Sunday, December 17, 2017

Lawyer asks law profs: "Looking for a chance to persuade the courts that man-mins are unconstitutional?"

Earlier this year I started to correspond with Caleb Mason concerning his effort to preserve a sentence imposed below a federal mandatory minimum in the face of a government appeal.  I suggested to Caleb that he write up an account of the case and his pitch for amicus help.  Here is the pitch:

Join my case as amici!  I was appointed by the Ninth Circuit in a CJA (Criminal Justice Act) case to defend a below-man-min sentence against the Government's appeal. I argued in my brief that man-mins are straight-up unconstitutional under Booker.  The vast majority of man-min cases out there involve a district judge reluctantly imposing the sentence with an opinion saying how much he or she hates doing so.  The defendant appeals, but there's not much for the Court of Appeals to do.  My case is the opposite -- it's the rare one in which the judge actually imposed a sentence below the man-min, and we're asking the Court of Appeals to affirm it. Judge Manuel Real, who at age 95 is on full active status (he won't even take senior status), has the courage of his convictions when it comes to man-mins. 

In this case (a CP case with a small number of images, no other bad conduct, a very sympathetic defendant history, and a demonstrated commitment to rehabilitation), Judge Real explained that 48 months was enough custody time, despite the 60-month man-min, because of lifetime s/r.   My brief (which can be downloaded below) argues that mandatory minimums are unconstitutional under Booker. Here is the main issue statement:

Issue 1: Statutory mandatory minimum sentences are unconstitutional.

Caselaw of this Court is to the contrary, but Mr. Lavinsky preserves his arguments for review by an en banc panel of this Court and by the Supreme Court. Statutory mandatory minimum sentences are unconstitutional because they violate the constitutional imperative of separation of powers.  Fashioning an individual sentence based on the facts of an individual case is a quintessential judicial power.  The Court's decision in United States v. Booker, 543 U.S. 220 (2005), should apply equally to statutory mandatory minimums as to mandatory Sentencing Guidelines, because the animating principle in Booker is separation of powers, and the mandatory guidelines that Booker rendered advisory had, per Mistretta v. United States, 488 U.S. 361 (1989), the same legislative authority as statutory provisions in the United States Code.  Additionally, the history of sentencing practices in the United States shows that the proliferation of statutory mandatory minimum sentences is an anomaly, and is inconsistent with both historical practice and historical understanding of the separation of powers.

For Booker fans (I should note that I went to the Booker oral argument; I wasn't yet a member of the Supreme Court bar, so I arrived at 11 p.m. the night before and waited on the sidewalk all night like an animal...), this case is a nice, clean opportunity to make the argument that Doug made immediately after Booker, and that has long been apparent to those of us who have been trying to understand what's happening in federal sentencing over the last decade: Booker is about preserving the inherent constitutional power of judges.  It's not about juries. It's never been about juries.  It could have been about juries, if Justice Ginsburg had stuck with the merits majority for the remedial opinion. But she didn't, and we have a remedial majority that rejects out of hand the "jury factfinding" option for sentencing -- which would have been not just the right answer but arguably the only answer if the merits opinion were really animated by the jury trial right.  (And of course, Booker applies to defendants pleading guilty as well, which it wouldn't if it was a purely jury-trial right.)

Anyway, my argument is simple.  Booker held mandatory guidelines to be unconstitutional.  Under Mistretta, each mandatory guideline was nothing more or less than a little man-min, with the same force of law as a statutory man-min written directly in Title 18.  Thus, if the guidelines had to be made advisory to preserve their constitutionality, then so should man-mins.  Read the brief (available below) -- I think this is a decent and reasonably original argument.

Second, I argue that to the extent that Booker invalidating the SRA (in particular its mandatory aspects), it restored judicial power to the pre-SRA status quo which, I argue, included an understood background power (whether inherent or under pre-SRA statutory law) to sentence below a specified minimum.

I was thinking that we'd get a quick memorandum from the panel, and then gear up for an en banc petition and cert petition.  But the panel just set the case for argument on February 16.  So that'll be fun.  And it'd be great if one or more of the judges indicated that he or she thinks the full court ought to consider this issue.

I've been bugging Doug about putting together an academic amicus brief on the legal reasons why courts should hold man-mins unconstitutional.  I know there are a hundred people out there who can articulate the arguments better than me, and who probably have clever arguments I haven't thought of.  So to you eggheads that think you have opinions about sentencing but never set foot in a courtroom: This is your chance!  Do it!  Write something someone will read!  And a court, no less.

Someone besides me needs to organize and write the amicus brief.  If anyone is willing to do that, I'll help with contacting signers, and finding counsel for amici in the Ninth Circuit and Supreme Court.  Please contact me [cmason @ brownwhitelaw.com] with any questions.

Download 2017.06.27 Lavinsky- Answering Brief

December 17, 2017 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Does federal statutory sentencing reform become a bit more likely if Senator Tom Cotton were to become CIA Director?

The question in the title of this post is what kept coming to mind as I scanned this new Washington Post article headlined "White House readies plan to replace Tillerson with Pompeo at State, install Cotton at CIA." Here is the start of the piece:

The White House has readied a plan to oust embattled Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and replace him with CIA Director Mike Pompeo, who has become one of the most personally loyal and politically savvy members of President Trump's national security team, two administration officials confirmed Thursday.

The plan, hatched by White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, is expected to be set in motion over the next few weeks, and has broad support within Trump's inner circle, the officials said. But it was unclear whether Trump had signed off on the plan yet, and the president has been known to change his mind about personnel and other matters before finalizing decisions with public announcements.

Under the plan, Pompeo would likely be replaced at the CIA by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), one of Trump's most steadfast defenders and a confidant to some leading members of the foreign policy team, according to the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the White House has not publicly announced the moves.

Federal statutory sentencing reform has not made much progress this year while GOP leadership in Congress has been focused on health care and tax reform. But, as noted here last month, some in-the-know folks believe the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act could receive 70 votes in the Senate if ever brought to a vote.  And, based on all of his vocal opposition to reform expressed last year (as noted in posts below), I think Senator Cotton is one big reason the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act seems unlikely to get a vote in the Senate in the near future.  But if Senator Cotton becomes CIA Director Cotton, maybe these political dynamic change for the better for those eager to see sentencing reform enacted in Congress.

Prior related posts about Senator Cotton's opposition to sentencing reform:

November 30, 2017 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Interesting Eighth Amendment attack waged against extreme application of Tennessee's "Drug Free School Zone" law

This recent post from the Supreme Court of Tennessee Blog reports on an interesting constitutional challenge to the severe mandatory sentence that goes with the application of Tennessee’s "Drug Free School Zone" law.  Here is an excerpt from the post by Daniel Horwitz (who happens to represent the defendant).  Links are from the original post:

groundbreaking constitutional challenge has been filed regarding Tennessee’s “Drug Free School Zone Act,” a flawed but well-intentioned law that has recently come under fire by several conservative groups because it “ensnare[s] many individuals who fall outside of the scope and purpose of the law” and has resulted in significant collateral consequences that have been “passed on to taxpayers without any public safety returns.”  The law has long been a target of criminal justice reformers, who have argued that the severe, mandatory minimum penalties contemplated by Tennessee’s School Zone law fail to make appropriate distinctions between people who sell drugs to children and people who don’t....

The government’s informant had thirty-nine (39) separate convictions on his record in Davidson County alone at the time of the drug sales at issue—many of them violent felonies.  Even so, the informant was paid more than $1,000 in taxpayer money and avoided jailtime in exchange for helping secure Mr. Bryant’s conviction.  Mr. Bryant’s first trial ended in a hung jury after several jurors concluded that Mr. Bryant had been entrapped.  After his second trial, however, Mr. Bryant was convicted of selling drugs.

Even though it was a first-time, non-violent offense — Mr. Bryant had no other criminal history of any kind — because Mr. Bryant’s residence was located within 1,000 feet of a school, Mr. Bryant received a mandatory minimum sentence of seventeen (17) years in prison.  As a result, Mr. Bryant received a considerably longer sentence for committing a first-time, non-violent drug offense than he would have received if he had committed a severe, violent crime such as Rape, Second Degree Murder, Aggravated Robbery, Aggravated Vehicular Homicide, or Attempted First Degree Murder.  Mr. Bryant has been incarcerated for the past decade.  He has at least six years in prison left to serve.

Given the extraordinary circumstances of his prosecution, Mr. Bryant has filed a novel constitutional challenge to the application of Tennessee’s intensely punitive Drug Free School Zone law to his case.  Notably, even the District Attorney who prosecuted Mr. Bryant has submitted an affidavit supporting his early release, stating that: “I fail to see how an additional six years of incarceration will improve Mr. Bryant’s amenability to correction or would be required to maintain public safety.  I additionally fail to see how his release at a time earlier than 2023 — and after over nine years of incarceration — will deprecate the seriousness of the offenses for which he was convicted or significantly imperil public safety.”

Tennessee’s intensely punitive Drug Free School Zone law was designed to keep drugs away from children.  Nobody disputes that this is a laudable goal.  However, many people, including several elected officials and judges in Tennessee, have disputed whether the law was ever intended to apply to drug sales between adults inside an adult’s residence and outside of school hours — especially when a government informant has set up a drug transaction inside a school zone on purpose....

Mr. Bryant’s petition paints a heartbreaking picture of a law that was never intended for cases like his but which applied to him anyway.  In Davidson County, he notes, so-called “drug free” zones “cover[] almost every habitable portion of Nashville and [nearly] all of its urban core.”  As a result, based solely on a prosecutor’s discretion, the law can be applied “to virtually every drug sale that takes place in Nashville.”  Even so, in the approximately two decades since the law was enacted, only 62 defendants have ever been punished with the school zone sentencing enhancement in Davidson County, which upgrades a defendant’s conviction by a full felony class and renders defendants ineligible for parole for decades.  Although, as a general matter, the law has been used sparingly to punish dangerous or repeat offenders, Mr. Bryant’s petition notes that he has “the dubious distinction of being the only defendant in the history of this jurisdiction to receive Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-17-432’s sentencing enhancement for a first-time offense.”...

Mr. Bryant notes that in the time since his conviction, Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-17-432 has been reformed both judicially and operationally to avoid precisely the type of strict liability penalty that applied in his case.  Consequently, if Mr. Bryant had committed the exact same offense today, then he would likely have been subject to a maximum sentence of between two and eight years in prison, rather than seventeen years.  Further, given his status as a first-time, non-violent offender, Mr. Bryant may well have avoided prison time at all.

Mr. Bryant has asked Davidson County Criminal Court Judge Steve Dozier to declare his sentence unconstitutional as applied to the unique circumstances of Mr. Bryant’s case, arguing that these circumstances render his sentence excessive under both the Eighth Amendment and Article 1, Section 16 of the Tennessee Constitution.  Mr. Bryant has also petitioned Judge Dozier for release while he submits an application for a pardon or commutation.  More than a dozen supporters — including Mr. Bryant’s own prosecutor, local politicians, business owners, friends, family members, and civil rights activists — have also filed affidavits in support of Mr. Bryant’s early release.  A hearing on Mr. Bryant’s petition is set for December 15, 2017 in Davidson County Criminal Court, Division 1.

November 26, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

U.S. Commission on Civil Rights issues statement in support of sentencing provisions of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017

As reported in this news release, yesterday "the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights issued a statement in support of certain provisions in the Senate’s bipartisan Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017, which proposes to reduce mandatory minimum sentences for particular nonviolent offenses and to return discretion to judges in more cases." This three-page statement is available at this link, and here are excerpts (with footnotes omitted):

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, by majority vote, supports certain sentencing reduction provisions in the bipartisan Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017, recently introduced in the Senate.  The bill proposes to reduce mandatory minimum sentences for particular nonviolent offenses and to return discretion to judges on sentencing in more cases.  It moves sentencing levels down in many cases so that low-level crimes are adequately but not excessively punished.  It also makes retroactive sentencing reductions in crimes involving crack cocaine, which, prior to the enactment of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, were punished with extreme sentences compared with crimes involving powder cocaine.  The fair administration of justice requires criminal penalties to be proportional to the offense committed and for similar crimes to be subject to similar punishments. In addition, fair administration depends on public faith in the American justice system; this bipartisan bill takes important steps to restore the basis for that faith by addressing longstanding inequity.

