Saturday, September 15, 2018

Reviewing the continued ugly realities of the application of the Armed Career Criminal Act

Running this week at The Appeal is this notable piece with stories and data on the application of the federal Armed Career Criminal Act.  The piece is headlined in full "Man Sentenced As ‘Career Criminal’ Gets His First Chance At Freedom In 48 Years: Despite a 2015 Supreme Court ruling limiting the mandatory minimum law, few people are seeing relief." I recommend the piece in full, and found this data discussion especially interesting:

A run of Supreme Court decisions capped by the 2015 ruling brought relief to some prisoners who were sentenced under ACCA.  The ruling found part of the act to be unconstitutionally vague — it wasn’t clear what qualified a defendant as a “career criminal.” The decision made hundreds of prisoners serving ACCA-enhanced sentences eligible for resentencing.

The Supreme Court limited the prior convictions that qualified a person for sentencing under the act. It did not eliminate prosecutors’ ability to seek ACCA-enhanced sentences, and U.S. attorney’s offices in a handful of jurisdictions continue to regularly use the enhancement against defendants with prior convictions for drug dealing and qualifying violent crimes....

Three years after the Supreme Court decision, prosecutors continue to use ACCA mandatory sentences in patterns that vary significantly from state to state. Whether a defendant faces an ACCA sentence depends on who is prosecuting.  Prosecutors in California won just one ACCA sentence in 2016, while New York had only two prosecutions.  Florida had 61; Missouri had 29 and Tennessee had 26.  Washington state had one ACCA prosecution in 2016.

“It is incredibly arbitrary,” said Molly Gill, vice president for policy at FAMM, an advocacy organization opposed to mandatory sentences.  “One of the ideas behind mandatory minimums … is that they increase the certainty of punishment,” Gill told The Appeal. “When you look at how the law’s applied, that’s really not true.”

Black defendants are far more likely to receive ACCA-enhanced sentences.  According to U.S. Sentencing Commission statistics, 70 percent of defendants sentenced under the act in 2016 were Black.  Whites, who outnumbered Black defendants that year, accounted for 24 percent of ACCA-enhanced sentences.

Severe sentences and mandatory minimums have long been faulted as unnecessary; the U.S. Sentencing Commission found them onerous and inconsistently applied. They also deliver a compelling advantage to prosecutors during negotiations.

Questioning the government during oral arguments in Johnson v. United States, the case that resulted in the 2015 ruling, Chief Justice John Roberts commented that defendants facing a 15-year minimum will take a deal. “You said … because there are so many years involved, people will litigate hard,” Roberts remarked to Deputy Solicitor General Michael Dreeben during the April 2015 hearing.  “I think because there are so many years involved, people won’t litigate at all. … It gives so much more power to the prosecutor in the plea negotiations.”

About 97 percent of defendants convicted in federal court plead guilty prior to trial. Though ACCA sentences have been declining in recent years, 304 people were sentenced under the act in 2016.

September 15, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Gun policy and sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (3)

Friday, September 14, 2018

Marijuana, mandatory minimums and jury nullification, oh my: split Ninth Circuit affirms panel federal convictions, though remands to address DOJ spending rider

A big, long and split decision by a panel of the Ninth Circuit yesterday in US v. Lynch, No. 10-50219 (9th Cir, Sept. 13, 2018) (available here), prompted the weak "Wizard of Oz" reference in the title of this post.  There is so much of interest in Lynch for sentencing fans and others, I cannot cover it all in this post. The majority's introduction provides a sense of the case's coverage:

Charles Lynch ran a marijuana dispensary in Morro Bay, California, in violation of federal law.  He was convicted of conspiracy to manufacture, possess, and distribute marijuana, as well as other charges related to his ownership of the dispensary.  In this appeal, Lynch contends that the district court made various errors regarding Lynch’s defense of entrapment by estoppel, improperly warned jurors against nullification, and allowed the prosecutors to introduce various evidence tying Lynch to the dispensary’s activities, while excluding allegedly exculpatory evidence offered by Lynch.  However, Lynch suffered no wrongful impairment of his entrapment by estoppel defense, the anti-nullification warning was not coercive, and the district court’s evidentiary rulings were correct in light of the purposes for which the evidence was tendered.  A remand for resentencing is required, though, on the government’s cross-appeal of the district court’s refusal to apply a five-year mandatory minimum sentence, which unavoidably applies to Lynch.

Following the filing of this appeal and after the submission of the government’s brief, the United States Congress enacted an appropriations provision, which this court has interpreted to prohibit the federal prosecution of persons for activities compliant with state medical marijuana laws. Lynch contends that this provision therefore prohibits the United States from continuing to defend Lynch’s conviction.  We need not reach the question of whether the provision operates to annul a properly obtained conviction, however, because a genuine dispute exists as to whether Lynch’s activities were actually legal under California state law. Remand will permit the district court to make findings regarding whether Lynch complied with state law.

Judge Watford dissented from the panel majority in Lynch, and his dissent starts this way:

I would reverse and remand for a new trial. In my view, the district court went too far in trying to dissuade the jury from engaging in nullification.  The court’s actions violated Charles Lynch’s constitutional right to trial by jury, and the government can’t show that this error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.

By its very nature, a case of this sort touches a sensitive nerve from a federalism standpoint.  At the time of Lynch’s trial in 2008, the citizens of California had legalized the sale and use of marijuana for medicinal purposes; the federal government nonetheless sought to prosecute a California citizen for conduct that arguably was authorized under state law. Because federal law takes precedence under the Supremacy Clause, the government could certainly bring such a prosecution, notwithstanding the resulting intrusion upon state sovereignty interests.  See Gonzales v. Raich, 545 U.S. 1, 29 (2005).  But the Framers of the Constitution included two provisions that act as a check on the national government’s exercise of power in this realm: one stating that “[t]he Trial of all Crimes, except in Cases of Impeachment, shall be by Jury”; the other requiring that “such Trial shall be held in the State where the said Crimes shall have been committed.” U.S. Const., Art. III, § 2, cl. 3.  The Sixth Amendment further mandates that in all criminal prosecutions the accused shall enjoy the right to trial “by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed.”  Thus, to send Lynch to prison, the government had to persuade a jury composed of his fellow Californians to convict.

One of the fundamental attributes of trial by jury in our legal system is the power of the jury to engage in nullification — to return a verdict of not guilty “in the teeth of both law and facts.” Horning v. District of Columbia, 254 U.S. 135, 138 (1920).  The jury’s power to nullify has ancient roots, dating back to pre-colonial England.  See Thomas Andrew Green, Verdict According to Conscience: Perspectives on the English Criminal Trial Jury, 1200–1800, at 236–49 (1985) (discussing Bushell’s Case, 124 Eng. Rep. 1006 (C.P. 1670)).  It became a well-established fixture of jury trials in colonial America, perhaps most famously in the case of John Peter Zenger, a publisher in New York acquitted of charges of seditious libel.  See Albert W. Alschuler & Andrew G. Deiss, A Brief History of the Criminal Jury in the United States, 61 U. Chi. L. Rev. 867, 871–74 (1994).  From ratification of the Constitution to the present, the right to trial by jury has been regarded as “essential for preventing miscarriages of justice,” Duncan v. Louisiana, 391 U.S. 145, 158 (1968), in part because the jury’s power to nullify allows it to act as “the conscience of the community,” Jeffrey Abramson, We, the Jury: The Jury System and the Ideal of Democracy 87 (1994).

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform.

September 14, 2018 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Pot Prohibition Issues, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Still more on Senator Cotton's efforts to thwart significant federal criminal justice reforms and responses there to

In posts late last week here and here, I noted the commentary from Senator Tom Cotton attacking the federal criminal justice reform bills moving through Congress and some responses it has already engendered.  Now Politico has this new article on this beat headlined "Sentencing reform tests Cotton’s sway with Trump."  Here are a few highlights from a lengthy article:

Tom Cotton is going all out to defeat a last-ditch effort to pass sentencing reform before this year’s midterm elections, hoping to win a high-stakes influence campaign over President Donald Trump on the issue.

Cotton is lambasting the proposal as a “jailbreak” that would “let serious felons back on the streets,” taking on a daunting coalition fighting for the package that includes the Koch political operation, White House adviser Jared Kushner and a number of powerful GOP senators. But Cotton believes that, in the end, President Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) will side with him.

“The president went to Singapore and agreed with the Singaporeans that we should give the death penalty to drug dealers. I can’t imagine the president wants to reduce mandatory minimum sentences for drug dealers,” the Arkansas Republican said in an interview. “I believe Sen. McConnell shares my view that we should not let serious felons out of jail and we should not shorten the sentences for drug dealers.”

Even opponents of sentencing reform will privately admit it would likely pass if McConnell brings it up. But Cotton’s loud opposition may determine whether or not McConnell even allows a vote given his reluctance to summon up legislation that divides the conference — right before the election, no less....

The conflict is pitting some of Trump’s closest allies against each other. On one side are Cotton and Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.), who calls the sentencing component “troubling” and wants to concentrate on prison reform. On the other are Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who wants to go even further on criminal justice reform but would be willing to accept the slimmed-down proposal, and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who supports it....

Though the president supports the standalone prison reform effort, no one is quite sure where exactly Trump is going to come down on the sentencing piece that’s being added by Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa). Advocates for sentencing reform are hoping the president will offer a crucial endorsement to get the legislation across the finish line after commuting the sentence of Alice Johnson for drug offenses, while opponents say he’s unlikely to undercut his law-and-order persona....

“There is not a constituency, certainly among Republican voters, to let serious felons out of prison or slash their prison sentences,” Cotton said in the interview. “It’s ill-advised policy and even more ill-advised timing.” Countered Paul, another close Trump ally with opposing views: “We have a lot of non-violent criminals in our prison and they’re taking up space that could be better put to use for violent criminals."

Cotton also has strong allies, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has long opposed sweeping sentencing reforms. The two have frustrated people working on the bill.

Yet many on the law enforcement side, a key Trump constituency, are working with Cotton. Jonathan Thompson, the National Sheriff Association's executive director, has spoken to the president twice about sentencing reform in the past year and half: “The president knows we’re concerned.” “We think what he’s doing is terrific. Sen. Cotton recognizes that it’s a very flawed bill,” said Larry Leiser, president of the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys. “We’re hopeful the president won’t [endorse it].”

Unless Trump makes a major push for the legislation and takes on his critics like Cotton, there are many reasons for McConnell not to bring up the bill before the election. It would likely take at least a week for the Senate to process, time that McConnell might think is better spent processing lifetime judicial appointments ahead of an uncertain midterm outcome. Plus it would invoke an ugly intraparty foodfight, squaring Cotton off with proponents of sentencing reform like Grassley, who has been tweeting that the president “wants something done on prison/crim justice reform. So do I.”

“The consensus is the prison reform stuff,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas). “There are people who want to do more, but it’s the usual issue: Do you want try and do more and fail, or do you want to do what’s possible?”

Despite the long odds, the battle is raging behind the scenes. Internal discussions of the subject at Senate lunches have been heated, according to Republican sources, a preview of what might happen on the Senate floor if the chamber takes it up. It’s the same dynamic that kept McConnell from bringing up a larger criminal justice reform package in 2016 as Cotton railed against it and declared the United States has an "under-incarceration problem.”

Trump’s “for prison reform, I’m for prison reform. What I don’t support is sentencing reductions under the guise of prison reforms, and that’s unfortunately what many senators are moving towards,” Cotton said in the interview. A number of conservative senators have quietly expressed their opposition to the sentencing reform component, according to groups working to defeat it. But Cotton's taken a bigger gamble by getting out front to stop a bill that hasn’t even produced yet.

