he's just been convicted of."

The defense's key witness was Harris' ex-wife and Cooper's mother, Leanna Taylor. "Cooper was the sweetest little boy. He had so much life in him. He was everything to me," Taylor recalled, as she seemed to fight through tears. For two days, Taylor told jurors private details of her married life with Harris, saying they had intimacy problems and recounting Harris' struggles with pornography.  Marital struggles aside, Taylor described Harris as a "very involved" parent who loved their son. In her mind, she said, the only possible explanation was that Harris "forgot" Cooper and accidentally left him in the car.  Boring said it did not matter that Taylor declined to speak with the prosecutor's office and testified for the defense. "As far as proving the case we did not need her," he told CNN.

Harris is expected to be sentenced December 5. He could face life without parole, though Boring said the prosecution will speak with the family to determine what kind of sentence to ask for.

Especially for sentencing scholars and advocates like me who worry a lot about about white criminals being treated more leniently than similarly-situated or less culpable minority criminals, I have three follow-up sentencing questions based on this case and its forthcoming sentencing in a Georgia state court:

1.  Should we be troubled that the local prosecutor in this case apparently exercised his discretion not to pursue capital punishment in a case in which the white defendant was apparently guilty of intentionally boiling his 22-month son to death?

2.  Should we be troubled that Georgia sentencing provisions, if I am understanding the law properly based on this "'Truth in Sentencing' in Georgia" documentrequires a mandatory LWOP for an adult offender who commits two armed robberies, but only requires a mandatory 25-life for intentionally boiling a toddler to death?

3.  Should we be troubled that the local prosecutor in this case, who already strikes me as unduly lenient for not even pursuing a capital charge, is now apparently willing (after a jury conviction on all counts) to exercise his discretion to seek a more lenient sentence from the sentencing judge based on the sentencing desires of the (white) wife of the murderer?

November 15, 2016 in Celebrity sentencings, Death Penalty Reforms, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

Sunday, November 13, 2016

"Hard Bargains: The Coercive Power of Drug Laws in Federal Court"

11_HardBargainsThe title of this post is the title of this soon-to-be released book by Mona Lynch that is now at the very top of my holiday wish/reading list. Here is the publisher's description of the book:

The convergence of tough-on-crime politics, stiffer sentencing laws, and jurisdictional expansion in the 1970s and 1980s increased the powers of federal prosecutors in unprecedented ways.  In Hard Bargains, social psychologist Mona Lynch investigates the increased power of these prosecutors in our age of mass incarceration.  Lynch documents how prosecutors use punitive federal drug laws to coerce guilty pleas and obtain long prison sentences for defendants — particularly those who are African American — and exposes deep injustices in the federal courts.

As a result of the War on Drugs, the number of drug cases prosecuted each year in federal courts has increased fivefold since 1980.  Lynch goes behind the scenes in three federal court districts and finds that federal prosecutors have considerable discretion in adjudicating these cases.  Federal drug laws are wielded differently in each district, but with such force to overwhelm defendants’ ability to assert their rights.  For drug defendants with prior convictions, the stakes are even higher since prosecutors can file charges that incur lengthy prison sentences — including life in prison without parole.

Through extensive field research, Lynch finds that prosecutors frequently use the threat of extremely severe sentences to compel defendants to plead guilty rather than go to trial and risk much harsher punishment.  Lynch also shows that the highly discretionary ways in which federal prosecutors work with law enforcement have led to significant racial disparities in federal courts.  For instance, most federal charges for crack cocaine offenses are brought against African Americans even though whites are more likely to use crack.  In addition, Latinos are increasingly entering the federal system as a result of aggressive immigration crackdowns that also target illicit drugs.

Hard Bargains provides an incisive and revealing look at how legal reforms over the last five decades have shifted excessive authority to federal prosecutors, resulting in the erosion of defendants’ rights and extreme sentences for those convicted.  Lynch proposes a broad overhaul of the federal criminal justice system to restore the balance of power and retreat from the punitive indulgences of the War on Drugs.