The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act contains necessary and important steps towards more equitable punishments in the federal system, advancing the fair administration of justice by better fitting punishment to crime.  If enacted, it would help reduce the outsize U.S. prison population without jeopardizing public safety.  It stands in contrast to the change in charging policy announced by the United States Department of Justice in May.  The Department of Justice’s policy regarding mandatory minimum sentences will result in lengthier, harsher prison sentences and additional taxpayer costs for both actual imprisonment and post-incarceration integration unless it is changed or checked by Congress through sentencing reform....

The application of harsher penalties and mandatory minimum sentences historically falls hardest on communities of color.  Although facially race-neutral, these policies have been applied in a racially disparate manner, raising concerns regarding legitimacy and fairness of our nation’s criminal justice system.  Use of mandatory minimum sentencing contributed to high incarceration rates for African-American and Latino men, despite comparable rates of drug use across communities of all races.  Devastating, community-wide impacts of these policies include one in nine children of color having a parent in prison.

National and international bodies have noted racially disparate treatment throughout the American criminal justice system, including in the application of mandatory minimum sentences.  Perhaps the most notable and egregious example of the racial disparities can be found in the different mandatory minimum sentences provided for offenses involving crack versus powder cocaine.  A bipartisan consensus in Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act in 2010, reducing disparities between mandatory minimum sentences for different drugs, in part “because the public had come to understand sentences embodying the 100-to-1 ratio as reflecting unjustified race-based differences.” These changes should be made retroactive as the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017 proposes in order to reduce excessive punishments for those already sentenced.

November 14, 2017 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

New report explores "Florida Criminal Justice Reform: Understanding the Challenges and Opportunities"

This press release provides highlights regarding this big new report from the Project on Accountable Justice examining Florida's criminal justice system and relatively high levels of incarceration. Here are excerpts from the press release:

The Project on Accountable Justice (PAJ) [has] released an interactive, web-based research report focused on the Florida prison system.  The report, entitled “Florida Criminal Justice Reform: Understanding the Challenges and Opportunities,” is an effort to help citizens and policy makers understand some of the dynamics that make Florida’s prison system large, dangerous, and expensive.

The report shows how short-sighted policies and practices drove the state’s prison population to higher than one hundred thousand people, and how Florida’s experience differs from those of other states like New York.  In discussing the underlying dynamics of Florida’s prison system — who is going to prison and why, who is in prison and for how long — the report demonstrates a trifecta of ineffective and expensive strategies: 1) too many people are sent to prison for minor and nonviolent offenses; 2) overly punitive sentencing policies — like mandatory minimum sentences — keep people in prison for exceptionally long terms that are too often incongruous with the nature of their crime; and 3) the unavailability of prisoner review systems and incentive structures to reward prisoners for good behavior prevent state officials from introducing release strategies that could safely reduce the prison population while also making it more manageable....

“Florida Criminal Justice Reform” argues that policy makers should know how the state’s criminal justice system measures up, and suggests some key metrics: Is the system fair and unbiased?  Are prison sentences reserved for dangerous people who pose a threat to public safety? What are the costs and benefits of the prison system, in terms of rehabilitation and public safety, or recidivism and expense?  As former Florida Attorney General and PAJ Chairman Richard Doran asks, “Do the current investments, practices, and policy strategies employed by our state’s criminal justice and correctional systems result in the returns Floridians expect and deserve?”

“Florida Criminal Justice Reform” is an accessible and interactive introduction to these questions. Among its findings are the following:

  • Nonviolent offenses drive prison admissions. Seventy-two percent of people admitted to prison in FY2015 were sentenced for a nonviolent offense.

  • In FY2015, the state spent $300 million to incarcerate people for drug offenses, and $107 million to incarcerate people for probation violations.  The vast majority — more than 70 percent — of people sentenced to prison for a violation of probation were on probation for a nonviolent offense.

  • Florida’s mandatory minimum drug laws cost Florida taxpayers $106 million in FY2015.

  • Florida’s criminal justice system does not adhere to basic notions of fairness: your ZIP code and the color of your skin can sometimes matter more than your behavior.

  • Statewide, black Floridians are 5.5 times more likely to be imprisoned than white Floridians.

  • Residents of Panama City (14th Circuit) are 32 times more likely to be sent to prison for a VOP than people who live in Palm Beach (15th Circuit).

  • Statewide, black adults are almost twice as likely to be in prison for a drug offense than residents of the UK are to be in prison for any reason.

The report’s authors conclude with six recommendations, with guidance from previous research:

  • Enhance external oversight to improve transparency and effectiveness of Florida’s correctional facilities.

  • Build a risk-based system of pretrial practices to replace the current money-based bail system.

  • Keep youth out of confinement and the adult criminal justice system.

  • Review and modernize sentencing practices and policies.

  • Encourage local, community-driven solutions to crime through incentive funding.

  • Measure criminal justice success with better data collection and reporting.

“These reforms are possible and will make Florida a safer place to live and visit,” said the report’s lead author, Cyrus O’Brien. “A smaller system that judiciously reserved incarceration only for the purpose of incapacitating dangerous individuals would face fewer challenges and accomplish better results. Achieving a better system will require sustained, purposeful, and systemic reform.”

November 14, 2017 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

House members reintroduce the Safe, Accountable, Fair, and Effective (SAFE) Justice Act

As reported in this press release, yesterday "Representatives Bobby Scott (D-VA) and Jason Lewis (R-MN) introduced bipartisan legislation aimed at safely reining in the size and associated costs of the federal criminal code and prison system."  Here is more from the press release about the reintroduction of one of the most progressive federal statutory sentencing reform proposals to make the rounds recently:

H.R. 4261, the Safe, Accountable, Fair, and Effective (SAFE) Justice Act takes a broad-based approach to improving the federal sentencing and corrections system, spanning from sentencing reform to release policies.  The legislation, which is inspired by the successes of states across the country, will break the cycle of recidivism, concentrate prison space on violent and career criminals, increase the use of evidence-based alternatives to incarceration, curtail over-criminalization, reduce crime, and save money....

Similar to the successful reform packages enacted in many states, the SAFE Justice Act aligns the federal prison system with the science about what works to reform criminal behavior.  It reflects the growing consensus among researchers that, for many offenders, adding more months and years onto long prison terms is a high-cost, low-return approach to public safety.  It also looks to the growing number of practices in correctional supervision that are shown to reduce recidivism. 

The SAFE Justice Act will:

  • Reduce recidivism by –
    • incentivizing completion of evidence-based prison programming and activities through expanded earned time credits;
    • implementing swift, certain, and proportionate sanctions for violations of supervision; and
    • offering credits for compliance with the conditions of supervision.
  • Concentrate prison space on violent and career criminals by  –
    • focusing mandatory minimum sentences on leaders and supervisors of drug trafficking organizations;
    • safely expanding the drug trafficking safety valve (an exception to mandatory minimums) for qualified offenders; and
    • creating release valves for lower-risk geriatric and terminally-ill offenders.
  • Increase use of evidence-based sentencing alternatives by  –
    • encouraging greater use of probation and problem-solving courts for appropriate offenders; and
    • creating a performance-incentive funding program to better align the interests of the Bureau of Prisons and U.S. Probation Offices. 
  • Curtail overcriminalization by –
    • requiring regulatory criminal offenses to be compiled and published for the public;
    • ensuring fiscal impact statements are attached to all future sentencing and corrections proposals; and
    • charging the Department of Justice, the Bureau of Prisons, and the Administrative Office of the Courts with collecting key outcome performance measures.
  • Reduce crime by –
    • investing in evidence-based crime prevention initiatives; and
    • increasing funding for community based policing and public safety initiatives.

Original cosponsors of the SAFE Justice Act: Reps. John Conyers, Jr. (D-MI), Mia Love (R-UT), Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX), Carlos Curbelo (R-FL), Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC), Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA).

Additional information about the SAFE Justice Act:

Prior related post from June 2015:

November 8, 2017 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, November 06, 2017

NAAUSA and six other law enforcement groups write to Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, per the attached letter.

Last week I blogged here about a letter sent to the leaders of the Senate Judiciary Committee on behalf of the Federal Public and Community Defenders to urge passage of legislation to reform federal mandatory sentencing laws.  Today I received a copy of a quite different letter also sent to the leaders of the Senate Judiciary Committee this time coming from the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys and six other law enforcement groups.  Here is how the letter, which can be downloaded below, gets started:

We write to express the opposition of the undersigned organizations to the recently-introduced Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017 (S. 1917).  We represent federal, state and local law enforcement officers, agents and prosecutors responsible for the investigation and prosecution of drug traffickers and other violent offenders involved in the distribution and sale of dangerous drugs.

The public safety of our communities across the nation would be negatively impacted by this legislation.  The legislation undermines mandatory minimum penalties for drug trafficking and weakens the tools that law enforcement authorities need to enforce the law, prosecute criminals and dismantle domestic and international drug trafficking organizations.  The legislation authorizes the early release of thousands of previously convicted armed career criminals, serial violent criminals, and repeat drug traffickers. And it will make it more difficult for law enforcement to pursue the most culpable drug dealers and secure their cooperation to pursue others in drug distribution rings and networks, domestic and international.

The bill would undermine law enforcement investigatory efforts by giving serious criminals the best of both worlds: less sentencing exposure and the choice to not cooperate with law enforcement in further investigatory efforts.

This is not the time for the Congress to consider changes like these that will impair the ability of law enforcement to take serious drug traffickers off the street.  Violent crime across America continues to grow, and a raging heroin and opioid abuse epidemic shows no sign of ebbing. For the second year in a row, violent crime increased across the United States, according to FBI annual crime data.  Homicides increased by 8.6%, with cities like Baltimore, Chicago, and Kansas City, Missouri witnessing massive increases in their homicide rates.  Meanwhile, a national epidemic of overdose deaths, caused largely by heroin and opioid drug abuse, ravages the country.  No state is immune from the deadly consequences.  Over 47,000 Americans died from drug overdoses in 2014, an all-time high. In 2015 that number rose to 50,000; last year it continued to skyrocket to 64,000 people.  Daily drug overdose deaths, including those from heroin use, exceed those caused by auto accidents.

Download LE Groups Ltr re S 1917 Nov02-2017

November 6, 2017 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

Federal defenders write Senators in support of federal criminal justice reforms including mens rea reforms

A helpful reader pointed me to this lengthy letter sent to the leaders of the Senate Judiciary Committee on behalf of the Federal Public and Community Defenders to urge passage of legislation to reform federal mandatory sentencing laws. The letter's introduction highlights the themes of a document worth a full read:

Federal Defenders represent most of the indigent defendants in 91 of the 94 federal judicial districts nationwide. Over 80 percent of people charged with federal crimes cannot afford a lawyer, and nearly 80 percent of people charged with federal crimes are Black, Hispanic, or Native American.  Our clients bear the overwhelming, and disproportionate, brunt of mandatory minimum sentences.

Real sentencing reform is desperately needed.  The most significant driver of the five-fold increase in the federal prison population over the past thirty years has been mandatory minimums, particularly those for drug offenses.  The extreme levels of incarceration come at a human and financial cost that is unjustified by the legitimate purposes of sentencing, and that perversely undermines public safety.  The mandatory minimums that Congress intended for drug kingpins and serious traffickers are routinely and most often applied to low-level non-violent offenders.  Moreover, mandatory minimums have a racially disparate impact, and have been shown to be charged in a racially disparate manner.