Meanwhile, over here at the Daily Signal, John G. Malcolm and Brett Tolman have this lengthy new commentary under the headline "Why It’s Not ‘Soft On Crime’ to Support Criminal Justice Reform." Here is a snippet focused on mandatory minimums:

Cotton and others argue that mandatory minimum charges are reserved for kingpins and other major drug dealers, and low-level dealers are rarely subjected to mandatory minimum penalties. However, the U.S. Sentencing Commission, a bipartisan independent agency that collects and analyzes federal sentencing data, found that a surprisingly large number of low-level drug couriers are subjected to mandatory minimum penalties.

It is easy to see how that happens. Under federal law, a defendant charged as part of a drug conspiracy—even a low-level courier, who may be acting solely to support his own addiction—can be charged and sentenced based on the total amount of drugs sold by everyone who participated in that conspiracy. That’s true even if the courier never knew who these people were or what quantity of drugs they sold.

Of course, the courier should be punished. But how badly? Remember, we are talking about mandatory minimum penalties. A judge can always impose a higher sentence, up to the statutory maximum, for deserving drug traffickers and violent criminals. The proposed reductions are, in truth, quite modest.

Senators are currently debating the possibility of reducing the mandatory minimum penalties for second-time drug offenders from 20 years to 15 years, and for third-time drug offenders from life in prison without the possibility of parole to 25 years. Does anyone really think that minimum penalties of 15 and 25 years are not serious? 

Some of many prior recent related posts:

August 21, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, August 17, 2018

Will Trump White House soon "deploy its assets ... to stump" for federal criminal justice reform? It may be critical.

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new Hill commentary authored by Holly Harris headlined "Connect Beltway to America to get federal criminal justice reform done." Here are excerpts:

When it comes to excuses to pass over federal criminal justice reform, I have heard them all, from “it takes at least 10 years to pass legislation like this” to “there is no way move a criminal justice bill in an election year.” But the one that really burns me is “you cannot point to state success because the federal system is much more complicated.”

The arrogance of the Beltway is incredible.  Of the more than 2.3 million people serving time behind bars in this country, more than 1.3 million are housed in state prisons, and about 615,000 sit in local jails.  Only 225,000 are housed in a federal facility. The Texas prison system alone holds more inmates.  State prison systems deal with overcrowding, stifling budget cuts, and drug epidemics that show no signs of abating.  Because they can see and experience this crisis first hand, governors on the left and the right are passing strong criminal justice reforms that offer alternatives to incarceration such as drug treatment programs, provide opportunities that put people back to work, and save millions of taxpayer dollars.

Now these governors are invading the federal reform effort, seeking to finally connect Beltway leaders to what is happening in their own backyards.  President Trump, in a savvy move, convened a criminal justice roundtable at his resort in New Jersey and invited Republican and Democratic governors from states like Louisiana, Mississippi, Kentucky and Georgia, all of which have passed strong criminal justice reforms with bipartisan support that decrease incarcerated populations, improve reentry programs, and ultimately lower crime and recidivism.  This is all part of a strategy to take the fight to pass a federal bill straight to the people and away from the status quo in Washington....

Keenly aware that red states like Georgia, Oklahoma, Mississippi and Kentucky have made aggressive changes to their justice systems, including sentencing reforms and felony expungement laws, [Jared] Kushner has showed the president these success stories.  In this latest roundtable, Trump included the Democratic governor of Louisiana, John Bel Edwards, who shared that reforms implemented in his state led to a 20 percent decrease in the number of people imprisoned for nonviolent crimes, which frees up valuable resources to fight dangerous crimes and reduce recidivism.

While the public safety benefits of reform are undoubtedly impressive to a “tough on crime” president, the overwhelming public support for these issues must be equally attractive.  Voters across the country are looking to Congress to act. Polling from earlier this year shows that 75 percent of voters, a clear supermajority crossing all partisan, geographic, education, income, racial and ethnic boundaries, believe the criminal justice system needs to be reformed and support changes such as fixing our cash bail system and replacing mandatory minimum sentencing laws.

In the final stretch to a Senate vote, do not be surprised to see this White House deploy its assets to the states to stump for a bill they know the American people want.  There will be folks from every walk of life lining up behind them, from business leaders and military veterans to civil rights advocates and faith leaders.  Just this week, people from 50 organizations of all political stripes and bipartisan senior legislative staff met to talk details. When the phone lines light up in offices all over Capitol Hill demanding a vote, Washington may well be out of excuses.

Candidly, I will be quite surprised if this White House were to deploy its assets to stump for reform, but I certainly hope this will happen.  I am fairly confident that if Prez Trump were to do a series of tweets in support of a federal criminal justice reform bill, that bill would have a much greater chance of getting to his desk.  And Prez Trump does not have to change minds about pending reforms: there is already overwhelming bipartisan support for the basic substance of nearly every serious sentencing and prison reform bill. 

The current challenge is  getting congressional leadership to settle on which version of which bill will be brought up for a vote. Senate leadership has been the bottleneck lately, and the White House surely could and should focus, publicly and privately, on advocacy toward leadership to settle on a bill and finally allow a vote.  (Notably, the FIRST STEP Act got 86% approval when it got to a vote in the House of Representatives, so it seems informed legislators are even more supportive of federal reform than the poll numbers.) 

This piece by Holly Harris highlights just why passage of federal criminal justice reform could be a huge win for this Administration, and I hope Prez Trump sees the potential political value to pushing reform over the finish-line.  Presidents always have unique powers and unique opportunities to grease the legislative process, and a congressional reform discussion that has been going strong for now five years with no tangible results can certainly uses as much grease as it can get. 

Some of many prior recent related posts:

UPDATE: I have just added to the title of this post after seeing this new Politico piece headlined "Criminal justice deal faces steep Senate hurdles despite Trump’s push."  Here is an excerpts that has me thinking reform does not get done unless and until the Trump White House puts all its might behind the effort:

Trump has stepped up his own calls for a deal on the prisons overhaul that the House passed earlier this year, holding two events so far this month.  And groups off the Hill say they're closing in on a path to pass the legislation through the Senate by adding some of the sentencing changes Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) spent years negotiating with Democrats.

But interviews with a dozen GOP senators show that those talks remain in a precarious state.  That’s because the handful of Republicans who have long protested reducing mandatory-minimum sentences leave Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) without any incentive to call up legislation that would split his conference.

One of those longtime critics of adding sentencing to the House-passed prisons bill bluntly predicted Thursday that McConnell would not “bring the bill to the floor any time soon.”

“I’m not sure that we can put together a deal,” Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) said in an interview. “I’m not sure we should.”...

Close involvement from Trump will likely be required for the GOP to get past its internal schism over reducing mandatory minimum sentences as part of a prisons package. Grassley's bipartisan package of sentencing and prison reforms boasts 15 Republican cosponsors, but Attorney General Jeff Sessions opposes even the narrower prisons-only approach the House has passed.

August 17, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Senator Cotton delivers faulty arguments to prop up faulty federal sentencing system

With Jeff Sessions now in the role of Attorney General, Senator Tom Cotton is one of the last members of Congress eager to push a tough-and-tougher agenda.  Despite the US position as world leader in incarceration, Senator Cotton asserted a few years ago, as noted here, that "we have an under-incarceration problem."  His thinking today finds expression in this new Wall Street Journal article headlined "Reform the Prisons Without Going Soft on Crime: Proposals to give judges more discretion and cut mandatory minimums endanger public safety."  Regular readers will be familiar with many of the moves in this piece (even though we've not heard much from Bill Otis lately).  Here is a sample:

The U.S. faces a drug epidemic today, exactly the wrong time to go soft on crime.  According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, in 2017 more than 72,000 Americans died of drug overdoses, a 37% increase from 2015 and a nearly 100% increase since 2008.  Violent crime has declined since the 1980s because mandatory minimums adopted then locked up violent criminals.  But in 2015-16, the most recent years for which full data are available, violent crime increased at its fastest rate in a quarter-century, though preliminary data suggest it might have leveled off in 2017....

This naive policy ignores the reality of recidivism.  Five out of six prisoners end up rearrested within nine years, according to a recent Justice Department study. In fact, on average reoffenders are rearrested five times — and not for minor crimes.  Only a handful of ex-convicts return to prison exclusively for parole violations, whereas 77% of drug offenders are rearrested for serious nondrug crimes, such as murder and rape.  Most criminals will commit more crimes after being released from prison, even with improved rehabilitation programs.  The last thing Congress should do is shorten their sentences or allow them to “serve time” in home confinement....

What is the logic of such leniency?  Activists say they want to reverse “mass incarceration.”  That is a curious characterization when less than half of crimes are even reported to police and more than 80% of property crimes and 50% of violent crimes that are reported go unsolved, according to Pew Research Center.  Tell those victims denied justice that the U.S. locks up too many criminals.

Virtually no one goes to federal prison for “low-level, nonviolent” drug offenses, especially mere drug use or possession. In 2015, there were 247 inmates in federal prison for drug possession. In these rare cases, the inmates usually pleaded down from a more serious offense.  In the extreme case of a manifestly unjust sentence, the pardon power is a better instrument of justice than broad sentencing reductions. President Trump has shown himself more than willing to intervene to redress such cases.

Some fiscal conservatives believe that America spends too much on the prison system.  Yet the Bureau of Prisons costs taxpayers less than $8 billion a year, or about 0.2% of the entire federal budget.  After national security, the government’s most basic responsibility is to protect its citizens from crime. The costs of crime and disorder — personal and economic — far outweigh the downsides of putting serious criminals behind bars.

Mandatory minimums and truth-in-sentencing laws work. Rather than eliminate them, Congress should improve access to faith-based and other antirecidivism programs in federal prisons.  American families deserve safe communities and protection from drugs and crime.  Criminals, especially first-time offenders who grew up in rough environments, deserve second chances — once they have done their time.

I suspect most readers can readily see logical flaws in Senator Cotton's advocacy here (e.g., how do poor clearance rates for violent crimes justify excessive drug sentences?).  Most fundamentally, the bills with a chance for passage in Congress do not get anywhere close to "eliminating"  mandatory minimums or truth-in-sentencing laws, and they in fact sadly do not really do all that much more than enhance antirecidivism programs in federal prisons.  But even the modest bills with a shot at passage (which have the support of Prez Trump) are too much for Senator Cotton.

John Pfaff has this twitter thread in which he describes the effort as "horrifically dishonest." John attacks various numbers in the op-ed, and I will just stress a telling flip-flop on the clemency front. Senator Cotton says "the pardon power is a better instrument of justice than broad sentencing reductions," but many folks on the right criticized Prez Obama's use of clemency at the end of the term by saying it should be Congress in charge of granting any serious sentencing relief.  Senator Cotton here also says here "President Trump has shown himself more than willing to intervene to redress such cases," but he has so far only commuted two extreme federal sentences (roughly .001% of the federal prison population).  Prez Trump has promised to do more, but he can not be expected to nor depended upon to do the kind of reform via clemency that Congress should be doing in the first instance.

UPDATE: Mark Holden has this new commentary, headlined "Correcting the Record About Sentencing Reform and Mandatory Minimums," which goes point-by-point through key claims made by Senator Cotton and provides different perspective on his assertion.