November 13, 2016 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Reading closely the main criminal justice elements of "Donald Trump’s Contract with the American Voter"

I just had a chance for the first time to review closely this two-page document entitled "Donald Trump's Contract with the American Voter." I did not read this document whenever it was released during the campaign, but now I see these notable promises in the criminal justice arena from page two of this document (with my emphasis added):

I will work with Congress to introduce the following broader legislative measures and fight for their passage within the first 100 days of my Administration:...

End Illegal Immigration Act

Fully-funds the construction of a wall on our southern border with the full understanding that the country of Mexico will be reimbursing the United States for the full cost of such wall; establishes a two-year mandatory minimum federal prison sentence for illegally re-entering the U.S. after a previous deportation, and a five-year mandatory minimum federal prison sentence for illegally re-entering for those with felony convictions, multiple misdemeanor convictions or two or more prior deportations; also reforms visa rules to enhance penalties for overstaying and to ensure open jobs are offered to American workers first.

Restoring Community Safety Act

Reduces surging crime, drugs and violence by creating a task force on violent crime and increasing funding for programs that train and assist local police; increases resources for federal law enforcement agencies and federal prosecutors to dismantle criminal gangs and put violent offenders behind bars.

Because I generally think that mandatory minimum sentencing provisions often do more harm than good, I am troubled to see emphasis on such provisions in the first passage I have quoted. At the same time because I generally think out federal criminal justice system should be much more focused on violent crime and much less focused on nonviolent crime, I am actually a bit encouraged to see an particular emphasis on violent crime in the articulation of priorities in the second passage.

November 10, 2016 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Wednesday, November 02, 2016

Election 2016: astute views "this Year’s Soft-on-Crime Attack Ads"

Maurice Chammah has this effective new article at The Marshall Project taking a look at "Campaign ads in the age of criminal justice reform." Here are excerpts from how it starts and ends:

It’s campaign season, which means the long shadow of Willie Horton is with us yet again. George H.W. Bush’s 1988 attack ad, which blamed his Democratic opponent Michael Dukakis for releasing a man who went on to commit more violent crimes, has become shorthand for a style of political advertising that continues to reappear every cycle. This year is no different.

But there are a few new approaches to these ads that may reflect larger trends in the politics of criminal justice....

“Most of these spots flinch when it comes to going for a pure fear appeal, à la Willie Horton,” says Robert Mann, a journalism professor at Louisiana State University who wrote a book on the 1964 “Daisy” ad. Mann noted that an attack ad about Democratic Connecticut state Sen. Mae Flexer — which criticizes her vote to repeal the state’s death penalty and support an early release program — “was careful to show several non-minority faces.” The attack on Kaine also features primarily white criminals.

This year, many ads in the Horton tradition focus on the subject of rape, perhaps in an attempt to appeal to women voters. In Houston, Texas, an ad accuses the incumbent district attorney, Republican Devon Anderson, of jailing a rape victim to ensure she would testify. Republican ads against North Carolina gubernatorial candidate Roy Cooper and Catherine Cortez Masto, who is running for a Senate seat from Nevada, accuse each of them of putting a low priority on testing rape kits and solving rape crimes in general.

Ads in North Carolina are targeting Deborah Ross, the Democratic challenger to Sen. Richard Burr, for her efforts on behalf of a 13-year-old named Andre Green, who was charged with sexually assaulting his 23-year-old neighbor while the victim’s toddler was in the room. In 1994, as an ACLU lobbyist, Ross advocated against placing Green in an adult court. “If Deborah Ross had her way, Green would be on our streets,” the ad says. In response, Ross released her own ad attacking Burr for being soft on sex criminals. The ad points out that Burr voted against the Violence Against Women Act, which includes funding for rape crisis centers, and voted against funding the federal sex offender registry (in truth, his vote was against a much broader budget bill).

Jonathan Davis, a partner at Northside Research + Consulting, an opposition research firm in New York, sees the trend as a tactical appeal to women in an election where their votes are not as predictable. Hillary Clinton “is poised to win a historic percentage of Republican women,” he says. “There is a large block of female voters in key states who know they're backing Clinton for president, but are still open to persuasion in down-ballot races.”