The decision to charge mandatory minimums, or not, is entirely in the hands of prosecutors.  This provides a single government actor with unchecked power that is wholly inconsistent with traditional notions of legality and due process.  In light of the proven, longstanding problems created by mandatory minimums, they should be eliminated altogether.  Sentencing authority should be placed back in the hands of neutral judges where it has traditionally resided.

Short of those more comprehensive reforms, the Smarter Sentencing Act or the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act would be a good start.  Both bills, in different ways and to different extents, would reduce mandatory minimums and expand judicial discretion, thus reducing unnecessarily harsh sentences and lessening unchecked prosecutorial power.  Neither bill is perfect.  Congress should pass one or the other, or a combination of the two.  Each of these bills represents a compromise, and should not be weakened any further.

We urge you not to pass the Corrections Act as a standalone measure.  It would provide time off at the end of a sentence only for certain select inmates, and would have little or no impact on the poor and racial minorities who comprise the vast majority of federal prisoners and are most in need of relief.  All inmates should have an opportunity to earn time off at the end of their sentences through demonstrated efforts at rehabilitation.  This too is consistent with traditional notions of punishment. However, the Corrections Act would make incentives to participate in rehabilitative programming unavailable to those who need it most.

We do support the Mens Rea Reform Act of 2017 because it embodies the fundamental principle that a person should be convicted of and punished for a crime only if he or she acted with a guilty mind, and because it would prevent many of our clients with low-level involvement in drug offenses from being over-charged and over-punished for the conduct of others of which they were not aware and that they did not intend.  However, mens rea reform is not a substitute for sentencing reform. True criminal justice reform must tackle the single biggest contributor to injustice in the federal system: mandatory minimum sentences.

November 1, 2017 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (17)

Noticing how federal drug laws, rather than state homicide laws, are used to severely punish drug distribution resulting in death

One way the criminal justice system has been operationalized in response to the opioid crisis has been in the form of various state homicide charges — ranging from manslaughter to murder — being brought against persons who distribute drugs that result in the death of a drug user.  But this news report from North Carolina, headlined "How the ‘Len Bias Law’ of 1988 is being used to get longer prison sentences today," details how federal prosecutors can and will be able to pursue and secure more extreme sentences on drug offenders without ever bringing a homicide charge:

In 2015, local police and federal drug agents identified Walston as a major source of heroin in the Wilson, Greenville and Nash County area.  The investigators also confirmed that Walston sold heroin that led to a Wilson man’s death that year.  On March 27 that year, Sarah Anne Mollenhauer, 32, called the mother of the overdose victim and told the woman her son was not breathing, Higdon said.

Elton Wayne Walston was sentenced to 27 years in prison Monday after he was found guilty of distributing heroin that resulted in the death of a Wilson man in 2015. Walston, 66, was also found guilty of one count each of possession with intent to distribute heroin and illegally possessing a firearm and ammunition, along with four counts of distribution of heroin.

U.S. District Court Judge Louise W. Flanagan handed down the sentence, which was announced Tuesday in Raleigh by Robert J. Higdon Jr., the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina. Walston was sentenced under the U.S. Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988, which carries a mandatory minimum prison term of 20 years and a maximum life sentence, along with a fine of up to $2 million, Higdon said. The statute is also known as the Len Bias Law, named for the first-team all-American basketball player at the University of Maryland who died of a cocaine overdose in June 1986, two days after he was the second overall pick by the Boston Celtics in the 1986 NBA draft.

A charge of second-degree murder might sound more imposing, but a conviction under the Len Bias Law usually results in a longer prison sentence, said Special Assistant U.S. Attorney Boz Zellinger.  Unlike in cases of second-degree murder, prosecutors do not have to prove malice, only that the victim’s death was caused by ingesting the drugs....

Higdon said the opioid crisis is a matter of life and death. The federal statute, he said, is needed to help combat a soaring epidemic that resulted in 60,000 drug overdoses across America last year.  He said 1,100 people died of overdoses last year in North Carolina, with three dying each day across the state.  “The death result law will be used more and more frequently,” Higdon said during a news conference Tuesday afternoon at the Terry Sanford Federal Building in downtown Raleigh.  “Our office, along with the entire U.S. Department of Justice, is determined to hold accountable those who deal these deadly drugs to enrich themselves. This prosecution is an example of that determination.”

U.S. Assistant Attorney Edward Gray said Walston first came to the attention of federal prosecutors after a member of a drug task force in Wilson reported a rise in heroin overdoses in the area.   In 2015, local police and federal drug agents identified Walston as a major source of heroin in the Wilson, Greenville and Nash County area. The investigators also confirmed that Walston sold heroin that led to a Wilson man’s death that year. On March 27 that year, Sarah Anne Mollenhauer, 32, called the mother of the overdose victim and told the woman her son was not breathing, Higdon said. The victim was at his brother’s home in Wilson....  Mollenahauer said she and her boyfriend left the home again at 1:30 a.m. When she returned at 5:30 a.m. she found the victim lying on the bathroom floor and not breathing. Emergency workers arrived and pronounced the man dead at 6:21 a.m., Higdon said.

Mollenhauer pleaded guilty to distribution of a quantity of heroin and aiding and abetting.  She was sentenced to nearly four years in prison.

Walston’s aunt, Emma Hardeman, a retired teacher who lives in Chicago, said Tuesday that her nephew is not the “big-time drug dealer” portrayed by federal prosecutors during his trial and at Tuesday’s press conference.  Hardeman said Walston was a former U.S. Air Force serviceman who suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome after serving in Vietnam. She said her nephew was a longtime “functional addict” who sold drugs to support his own habit.

“He was a nickle-and-dime person,” she said. “He couldn’t even keep the lights and cable on. He didn’t have a $100,000 and a 100 pounds of heroin when they arrested him. He was a victim, too.” Hardeman said prosecutors should have held Mollenhauer more responsible.  She said Mollenhauer and her boyfriend returned to the victim’s home twice as he lay dying to take money from his wallet to buy more heroin.  Hardeman said family members have met with several federal lawyers and intend to appeal Walston’s sentence. “We are not going to lay down and let this die without fighting back,” she said. 

November 1, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, October 27, 2017

Is it time for new optimism or persistent pessimism on the latest prospects for statutory federal sentencing reform?

At the spectacular Advancing Justice summit yesterday (basics here), a whole set of "in-the-know" folks stated that there is wide bipartisan support on Capitol Hill for federal sentencing reform.  Specifically, as this brief Axios piece notes, Senator Mike Lee stated in the event's first session that "the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act would have received 70 votes in the Senate if voted on last year, and would still get 70 votes in the Senate this year." (This Axios piece also report that Senator Lee "wants a vote on the bill before the end of the year.") Senator Lee's views here were echoed later in the day during a keynote speech by Senator Chuck Grassley and during a panel discussion by a number of in-the-know public policy advocates.

But, as optimistic as this all may sound, Matt Ford has this new this big piece at The Atlantic indicating that some key Democratic voices may be unwilling to move forward with sentencing reform proposals if mens rea reform is going to be part of the package.  The piece's headline highlights why pessimism may again be the justified perspective here: "Could a Controversial Bill Sink Criminal-Justice Reform in Congress?: A debate over mens rea stalled the last push for reform. Now, a similar battle could be brewing."   Here is a snippet:

A bill drafted by a group of Senate Republicans earlier this year would tweak the mens rea requirement in federal statutes, adding a default rule for juries to find criminal intent for federal offenses that don’t explicitly have an intent standard. (Mens rea is a legal term derived from the phrase “guilty mind” in Latin.) If enacted, federal prosecutors would need to prove a defendant’s state of mind to obtain a conviction for a host of existing crimes. Conservatives and criminal-defense organizations argue the measure is a necessary part of the congressional effort to reform sentencing and incarceration.

But some Senate Democrats fear the measure is far too sweeping and could be a back-door attack on federal health and environmental regulations that police corporate behavior. Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a member of the Judiciary Committee, told me earlier this week that he wouldn’t support a sentencing-reform bill if it included the change to mens rea. “It would turn me into a warrior against it,” he emphasized. Chuck Schumer, the Democratic leader in the Senate, would also oppose such a bill, a spokesman confirmed.

Other Senate Democrats criticized a similar measure that passed the House during the last criminal-justice-reform push, which centered on a sentencing-reform bill.  In January 2016, Illinois Senator Dick Durbin, a longtime supporter of reform, said that version of the mens rea proposal “should be called the White Collar Criminal Immunity Act.” (Like Whitehouse, Durbin serves on the Judiciary Committee, which would need to sign off on any mens rea- or sentencing-reform bills.)  Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren said in a speech the following month that the House proposal would “make it much harder for the government to prosecute hundreds of corporate crimes — everything from wire fraud to mislabeling prescription drugs.”  Negotiations over criminal-justice reform ultimately collapsed that summer as the presidential election entered its final stretch.

I have said before and will say again that this kind of opposition to a reform designed to safeguard a fundamental part of a fair and effective federal criminal justice system shows just how we got to a world with mass incarceration and mass supervision and mass collateral consequences.  Nobody seems willing or able to understand that making life easier for prosecutors anywhere serves to increase the size and reach and punitiveness of our criminal justice systems everywhere.  In turn, if you want a less extreme and severe criminal justice system anywhere, the best way to advance the cause is by seeking and advocating to limit government prosecutorial powers everywhere.

So, to answer the question in the title of this post, I think I have to stick with persistent pessimism for the time being.

October 27, 2017 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

US Sentencing Commission releases new report on "Mandatory Minimum Penalties for Drug Offenses in the Federal System"

Cover_drug-mand-minVia email, I just learned that the US Sentencing Commission has this morning released another big notable data report on mandatory minimum sentences in the federal system.  This latest report it titled "Mandatory Minimum Penalties for Drug Offenses in the Federal System," and this USSC webpage provides links to the full report and particular chapters. That same pages also provides this summary and overview of the report's key findings:

Summary

Using fiscal year 2016 data, this publication includes analysis similar to that in the 2017 Overview Publication, providing sentencing data on offenses carrying drug mandatory minimums, the impact on the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) population, and differences observed when analyzing each of five main drug types.  Where appropriate, the publication highlights changes and trends since the Commission’s 2011 Mandatory Minimum Report.  Because drug offenses are the most common offenses carrying mandatory minimum penalties, many of the trends in this publication mirror the trends seen in the 2017 Overview Publication.

Key Findings

Building directly on previous reports and the analyses set forth in the 2017 Overview Publication, this publication examines the use and impact of mandatory minimum penalties for drug offenses.  As part of this analysis, the Commission makes the 10 key findings:

1. Drug mandatory minimum penalties continued to result in long sentences in the federal system.  

2. Mandatory minimum penalties continued to have a significant impact on the size and composition of the federal prison population.  

3. Offenses carrying a drug mandatory minimum penalty were used less often, as the number and percentage of offenders convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty has decreased since fiscal year 2010.  

4. While fewer offenders were convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty in recent years, those who were tended to be more serious.  

5. Drug mandatory minimum penalties applied more broadly than Congress may have anticipated.  

6. Statutory relief plays a significant role in the application and impact of drug mandatory minimum penalties and results in significantly reduced sentences when applied.  

7. Additionally, drug mandatory minimum penalties appear to provide a significant incentive to provide substantial assistance to the government pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 3553(e) and the related guideline provision at USSG §5K1.1.  

8. However, neither the statutory safety valve provision at 18 U.S.C. § 3553(f) nor the substantial assistance provision at 18 U.S.C. § 3553(e) fully ameliorate the impact of drug mandatory minimum penalties on relatively low-level offenders.  