ANOTHER UPDATE:  Derek Cohen over at Right on Crime also has this notable response to Senator Cotton's piece under the headline "Setting the Record Straight"

August 16, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Sunday, August 12, 2018

FAMM provides detailed review of SRCA sentencing provisions most likely to be added to FIRST STEP Act

As noted in this recent post, the latest buzz from inside the Beltway is that four sentencing reform provisions from the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act might get added to the FIRST STEP Act in the Senate to produce a final federal criminal justice reform bill that will finally get voted on in both houses of Congress. Helpfully, the folks at FAMM have produced this extended document reviewing which SRCA sentencing provisions are seemingly in play.  The document is styled as a memo to Congress members and staff under the heading "Facts sheets explaining potential sentencing additions to FIRST STEP Act."  Here is part of its introduction:

In May, the U.S. House passed the FIRST STEP Act (H.R. 5682) by a vote of 360 to 59. Some Senate leaders have argued that any criminal justice reform bill considered by the Senate must include sentencing reform. Earlier this month, President Trump expressed a willingness to consider adding four sentencing reform provisions to the FIRST STEP Act.

As Members of Congress consider adding some commonsense sentencing provisions from the Senate Judiciary Committee-approved Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (SRCA, S. 1917), we thought it would be useful to provide some background on the four sentencing provisions under consideration. In the four factsheets that follow, we explain the problem that current sentencing law is creating, provide an example of how it is harming real people, share the proposed reform found in SRCA, and relay the potential financial impact based on studies conducted by the Congressional Budget Office and the U.S. Sentencing Commission. We recognize that the reforms included in SRCA might change during negotiations and that the impact of these reforms will change accordingly.

For those interested in a detailed (pro-reform) accounting of what sentencing reform provisions now seem to have a real chance of passage, this FAMM document is very much worth checking out. Also, here is a list of just some of the (too) many prior posts I have done about the policy and political debates over federal reforms just this year:

August 12, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Friday, August 10, 2018

Could a version of the FIRST STEP Act with sentencing reforms pass the Senate in a matter of weeks?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this encouraging Thursday Washington Examiner piece headlined "Jared Kushner helps Trump pave rare bipartisan path to big win." Here are excerpts with a few lines emphasized:

Thursday’s roundtable at President Trump’s summer White House in New Jersey to address prison and sentencing reform with governor’s is the latest bid by top aide Jared Kushner to give his father-in-law a rare bipartisan victory on a once controversial issue.

In getting Trump to carve out part of his working vacation at his golf club in Bedminster, N.J., Kushner and other officials are hoping to demonstrate how important the issues are to the president as he works to get a Senate vote in the next month.

Trump’s meeting this afternoon with governors, state attorneys general, and top aides is the latest in which he will endorse prison reform and he is also expected to open the door to sentencing reform, a sign to key senators that he is ready for a deal.

Just last week he met with Trump met with Republican Sens. Mike Lee, Lindsey Graham, Tim Scott and Chuck Grassley who are working legislation on sentencing and prison reform.

“We are trying to get a vote in the next two weeks,” said an administration official of the broad prison reform bill known as the First Step Act that passed the House overwhelmingly.

As he has on Middle East peace and other projects his father-in-law has given him, Kushner has worked overtime -- and always behind the scenes -- to build an unusual coalition in support of the reforms....

“There can’t be any doubt that by having this as the only major event on the president’s schedule that he is laser focused on this,” said one associate, who added, “We think that with this momentum and with the coalition behind it, that this can actually happen.”

Importantly, as I understand matters, the Senate would be voting on not just the prison reforms in the House version of the FIRST STEP Act, but also some sentencing reforms. Those reform are limited, but still quite significant, and they are outlined in this recent piece by Mark Holden.  And if this is brought up for a vote in the Senate, I do not think there is any real likelihood it would not pass.  Indeed, the question would be probably whether it might get even more than 80 votes.

If this really gets completely done in the coming weeks, I do think it will be right to give Prez Trump and his Administration a considerable amount of credit.  But that credit comes only if and when a bill is signed and the law is changed.  Remarkably, I am starting to get optimistic that this could happen pretty soon.

August 10, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Saturday, August 04, 2018

Encouraging news from DC about prospects for prison reform with sentencing reform getting enacted in 2018

Though I am a very long way from DC right now (much closer to Russia, in fact, somewhere on this route), I had to find a way on-line to be sure to note the exciting federal criminal justice reform news reported here in The Hill under the headline "Trump gives thumbs up to prison sentencing reform bill at pivotal meeting."  Here are the details:

President Trump has told Republican senators that he’s open to a new proposal on prison and sentencing reform, giving new life to an issue that seemed hopelessly stalled on Capitol Hill.

The compromise presented to Trump by Republican senators at a White House meeting on Wednesday would combine the prison reform bill passed by the House in May — the First Step Act — with four sentencing reform provisions that have bipartisan Senate backing, according to a source familiar with the meeting.

A senior White House official described the president as “positively inclined” toward the compromise proposal. The source said Trump told GOP senators to “do some work with your colleagues” and “let's see where the Senate is and then come back to me with it.”...

The compromise offer was presented to Trump at a meeting with Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Tim Scott (R-S.C.). Jared Kushner, a senior White House adviser and Trump’s son-in-law; Shahira Knight, the new White House legislative affairs director; and White House chief of staff John Kelly also attended the White House meeting.

Attendees described Trump’s support for the initiative as a positive development for the effort to reduce mandatory-minimum prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenders. While getting a final bill to Trump would require a Senate vote and then winning House approval for the new package, a second source familiar with the meeting described it as “very successful.” “It’s not done until it’s done, but we made a lot of progress,” the source said.

Grassley said afterward that he believes prison reform and sentencing reform can be moved in tandem. “I think we made great progress so it doesn’t have to be broken up,” Grassley told reporters Thursday. “There seems to be an interest on the part of the White House now to keeping the bills together.”

Negotiators now think there’s a possibility of moving legislation through the Senate as soon as this month, though it’s more likely to wait until the lame-duck session after the midterm elections....

The emergent compromise proposal would make several technical changes to the House-passed First Step Act and merge it with four sentencing reforms from the Senate’s Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, which has a large number of co-sponsors from both parties.

“The question is how little sentencing reform we can put in there without losing the Democrats and how much we can put in there without losing more than a handful of Republicans, and we think we’ve about cracked that formula,” said a person familiar with the internal talks who briefed The Hill.

The proposed compromise would lower lifetime mandatory minimum sentences for people with prior nonviolent drug felony convictions to 25 years and reduce 20-year mandatory minimum sentences for similar offenders to 15 years. But in an effort to reach common ground, that reform would only apply to new sentences and not to people already in jail.

Another reform would free judges from having to ratchet up sentences for drug offenders convicted on simultaneous charges. A requirement known as the “stacking enhancement” forced judges to treat convictions on multiple charges as prior offenses and mandated harshly long punishments for nonviolent drug offenders. In another bid to broaden political support, this reform would not apply retroactively.

A third reform would apply the Fair Sentencing Act, which Congress passed in 2010 and reduced the disparity between cocaine- and crack-related offenses, retroactively. That law reduced the disparity between cocaine- and crack-related crimes prospectively but only applied to new sentences. The reform now being discussed would retroactively reduce the disparity of old sentences.

The final reform would expand exceptions to the application of mandatory-minimum sentences to more people with criminal histories.

I am not counting any sentencing reform chickens before they hatch, but this description of the compromise combo FIRST STEP Act and SRCA would seem to make a lot of sense in light of various positions staked out on both sides of the aisle. And if Prez Trump signals support for such a reform package and is willing to make it a priority, I would now be inclined to predict this will get done this year. But because Prez Trump has never seemed a serious advocate for sentencing reform, and because his Attorney General likely dislikes all of this, and because the run-up and aftermath of an election can disrupt lots in DC, I am inclined to remain pessimistic about all of this until votes are being scheduled and taken.

August 4, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, August 02, 2018

Senators Orrin Hatch and Tom Cotton proposing Johnson fix to expand reach of Armed Career Criminal Act

As detailed in this press release, "Senators Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Tom Cotton (R-AR) introduced The Restoring the Armed Career Criminal Act of 2018, legislation that will protect Americans from the most violent, repeat offenders." Here is part of the release:

“True criminal justice reform includes giving prosecutors the tools they need to seek enhanced penalties against the worst repeat offenders, said Hatch. “Prosecutors lost one of those tools three years ago when the Supreme Court ruled that a provision of the Armed Career Criminal Act was unconstitutionally vague. Criminals released early from prison as a result of that decision have gone on to commit heinous crimes, including the murder of three innocent Utahns. Our bill will bring much-needed clarity to the law while empowering prosecutors to pursue justice.”...

The National Association of Police Organizations offered their full support for this bill. In addition, the National Sheriffs’ Association has written a letter of support with over 3,000 elected sheriffs nationwide. Click here to read the full letter....

Originally passed by a unanimous vote in the House and Senate in 1984, the Armed Career Criminal Act requires a minimum 15-year prison sentence for felons convicted of unlawful possession of a firearm who have three prior state or federal convictions for violent felonies or serious drug offenses, which must have been committed on three different occasions. These are the worst-of-the worst, career criminals.

The ACCA defines serious drug offenses as those punishable by imprisonment for 10 years or more. It defines violent felonies [in three ways, one of which was declared by the Supreme Court in Johnson] unconstitutionally vague and thus effectively void....

The Restoring the Armed Career Criminal Act of 2018 would do away with the concepts of “violent felony” and “serious drug offense” and replace them with a single category of “serious felony.” A serious felony would be any crime punishable by 10 years or more. By defining “serious felony” solely based on the potential term of imprisonment, the bill would address the vagueness issue and remove any discretion or doubt about which offenses qualify.

The bill would give federal prosecutors an additional tool to go after the most dangerous, career criminals and would not apply to low-level offenders. Specifically, the ACCA would still apply only in a case where a felon who possesses a firearm in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g) has previously been convicted three times of serious felonies, which must have been committed on different occasions.

I noted in this post that the Armed Career Criminal Act is long overdue for a fix, but the solution presented here strikes me as problematic because it expands the reach of a severe mandatory minimum and still has ACCA's reach turn on prior offense definitions. Statutory mandatory minimums are always clunky, and all that may be needed to effectively achieve ACCA's goals would be to raise the applicable maximum terms for illegal gun possession by those with three or more felony convictions.  Judges could and would then use the US Sentencing Commission's guidelines, rather than the fortuity of some prior offense definitions, to determine who are truly the 'worst-of-the worst, career criminals" that should be imprisoned for decades.

Prior related post:

"Attorney General Sessions Delivers Remarks Calling for a Legislative Fix to the Armed Career Criminal Act" 

August 2, 2018 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Wednesday, August 01, 2018

"Attorney General Sessions Delivers Remarks Calling for a Legislative Fix to the Armed Career Criminal Act"

The title of this post is the headline of this press release from the US Department of Justice today, and here are some of the comments that follow that focus on ACCA:

[B]ecause of a 2015 Supreme Court decision holding that the definition of violent felony was too vague — we are missing one of the most important law enforcement tools we had. The Johnson case is quite significant.

Regardless of the merits of the Court’s decision, the consequences have been devastating for Americans across the country.

This court decision led to the release of a man from right here in Little Rock. Eight months after he was released from prison, he was arrested for aggravated assault and domestic battery. A year after that he was arrested for kidnapping, rape, aggravated assault, battery, and terroristic threats. He is accused of raping a 62-year old woman and an autistic homeless man.

This court ruling also led to the release of a man who allegedly punched a pregnant woman at a nightclub in Forrest City. When police intervened, he allegedly assaulted three of them, cutting one of them on the forehead.

A man from Pine Bluff got his 15 year sentence cut in half. A year later, he got into an argument with a co-worker. According to the allegations against him, the co-worker turned around to walk away when the defendant sucker-punched him, broke his nose and eye sockets, chipped a tooth and busted his lip.