Some of those down-ballot candidates, including district attorney hopefuls in Florida and Colorado, are also trying different strategies with their advertising: they are using the language of criminal justice reform, calling for rehabilitation rather than prison for minor crimes. Colorado Democrat Beth McCann is running an ad featuring Francisco Gallardo, a former gang-member who now works with at-risk youth. In the ad, Gallardo says, "We need something that's more comprehensive, that's not just about building jails, but promoting the front end, building more empathy, more education, more opportunities...the reason Beth [McCann] can make those hard choices is she’s connected in the community."

But at the end of the day, despite these newer trends, the soft-on-crime attack endures. The best proof of its power is that even critics of mass incarceration are willing to use it. The most surprising Horton-esque attack this season comes from the suburbs of Denver, where a radio ad is targeting incumbent district attorney Peter Weir. The ad accuses Weir, a Republican, of signing off on a plea deal granting probation for Michael David Miller, a rapist with numerous alleged victims. (Weir told The Marshall Project that Miller’s crime would have been difficult to prove before a jury, and his office pursued Miller more aggressively than other jurisdictions where accusations were made.)

The ads were paid for by a political action committee linked to billionaire George Soros, who is actually trying to bolster the campaigns of reformers (Soros, through a spokesman, declined to comment). Soros’s chosen candidate, Jake Lilly, is running his own, separate ads promoting reform; he calls for treatment for people with addiction and mental health issues. Weir, the incumbent being attacked, is broadly in agreement; he has promoted the use of specialty courts to divert drug offenders from jail time. Lilly spoke out against the Soros-funded ads that were designed to help him. “I don’t approve of the tone,” he told a local reporter. “I don’t approve of the negativity.”

November 2, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

Two new Washington Post commentaries making federal sentencin reform sound (way too) easy

The "In Theory" section of the Washington Post now has posted two notable new commentaries about prison reform.  Here are the authors, full titles and links:

Here is how the second of these two commentaries gets started:

When our next president enters the Oval Office, she or he will be faced with two questions: First, how to make a mark as president ? Second, how to break through gridlock in Congress?

Prioritizing reducing our prison population is one way to achieve both goals. Most Republicans and Democrats agree: Mass incarceration devastates communities of color and wastes money.  Even Hillary Clinton and Paul Ryan see eye-to-eye. Committing to such reform in the first 100 days would make a lasting and imperative change.

Regular readers will not be surprised to know I support the spirit and much of the substance of these two commentaries.  But the "can-do" talk and the direct or indirect suggestion that this kind of reform should be "easy for the next president" really seem to me to miss the mark.  After all, Prez Obama and House Speaker Paul Ryan and current Senate Judiciary Chair Chuck Grassley all right now largely "see eye-to-eye" on the importance of "reducing our prison population."  And yet, despite diligent work by lots and lots of folks on the federal reform front for more than two years now, Congress has so far been unable to get any kind of significant criminal justice reform bill to the desk of Prez Obama. 

Though I know the 2016 election is certain to disrupt the existing political status quo, I do not know if anything that happens at the voting booth next week can make it that much easier for the folks inside the Beltway to find their way to turn all sorts of talk into actual statutory reforms.  I sure hope advocates like those who authored these commentaries keep talking up the importance of making criminal justice reform a priority in 2017.  But, as I have been saying for too many years already, I am not counting any federal sentencing reform chickens until they are fully hatched.

November 1, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Saturday, October 29, 2016

SCOTUS takes up Booker/mandatory sentencing issue and two sex-offender collateral-consequences cases

I had a spectacular afternoon mostly off-line yesterday: I heard Sandy Levinson talk about his book on the Federalist Papers; I talked with my 1L students about a famous criminal case after an infamous disaster; I spoke at lengthy to a reporter about the prospects for federal criminal justice reform in 2017; I had great happy hours conversations with students, friend and family, followed by a spectacular burger at my favorite local gastropub; and I managed to stay awake for (most of) one of the all-time great modern World Series games.