9. There were significant demographic shifts in the data relating to mandatory minimum penalties.  

10. Although likely due in part to an older age at release, drug trafficking offenders convicted of an offense carrying a drug mandatory minimum penalty had a lower recidivism rate than those drug trafficking offenders not convicted of such an offense.

Kudos to the USSC for continuing to release timely and informative reports as debates over federal sentencing policies and practices continue.  I hope in coming days to find time to mine some more findings from this report that I would consider "key," and I welcome comments that flag any and all elements of this latest report that folks consider especially interesting or important.

October 25, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Many (but not all) Massachusetts DAs come out against eliminating certain drug mandatory minimums and other proposed reforms

This Boston Globe article, headlined "In harsh letter, DAs pan Senate’s criminal justice proposal," reports on a notable letter signed by most of the District Attorneys of Massachusetts to oppose a set of state criminal justice reform proposals. Here is the start of the article (which includes a link to the letter to legislators):

In a blistering public rebuke, nine of Massachusetts’ 11 district attorneys came out Monday against major parts of the state Senate’s sweeping criminal justice bill, which is aimed at reducing the number of people caught in the system.  In a six-page letter that comes days before the chamber is set to take up the legislation, top law enforcement officials railed against what is a Senate priority.

Although they praise some aspects of the bill, overall it “undermines the cause and pursuit of fair and equal justice for all, largely ignores the interests of victims of crime, and puts at risk the undeniable strides and unparalleled success of Massachusetts’ approach to public safety and criminal justice for at least the last 25 years,” the DAs wrote.

The letter also marks a break among the top prosecutors, with the signatures of Northwestern District Attorney David E. Sullivan and Middlesex District Attorney Marian T. Ryan — who is the chief law enforcement official of the state’s most populous county — notably absent.

The nine DAs are against eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug crimes such as trafficking up to 100 grams of cocaine — one proposal in the legislation scheduled for a Thursday vote in the Senate. And they expressed particularly vociferous opposition to the part of the bill that would make those changes retroactive, allowing hundreds of drug dealers the opportunity to get out of prison early.   “Where exactly are the residents eager for violent drug traffickers to be returned to their neighborhoods?” they wrote. 

Advocates and senators say mandatory minimums are a failed tactic from the war on drugs, one that has unnecessarily ensnared generations of people, particularly from communities of color, in the criminal justice system. And making the repeal of certain drug mandatory minimums retroactive is important for equity, they say.

The DAs energetically oppose the provision that would raise the age of criminal majority to 19, meaning all but the most serious offenses committed by 18-year-olds would likely be adjudicated confidentially in front of a juvenile court judge.

Advocates and Senate leaders say scientific research shows young people’s brains keep maturing into their 20s, and it is appropriate for the law to acknowledge that evolution. They say it’s just common sense to treat all high school kids the same way, instead of punishing an 18-year-old much more harshly than a 17-year-old for the same crime.

But the DAs wrote that “adopting a law that enables anyone to declare that ‘I am not responsible for my actions, my brain is!’ is something no rational parent would accept, and creates a slippery slope.”

The DAs vehemently oppose rewriting the state’s statutory rape law, which currently makes sex with anyone under 16 against the law. The bill would legalize consensual sex between teens close in age — an 18-year-old and a 15-year-old, or a 15-year-old and a 13-year-old, for example. That provision is “both unnecessary and dangerous, especially to girls and young women,” the nine DAs wrote.  But advocates say a so-called Romeo-and-Juliet law is sensible, and criminalizing the sexual contact young people inevitably have with each other is not the best way to respond to it.

October 24, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Resolving Judicial Dilemmas"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper authored by Alex Sarch and Daniel Wodak recently posted to SSRN.  Here is its abstract:

The legal reasons that bind a judge and the moral reasons that bind all persons can sometimes pull in different directions. There is perhaps no starker example of such judicial dilemmas than in criminal sentencing.  Particularly where mandatory minimum sentences are triggered, a judge can be forced to impose sentences that even the judge regards as “immensely cruel, if not barbaric.” Beyond those directly harmed by overly harsh laws, some courts have recognized that “judges who, forced to participate in such inhumane acts, suffer a loss of dignity and humanity as well.”

When faced with such a judicial dilemma — a powerful tension between the judge’s legal and moral reasons—the primary question is what a judge can do to resolve it. We argue that the two standard responses — sacrificing morality to respect the law (“legalism”), or sacrificing the law to respect morality (“moralism”) — are unsatisfying. Instead, this Article defends an underexplored third response: rather than abandoning one ideal to maximally promote the other, we argue that judges should seek to at least minimally satisfy the demands of both.  Judges should, in other words, look for and employ what we dub Satisficing Options.  These are actions that enjoy sufficient support from both the legal reasons and the moral reasons, and thus are both legally and morally permissible — even if the acts in question would not strictly count as optimal by the lights of the law or morality.

This common sensical response to the problem is not only underappreciated in the literature, but also has great practical import.  Focusing on the sentencing context, this Article demonstrates that judicial dilemmas can be systematically resolved, mitigated or avoided through a range of concrete strategies that on their own or in conjunction can constitute Satisficing Options: these strategies include seeking out legally permitted but morally preferable interpretations of the law, expressing condemnation of unjust laws in dicta, and seeking assistance or cooperation from other actors to help defendants facing substantively unjust mandatory sentences.  While these strategies can at times also go too far, we argue that in certain contexts they can be sufficiently defensible on both legal and moral grounds to be a justifiable response to judicial dilemmas.  This Article thus provides both a novel theoretical framework for understanding the justification of judicial responses to unjust laws, as well as a practical a menu of options which judges can use to guide their responses to the judicial dilemmas that they are increasingly likely to encounter within our criminal justice system.

October 24, 2017 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

NFL Commish and player write to Senators to "offer the National Football League's full support for the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017"

Images (4)In this post yesterday, I noted the report that the NFL was endorsing federal sentencing reform efforts.  One form of that endorsement emerged today in this form of a letter to US Senators.  This ESPN article provides the basics:

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Doug Baldwin co-signed a letter sent to congressional leaders in support of a bipartisan legislative bill that seeks criminal justice reform.  The letter states the NFL is offering its "full support" of the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017, which seeks reforms and targets enhanced mandatory minimums for prior drug felons, increases judicial discretion for sentencing, and reforms enhanced mandatory minimums and sentences.

"The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act would address many of the issues on which our players have worked to raise awareness of over the last two seasons," the letter, which is dated Oct. 16, reads. "... If enacted, it would be a positive next step in our collective efforts to move our nation forward."...

Asked Monday about a potential pushback from the White House, NFL spokesman Joe Lockhart said he didn't know the President Donald Trump's position on the bill. "I know that this has overwhelming bipartisan support, and we think it's the right thing to do, so that is our focus right now,'' he said.

Baldwin discussed the letter after the Seahawks' practice on Tuesday, saying the letter came about organically and is an important step in unifying the NFL community. "If you look at the players," he said, "we're utilizing the largest platform we have and so now, in a search for using the largest source of resources that we have, which is the NFL -- the NFL has a government affairs office that does a lot of work -- so being able to utilize that resource and make changes that we want to see obviously as players and the causes that we care about so passionately about, I thought that was a step in the right direction of us unifying the NFL community and going in the right direction toward progress."

Having Goodell co-sign the letter was also important, Baldwin said. "I think again the important aspect of it is us having a unified effort.  We don't want to be divided anymore. We don't want to continue with this divisive rhetoric, we don't want to engage with this divisive rhetoric.  We want to start showing our players, the NFL itself, the NFL community that we can be collectively united to seek the changes that we want to see, which are beneficial to the entirety of society.  So I thought it was important that we didn't do this as individuals but we did it as a collective group."

The full two-page letter is available at this link, and here is how it starts and ends:

We are writing to offer the National Football League's full support for the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017 (S. 1917).  We want to add our voice to the broad and bipartisan coalition of business leaders, law enforcement officials, veterans groups, civil rights organizations, conservative thought leaders, and faith-based organizations that have been working for five years to enact the changes called for in this comprehensive legislation....

The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act would address many of the issues on which our players have worked to raise awareness of over the last two seasons. This bill seeks to improve public safety, increase rehabilitation, and strengthen families.  If enacted, it would be a positive next step in our collective efforts to move our nation forward.

Ultimately, we all share a responsibility to find a path towards unity, one that goes well beyond sports.  The National Football League applauds the introduction of this bipartisan criminal justice reform bill as well as your ongoing commitment to upholding America's promise of justice for all.  We stand ready to work with you to advance this important legislation.

October 17, 2017 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Sunday, October 08, 2017

Smarter Sentencing Act reintroduced in Senate with lots of support from both parties

In prior posts here and here, I noted the introduction this past week of two notable federal statutory criminal justice reform bills in the US Senate.  But this press release from the office of Senator Mike Lee details that a third notable bill, the Smarter Sentencing Act, was also formally introduced. Here are the basics from the press release:

[A] bipartisan group of U.S. Senators led by Mike Lee (R-UT) and Dick Durbin (D-IL) reintroduced the Smarter Sentencing Act of 2017. This legislation would modernize federal drug sentencing policies by giving federal judges more discretion in sentencing those convicted of non-violent drug offenses. Senators Lee and Durbin were joined in this effort by Sens. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), Pat Leahy (D-VT), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Al Franken (D-MN), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Tom Udall (D-NM), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Brian Schatz (D-HI), Angus King (I-ME), Gary Peters (D-MI), Ed Markey (D-MA), Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), and Martin Heinrich (D-NM).

“Our current federal sentencing laws are out of date, they are often counterproductive, and in far too many cases they are unjust,” said Senator Lee. “The Smarter Sentencing Act is a commonsense solution that will greatly reduce the financial and, more importantly, the human cost imposed on society by the broken status quo. The SSA will give judges the flexibility and discretion they need to impose stiff sentences on the most serious drug lords and cartel bosses while enabling nonviolent offenders to return more quickly to their families and communities.”

Speaking of criminal justice reform generally, Senator Lee said, “over the past week, I’ve introduced or cosponsored three criminal justice reform bills—the Smarter Sentencing Act, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, and the Mens Rea Reform Act. I would proudly vote for these bills, individually or with one or more of them packaged together, because I think reforming our criminal justice system is a moral and policy imperative. Any step forward will make a real difference. I look forward to continuing to work on these bills and on criminal justice reform issues more broadly, which will always remain a priority for me.”

The United States has seen a 500 percent increase in the number of inmates in federal custody since 1980, and almost 50 percent of those federal inmates are serving sentences for drug offenses. Mandatory sentences, particularly drug sentences, can force a judge to impose a one-size-fits-all sentence without taking into account the details of an individual case. Many of these sentences have disproportionately affected minority populations and helped foster distrust of the criminal justice system.

I cannot yet find the text of the 2017 version of the Smarter Sentencing Act, but I presume it is similar to the 2015 version at this link.

A few prior related posts:

October 8, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

Via Fox News, Senators Grassley, Durbin, Lee and Whitehouse start a renewed pitch for their Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act

This new Fox News commentary, headlined "Bipartisan criminal justice reform is how Congress is supposed to work — the time is now to get it done," carries this notable byline: "Sen. Chuck Grassley, Sen. Dick Durbin, Sen. Mike Lee, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse." And here is some of what these four Senators have to say:

In 2015, a diverse group of lawmakers set out to rethink our approach to federal prison sentences. Our goal: improve public safety and the rule of law by ensuring that penalties match their crime. Many months of thoughtful deliberation yielded a product that earned broad bipartisan support in Congress and from organizations around the country and across the political spectrum. And though the political winds in Washington have shifted, that broad support for comprehensive sentencing reform remains strong.

This week, we are reintroducing the “Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act” as we continue to build on the most sweeping criminal justice reform effort in a generation.