Two of these criminals I’ve talked about are now back in prison. They were let out of prison, reoffended, and now they’re back in prison.

But the consequences are not limited to Arkansas. This is a nationwide problem and it’s a cause for deep concern. In Utah, a career criminal released by this decision tortured and murdered two teenagers and then threw their bodies down a mineshaft. A released career criminal in California allegedly murdered his father, carjacked a vehicle and killed the driver. In Oregon, a released career criminal held a Subway sandwich shop hostage and then shot a police officer just 18 days after he was released.

Sadly, I could go on and on. So why did this happen? The Supreme Court struck down part of a law called the Armed Career Criminal Act. It had been on the books for 30 years and applied thousands of times.

This is the law that requires a minimum 15- year sentence for felons caught with a firearm after their third violent felony or serious drug trafficking conviction.

These are not the mythical “low-level, nonviolent drug offenders,” who we are always told are being excessively imprisoned. These are criminals who have already committed multiple serious offenses and then were caught with a gun.

This is no little matter. In 2016, the U.S. Sentencing Commission found that nearly seven out of ten career criminals reoffended after being released. Federal firearms offenders were found to be the most likely to be rearrested of any category. These criminals are both. They are career criminals and firearms offenders. I was a United States Attorney before the Armed Career Criminal Act — and I was United States Attorney afterward. I’ve seen its importance firsthand as we worked to reduce crime in America.

Nationwide, the Supreme Court’s decision has resulted in more than 1,400 violent career criminals back onto our streets — including 18 here in Arkansas. Nine of these Arkansas criminals have already been arrested again.

Six-hundred of those 1,400 criminals have been arrested again. It’s only been three years since the Court decision, but 42 percent have already reoffended.

On average, these 600 criminals have been arrested or reoffended three times in the last three years. A majority of those who have been out of prison for just two years have been arrested again. Releasing repeat offenders has consequences. Every crime committed by a recidivist released by this court case would not have happened. Every one of their victims would not have been victimized.

We must fix the law so violent career criminals are not let out of jail early. Their recidivism rate is staggering indeed, but let’s remember: this is still likely an underrepresentation of their illegal activity. Any law officer in this room will tell you that criminals rarely get caught on their first offense. We can only imagine how many crimes they have really committed and how many innocent people they have victimized.

Releasing hardened criminals into our communities before they serve their minimum term is not fair to crime victims. And it is not fair to law enforcement. You shouldn’t have to go into danger time and again to arrest the same people.

Congress and our legislatures need to help us and consider legislation that protects the public. We need Congress to fix the law so that we can keep violent career criminals off of our streets. That shouldn’t be controversial.

Fortunately, some Members of Congress are helping. My good friend Senator Cotton understands this issue. He is working on legislation that is intended to fix this problem for good — and I want to thank him for his outstanding leadership on criminal justice issues.

We should look for effective and proven ways to reduce recidivism, but we must also recognize that simply reducing sentences without reducing recidivism unfairly creates more victims.

I agree with Attorney General Sessions that we need a Johnson fix and more.  Reform to the Armed Career Criminal Act is long overdue (Justices Scalia and Alito have bemoaning ACCA problems and urged Congress to act for many, many years before Johnson).  Beyond just the vagueness problem Johnson addressed, there are deeper problems with the entire structure of the Armed Career Criminal Act, particularly its reliance on a severe mandatory minimum prison term (of 15 years) for the mere act of possessing a firearm or ammunition. Consequently, I do not think a mere Johnson fix to ACCA will be a fully sound or effective response to the genuine concerns flagged by AG Sessions.

In a future post, I hope to be able to discuss the specifics of Senator Tom Cotton's approach to fixing ACCA.  For now, I will just suggest it will be interesting to see if anyone in Congress will be willing to try to roll an ACCA fix into existing criminal justice reform proposals that are now seemingly languishing on the Hill.

August 1, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

"The Trial Penalty: The Sixth Amendment Right To Trial on the Verge of Extinction and How To Save It"

The title of this post is the title of this extraordinary big new report released today by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. Here is an overview of the 84-page report from the NACDL's website:

The ‘trial penalty’ refers to the substantial difference between the sentence offered in a plea offer prior to trial versus the sentence a defendant receives after trial. This penalty is now so severe and pervasive that it has virtually eliminated the constitutional right to a trial.  To avoid the penalty, accused persons must surrender many other fundamental rights which are essential to a fair justice system

This report is the product of more than two years of careful research and deliberation. In it, NACDL examines sentencing and other data underlying the fact that, after a 50 year decline, fewer than 3% of federal criminal cases result in a trial. With more than 97% of criminal cases being resolved by plea in a constitutional system predicated upon the Sixth Amendment right to a trial, the fact of imbalance and injustice in the system is self-evident.  The report identifies and exposes the underlying causes of the decline of the federal criminal trial and puts forth meaningful, achievable principles and recommendations to address this crisis. With its release, NACDL intends to launch a sustained effort to rein in the abuse of the trial penalty throughout federal and state criminal justice systems.  The Trial Penalty report, and the principles and recommendations it puts forward, seeks to save the right to a trial from extinction.

Former US District Judge John Gleeson authored a thoughtful Foreword to the report, and here are excerpts that also provide a partial account of what follows:

This report is a major contribution to the discussion of one of the most important issues in criminal justice today: the vanishing trial.  Once the centerpiece of our criminal justice ecosystem, the trial is now spotted so infrequently that if we don’t do something to bring it back, we will need to rethink many other features of our system that contribute to fair and just results only when trials occur in meaningful numbers.

The first task in solving a problem is identifying its causes, and this report nails that step.  Mandatory minimum sentencing provisions have played an important role in reducing our trial rate from more than 20% thirty years ago to 3% today.  Instead of using those blunt instruments for their intended purpose — to impose harsher punishments on a select group of the most culpable defendants — the Department of Justice got in the habit long ago of using them broadly to strong-arm guilty pleas, and to punish those who have the temerity to exercise their right to trial.  The Sentencing Guidelines also play an important role, providing excessively harsh sentencing ranges that frame plea discussions when mandatory sentences do not.  Finally, the report correctly finds that federal sentencing judges are complicit as well.  In too many cases, excessive trial penalties are the result of judges having internalized a cultural norm that when defendants “roll the dice” by “demanding” a trial, they either win big or lose big.  The same judges who will go along with a plea bargain that compromises a severe Guidelines range are too reticent to stray very far from the sentencing range after trial.

The report’s principles and recommendations will stimulate some much-needed discussion.  Today’s excessive trial penalties, it concludes, undermine the integrity of our criminal justice system.  Putting the government to its proof is a constitutional right, enshrined in the Sixth Amendment; no one should be required to gamble with years and often decades of their liberty to exercise it.  The report properly raises the “innocence problem,” that is, the fact that prosecutors have become so empowered to enlarge the delta between the sentencing outcome if the defendant pleads guilty and the outcome if he goes to trial and loses that even innocent defendants now plead guilty.  But there’s an even larger hypocrisy problem.  Our Constitution claims to protect the guilty as well, affording them a presumption of innocence and protecting them from punishment unless the government can prove them guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.  A system characterized by extravagant trial penalties produces guilty pleas in cases where the government cannot satisfy that burden, hollowing out those protections and producing effects no less pernicious than innocents pleading guilty.

The report’s recommendations range from the sweeping (ban those mandatory minimums) to the technical (eliminate the motion requirement for the third “acceptance” point), and include suggested modifications to the “relevant conduct” principle at the heart of the Guidelines, pre-plea disclosure requirements, “second looks” at lengthy sentences, and judicial oversight of plea discussions.  A particularly attractive recommendation would require judges sentencing a defendant who went to trial to pay greater attention to the sentences imposed on co-defendants who pled guilty; few things place today’s excessive trial penalty in sharper relief.

There is no such thing as a perfect criminal justice system. But a healthy one is constantly introspective, never complacent, always searching for injustices within and determined to address them.  The sentencing reform movement a generation ago disempowered judges and empowered prosecutors.  Federal prosecutors have used that power to make the trial penalty too severe, and the dramatic diminution in the federal trial rate is the result.  Our system is too opaque and too severe, and everyone in it — judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys — is losing the edge that trials once gave them.  Most important of all, a system without a critical mass of trials cannot deliver on our constitutional promises. Here’s hoping that this report will help us correct this problem before it is too late.

July 10, 2018 in Examples of "over-punishment", Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

President Donald Trump pardons Oregon ranchers convicted of arson, and subject to mandatory minimum terms, who prompted protests over federal lands

As reported in this article from The Hill, headlined  "Trump pardons Oregon ranchers at center of 40-day standoff," Prez Trump has used his pardon pen yet again for another set of high-profile and politically notable defendants.  Here are the details:

President Trump on Tuesday pardoned a pair of Oregon ranchers whose arson conviction became a focus for opponents of federal government land ownership. Dwight Hammond, 76, and his son Steven Hammond, 49, were convicted in 2012 and sent to prison on arson charges. They had set a series of fires on their ranch that spread to federal land.

The Hammonds’ case became the inspiration for the 40-day armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2016. The organizers wanted to protest federal land ownership. The Hammonds distanced themselves from the violent occupiers and didn't endorse the action. One of the occupiers, Robert LaVoy Finicum, died, and a handful pleaded guilty to charges related to the occupation. But brothers Ammon and Ryan Bundy, the accused leaders of the occupation, were not convicted.

In a statement Tuesday announcing the pardon, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders emphasized uncertainties in the case and the prison terms and fines the Hammonds had already paid. “The evidence at trial regarding the Hammonds’ responsibility for the fire was conflicting, and the jury acquitted them on most of the charges,” the White House said.  “The Hammonds are devoted family men, respected contributors to their local community, and have widespread support from their neighbors, local law enforcement, and farmers and ranchers across the West. Justice is overdue for Dwight and Steven Hammond, both of whom are entirely deserving of these Grants of Executive Clemency.”

Both men are currently in prison on five-year sentences, thanks in part to a 1996 anti-terrorism law that imposed a mandatory minimum sentence on certain crimes on federal land.  The length of their prison terms, in part, fueled outrage at their convictions.

Federal judge Michael Robert Hogan originally gave the Hammonds reduced sentences in 2012, arguing that the mandatory minimums were unjust. But the Obama administration appealed, and federal Judge Ann Aiken in 2015 imposed the full five-year sentences.  “This was unjust,” Sanders said in her statement.  Dwight Hammond has served about three years of his sentence and Steven Hammond has served about four of his, and Trump’s pardon will set them free.

Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), who represents the area that includes the Hammonds’ ranch, cheered Trump’s pardon as a win against federal overreach. “Today is a win for justice, and an acknowledgment of our unique way of life in the high desert, rural West,” he said in a statement. “As ranchers across eastern Oregon frequently tell me, the Hammonds didn’t deserve a five year sentence for using fire as a management tool, something the federal government does all the time.”

I suspect some folks on the left will attack this latest act of clemency as another politicized action for the benefit of the Trump base.  But I still recall this story and 2016 post about the Hammonds case, "Excessive federal sentencing and strict mandatory minimums at center of armed 'militia' occupation in Oregon," which highlights how much the perceived injustice here is linked to mandatory minimums and excessive federal sentencing terms.  Though I remain chary about expecting Prez Trump to become as ambitious in his use of his clemency pen as was Prez Obama at the tail end of his time in office, the federal sentencing severity that sounds this latest pardons makes me just a hint more hopeful that Prez Trump will at least somewhat deliver on all his big clemency talk.