What I did not manage to do until this morning, however, was remember that SCOTUS yesterday had a conference to consider new cases for its docket.  Helpfully, this SCOTUblog post reports on the five SCOTUS cert grants on the last Friday in October 2016, and three of the cases are sure to be worth sentencing fans' attention.  Here are the three grants as described by Amy Howe from SCOTUSblog, organized by me in order of "importance" for those most obsessed with modern sentencing systems: 

The facts of Dean v. United States read like a “true crime” novel, involving robberies of drug dealers in the Midwest. Levon Dean, the defendant in the case, was convicted under the Hobbs Act, a federal law that makes it a crime to “obstruct, delay, or affect commerce” through a robbery.  The justices today declined to review Dean’s challenge to his Hobbs Act convictions, but they agreed to weigh in on a separate question: the scope of a federal trial court’s discretion to consider the mandatory consecutive sentence under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c), which makes it a crime to use or carry a firearm during a crime of violence, in determining a sentence for the felony that serves as the basis for the Section 924(c) conviction.  Dean argued that the district court had the authority to impose a very short sentence — as little as one day — for his Hobbs Act convictions, to take into account the much longer sentence required by Section 924(c), but the lower courts disagreed.

Among the court’s other grants today, Packingham v. North Carolina is the case of Lester Packingham, a North Carolina man who became a registered sex offender after he was convicted, at the age of 21, of taking indecent liberties with a minor.  Six years after Packingham’s conviction, North Carolina enacted a law that made it a felony for registered sex offenders to access a variety of websites, from Facebook to The New York Times and YouTube. Packingham was convicted of violating this law after a police officer saw a Facebook post in which Packingham celebrated, and gave thanks to God for, the dismissal of a traffic ticket.  The justices today agreed to review Packingham’s contention that the law violates the First Amendment.

In Esquivel-Quintana v. Lynch, the justices will make another foray into an area of law known as “crimmigration” — the intersection of immigration and criminal law.  The petitioner in the case, Juan Esquivel-Quintana, was a lawful permanent resident of the United States in 2009, when he was charged with violating a California law that makes it a crime to have sexual relations with someone under the age of 18 when the age difference between the two people involved is more than three years; he had had consensual sex with his 16-year-old girlfriend when he was 20 and 21 years old.  The federal government then sought to remove Esquivel-Quintana from the United States on the ground that his conviction constituted the “aggravated felony” of “sexual abuse of a minor.”  The lower courts agreed with the federal government, but now the Supreme Court will decide.

October 29, 2016 in Collateral consequences, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

"Children are Different: The Abolition of Mandatory Minimum Sentencing in Florida"

The title of this post is the title of this short essay by Paolo Annino now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

This essay argues that juvenile mandatory minimum sentences violate the Eighth Amendment based on the US Supreme Court's Miller v. Alabama requirement of individualized assessment and the Iowa Supreme Court's State v. Lyle application of individualized assessment to all juvenile sentencing.  This essay discusses the issue of juvenile mandatory minimum sentencing in the context of recent Florida decisions.

October 18, 2016 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, October 05, 2016

Leading VP candidates talk a bit (encouragingly?) about criminal justice reform their only debate

There was a little discussion of policing, sentencing and criminal justice reform at last night's vice presidential debate, and I found most notable the fact that the GOP's VP candidate Mike Pence at one point said plainly and without reservation "We need criminal justice reform."  (The Democrats' GOP VP candidate Tim Kaine also talked, somewhat unsurprisingly, about the death penalty when asked how his personal faith created challenges for him in make political decisions.)  Perhaps even more important than the Gov Pence's simple statement that we "need" criminal justice reform was this further explanation of what he meant in this Q&A with the debate moderator (with my emphasis added):

QUIJANO: Your fellow Republican, Governor Pence, Senator Tim Scott, who is African-American, recently spoke on the Senate floor. He said he was stopped seven times by law enforcement in one year.... He said, "I have felt the anger, the frustration, the sadness, and the humiliation that comes with feeling like you're being targeted for nothing more than being just yourself." What would you say to Senator Scott about his experiences?