Crafted by Republican and Democratic leaders, this legislation aims to safely and sensibly reduce excessive sentences. It recalibrates prison sentences for certain drug offenders and gives judges greater sentencing flexibility while keeping stiff penalties in place for violent criminals. The bill preserves important law enforcement tools to take down large criminal organizations while expanding outlets to shield low-level nonviolent offenders from lengthy mandatory minimum prison sentences. It eliminates mandatory life sentences for three-strike drug offenders and gives judges authority to retroactively apply the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the sentencing disparity between offenses involving crack and powder cocaine.  The bill also includes “back end” reforms to curb recidivism by helping inmates successfully re-enter society.

We believe this is the right mix of reforms to give nonviolent offenders who’ve done significant time for their crime a second chance to rejoin their families and contribute to our communities while also reducing taxpayer costs and empowering law enforcement to keep dangerous criminals off our streets.  Our bipartisan work represents hard-fought consensus to a long-established problem. In recent years a unique and growing chorus of voices from across the political spectrum prompted a number of proposals in Congress to reform sentencing laws.  However, until now, none garnered enough support to move forward. It became clear that if we wanted to truly make progress on this issue, we would have to come together, check our differences at the door, and focus on areas where we could reach agreement....

We are encouraged by engagement from the White House on this comprehensive criminal justice reform effort. Last Congress, our bill was supported by hundreds of organizations from a variety of industries and political perspectives, including the NAACP and the Charles Koch Institute. It was also endorsed by a broad range of faith-based organizations and law enforcement leaders. We continue to welcome input from stakeholders and our colleagues in government and the law enforcement community as we make additional improvements. This bill represents the way Congress is supposed to work, and is well-positioned to be one of the most significant bipartisan achievements of the 115th Congress. It also represents an important step in our nation’s ongoing quest for justice.

Our founders declared that Americans have the inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  Our criminal justice system needs to reflect these values. That means seeking justice for both the victim and the accused.  Our colleagues in Congress supporting these reforms may not always see eye to eye on every proposal, but we are committed to upholding America’s promise of justice for all.

UPDATE: I now see that the full text of the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017 — all 168 pages! — is available at this link.

October 4, 2017 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Five notable GOP Senators introduce Mens Rea Reform Act of 2017

Download (3)As reported in this press release, yesterday "Senators Orrin Hatch (R-UT), Mike Lee (R-UT), Ted Cruz (R-TX), David Perdue (R-GA), and Rand Paul (R-KY) introduced legislation to strengthen criminal intent protections in federal law."  Here is more from the press release:

Their bill, the Mens Rea Reform Act of 2017, would set a default intent standard for all criminal laws and regulations that lack such a standard.  This legislation would ensure that courts and creative prosecutors do not take the absence of a criminal intent standard to mean that the government can obtain a conviction without any proof a guilty mind....

“Prosecutors should have to show a suspect had a guilty mind, not just that they committed an illegal act, before an American is put behind bars,” Sen. Lee said. “Unfortunately our federal laws contain far too many provisions that do not require prosecutors to prove a defendant intended to commit a crime.  The result is criminal justice system that over penalizes innocent acts which only undermines the rule of law."

“I’m proud to join Sen. Hatch in addressing one of the biggest flaws in our modern criminal justice system,”Sen. Cruz said. “Currently, the federal government can send men and women to prison without demonstrating criminal intent.  As Congress works to address criminal justice reform, the Mens Rea Reform Act needs to be enacted to protect the rights of all Americans.”

The press release includes "Statements of Support" from John Malcolm of the Heritage Foundation, Norman Reimer of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and David Patton of the Federal Defenders of New York.   And in conjunction with this bill introduction, Senator Hatch Senator Hatch yesterday delivered this speech on the Senate floor about the need for mens rea reform.  Here are excerpts from that speech:

Like many of my colleagues, I believe Congress has criminalized far too much conduct and has mandated overly harsh penalties for too many crimes. A number of my colleagues have sought to address these problems by cutting prison sentences, altering statutory minimums, or releasing prisoners earlier for good behavior. But as we seek to reform the criminal justice system, we must be careful not to overlook one of the major roots of the problem: the lack of adequate criminal intent requirements in federal criminal statutes....

Unfortunately, many of our current criminal laws and regulations contain inadequate mens rea requirements — and some contain no mens rea requirement at all. This leaves individuals vulnerable to prosecution for conduct they believed to be lawful.

In recent years, as Congress and federal agencies have criminalized more behavior, they have often been vague about mens rea requirements, or even silent about mens rea altogether. In a 2014 Tennessee Law Review article, Michael Cottone investigated how many federal criminal statutes there are in the US code. Mr. Cottone explained that “tellingly, no exact count of the number of federal statutes that impose criminal sanctions has ever been given.” Most scholars agree there are approximately 5,000 federal statutes that impose criminal sanctions. But those criminal statutes do not include the nearly 300,000 federal regulations that also carry criminal penalties.

With so many criminal laws on the books, it’s far too easy for Americans to break federal laws unwittingly, with no understanding whatsoever that their behavior is illegal. For example, did you know it’s a federal crime to write a check for an amount less than $1 dollar? Or that it’s a federal crime to allow a pet to make a noise that frightens wildlife on federal land? Even more incredibly, did you know it’s a federal crime to keep a pet on a leash that exceeds six feet in length on federal land?

Mr. President, these are only a few examples of unlawful activities that reasonable people could not reasonably be expected to know. What’s worse, many of these unlawful activities are punishable by time in prison. This is not only ridiculous; it’s immoral. The lack of adequate mens rea requirements in our federal criminal code subjects innocent people to unjustified punishment....

Our bill sets a default intent requirement of willfulness for all federal criminal offenses that lack an intent requirement. Additionally, the bill defines willfulness to mean that the person acted with knowledge that his or her conduct was unlawful. Naturally, our bill does not apply to any offenses that Congress clearly intended to be strict liability offenses. Our proposal has garnered widespread support from a variety of organizations, including the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Koch Industries, the Federal Defenders, the US Chamber of Commerce, the Federal Defenders, and the Heritage Foundation, just to name a few. Importantly, our bill does not remove any crimes from the books, nor does it override any existing mens rea standards written in statute. Moreover, it does not limit Congress’s authority to create new criminal offenses—including strict liability offenses.

Mr. President, mens rea really is a simple issue. Individuals should not be threatened with prison time for accidently committing a crime or for engaging in an activity they did not know was wrong. If Congress wants to criminalize an activity, and does not want to include any sort of criminal intent requirement, Congress should have to specify in statute that it is creating a strict liability offense.

I believe this simple legislative solution will go a long way in reducing harsh sentences for morally innocent offenders. It will also push back against the overcriminalization of innocent behavior. As I’ve said many times, any consideration of criminal justice reform or sentencing reform is incomplete without reforms to mens rea requirements.

I cannot yet find the full text of the Mens Rea Reform Act of 2017 on-line, but I suspect it is very similar if not identical to the previously introduced Mens Rea Reform Act of 2015 available here.  It does not seem that Senator Hatch was a cosponsor of the 2015 version of this bill, so I think it is a very good sign that Senator Hatch is now apparently leading the charge for this reform (and doing so by stressing that he believes Congress has "mandated overly harsh penalties for too many crimes").

As long-time readers recall (and as detailed in some prior posts below), there is reason to believe that misguided opposition to this kind of mens rea reform by the Obama Administration and some Democrats contributed to the failure of bipartisan sentencing reforms to make it through Congress.  I am hopeful (but not optimistic) that the current Administration is more supportive of this kind of mens rea reform; I am also hopeful that this bill might be linked to broader sentencing reform efforts and that both might get moving forward in the legislative process in the coming weeks and months.

Some recent and older related posts:

October 3, 2017 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

DOJ seeking DC Circuit en banc review of panel ruling finding 30-year mandatory minimums unconstitutionally excessive for Blackwater contractors who killed Iraqis

In this post last month, I noted the remarkable split DC Circuit panel opinion in US v. Slatten, No. 15-3078 (DC Cir. Aug. 4, 2017) (available here).  I am now not surprised to learn from this news report that the "Justice Department asked a full federal appeals court Monday to review a decision to throw out the first-degree murder conviction of one former Blackwater Worldwide security guard and the sentences of three others in shootings that killed 14 unarmed Iraqi civilians in Baghdad in 2007."  Here are the details:

Acting Solicitor General Jeffrey B. Wall approved the decision, which was expected and filed by appeals lawyers for the department’s criminal division, to seek a full court review by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, after a three-judge panel ruled Aug. 4.

The panel said a trial court “abused its discretion” in not allowing Nicholas A. Slatten, 33, of Sparta, Tenn., to be tried separately from his three co-defendants in 2014 even though one of them said he, not Slatten, fired the first shots in the massacre.  Slatten was convicted of murder.

By a separate, 2-to-1 vote, the panel also found that the 30-year terms of the others convicted of manslaughter and attempted manslaughter — Paul A. Slough, 37, of Keller, Tex.; Evan S. Liberty, 35, of Rochester, N.H.; and Dustin L. Heard, 36, of Maryville, Tenn. — violated the constitutional prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishment.”  They received the enhanced penalty because they were also convicted of using military firearms while committing a felony, a charge that primarily has been aimed at gang members and never before been used against security contractors given military weapons by the U.S. government.

The Justice Department filing called the panel’s sentencing finding “as wrong as it is unprecedented,” saying the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld longer sentences for lesser crimes. “By its plain terms, the statute applies to defendants, who used their most fearsome weapons to open fire on defenseless men, women, and children,” the department said. “Far from being unconstitutional, these sentences befit the ‘enormity’ of defendants’ crimes.”

The government also cited “legal and factual errors” in the ruling granting Slatten a retrial, noting the “great international consequence” of his prosecution for “a humanitarian and diplomatic disaster.” A retrial in “a prosecution of this magnitude (including reassembling the many Iraqi witnesses) poses considerable and uncommon challenges,” the department wrote, urging the full court to reconsider “in a case of such exceptional importance.”

In their own filing Monday, attorneys for the four men asked the full court to toss out the case on jurisdictional grounds and so reverse the panel’s finding that civilian contractors supporting the Pentagon could be prosecuted under the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act....

A group representing family members and friends of the four tweeted a statement from Slatten last month that said, “Public outrage may be our only chance at true justice for all four of us. While it may be too early to seek pardons for my brothers from President Trump, he especially needs to hear from you.”

I have been meaning to write more about the extraordinary Eighth Amendment analysis in the Slatten decision, but I have been holding back in part due to my sense that en banc or even certiorari review may be forthcoming. The jurisprudential and political elements of this case are truly fascinating, and I really have no idea if the full DC Circuit and/or SCOTUS may want to take up this hot potato of a case. And in the wake of the Arpaio pardon, perhaps Prez Trump will be inclined to jump into the case at some point, too.

Prior related post:

September 26, 2017 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

It's Alive!!: Senators Grassley and Durbin talking about reintroducing federal Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act

Ae5cc-aliveRoughly two years ago, when Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Charles Grassley secured a 15-5 vote in committee to move forward the bipartisan Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 (remember that?), I was for a brief period optimistic about the possibility of significant reform to the federal sentencing system.  Regular readers may recall my skepticism about the prospect of major statutory sentencing reform back in summer 2013 when some were eager to believe, in the words one commentator, that "momentum for sentencing reform could be unstoppable."  But once Senators Grassley got on board and shepherded the SRCA though the Senate Judiciary Committee, I really started to think big reform really could happen.  But, of course, a host of predictable and unpredictable forces stopped significant federal statutory sentencing from ever becoming an Obama era reality.