A few of many recent related posts about recent Trumpian clemency activity:

July 10, 2018 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, July 06, 2018

Notable District Judge struggles against mandatory minimums, especially stacked gun charges

This new Politico article, headlined "Manafort judge emerges as skeptic of long mandatory minimum sentences," reports on a notable federal judge expressing notable concerns with mandatory minimums.  Here are excerpts:

The judge overseeing former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort's looming trial on tax and bank fraud charges is known as a tough jurist, often snapping at attorneys for ignoring his directions and rebuking defendants he views as insufficiently contrite.  But, in recent years, U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis has begun to direct his public ire at an unusual target for a Reagan-appointed judge: laws that impose lengthy mandatory minimum sentences judges have no authority to waive or reduce.

Ellis has complained directly to Congress about what he's called the "excessive" sentences required for some offenders. He's also publicly lamented the situation, as he did recently during a drug dealer's sentencing that took place in an Alexandria, Virginia courtroom packed with national media, high-powered prosecutors and others awaiting a key hearing in the case against Manafort.

"This situation presents me with something I have no discretion to change and the only thing I can do is express my displeasure," Ellis said last week as he sentenced Frederick Turner, 37, to a mandatory minimum of 40 years in prison for dealing methamphetamine.  "I chafe a bit at that, but I follow the law. If I thought it was blatantly immoral, I'd have to resign. It's wrong, but not immoral."  Ellis told Turner's lawyer that any relief for his client lies with Congress. "I think you're knocking on the wrong door for a remedy. The remedy is across the river," the judge said.

However, in another case, the 78-year-old judge is going even further.  In April, confronted by a 28-year-old armed robbery convict facing a mandatory minimum 82-year sentence, Ellis' frustration grew so intense that he balked at imposing what he called a "very severe" sentence.  Instead, the judge recruited a high-powered law firm to scour the law in search of some way to avoid imposing what is effectively a life sentence on Lamont Gaines, who was convicted of a string of robberies of 7-11 stores and a check-cashing business.

The judge appointed Daniel Suleiman, a former aide to Attorney General Eric Holder, to come up with any argument that might help Gaines win a more lenient sentence. Suleiman, a partner at Covington & Burling, set on one possibility: a Supreme Court ruling in April that invalidated a law very similar to the one requiring the lengthy sentence for Gaines.  In a brief filed last month, Suleiman argued that the April decision has "direct application" to Gaines' case and "would permit this Court not to sentence Gaines to 82 years."

Federal prosecutors rejected that argument last week, insisting that the 82-year sentence is still required in the case. Assistant U.S. Attorneys Alexander Blanchard and Rebeca Bellows filed a brief urging Ellis to consider Gaines "real-world conduct" and reminding the judge that the defendant "endangered...victims' lives and instilled them with the fear they would be physically harmed."  Ellis has yet to signal whether he'll buy into the new argument to cut down the potential sentence in Gaines' case.

Ellis' current preoccupation with federal sentencing laws is not that the mandatory minimums for specific crimes are too harsh, but that in cases involving multiple charges the result can be unjust, resulting in decades of extra incarceration for a defendant who chooses to go to trial rather than plead guilty.  While prosecutors often settle for a guilty plea to a single serious charge, carrying, say, a 10-year minimum sentence, the government will pursue several such charges when a defendant goes to trial.  Federal law typically requires that sentences for crimes involving use of a gun run consecutively, a phenomenon often referred to as "stacking."...

In 2015, Ellis wrote to Congress about the "stacking" practice, calling it "grossly excessive and unjust." He said the law was supposed to cover felons who re-offended after leaving prison, but is being applied to those "who never had the chance to learn a lesson from the sentence imposed for the first conviction."

While efforts have been underway in Congress for years to ratchet back some of the mandatory sentences, the Trump administration's policy on the issue has been confusing. White House officials, including President Donald Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, have shown interest in criminal justice reform proposals.  However, Attorney General Jeff Sessions sent a letter to the Senate in February slamming a bipartisan bill that would limit the application of mandatory minimum sentences, including by reining in "stacking" of charges.  Sessions said the measure was ill-advised at a time when the U.S. is struggling with an epidemic of opioid abuse and deaths....

Back in 2015, though, Sessions said he believed changes to "stacking" were called for.  "I think the stacking issue is a problem....I would support reform on the stacking provisions," the Alabama senator said at a Judiciary Committee session on a similar reform bill that never passed....

Criminal justice reform advocates say Congress needs to step in and that laments like the one from Ellis last week underscore the urgency of the issue.  "The federal gun stacking law isn’t tough. It’s stupid. It’s irrational.  That’s why even conservative judges like Judge Ellis are urging Congress to fix it," said Kevin Ring of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. "It's a no-brainer."

July 6, 2018 in Examples of "over-punishment", Gun policy and sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Monday, June 18, 2018

Attorney General Sessions laments state recidivism data and impact of Johnson ACCA ruling

Attorney General Jeff Sessions today delivered these remarks to the National Sheriffs' Association Annual Conference, and his comments covered lots of criminal justice ground that I do not recall him previously speaking about directly. The speech is worth reading in full because of all it reveals about how AG Sessions' looks at crime and criminals, and here are just some of the comments that caught my attention:

This is a difficult job, but when rules are fairly and consistently enforced, life is better for all — particularly for our poor and minority communities.  Most people obey the law. They just want to live their lives. They’re not going to go out and commit violent crimes or felonies.

As my former boss, President Reagan used to say, “Most serious crimes are the work of a relatively small group of hardened criminals.”  That is just as true today as it was back then.  That’s why we’ve got to be smart and fair about how we identify criminals and who we put behind bars and for how long....

I want to call your attention to something important.  A few weeks ago, the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics released a new report on the recidivism rate of inmates released from state prisons in 30 states.  This is the longest-term study that BJS has ever done on recidivism and perhaps the largest.  It was designed by the previous administration. The results are clear and very important. The results are of historic importance.  The reality is grim indeed.

The study found that 83 percent of 60,000 state prisoners released in 2005 were arrested again within nine years.  That’s five out of every six.  The study shows that two-thirds of those — a full 68 percent — were arrested within the first three years. Almost half were arrested within a year — one year — of being released.

The study estimates that the 400,000 state prisoners released in 2005 were arrested nearly 2 million times during the nine-year period — an average of five arrests each.  Virtually none of these released prisoners were arrested merely for probation or parole violations: 99 percent of those arrested during the 9-year follow-up period were arrested for something other than a probation or parole violation.

In many cases, former inmates were arrested for an offense at least as serious — if not more so — as the crime that got them in jail in the first place. It will not surprise you that this is often true for drug offenders.

Many have thought that most drug offenders are young experimenters or persons who made a mistake.  But the study shows a deeper concern.  Seventy-seven percent of all released drug offenders were arrested for a non-drug crime within nine years.  Presumably, many were arrested for drug crimes also.  Importantly, nearly half of those arrests were for a violent crime. We can’t give up....

This tells us that recidivism is no little matter.  It is a fact of life that must be understood.  But overall, the good news is that the professionals in law enforcement know what works in crime.  We’ve been studying this and working on this for 40 years.

From 1964 to 1980, the overall violent crime rate tripled.  Robbery tripled. Rape tripled.  Aggravated assault nearly tripled. Murder doubled.  And then, from 1991 to 2014, violent crime dropped by half. Murder dropped by half.  So did aggravated assault.  Rape decreased by more than a third, and robbery plummeted by nearly two-thirds.

That wasn’t a coincidence.  Between that big rise in crime and that big decline in crime, President Reagan and the great Attorney General Ed Meese went to work.  There was the elimination of parole, the Speedy Trial Act, the elimination of bail on appeal, increased bail for dangerous criminals before trial, the issuing of sentencing guidelines, and in certain cases, mandatory minimum sentences.

We increased funding for the DEA, FBI, ATF, and federal prosecutors. And most states and cities followed Reagan’s lead.  Professionalism and training dramatically increased in local law enforcement.  These were the biggest changes in law enforcement since the founding of this country.  These laws were critical to re-establishing public safety.

When a criminal knows with certainty that he is facing hard time, he is a lot more willing to confess and cooperate with prosecutors.  On the other hand, when the sentence is uncertain and up to the whims of the judge, criminals are a lot more willing to take a chance....

The certainty of a significant and fixed sentence helps us get criminals to hand over their bosses, the kingpins and the cartel leaders — and helps remove entire gangs and criminals from the street.  Left unaddressed these organizations only get richer, stronger, more arrogant and violent placing whole neighborhoods in fear.

Law enforcement officers understand that. Sheriff Eavenson and NSA have been critical allies in the fight to preserve mandatory minimums for a long time — and I want to thank you for your strong advocacy.  Many doubt their value.  Maybe this is obvious, but a recidivist can’t hurt the community if he is incarcerated.  A lot of people who would have committed crimes in the 1990s and 2000s didn’t because they were locked up.  Murders were cut in half after 1980....

Look, our goal is not to fill up the prisons.  Our goal is to reduce crime and to keep every American safe.  We should not as a policy keep persons in prison longer than necessary. But clear and certain punishment does in fact make America safer....

One of the most important laws that President Reagan signed into law was the Armed Career Criminal Act.  That’s the law that requires a minimum 15- year sentence for felons caught with a firearm after their third robbery or burglary conviction.

These are not so-called “low-level, nonviolent drug offenders” who are being picked on.  These are criminals who have committed multiple serious offenses.  In 2015 — after 30 years on the books — one critical line of the law was struck down by the Supreme Court as being too vague.

But because of this impactful ruling, every federal prosecutor lost one of their most valuable tools and they ask me for help regularly.  Just one example is Jeffrey Giddings of Oregon.  He had more than 20 convictions since 1991. He was let out of jail after the Court ruling and only 18 days later shot a police officer and held two fast food employees hostage.  He has now been sentenced to another 30 years in prison.  And the last thing he did before being put back in jail was to lash out in a tirade of profanity at police....

More than 1,400 criminals — each convicted of three felonies — have been let out of jail in the three years since the Court ruling.  And so far, more than 600 have been arrested again.

On average, these 600 criminals have been arrested three times since 2015.  A majority of those who have been out of prison for two years have already been arrested again. Here in Louisiana, nearly half of the released ACCA offenders released because of this court ruling have already been rearrested or returned to federal custody....

In this noble calling, all of us in this room are leaders. The NSA is fulfilling its responsibility in this regard. We must communicate sound principles to our policy leaders and to the American people when it comes to reducing crime:

  • A small number of people commit most of the crimes;
  • Those who are jailed for crimes are very likely to commit more crimes—often escalating to violent crimes — after their release; and
  • Congress and our legislatures must consider legislation that protects the public by ensuring that we incapacitate those criminals and deter others

And so the point is this: we should always be looking for effective and proven ways to reduce recidivism, but we must also recognize that simply reducing sentences without reducing recidivism unfairly creates more victims.

This Department of Justice under President Trump is committed to working with you to deliver justice for crime victims and consequences to criminals. We want to be a force multiplier for you.

The President has ordered us to back the women and men in blue and to reduce crime in America. And that’s what we intend to do. We embrace that mission and enforce the law with you.

There is a bit of rich irony to the Attorney General extolling the importance and value of "clear and certain punishment" just before lamenting a SCOTUS ruling that struck down a punishment as too vague to be clear or certain in any way.  That irony aside, I am not at all surprised to see him highlight the depressing new data, first blogged in this prior post, revealing terrible recidivism numbers among those released from state prisons in 2005.  I am not sure from where the ACCA-post-Johnson-release recidivism data comes, but I am sure all these numbers fuel the AG's belief that we should always be inclined to (over-)incarcerate in efforts to improve public safety.