PENCE: Well, I have the deepest respect for Senator Scott, and he's a close friend. And what I would say is that we -- we need to adopt criminal justice reform nationally. I -- I signed criminal justice reform in the state of Indiana, Senator, and we're very proud of it.

I worked when I was Congress on a second chance act. We have got to do a better job recognizing and correcting the errors in the system that do reflect on institutional bias in criminal justice.

These statements reinforces my belief that, once we get fully through this election cycle, there is a really good chance that the still-growing bipartisan consensus supporting some form of federal statutory sentencing reform will finally be able to get some form of some bill through both houses of Congress and to the desk of the new President.  Of course, who wins seats in Congress and who is the new Prez and VP will certainly significantly impact what ends up in a federal statutory sentencing reform bill that gets to the desk of the new Prez.  But now hearing GOP's VP candidate Pence talking up the "need" to adopt criminal justice reform "nationally" has me now distinctly (and foolishly?) optimistic that some kind of statutory reforms will be signed into law sometime during the next Congress.

For more background on what both leading VP candidates have said and done on the criminal justice reform front, I recommend this new Huffington Post article headlined "Here’s How Tim Kaine And Mike Pence Measure Up On Criminal Justice: The two vice presidential candidates have pushed for similar criminal justice policies at times." 

October 5, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, September 30, 2016

Could major federal statutory sentencing reform happen ASAP if Democrats take back Senate this election cycle?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable new Politico article headlined "Ryan, McConnell split on prospects of criminal justice reform." Here are excerpts (with one line emphasized with my comments to follow):

House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell were on opposite pages Thursday on the prospects of passing criminal justice reform — another hurdle facing proponents hoping to get a bill to the president’s desk this fall.

Speaking at a news conference, Ryan (R-Wis.) doubled down on his commitment to advance legislation to reduce nonviolent drug sentencing requirements once lawmakers return to Washington in November.  The issue is a top priority for Ryan personally — though his House GOP conference is lukewarm at best, with some members concerned about looking soft on crime.  “I think it’s good legislation, I think the time has come, and we’re going to advance this issue as far as we can,” Ryan said.

Just a few minutes before that on the other side of the Capitol, though, McConnell offered a much different take. “It’s very divisive in my conference,” the majority leader from Kentucky said. “I’ve got very, very smart capable people, without regard to ideology, who have very different views on that issue. Whether we can take something up that controversial in that limited amount of time available, I doubt.”

Criminal justice reform has pitted big-name conservatives like the Koch brothers who back the idea against law-and-order Republicans like Sens. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Jeff Sessions of Alabama. It's unclear whether the political risk and calculation for Republicans will change after the election. Democrats broadly favor reform.

Ryan was bullish about getting it done. “We do know we have more work to do to talk to our members about the merits of criminal justice reform,” he said. “It’s very bipartisan and it's conservatives leading the charge on this: [Rep.] Raúl Labrador, [Sen.] Mike Lee, [Rep.] Bob Goodlatte. But there are a lot of our members who haven’t looked into the issue enough, and it’s those undecided members who have not formed opinions yet that we’re going to be communicating with in the weeks ahead.”

As indicated by the question in the title of this post and the sentence emphasized, I think the "political risk and calculation for Republicans will change" dramatically if (and only if) Democrats succeed in their effort to take back control of the US Senate. Specifically, and especially because House Speaker Paul Ryan continues to press his support for reform, I think Republicans in both the House and the Senate will come to see that their best chance to get a sentencing reform bill completed with only the terms GOP advocates most fully support will be in the lame duck session before Senate leadership transitions in 2017. (Indeed, if Dems win both the White House and take back the Senate in November, I think some current Dem supports of current bills might become the ones to resist lame-duck passage in the hope of developing and passing even more progressive reform in the next Congress.)

In other words, for those most deeply concerned and interested in seeking federal statutory sentencing reform, the outcome of Senate elections may be nearly as important or even more important than the Prez election.

September 30, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)