I provide this backstory because it should temper any significant excitement from this new news release from Senator Grassley headlined "Senators to Reintroduce Landmark Criminal Justice Reform Package."  Here are the basics (with my emphasis added):

The bipartisan authors of the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act are preparing to reintroduce their comprehensive legislation to review prison sentences for certain nonviolent drug offenders, reduce recidivism, and save taxpayer dollars.  The legislation, led by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley and Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin, improves judicial discretion at sentencing for low level offenders and helps inmates successfully reenter society, while tightening penalties for violent criminals and preserving key prosecutorial tools for law enforcement.  The senators plan to reintroduce the bill as they continue to work with stakeholders to make additional updates.

“Last Congress, we worked in a bipartisan manner to develop a proposal that empowers judges, saves taxpayer dollars and gives low-level, non-violent offenders another shot at rejoining the productive side of society. Since that time, we’ve been meeting with colleagues and stakeholders to improve the bill and grow support.  While the political landscape in Washington has changed, the same problems presented by the current sentencing regime remain, and we will continue to work with colleagues in Congress and the administration, as well as advocates and members of the law enforcement community, to find a comprehensive solution to ensure justice for both the victims and the accused, and support law enforcement in their mission to keep our communities safe,” Grassley said.

“This legislation is the product of more than five years of work on criminal justice reform,” said Durbin. “It’s also the best chance in a generation to right the wrongs of a badly broken system.  The United States incarcerates more of its citizens than any other country on earth.  Mandatory minimum sentences were once seen as a strong deterrent. In reality they have too often been unfair, fiscally irresponsible and a threat to public safety. Given tight budgets and overcrowded prison cells, our country must reform these outdated and ineffective laws that have cost American taxpayers billions of dollars. We believe this legislation would pass the Senate with a strong bipartisan vote — it’s time to get this done.

The fact that a new version of the SRCA has not yet been introduced, and that Senator Grassley is talking about working with stakeholders to improve the bill in light of the changed political landscape, has me thinking that some interesting moves my be afoot in an effort to get this bill finally to a floor vote. I think Senator Durbin is quite right that a thoughtful federal statutory sentencing reform bill will get a strong bipartisan vote if it gets to the floor. The big question is whether a new version of the SCRA can get to the Senator floor anytime soon.

September 20, 2017 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Third Circuit panel rejects various challenges to severe stash-house sting sentence

A helpful reader made sure that I did not miss yesterday's dynamic discussion by a Third Circuit panel of a set of defense challenges to yet another severe sentence resulting from a stash-house sting.  The start of the majority opinion in US v. Washington, No. 16-2795 (3d Cir. Aug. 28, 2017) (available here), highlights why these cases are so notable:

Defendant-appellant Askia Washington was ensnared by a “stash house reverse sting” operation — one which hit many of the by-now-familiar beats.  Acting on what appeared to be insider information from a drug courier, Washington and his three co-conspirators planned to rob a Philadelphia property where they thought 10 kilograms of cocaine were being stored for distribution.  But as they discovered on the day of the robbery, the “stash house” was a trap set by law enforcement.  Their “courier” was an undercover federal agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (“ATF”), which had developed the scenario from the ground up.  The cocaine did not exist.

Under federal law on conspiracy and attempt, the government could, and did, prosecute the crew as if fantasy had been reality.  Washington, the sole member to take his chances at trial, was convicted by a jury of two Hobbs Act robbery charges and two drug charges (18 U.S.C. § 1951(a) and 21 U.S.C. § 846), although he was acquitted on a gun charge.

Developed by the ATF in the 1980s to combat a rise in professional robbery crews targeting stash houses, reverse sting operations have grown increasingly controversial over the years, even as they have grown safer and more refined.  For one, they empower law enforcement to craft offenses out of whole cloth, often corresponding to statutory offense thresholds.  Here, the entirely fictitious 10 kilograms of cocaine triggered a very real 20-year mandatory minimum for Washington, contributing to a total sentence of 264 months in prison — far more than even the ringleader of the conspiracy received.  For another, and as Washington claimed on multiple occasions before the District Court — and now again on appeal — people of color are allegedly swept up in the stings in disproportionate numbers.

These elements of controversy are bound up in the three claims Washington now raises on appeal.  Two are constitutional claims: Washington challenges his conviction and sentence by arguing that the use of the statutory mandatory minimum term violated his rights to due process, and he also alleges that the attorney who represented him at trial rendered constitutionally ineffective assistance.  While stash-house reverse stings can raise constitutional concerns, the use of a mandatory minimum sentence on these particular facts did not deprive Washington of his right to due process.  And while this is the rare case where a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel was properly raised on direct appeal instead of through a collateral attack, Washington has not shown prejudice sufficient to call into doubt the integrity of his trial.  We thus conclude that both constitutional claims are without merit.

A lengthy and nuanced discussion by the majority follows, and largely concludes that the stash-house sting in this case was, in essence, "good enough for government work."  Judge McKee penned a lengthy partial dissent focused on sentencing issues that has a conclusion including these paragraphs:

This case is the latest illustration of why federal courts across the country continue to find the government’s reliance on phony stash-house sting operations disturbing.  As I have explained, these cases raise serious issues of fairness while destroying the fundamental relationship between culpability and punishment that is so important to sentencing.  The conduct being sanctioned is the direct result of the government’s initiative rather than the defendant’s.

I reiterate that it is exceedingly difficult to conclude that Congress ever considered that mandatory minimum sentences would apply here.  Nevertheless, it just may be that the ultimate systematic resolution of this very troublesome approach to sentencing will have to await clarification by Congress, the Sentencing Commission,or the U.S. Supreme Court.  Meanwhile, it is worth echoing my colleagues’ caution: The Government’s success today should not be interpreted as a clue that “all such prosecutions will share the same fate” in the future.

August 29, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

ABA delegates pass resolution against mandatory minimums and defer vote on resolution against new Sessions charging memo

Aba-logo-defending-liberty-pursuing-justiceAs reported in this ABA Journal report, the "ABA House of Delegates on Tuesday approved a late-offered resolution backing a ban on mandatory minimum sentences, while sponsors withdrew another late sentencing resolution after hearing from the U.S. Justice Department." Here are more details:

Delegates approved Resolution 10B, which opposes the imposition of mandatory minimum sentences in any criminal case.  The resolution calls on Congress and state legislatures to repeal laws requiring mandatory minimums and to refrain from adopting such laws in the future....

“Sentencing by mandatory minimums is the antithesis of rational sentencing policy,” the report says.  Basic fairness and due process require sentences to be the same among similarly situated offenders and proportional to the crime, the report says.

Though the ABA is on record for opposing mandatory minimums, the resolution “is timely and it is indeed urgent” because Congress is considering a number of bills that would impose new mandatory minimums, according to Kevin Curtin of the Massachusetts Bar Association.  Curtin told the House that mandatory minimums have produced troubling race-based inequities.  Blacks are more likely than whites to be charged with crimes carrying mandatory minimum sentences, and they are more likely to be sentenced to a mandatory minimum term, he said.

The withdrawn proposal, Resolution 10A, would have urged the Department of Justice to rescind a policy adopted in May by Attorney General Jeff Sessions.  The Sessions policy directs federal prosecutors to charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense, unless they get approval of superiors to deviate from the policy.  The ABA resolution urges that the department reinstate policies permitting federal prosecutors to make individualized assessments in each case....

Neal Sonnett, representing the ABA Criminal Justice Section, explained why the proposal was withdrawn.  The Justice Department has a designated seat within the section, but it did not voice an objection until Monday afternoon, he said.  The department indicated it believed there were errors in the section report and it wanted to continue discussions, Sonnett said.  The section withdrew the resolution to allow for those discussions and intends to bring it back to the House at the ABA Midyear Meeting in February.

A report to the House of Delegates said Sessions’ decision will lead to increased use of mandatory minimums for low-level and nonviolent drug offenders and a rise in incarceration.  “The draconian charging and sentencing policies urged by Sessions are a throwback to the policies of limited prosecutorial discretion and increased mandatory minimum sentences — policies that did not work — and are in stark contrast to the progressive trend in policies over the last 10 years,” the report says.

The ABA website provides information about the withdrawn Resolution 10A as well as the adopted Resolution 10B.

August 16, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Friday, August 04, 2017

Split DC Circuit finds unconstitutionally excessive 30-year mandatory minimum sentences for Blackwater contractors who killed Iraqis

A huge new DC Circuit opinion released today in a high-profile criminal case include a significant Eighth Amendment ruling.  The full 100+-page opinion in US v. Slatten, No. 15-3078 (DC Cir. Aug. 4, 2017) (available here), gets started this way:

Nicholas Slatten, Paul Slough, Evan Liberty and Dustin Heard (“defendants”) were contractors with Blackwater Worldwide Security ("Blackwater"), which in 2007 was providing security services to the United States State Department in Iraq. As a result of Baghdad shootings that injured or killed at least 31 Iraqi civilians, Slough, Liberty and Heard were convicted by a jury of voluntary manslaughter, attempted manslaughter and using and discharging a firearm in relation to a crime of violence (or aiding-and-abetting the commission of those crimes); Slatten was convicted of first-degree murder. They now challenge their convictions on jurisdictional, procedural and several substantive grounds....

The Court concludes ...that the district court abused its discretion in denying Slatten’s motion to sever his trial from that of his co-defendants and therefore vacates his conviction and remands for a new trial. Moreover, the Court concludes that imposition of the mandatory thirty-year minimum under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c), as applied here, violates the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, a holding from which Judge Rogers dissents. The Court therefore remands for the resentencing of Slough, Liberty and Heard.

The majority's Eighth Amendment analysis is really interesting, running more than 30 pages and covering lots of ground. And it wraps up this way:

The sentences are cruel in that they impose a 30-year sentence based on the fact that private security contractors in a war zone were armed with government-issued automatic rifles and explosives. They are unusual because they apply Section 924(c) in a manner it has never been applied before to a situation which Congress never contemplated. We again emphasize these defendants can and should be held accountable for the death and destruction they unleashed on the innocent Iraqi civilians who were harmed by their actions. But instead of using the sledgehammer of a mandatory 30-year sentence, the sentencing court should instead use more nuanced tools to impose sentences proportionally tailored to the culpability of each defendant.

Judge Rogers' dissent from this conclusion is also really interesting, and it concludes this way:

Although it is possible to imagine circumstances in which a thirty-year minimum sentence for a private security guard working in a war zone would approach the outer bounds of constitutionality under the Eighth Amendment, this is not that case.  The jury rejected these defendants’ claim that they fired in self-defense, and far more of their fellow security guards chose not to fire their weapons at all that day.  Yet as my colleagues apparently see it, Congress should have included an exception for all such military contractor employees, or, rather, it would have included such an exception if it had only considered the issue.  See Op. 72–74.  Perhaps so, but that is not the question before us. The district court judge made an individualized assessment of an appropriate sentencing package for each of these defendants, and the result is not disproportionate to the defendants’ crimes, let alone grossly, unconstitutionally disproportionate.

I think it possible (but not at all certain) that the feds will seek cert review of this Eighth Amendment decision, and I think it also possible (but not at all certain) that SCOTUS might be interested in this issue in this setting.

August 4, 2017 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (12)

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Helpful summary of USSC's recent overview of mandatory minimums in federal system

As reported in this prior post, the US Sentencing Commission earlier this month released a lengthy new publication titled "An Overview of Mandatory Minimum Penalties in the Federal Criminal Justice System" reviewing the use of federal mandatory minimum penalties and their impact on the federal prison population. Now the USSC has released this two-page publication with the big report's highlights. Here are highlights of these highlights:

July 27, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Jared Kushner still finding time to work on sentencing reform with members of Congress

This lengthy new Wall Street Journal article, headlined "Kushner’s Interest in Drug-Sentencing Limits Is at Odds With Attorney General: Jared Kushner has discussed criminal justice changes with lawmakers who backed a 2016 measure that then-senator Jeff Sessions opposed," reports on the continued efforts of President Trump's son-in-law to keep federal statutory sentencing reform afloat. Here are excerpts:

President Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, and some Republican lawmakers are discussing potential changes to the criminal justice system, including to mandatory minimum sentencing, that could conflict with Attorney General Jeff Sessions ’ tough-on-crime agenda.