June 18, 2018 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Spotlighting lower-court divides over AEDPA's savings clause and consideration of sentencing errors

At the intersection of hard-core habeas and sentencing issues is whether the so-called savings clause of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act can be used by a federal prisoner to get federal court to hear a claim of sentencing error.  The Fourth Circuit yesterday, via this order, refused to reconsider en banc its pro-access ruling on this matter in US v. Wheeler, and two judges wrote separately to spotlight what is at stake.  First, a "Statement of Circuit Judge Agee respecting denial of petition for rehearing en banc" starts this way:

The issues in this case are of significant national importance and are best considered by the Supreme Court at the earliest possible date in order to resolve an existing circuit split that the panel decision broadens even farther.  Because of the potential that the case may become moot if Wheeler is released from incarceration in October 2019, as projected, I have not requested a poll of the Court upon the petition for rehearing en banc in order to expedite the path for the Government to petition for certiorari to the Supreme Court.

The opinion in this case casts 28 U.S.C. § 2255(e) in a way that rewrites the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (“AEDPA”) — a valid congressional act that falls squarely within Congress’ power to define the scope of the writ.  As a consequence, federal prisoners who are detained in this Circuit pursuant to a valid and final criminal judgment may evade the careful limitations placed by Congress upon the writ of habeas corpus in § 2255(h) and, most likely, § 2255(f) as well.  These prisoners may now file § 2241 petitions challenging their sentences whenever circuit court precedent changes, so long as a given majority decides the change created a fundamental sentencing defect. Among the circuits that have addressed the question of the reach of the § 2255(e) saving clause, we stand alone in this most expansive view.

Only two circuits permit a sentencing-based claim to proceed via the saving clause: the Sixth and Seventh.  Hill v. Masters, 836 F.3d 591 (6th Cir. 2016); Brown v. Caraway, 719 F.3d 583 (7th Cir. 2013).  The opinion here relies on these cases in error, however, because none gives the expansive reference to “fundamental defect” that is put forth here. In short, even those few circuits that have opened the saving clause portal to sentencing-based claims have only opened it wide enough to allow for a claim that the prisoner is being, or at some point will be, detained by the warden beyond the time legally authorized by Congress for his offense of conviction.

Second, a "Statement of Judge Thacker on Petition for Rehearing En Banc" starts this way:

When this court decided United States v. Simmons, 649 F.3d 237 (4th Cir. 2011) (en banc), and rendered it retroactive in Miller v. United States, 735 F.3d 141 (4th Cir. 2013), it became clear that the mandatory minimum for Gerald Wheeler’s sentence was double what it should have been.  But Wheeler was left with a conundrum -- how could he test the legality of his detention?  He had already filed a direct appeal and motion pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255, and he could not meet the requirements to file a second or successive motion because his mandatory minimum was not increased by a new rule of constitutional law made retroactive by the Supreme Court.  See § 2255(h)(2).  Yet he was nonetheless sentenced under the mistaken understanding that ten years was as low as the sentencing court could go. Indeed, that was precisely the sentence he received.  The district court recognized this sentence was “harsh,” but believed that its “hands [we]re . . . tied.” J.A. 85.

The savings clause, set forth in § 2255(e), allows a court to entertain a traditional § 2241 petition for habeas corpus if “the remedy by [§ 2255] motion is inadequate or ineffective to test the legality of [the prisoner’s] detention.”  This circuit, see In re Jones, 226 F.3d 328, 333–34 (4th Cir. 2000), as well as nine other circuits, interpret the savings clause to provide an opportunity for prisoners to demonstrate they are being held under an erroneous application or interpretation of statutory law.  Two circuits, however, read the clause so narrowly that the savings clause may only be satisfied under the limited circumstances when the sentencing court is unavailable, “practical considerations” prevent the prisoner from filing a motion to vacate, or a prisoner’s claim concerns “the execution of his sentence.” McCarthan v. Director of Goodwill Indus., 851 F.3d 1076, 1092–93 (11th Cir. 2017) (en banc); see also Prost v. Anderson, 636 F.3d 578, 587–88 (10th Cir. 2011).

To adopt the minority view and deny Wheeler the chance to test the legality of his detention under the circumstances at hand would fly in the face of the Supreme Court’s pronouncement that “the privilege of habeas corpus entitles the prisoner to a meaningful opportunity to demonstrate that he is being held pursuant to ‘the erroneous application or interpretation’ of relevant law.” Boumediene v. Bush, 553 U.S. 723, 779 (2008) (quoting INS v. St. Cyr, 533 U.S. 289, 302 (2001)).

I am inclined to predict that this issue, if not this case, will be taken up by SCOTUS relatively soon. But I have said this and been wrong before, so maybe I will be blogging in six months saying, "Hey, I was wrong." But I don’t know that I'll ever admit that, but I'll find some kind of an excuse for why my SCOTUS prediction was off.

June 12, 2018 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, June 01, 2018

Another notable example of mandatory minimum sentences driving severe outcomes even when not applied

Old and new media is buzzing today about severe sentencing story out of Georgia involving a 15-year-old sentenced to five years of imprisonment for stealing a pair of sneakers.  Before getting to the details of the story, I am inclined to encourage readers to (A) think about what kinds of facts might lead to a teenager getting five years in prison for stealing a pair of sneakers, and (B) think about whether they already have an inkling about the gender and race of this teenager. 

Like all sentencing stories, this one has nuances and this AP account provides more of the nuanced details than some others I have seen (with a few sentences highlighted to connect the story to the title of this post):

A judge and prosecutor said Friday that a five-year sentence given to a Georgia teen who stole a pair of pricey shoes was appropriate because a gun was used during the robbery. Dayonn Davis, who was 18 when he was sentenced this week to five years in prison followed by 10 years of probation, was charged as an adult even though he was 15 when the crime was committed and his lawyer said he had no prior record.

Prosecutors Sadhana Dailey said in court that Davis contacted the owner of the Nike Oreos — so called because they're black and white — after seeing them for sale on Facebook, according to the Ledger-Enquirer.  They arranged to meet at a Columbus park on Jan. 17, 2016.  Another male went with Davis to the meeting.  When Davis tried the shoes on, he told the seller, "These shoes is took." The other male pulled out a gun and everyone fled, the newspaper reports.

"This was an armed robbery. It's not a theft.  There's a big difference between a theft and an armed robbery," Dailey told The Associated Press on Friday in a phone interview.  "The teen victim was robbed at gunpoint."  Columbus police quickly identified Davis, who had the shoes in his closet.  Davis initially told police no one else was involved but eventually gave a name, but the seller of the shoes couldn't identify the person in a photo lineup as the gunman, the newspaper reported.

Davis was charged with armed robbery and reached a deal with prosecutors to plead guilty to robbery by force, which allowed him to avoid the mandatory 10-year sentence that comes with an armed robbery conviction, Dailey said. "He got a break," she said.

Defense attorney Susan Henderson told Muscogee County Superior Court Judge Bobby Peters her client just wants to put the whole thing behind him and move on, the Ledger-Enquirer reported. "He's been extremely remorseful," she said. "He's got his life on track now."

She insisted Davis didn't know the other person would pull a gun. But the judge says that makes little difference in the eyes of the law. "I was young at the time, so I wasn't in my right mind," Davis told the judge.

Judge Peters called the case an unfortunate situation and told the AP he would rather it have been handled in juvenile court.  Dailey said it was appropriate to charge Davis as an adult because of the seriousness of the crime.  Peters told the AP that Davis will likely be released on parole before completing his five-year sentence. Because it's a first offense, Davis' record can be expunged if he successfully completes probation, Peters said.

I suspect that few would dispute the statement by the prosecutor here that "there's a big difference between a theft and an armed robbery," or that an armed robbery ought to call for more punishment than a theft.  But, especially on the facts as described here, the notion that this teenager "got a break" seems quite disputable ... except in light of the seemingly applicable  mandatory 10-year sentence for this kind of offense.

If one fully embraces mandatory minimum sentences as a legislature's definition of the lowest justifiable sentence for a particular form of criminal activity, then one would have to say, like the prosecutor here, that this teenager got a huge break.  But then again, if one fully embraces mandatory minimum sentences as a legislature's definition of the lowest justifiable sentence for a particular form of criminal activity, then one would also have to say that the prosecutor here has no respect for the rule of law when opting to give this teenager a huge break.  So, this case provides another example of what mandatory sentences really do: they put sentencing powers in the hands of prosecutors while creating harmful distortions to the scale of punishment  and to commitments to the rule of law. 

June 1, 2018 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (9)

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Disconcerting update on Senate's (lack of) progress on federal statutory criminal justice reforms

The Hill this morning has this extended article under the headline "Senate grapples with prison reform bill." The piece reinforces my fear that criminal justice reform efforts are on the brink of stalling in the upper chamber of Congress. Here are excerpts:

Senate negotiators are warning they are not close to a deal that would allow the prison reform bill to move quickly.

Instead, the fight is pitting two influential GOP senators — Cornyn and Chuck Grassley (Iowa), the Judiciary Committee chairman — against each other as they jockey for competing bills. “We’ve got work to do here on building consensus … but right now we don’t have it,” Cornyn said last week about what happens to prison reform in the Senate.

The GOP divisions could scuttle any chance that the Trump-backed legislation becomes law this year, with leadership unlikely to bring up legislation that would highlight divisions within their own party ahead of the midterm elections. Both Cornyn and Grassley are signaling they plan to press forward with trying to build support for their own separate bills once the Senate returns to Washington, D.C., next week.

Asked if he would budge on his opposition to a prison reform–only bill, Grassley responded, “No.” “We’re going to take up my bill. Or I should say, my bipartisan bill that’s got 28 co-sponsors — equal number Republicans and Democrats....  What the House does through that legislation is about the equivalent of a spit in the ocean compared to what the problem is of too much imprisonment,” Grassley added.

Grassley and Sen. Dick Durbin (Ill.), the No. 2 Democrat, have introduced broad criminal justice reform legislation that would pair prison reforms to changes in sentencing, including reductions in mandatory minimums for certain drug offenses while increasing mandatory minimums for other offenses. Both senators say they’ve made a deal not to separate the prison and sentencing reform components despite pressure from the White House. But that bill is unlikely to be taken up given GOP control of Congress and opposition from key members of the Trump administration. Attorney General Jeff Sessions was an outspoken opponent of the criminal justice reform bill when he served in the Senate.

Grassley acknowledged that he has not convinced Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to bring the criminal justice reform bill to the floor. “You’ve got to remember that McConnell doesn’t like the bill, and all I can say is that you ought to let a Republican president who needs a big, bipartisan victory have a bipartisan victory,” he said.

The Kentucky Republican did not move criminal justice reform legislation in 2015 or 2016 amid vocal pushback from four GOP senators. The then-Obama administration supported the bill, and senators in both parties said they had 60 votes to pass it. Supporters of the narrower prison reform–only legislation are seizing on the opposition from key Republicans and the Trump administration as they push for their bill....

Cornyn added that the decision boils down to either passing prison reform or accepting that Congress will take no action for the foreseeable future in the criminal justice space. But it’s unclear if McConnell would be willing to move a bill without Grassley’s support....

And on Capitol Hill, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), one of Trump’s closest allies in the Senate, is privately raising concerns about the bill. A spokeswoman for the senator said Cotton has “concerns with provisions in the bill pertaining to lenient treatment for heroin and fentanyl traffickers.” Cotton, Sessions and GOP Sens. David Perdue (Ga.) and Orrin Hatch (Utah) were a small but vocal group of Republicans senators deeply opposed to broader criminal justice legislation that included both prison reform and changes to mandatory minimum sentencing.

Cornyn acknowledged that he has spoken to Cotton about trying to address his issues with the prison reform bill. “I’ve told him we’re going to work with him and come up with something that I think he’ll be able to support,” Cornyn said, “but he did express some concerns.”

Some of many prior related posts:

May 30, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, May 27, 2018

An (encouraging?) update on the state of federal criminal justice reform in US Senate

The New York Times has this new article, headlined "Why Some Senators Who Want a Criminal Justice Overhaul Oppose a Prisons Bill," reporting on the latest state of debate over federal statutory criminal justice reforms. The report is a bit encouraging, though also a bit worrisome.  Here are highlights:

In a private huddle on Wednesday on the Senate floor, a group of senators corralled Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, and asked for time for a last-ditch negotiation to try to find an acceptable compromise.  Quite rightly, backers of changes in mandatory minimum laws fear that this may be the only chance for years to push a major criminal justice measure through Congress and that sentencing revisions — a more politically difficult lift — will languish if legislation aimed at reducing prison recidivism becomes law on its own.

“You don’t get many opportunities around here to do anything meaningful or substantive,” said Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois and a chief author of the sentencing provisions. “Let’s not waste this one. Let’s get this right.”

Mr. Durbin has a powerful ally in Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa and the chairman of the Judiciary Committee. Mr. Grassley came around slowly to sentencing changes, but once he got on board, he has been committed. He warned again last week that no criminal justice measure can pass the Senate without new flexibility in mandatory minimum sentences. “It’s the right thing to do,” Mr. Grassley said in a speech.

Mr. McConnell could try to go around Mr. Grassley and advance the House measure, which passed 360 to 59.  It allocates $50 million a year over five years for job training, education and mental health and drug treatment, and provides incentives for prisoners to take part in the programs.  But Mr. Grassley has been Mr. McConnell’s dedicated partner in pushing judicial nominations through the Senate — and in blocking President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nomination of Merrick B. Garland in 2016.  His opposition would be an embarrassing obstacle.  Not to mention that Mr. McConnell is not that keen on criminal justice legislation in general, and he would probably be reluctant to provoke a midterm election season battle over a measure for which he has little personal enthusiasm. He refused to put the broad prison and sentencing bill to a vote in the last Congress despite bipartisan support because of objections from conservatives, including Senator Jeff Sessions, who is now the attorney general.

In his meeting on the floor with senators including Mr. Durbin, Mr. Grassley and John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Senate Republican and a chief sponsor of the prison bill, Mr. McConnell was noncommittal but left open the prospect of moving ahead with a bill if an agreement could be reached.  “I said, ‘Look, guys, if you all can get your act together and come up with something that you’re comfortable with, that the president will sign, I’d be willing to take a look at it,’ ” Mr. McConnell said in an interview with The New York Times. But he said he was not interested in wasting the Senate’s time.

“What I’m not willing to do, just to refresh your memory from a couple of months ago, is have a freewheeling debate like we did on immigration for a whole week,” Mr. McConnell said. “We squandered a week and nothing happened. So I’m in the business of trying to make a law, not make a point.”

Mr. Durbin and other Senate backers of the sentencing changes believe they can make some relatively modest additions to the prison legislation to achieve some but not all of their goals.  They are focused on narrowing the definition of crimes that can prompt long mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug crimes and on cutting the length of some of the required sentences.  They say that such changes would have a much more consequential effect on easing the United States’ mass incarceration than solely focusing on recidivism. “We might not get everything we want, but there is some sentencing reform we can achieve with this bill,” said Senator Mike Lee, Republican of Utah.

But others believe that throwing sentencing provisions into the mix will kill the prison bill, particularly with the midterm elections looming.  The sentencing changes have previously proved an impossible sell to conservative Republicans who believe the reductions in mandatory minimums make them look soft on crime.  It was that previous divide that kept Mr. McConnell from moving ahead with the more comprehensive version.

Backers of the prison bill, which is titled the First Step Act, say that Congress should take what it can get immediately and continue to press ahead on the more challenging sentencing changes. “The First Step Act is not the end,” said Representative Hakeem Jeffries, Democrat of New York and an author of the measure. “It’s not even the beginning of the end. It’s simply the end of the beginning on a journey undertaken to eradicate our mass incarceration epidemic in America.”

Those pursuing a more comprehensive approach say that the consideration of the prison bill alone could doom their efforts because it will allow lawmakers and the White House to claim they acted on criminal justice without getting at the real issue.  “It is one thing to say we are going to open the door an inch wider for those wanting to leave prison while ignoring the fact that they are flooding in through the front door,” Mr. Durbin said.

Senators now have what appears to be a slight opening to fashion a compromise they can try to sell to skeptical and resistant colleagues.  If they fail, proponents of the prison legislation will no doubt begin clamoring for action on their measure, setting up a showdown with the originators of the criminal justice system proposal over what constitutes true reform.

Some of many prior related posts:

UPDATE:  This new commentary authored by Derek Cohen, headlined "Prison reform is worth fighting for in the Senate," makes the case for the FIRST STEP Act. Eugene Robinson has authored this distinct commentary making a somewhat different pitch for the bill under the headline "Prison reform bill isn't perfect, but it's a First Step."

May 27, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, May 06, 2018

More criticism of prison-reform only efforts, while failing to explain a path forward for broader federal sentencing reforms

Todd Cox, policy director at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, has this notable new commentary in The Hill headlined "Sentencing reform is moving in the wrong direction." Here are excerpts with a bit of additional commentary to follow:

In 2015, Senator Chuck Grassley introduced a long awaited bi-partisan criminal justice reform bill designed to address inequities in federal sentencing and promote rehabilitation and re-entry for persons who are incarcerated.

The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (SRCA) was a compromise that fell far short of the comprehensive criminal justice reforms that are needed to truly transform the nation’s criminal justice system; and yet, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and many of our civil rights coalition partners, generally supported this compromise. Limited sentencing reforms were easier to accept in 2015, under a Department of Justice itself dedicated to policing reform and to reforming its own charging policies with the goal of reducing the impact of overly harsh sentences.

However, the Department of Justice is now led by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Session’s DOJ has not only abandoned policing reform but is ramping up the now discredited “war on drugs,” re-opening the flood gates to our nation’s federal prisons.  Under these circumstances, it would be a critical mistake to pursue strategies that do not include reforming the front-end of the system or sentencing.

Unfortunately, some in Congress have decided to do just that: pursue a criminal justice reform strategy that does not include sentencing reform but focuses instead on so-called prison reform, the back-end of the system.  These proposals will not meaningfully reform the federal criminal justice system.  Indeed, states have pursued the opposite strategy, adopting both front-end and back-end reforms that have reduced both incarceration rates and crime.

Proposals without, at least, front and back-end reform will not achieve these results.  Without sentencing reform that eliminates mandatory minimums, reduces the prison population, and addresses the disparate impact of our criminal justice system on communities of color, these proposals will have little impact....

House proposals would exclude too many people currently in prison from early release even though the vast majority of these individuals would still be coming home one day. These exclusions would likely have a disparate impact on racial minorities because the proposals exclude individuals convicted of certain immigration and drug-related offenses. These types of offenses account for 53.3 percent of the total federal prison population and are made up of mostly minorities, so the bill is likely to neglect a significant portion of the prison population and exacerbate racial disparities....

We need comprehensive, meaningful criminal justice reform to create a fair equitable justice system.  We cannot accept proposals that not only take us backwards, but may actually harm the communities we serve.

I share the author's interest in "comprehensive, meaningful criminal justice reform," especially any form of federal legislation that "eliminates mandatory minimums, reduces the prison population, and addresses the disparate impact of our criminal justice system on communities of color."  But, as the commentary highlights, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act itself falls short of comprehensive reform (and it includes the prison reform features that this commentary now derides as potentially harmful).  Moreover, despite broad bipartisan support, the SRCA is still yet to get a floor vote in either chamber of Congress after three years of considerable effort.  Because sentencing reform in the form of the SRCA (or anything better) seems unlikely to move until there is a new President and/or Attorney General, criticizing efforts to move forward with just prison reform strikes me as tantamount to resigning oneself to the federal sentencing and corrections status quo until at least 2021.

I continue to hope I am wrong when fearing that there is no path forward for significant federal statutory sentencing reform until at least 2021 (if not later).  But it is discouraging to read commentaries that call for big reforms and then fail to explain how politically such reforms get done anytime soon.  Meanwhile, even a faulty version of prison reform could and should provide at least some extra bit of help and hope to tens of thousands federal prisoners (and their families and friends awaiting their release).  And focused advocacy efforts might help ensure passage of an improved version of prison reform to enhance the help and hope prisoners would get from even an imperfect and incomplete form of reform.  But as another month passes without any viable bill even getting through a committee, it seems help and hope for federal prisons is still wishful thinking.

I have become deeply pessimistic about federal statutory sentencing reform in recent years, and Congress finds new ways each session to make my pessimism look like a perverse form of wisdom.  So I suppose I will continue to predict that nothing is going to get done here anytime soon.

A few of many prior related posts:

May 6, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Friday, April 27, 2018

Senator Chuck Grassley makes full-throated case for Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act

Sen_Chuck_Grassley_KCRGSenate Judiciary Chair Charles Grassley is continuing to pitch his desired approach to statutory criminal justice reform in the form of the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act that passed out of his committee earlier this year. Today his pitching efforts include this lengthy new Fox News commentary under the headline "Sentencing reform bill will fight crime." I recommend the piece in full, and here are excerpts:

In the 1980s, with our nation facing an influx of drug crimes, Congress passed into law stiff penalties targeting all levels of offenders. The goal was to deter crime through harsh sentences. While well-intentioned, these policies came with a cost. Over time, prisons began to fill up with offenders of all stripes. Lower-level, nonviolent drug offenders were locked up alongside career criminal masterminds. Lengthy mandatory minimum sentences offered little flexibility for judges to take individual circumstances into account and left scant prospects for rehabilitation.

Taxpayers shell out more than $7 billion annually – roughly 25 percent of the entire Justice Department budget – just to house the ballooning federal prison population, almost half of which is serving time for drug crimes.

These policies have been in place for more than three decades now, and yet we are facing a new wave of drug crimes – this time with crowded prisons syphoning scarce resources away from other law enforcement priorities. It’s clear that the policies of the 1980s need a fresh look. We need a more strategic approach to drug sentencing that focuses law enforcement resources on violent career criminals and drug kingpins instead of non-violent, lower level offenders. That is why I worked with several of my colleagues in the Senate to craft the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act.

This legislation is the product of years of thoughtful bipartisan deliberations and has earned the support of lawmakers, advocates and experts from across the political spectrum. The bill is tough on crime and focuses law enforcement efforts on the worst criminals. But it also promotes fairness in sentencing, especially for lower-level, nonviolent offenders. Similar reforms at the state level have reduced crime, closed prisons and cut taxpayer costs.

This bill strengthens important crime-fighting tools and aids in the fight against the opioid epidemic. It preserves cooperation incentives to help law enforcement take down serious criminals, and stiffens penalties for violent felons. The legislation adds new mandatory sentences for federal domestic violence crimes and weapons trafficking to terrorists. And it supports the fight against the opioid epidemic through enhanced penalties for traffickers of the deadly drug fentanyl.... Mandatory minimum penalties would be preserved to ensure that criminals face clear consequences for their actions. But penalties would be lowered under the bill for lower-level, nonviolent offenders to give judges additional discretion at sentencing.