Mr. Kushner met this month with House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R., Va.), continuing a dialogue with lawmakers that began in March with Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa) and Sens. Dick Durbin (D., Ill.) and Mike Lee (R., Utah). Mr. Kushner also has huddled with leaders of organizations involved in criminal justice.

“He’s quietly listening to all sides, including outside groups, to understand what’s possible and to ultimately be able to make a recommendation to the president,” said a White House official familiar with the meetings. “It’s a personal issue to him given his father spent time in prison. He got to know the families and got to see what’s wrong with the federal prison system.” Mr. Kushner’s father, Charles Kushner, a real-estate executive, was sentenced in 2005 to two years in prison after pleading guilty to tax evasion.

Mr. Kushner’s discussions have included a range of issues, including curbing long mandatory-minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders. In contrast, Mr. Sessions is promoting mandatory minimums as a pivotal crime-fighting tool that helps prosecutors get cooperation from suspects and keeps dangerous offenders behind bars. Mr. Kushner has met with Mr. Sessions and is trying to find common ground, according to the White House official.

However, Mr. Sessions appears to have lost favor with the president for recusing himself from a probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Mr. Trump has taken to berating Mr. Sessions publicly, on Tuesday saying on Twitter Mr. Sessions “has taken a VERY weak position on Hillary Clinton crimes,” referring to the Federal Bureau of Investigation look into her email practices. On Monday, Mr. Trump referred to Mr. Sessions as “our beleaguered A.G.”

“Everyone does see it as a challenge that some people in the White House and Congress want to do criminal justice reform but are at odds with actions the attorney general is taking,” said Greg Mitchell, a federal lobbyist who has worked on criminal-justice issues for years, representing groups that favor shorter sentences....

Mr. Grassley, in a recent speech outlining his agenda at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, said he is awaiting input from the White House before reviving the sentencing bill. Supporters cast it as a bipartisan initiative that demonstrates the growing consensus around reducing the prison population. “It is consistent to be both tough on crime and still support sentencing reform,” Mr. Grassley said at AEI. “Passing a sentencing bill remains a top legislative priority for me as chairman.”

Advocates of less-punitive drug-sentencing laws view Mr. Kushner as their chief ally in the White House. However, Mr. Kushner’s responsibilities are broad, from Middle East politics to overhauling the federal bureaucracy. He has also been drawn into the Russia probes. As with climate change and other issues, criminal justice divides the White House into opposing camps. Mr. Trump ran on a law-and-order platform, and Mr. Sessions has largely executed that agenda.

“We have a chance of getting the support of this administration,” Mr. Grassley said in his AEI speech. “You look at some people appointed by this president, you might believe otherwise, but I have reason to believe it’s possible. I know there is both support and opposition within this White House.”

In a sign of the sensitivities surrounding drug sentencing, two newly-filed criminal-justice bills steer clear of the issue. Rep. Doug Collins (R., Ga.) introduced a bill Monday that would require federal prisons to assess inmates’ needs and offer rehabilitation programs. Co-sponsored by Mr. Goodlatte, the bill requests $250 million over the next five years to pay for prison education programs. “As a compassionate conservative, I know that people who are doing time will at some point re-enter the community,” Mr. Collins said.

Congress is unlikely to focus on criminal justice before the fall, lobbyists and staffers say. It’s unclear whether Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.), who declined to bring the 2016 sentencing bill to a vote, would embrace a similar bill this time around.

July 26, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Still more from AG Sessions on crime and punishment... and some critical commentary thereon

This recent post reprinted some excerpts of a speech by Attorney General Sessions at the 30th DARE Training Conference, and AG Sessions hit some similar points in this subsequent speech yesterday in Las Vegas to law enforcement personnel. This Vegas speech gave special attention to immigration enforcement and "sanctuary cities," and here are excerpts from the start of the speech that help highlight how AG Sessions view a tough approach to law enforcement as central to everything that government seeks to achieve: 

Since the early 1990s, the crime rate has steadily come down across the country — that is, until two years ago. Now, violent crime is once again on the rise in many parts of America.  The murder rate, for example, has surged 10 percent nationwide in just one year — the largest increase since 1968.

These numbers are shocking, and they are informative, but the numbers are not what is most important. What’s most important are the people behind the numbers.  Each one of the victims of these crimes had a family, friends, and neighbors. They’re all suffering, too....

We cannot accept this status quo, and this Department of Justice will not accept it.  Every American has the right to be safe in their homes and in their neighborhoods.

The first and most important job of this government — and any government — is to protect the safety and the rights of its people.  If we fail at this task, then every other government initiative ceases to be important.

As law enforcement officials, we have the responsibility to stop — and reverse — the surge in violent crime and opioids that has taken place over the last two years.  And under President Trump’s leadership, this Department of Justice will answer the call and do its part.

To that end, I have directed our federal prosecutors to work closely with our law enforcement partners at the federal, state, local, and tribal levels to combat violent crime and take violent criminals off our streets.

As we all know, the vast majority of people just want to obey the law and live their lives.  A disproportionate amount of crime is committed by a small group of criminals.  And the more of them we apprehend, prosecute, and convict, the more crime we can deter.

Meanwhile, as AG Sessions has been this week expounding his vision for federal criminal enforcement, some commentators concerned about his vision have been explaining their concerns.  Here are two recent pieces with critical commentary on what AG Sessions is up to:

July 13, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

US Sentencing Commission releases new overview of mandatory minimums in federal system

As reported in this official press release, the "United States Sentencing Commission today released a new publication — An Overview of Mandatory Minimum Penalties in the Federal Criminal Justice System (2017 Overview) — that examines the use of federal mandatory minimum penalties and the impact of those penalties on the federal prison population." Here is more from the press release about this new publication and its findings:

The new publication updates much of the data contained in its 2011 Report to the Congress: Mandatory Minimum Penalties in the Federal Criminal Justice System and compiles data through 2016, the most recent full fiscal year for which federal sentencing data is available.

Judge William H. Pryor, Jr., Acting Chair of the Commission stated, "This publication examines the latest data about the use of mandatory minimum sentences in the federal criminal justice system.  When Congress created the Commission, Congress empowered it to serve 'as a clearinghouse and information center' about federal sentencing and to assist Congress, the federal courts, and federal departments in the development of sound sentencing policies.  See 28 U.S.C. § 995(a)(12)(A). The Commission has published this report to fulfill that Congressional mandate."

Among the key data findings in the publication are:

  • The average sentence length for federal offenders convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty in fiscal year 2016 was 110 months of prison, nearly four times the average sentence (28 months) for offenders whose offense did not carry a mandatory minimum.

  • Slightly more than half (55.7%) of federal inmates in custody as of September 30, 2016 were convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum.

  • Over one-third (38.7%) of federal offenders convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty in fiscal year 2016 received relief from the mandatory minimum at sentencing, which is a decrease from 46.7 percent in fiscal year 2010.

  • Hispanic offenders continued to represent the largest group of federal offenders (40.4%) convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty in fiscal year 2016.

  • White offenders had the longest average sentence (127 months) among federal offenders convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty in fiscal year 2016, which is a shift from fiscal year 2010 when Black offenders convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty had the longest average sentence (127 months).

  • While Black offenders convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty continued to receive relief from the mandatory minimum penalty least often, the gap between Black offenders and White offenders has narrowed from a difference of 11.6 percent in fiscal year 2010 to 3.2 percent in fiscal year 2016.

The 2017 Overview is part of a multi-year study included in the Commission’s policy priorities over the past several amendment cycles and is intended to be the first in a series of reports on mandatory minimum penalties.  Continuation of the study is listed as a tentative policy priority for the amendment year ending May 1, 2018.  The Commission will accept public comment on proposed priorities through July 31, 2017.

The full USSC report, which runs 89 pages, is available at this link. I hope to find some time in the coming weeks to highlights some additional data from this latest review of the latest mandatory minimum realities.

July 11, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes | Permalink | Comments (2)

Latest comments by AG Sessions on drug problems and federal prosecutorial policies

Attorney General Jeff Sessions spoke today at the 30th DARE Training Conference, and the setting not surprisingly prompted him to talk about drug issues and federal prosecutorial policies. His official remarks are available at this link, and here are excerpts:

Drug abuse has become an epidemic in this country today, taking an unprecedented number of American lives.  For Americans under the age of 50, drug overdoses are now the leading cause of death. In 2015, more than 52,000 Americans lost their lives to drug overdoses — 1,000 every week.  More died of drug overdoses in 2015 than died from car crashes or died at the height of the AIDS epidemic.

And the numbers we have for 2016 show another increase — a big increase. Based on preliminary data, nearly 60,000 Americans lost their lives to drug overdoses last year.  That will be the highest drug death toll and the fastest increase in the death toll in American history.  And every day, more than 5,000 Americans abuse painkillers for the first time.

This epidemic is only growing.  It’s only getting worse.  It’s being driven primarily by opioids — prescription drugs, heroin, and synthetic drugs like fentanyl.  Last year, there were 1.3 million hospital visits in the United States because of these drugs.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, heroin use has doubled in the last decade among young people 18 to 25....

Now, this is not this country’s first drug abuse crisis.  In the 1980s, when I was a federal prosecutor, we confronted skyrocketing drug abuse rates across the country and we were successful.  In 1980, half of our high school seniors admitted they had used an illegal drug sometime in that year.  But through enforcing our laws and by developing effective prevention strategies, we steadily brought those rates down.

We were in the beginning of this fight, in 1983, when DARE was founded in Los Angeles.  I believe that DARE was instrumental to our success by educating children on the dangers of drug use.  I firmly believe that you have saved lives. And I want to say thank you for that.  Whenever I ask adults around age 30 about prevention, they always mention the DARE program.  Your efforts work.  Lives and futures are saved.

Now, some people today say that the solution to the problem of drug abuse is to be more accepting of the problem of drug abuse.  They say marijuana use can prevent addiction.  They say the answer is only treatment.  They say don’t talk about enforcement.  To me, that just doesn’t make any sense.  In fact, I would argue that one reason that we are in such a crisis right now is that we have subscribed to this mistaken idea that drug abuse is no big deal.

Ignoring the problem — or the seriousness of the problem — won’t make it go away.  Prevention — through educating people about the danger of drugs — is ultimately how we’re going to end the drug epidemic for the long term. Treatment is important, but treatment often comes too late.  By then, people have already suffered from the effects of drugs.  Then their struggle to overcome addiction can be a long process — and it can fail.  I have seen families spend all their savings and retirement money on treatment programs for their children — just to see these programs fail.

Now, law enforcement is prevention.  And at the Department of Justice, we are working keep drugs out of our country to reduce availability, to drive up its price, and to reduce its purity and addictiveness.  We know drug trafficking is an inherently violent business.  If you want to collect a drug debt, you can’t, and don’t, file a lawsuit in court.  You collect it by the barrel of a gun.  There is no doubt that violence tends to rise with increased drug dealing.

Under the previous administration, the Department of Justice told federal prosecutors not to include in charging documents the full amount of drugs being dealt when the actual amount would trigger a mandatory minimum sentence.  Prosecutors were required to leave out true facts in order to achieve sentences lighter than required by law. This was billed as an effort to curb “mass incarceration” of “low-level offenders”, but in reality it covered offenders apprehended with large quantities of dangerous drugs.

What was the result?  It was exactly what you would think: sentences went down and crime went up.  Sentences for federal drug crimes dropped by 18 percent from 2009 to 2016.  Violent crime — which had been decreasing for two decades — suddenly went up again.  Two years after this policy change, the United States suffered the largest single-year increase in the overall violent crime rate since 1991.

In May, after study and discussion with criminal justice experts, I issued a memorandum to all federal prosecutors regarding charging and sentencing policy that said we were going to trust our prosecutors again and allow them to honestly charge offenses as Congress intended.  This simple two-page guidance instructs prosecutors to apply the laws on the books to the facts of the case, and allows them to exercise discretion where a strict application of the law would result in an injustice.  Instead of barring prosecutors from faithfully enforcing the law, this policy empowers trusted professionals to apply the law fairly and exercise discretion when appropriate.  That is the way good law enforcement has always worked.

But you know it’s not our privileged communities that suffer the most from crime and violence.  Minority communities are disproportionately impacted by violent drug trafficking and addiction.  Poor neighborhoods are too often ignored in these conversations.

Regardless of their level of wealth or their race, every American has the right to live in a safe neighborhood.  Those of us who are responsible for promoting public safety cannot sit back while any American community is ravaged by crime and violence at the hands of drug traffickers.  We can never yield sovereignty over a single neighborhood, city block, or street corner to drug traffickers....

Experience has shown, sadly, that it is not enough that dangerous drugs are illegal.  We also have to make them unacceptable.  We have to create a cultural climate that is hostile to drug abuse. In recent years, government officials were sending mixed messages about drugs.  We need to send a clear message.  We must have Drug Abuse Resistance Education.  DARE is the best remembered anti-drug program. I am proud of your work.  It has played a key role in saving thousands of lives and futures.

So please — continue to let your voices be heard.  I promise you that I will let my voice be heard.  Our young people must understand that drugs are dangerous; that drugs will destroy their lives, or worse yet, end them.  Let’s get the truth out there and prevent new addictions and new tragedies — and make all of our communities safer.  Thank you.

July 11, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, June 23, 2017

Senate Judiciary Chair Grassley still talking up the prospects for federal statutory sentencing reform

This notable article from the Washington Free Beacon reports on some notable remarks by a critical member of Congress concerning federal sentencing reform.  The article is headlined "Sen. Grassley: Criminal Justice Reform Still on the Table," and here are excerpts:

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa) believes that his criminal justice reform agenda, unsuccessful under the Obama administration, still has bright prospects, in spite of the less reform-friendly administration of President Donald Trump. Grassley, chairman of the Senate Judiciary committee, spoke at the American Enterprise Institute on Thursday morning about the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (SRCA), a bipartisan bill he first brought up in the last Congress....

"Long prison sentences always come with a cost. A cost to the taxpayers, a cost to families, and to our communities," Grassley said. "In many ways, and in many cases, the severity of the crime justifies these costs. But as we're all aware, that isn't always the case. Hence, the movement for sentencing reform."

The SRCA is meant to address these concerns through a number of approaches, Grassley said. These include expanded "safety valves" for non-violent offenders; a reduction in mandatory minimums for some drug crimes; and a reduction in sentences for offenders who complete programs designed to reduce recidivation. Grassley suggested that while the SRCA had the support of the Obama administration, the Trump White House, which has promised to "make America safe again," may be less friendly to the legislation.

"Obviously, the dynamic is different with a new president," Grassley said, but added that he was nonetheless "confident" about the SRCA's prospects. "We're looking forward to input from the administration" on the SRCA, Grassley said. "We had the support of the Obama administration. I think we have a chance of getting the support of this administration."

"I know that there is both support and opposition within this White House," Grassley said. "I certainly believe that it is consistent to be tough on crime and still support sentencing reform."

"We've been working since November to see what avenues we can have to move this bill along, particularly working with the executive branch of government. I'm confident about its prospects," he said....

Grassley criticized Sessions's comments that the administration would go back to pre-Obama sentencing discretion. "I'm not going to condemn people for finding fault with what Attorney General Sessions did when he spoke about going back to the pre-Obama, pre-Holder sentencing prosecutorial discretion that he gave to his U.S. Attorneys, that it was the wrong way to go. I could even say that I think it was the wrong way to go," he said.

Sessions opposed Grassley's bill when he was in the Senate. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, Sessions "personally blocked" the 2015 SRCA; he also, along with several of his colleagues, authored one of a series of op-eds opposing the bill. Sessions wrote an opinion piece for the Washington Post in June in which he insisted more stringent sentencing was needed to curb surging violent crime. He also attacked those who claimed incarceration was driven largely by low-level, nonviolent drug offenders.

Grassley, however, said Sessions' priorities need not conflict with the SRCA. "There doesn't have to be anything incompatible with what he's doing, with what we're trying to do, because what we do is give people that have been sentenced unfairly, and they feel it, and their lawyers feel it, another bite at the apple, by going before a judge to plead their case, that their sentence ought to be shorter," Grassley said.

Helpfully, the American Enterprise Institute has this webpage with a video of the event at which Senator Grassley spoke, and he had a lot more to say than what is quoted above.

June 23, 2017 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

US Sentencing Commission releases its proposed priorities for 2017-18 amendment cycle

Download (1)Because of reduced membership and election transitions, as reported here, the US Sentencing Commission decided not to promulgate guideline amendments in the 2016-17 amendment cycle.  (For a variety of reasons, I think this was a wise decision even though, as noted in this post from December 2016, just before a number of Commissioners' terms expired, the USSC unanimously voted to publish some ambitious proposed amendments for 2017.)  The USSC still has a reduced membership — it is supposed to have seven members and right now has only four — but that has not prevented it from now releasing an ambitious set of proposed priorities for 2017-18 amendment cycle.  Nearly a dozen priorities appear in this new federal register notice, and here area few that especially caught my eye (with some added emphasis in a few spots): 

[T]he Commission has identified the following tentative priorities:

(1) Continuation of its multi-year examination of the overall structure of the guidelines post-Booker, possibly including recommendations to Congress on any statutory changes and development of any guideline amendments that may be appropriate. As part of this examination, the Commission intends to study possible approaches to (A) simplify the operation of the guidelines, promote proportionality, and reduce sentencing disparities; and (B) appropriately account for the defendant’s role, culpability, and relevant conduct.

(2) Continuation of its multi-year study of offenses involving MDMA/Ecstasy, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), synthetic cannabinoids (such as JWH-018 and AM-2201), and synthetic cathinones (such as Methylone, MDPV, and Mephedrone)....

(3) Continuation of its work with Congress and other interested parties to implement the recommendations set forth in the Commission’s 2016 report to Congress, titled Career Offender Sentencing Enhancements, including its recommendations to revise the career offender directive at 28 U.S.C. § 994(h) to focus on offenders who have committed at least one “crime of violence” and to adopt a uniform definition of “crime of violence” applicable to the guidelines and other recidivist statutory provisions.

(4) Continuation of its work with Congress and other interested parties on statutory mandatory minimum penalties to implement the recommendations set forth in the Commission’s 2011 report to Congress, titled Mandatory Minimum Penalties in the Federal Criminal Justice System, including its recommendations regarding the severity and scope of mandatory minimum penalties, consideration of expanding the “safety valve” at 18 U.S.C. § 3553(f), and elimination of the mandatory “stacking” of penalties under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c). The Commission also intends to release a series of publications updating the data in the 2011 report.

(5) Continuation of its comprehensive, multi-year study of recidivism, including (A) examination of circumstances that correlate with increased or reduced recidivism; (B) possible development of recommendations for using information obtained from such study to reduce costs of incarceration and overcapacity of prisons, and promote effectiveness of reentry programs; and (C) consideration of any amendments to the Guidelines Manual that may be appropriate, including possibly amending Chapter Four and Chapter Five to provide lower guideline ranges for “first offenders” generally and to increase the availability of alternatives to incarceration for such offenders at the lower levels of the Sentencing Table....

(9) Continuation of its study of alternatives to incarceration, including (A) issuing a publication regarding the development of alternative to incarceration programs in federal district courts, and (B) possibly amending the Sentencing Table in Chapter 5, Part A to consolidate Zones B and C, and other relevant provisions in the Guidelines Manual....

(11) Consideration of any miscellaneous guideline application issues coming to the Commission’s attention from case law and other sources, including consideration of whether a defendant’s denial of relevant conduct should be considered in determining whether a defendant has accepted responsibility for purposes of §3E1.1.

June 23, 2017 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, June 22, 2017

"Jeff Sessions wants a new war on drugs. It won't work."

The title of this post is the headline of this new Washington Post commentary authored by David Cole, who is the national legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, and Marc Mauer, who is executive director of the Sentencing Project. Here are excerpts:

Attorney General Jeff Sessions is right to be concerned about recent increases in violent crime in some of our nation’s largest cities, as well as a tragic rise in drug overdoses nationwide [“Lax drug enforcement means more violence,” op-ed, June 18].  But there is little reason to believe that his response — reviving the failed “war on drugs” and imposing more mandatory minimums on nonviolent drug offenders — will do anything to solve the problem.  His prescription contravenes a growing bipartisan consensus that the war on drugs has not worked. And it would exacerbate mass incarceration, the most pressing civil rights problem of the day.

Sessions’s first mistake is to conflate correlation and causation. He argues that the rise in murder rates in 2015 was somehow related to his predecessor Eric Holder’s August 2013 directive scaling back federal prosecutions in lower-level drug cases.  That policy urged prosecutors to reserve the most serious charges for high-level offenses.  Holder directed them to avoid unnecessarily harsh mandatory minimum sentences for defendants whose conduct involved no actual or threatened violence, and who had no leadership role in criminal enterprises or gangs, no substantial ties to drug trafficking organizations and no significant criminal history....  Sessions offers no evidence that this policy caused the recent spikes in violent crime or drug overdoses. There are three reasons to doubt that there is any significant connection between the two.

First, federal prosecutors handle fewer than 10 percent of all criminal cases, so a modest change in their charging policy with respect to a subset of drug cases is unlikely to have a nationwide impact on crime.  The other 90 percent of criminal prosecution is conducted by state prosecutors, who were not affected by Holder’s policy.  Second, the few individuals who benefited from Holder’s policy by definition lacked a sustained history of crime or violence or any connections to major drug traffickers.  Third, the increases in violent crime that Sessions cites are not nationally uniform, which one would expect if they were attributable to federal policy.  In 2015, murder rates rose in Chicago, Cleveland and Baltimore, to be sure.  But they declined in Boston and El Paso, and stayed relatively steady in New York, Las Vegas, Detroit and Atlanta.  If federal drug policy were responsible for the changes, we would not see such dramatic variances from city to city.

Nor is there any evidence that increases in drug overdoses have anything to do with shorter sentences for a small subset of nonviolent drug offenders in federal courts.  Again, the vast majority of drug prosecutions are in state court under state law and are unaffected by the attorney general’s policies.  And the rise in drug overdoses is a direct result of the opioid and related heroin epidemics, which have been caused principally by increased access to prescription painkillers from doctors and pill mills.  That tragic development calls for treatment of addicts and closer regulation of doctors, not mandatory minimums imposed on street-level drug sellers, who are easily replaced in communities that have few lawful job opportunities.

Most disturbing, Sessions seems to have no concern for the fact that the United States leads the world in incarceration; that its prison population is disproportionately black, Hispanic and poor; or that incarceration inflicts deep and long-lasting costs on the very communities most vulnerable to crime in the first place.... Advocates as diverse as the Koch brothers and George Soros, the Center for American Progress and Americans for Tax Reform, the American Civil Liberties Union and Right on Crime agree that we need to scale back the harshness of our criminal justice system.

Rather than expanding the drug war, Sessions would be smarter to examine local conditions that influence crime and violence, including policing strategies, availability of guns, community engagement and concentrated poverty.  Responding to those underlying problems, and restoring trust through consent decrees that reduce police abuse, hold considerably more promise of producing public safety. Sessions’s revival of the failed policies of the past, by contrast, has little hope of reducing violent crime or drug overdoses. 

Prior recent related posts:

June 22, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

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)