Judges would still be free to impose stiff criminal penalties, but they could also take into account individual circumstances to ensure that the punishment fits the crime. This approach would prevent prisons from being overcrowded with lower-level, nonviolent criminals serving unnecessarily long sentences. In the interest of fairness, the bill would make these reforms available to some inmates who have already been sentenced under harsh mandatory minimum laws. Under the bill, an inmate with a minimal criminal history could request that a judge review his or her case to determine if the sentence should be reduced. Notably, violent and career criminals would not qualify for this relief....

The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act would save taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. This frees up resources to pay for the prison reform programs that the Trump administration supports. These programs are designed to reduce recidivism and help prisoners return to the workforce. Savings from our bill could also be used to support law enforcement efforts to fight the opioid epidemic and go after major drug importers and distributers. Without sentencing reform, Congress would have to appropriate additional funds for these programs, potentially adding to our growing budget deficit, projected to be more than $1 trillion by 2020.

The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act has united policymakers across the political spectrum. It is co-sponsored by more than a quarter of the Senate, evenly divided among Republicans and Democrats. The bill is also backed by a diverse array of groups including FreedomWorks, the American Conservative Union, Prison Fellowship, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, the American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP, and Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration – a group of more than 200 respected law enforcement officials from around the country. No other proposal enjoys the same level of bipartisan support.

The notion that Congress can enact meaningful criminal justice reform by focusing solely on the back-end of the process without addressing the underlying disparities in prison sentencing is naïve and unproductive. There will never be enough funding for back-end prison reform programs as long as there is a steady stream of new inmates with lengthy sentences disproportionate to their crimes. Instead of keeping lower-level, nonviolent inmates in prisons longer for no good reason, we must work to ensure that our limited resources are used to go after our worst criminals and to prevent inmates from committing new crimes when they leave prison....

The bill proves that Congress can be tough on crime while enacting reasonable and responsible public policy. And, importantly, in an increasingly polarized political environment, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act is the only proposal that has the votes necessary to become law. I look forward to continuing to work with the Trump administration and my colleagues in the Senate and House on the important issue of criminal justice reform.

I am so very pleased to see Senator Grassley continuing to work hard to secure passage of the SRCA. As I have reported in the past, various Senators have indicated that that are perhaps as many as 70 to 80 votes in support of this bill in the Senate. If Senator Grassley can convince Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell to allow a floor vote on the SRCA, it would seem nearly certain to pass. Perhaps we should try to start a campaign like #LetThemVoteonSRCA.

A few of many prior related posts:

UPDATE: I just noticed that Fox News also has this competing commentary from Ron Hosko, a former assistant director of the FBI, headlined "Cutting federal prison terms would endanger communities and reward criminals." Here is an excerpt:

The Grassley legislation would make our communities less safe by returning still more convicted criminals from federal prisons to the streets sooner. In addition, the Grassley bill would tie up hundreds of federal prosecutors, who would be forced to deal with sentencing reduction motions filed by prisoners seeking early release. This means the prosecutors would have less time to handle new cases involving dangerous criminals.

The Grassley bill would reduce federal prison sentences not only for “non-violent, low-level drug offenders” but serious drug traffickers, members of violent drug cartels and people convicted of firearms crimes.

In addition, Grassley’s bill ignores the reality that strong federal sentencing guidelines have another valuable byproduct – squeezing cooperation from reticent criminals so they will testify against other criminals, while incentivizing them to plead guilty to lesser offenses to get shorter prison terms....

While much has been made of the harshness of federal minimum mandatory sentences and their impact on reform and on families, Bureau of Prisons records show that half of federal prisoners are serving sentences of 10 years or less. Only about 16 percent are serving sentences of 20 years or more....

Grassley’s legislation is both poorly timed and ill-advised. It’s little more than a rehashed “jailbreak” bill that should be permanently scrapped, taking with it the mistaken notion that federal prisons remain filled with “low level, non-violent” drug offenders. The good senator from Iowa would do better for all Americans by drafting legislation that empowers validated methodologies shown to steer the willing away from prison while building the opportunity, skill sets and individual tools needed to make released convicts more “crime resistant.”

April 27, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Federal criminal justice reform bogs down again in fight over whether prison reform or broader sentencing reform moves forward

Politico has this lengthy and discouraging article about the state of federal criminal justice reform under the headline "Kushner-backed prison reform bill stumbles in House."  Here are excerpts:

The House Judiciary Committee scrapped plans to vote on a prison reform proposal Wednesday, potentially dooming one of the few remaining prospects for significant bipartisan compromise this Congress.

The last-minute postponement of the measure came as President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner visited Capitol Hill to rally support for it.  But the delay also followed what multiple House sources described as a behind-the-scenes opposition campaign from two Senate heavyweights, one from each party.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) have told House Judiciary panel members to oppose a narrower prison reform bill without the addition of a sentencing overhaul they spent months negotiating, House sources said.

The Trump administration and GOP leaders want to see a prison-only bill move, not the broader criminal justice bill, but that’s not stopping Grassley and Durbin from what one Republican portrayed as meddling in the House debate.  “Frankly, I respect the two senators, but they have enough problems in the Senate,” said Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.), the House GOP’s lead author of the prison reform legislation, in a Wednesday interview. “I wish they would actually focus on passing bills over there. That would be nice.”

Durbin denied that he was telling the House to slow down on the prison-only approach: “We’re just saying that over here, the two need to be together.” But Durbin confirmed Wednesday that he has talked to the House Judiciary panel’s top Democrat, Rep. Jerry Nadler of New York, about the importance of keeping the two bills together while Grassley has reached out to Republicans to pitch a comprehensive approach....

The Senate’s lobbying threatens to kill momentum for the Kushner-backed House bill, which would provide training programs to prisoners in hopes of discouraging repeat offenses.  The omission of sentencing changes is opposed not only by Grassley and Durbin but by dozens of powerful progressive groups including the ACLU and the NAACP. Those groups say the bill doesn’t go far enough and should also include language that would reduce sentences for some prisoners.

House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) blamed Wednesday’s delayed vote on “time constraints” and said the postponement will give negotiators more time to work out “minor issues.” The panel is now scheduled to consider the bill during the week of May 7.

But the impasse doesn’t show any signs of being resolved soon. In his statement at the beginning of the hearing Wednesday, Nadler said negotiators should consider including sentencing reform in their discussions.  “In my view, considering prison reform without consideration of sentencing reform has the process backward, and avoids the difficult but necessary legislating on that critical issue,” Nadler said.

Nadler later told POLITICO he would be "very reluctant” to support any bill that didn’t include sentencing reform but wouldn’t say whether his opposition, as the top Democrat on the panel, was enough to sink the proposal: “Never say never, but I’d be very reluctant."

But supporters of the narrower prison reform push say a comprehensive strategy is a futile effort and would nix the chances of any bipartisan bill getting to the president’s desk this year.  Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a staunch critic of sentencing reform, opposed a similar proposal before Trump tapped him to lead DOJ and has publicly clashed with Grassley over the issue this year.

However, there’s lingering distrust among House Democrats that Sessions is operating in good faith. Democrats successfully nixed multiple “poison pill“ amendments they said were floated by DOJ during talks on the bill but said privately they’re concerned that Sessions does’'t actually want to see any criminal justice legislation come to fruition.

Grassley also acknowledged in an interview with POLITICO this week that he has yet to persuade Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to bring the comprehensive criminal justice bill to the floor.  “It’s my job to show McConnell that this bill has got plenty of support at the grass roots, that it’s got good bipartisan support,” Grassley said. “It’s something that a president needs a bipartisan bill to sign and there’s all kinds of reasons why this bipartisan bill should be brought up, whether the House passes a bill or not.”...

Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas), who supported Grassley’s efforts on a broader criminal justice package during the Obama administration but has narrowed his sights given the Trump administration’s opposition, delivered a floor speech Wednesday urging the two camps to come together on a prison-only approach. “I know other people have other ideas, perhaps about sentencing reform and the like,” Cornyn said, “but in this political environment, I’m for doing what we can do rather than spinning our wheels being frustrated about what we can’t do because there’s simply not the political support in the House and the Senate and at the White House to get it done.”

I am glad that Senators Grassley and Durbin remain deeply committed to getting a bigger criminal justice reform bill passed, but I continue to fear that Senate Majority Leader McConnell will continue to be unwilling to allow a floor vote on the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act.  Senator McConnell has shown in other settings his ability to be stubborn, and his enduring resistance to the SRCA leads me to be pessimistic about any sentencing reforms getting through Congress this year.

I surmise Senators Grassley and Durbin, and perhaps many reform advocates who have come out against a prison-reform-only bill, believe that passage of a broad bill through the House might make it more likely that Senator McConnell will allow a floor vote.  Perhaps so, and I hope they can get it done.  But I am not optimistic, and I continue to think that getting prison reform done ASAP can be a needed and useful first step toward an array of badly-needed statutory reform of our federal criminal justice system.

A few of many prior related posts:

April 26, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, April 23, 2018

Law enforcement reform group urges Congress to tackle sentencing reform along with prison reforms

As reported in this press release, "over 60 police chiefs and prosecutors — all members of Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration — sent a letter to the Senate and House leadership calling on Congress to pass sentencing reform, as a part of the White House’s commitment to reduce recidivism." Here is more from the release:

The letter comes in advance of an expected House Judiciary Committee vote this week on a prison reform bill, which is opposed by both progressive groups and law enforcement alike because it does not address sentencing.  Just last week, Law Enforcement Leaders encouraged members of Congress to instead take action on Senate legislation that includes both sentencing and prison reform, in a series of meetings that included Jared Kushner, Law Enforcement Leaders member Timothy Heaphy, and other bi-partisan advocates.

“Improving prison conditions and reentry services, on their own, will not adequately solve our high rates of incarceration and recidivism,” the letter reads.  “Legislation like the Prison Reform and Redemption Act (H.R.3356) and the CORRECTIONS Act (S. 1994) are useful efforts to improve the lives of those in prison. But such efforts should be coupled with efforts to reduce unnecessary incarceration, as it is in the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act... As law enforcement leaders, we want to make clear where we stand: Not only is passing federal mandatory minimum and reentry reform necessary to reduce incarceration, it is also necessary to help police and prosecutors continue to keep crime at its historic lows across the country. We believe the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act will accomplish this goal and respectfully urge Congress to swiftly pass it.”

The full text of the letter can be found at this link, and here are a few passages:

Legislation like the Prison Reform and Redemption Act (H.R.3356) and the CORRECTIONS Act (S. 1994) are useful efforts to improve the lives of those in prison. But such efforts should be coupled with efforts to reduce unnecessary incarceration, as it is in the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act....

Lawmakers and Presidents of both parties have taken great strides to reform prison systems and develop more effective reentry programs. We are grateful to the White House for allocating resources towards reducing recidivism, through the creation of the Federal Interagency Council on Crime Prevention and Improving Reentry, and for its support of similar legislative efforts. This concerted effort acknowledges the importance of setting an example of criminal justice reform on the federal level, and the impact federal policies have on state and local criminal justice practice.

However, improving prison conditions and reentry services, on their own, will not adequately solve our high rates of incarceration and recidivism.  It will not stop the overuse of incarceration for minor drug-related and low-level, non-violent offenses. To have meaningful reform, we must also address our sentencing laws.  As those fighting crime on the frontlines, we know from firsthand experience that it is ineffective to exhaust resources on reducing the rate of recidivism if there is no accompanying effort to reduce the rate at which people unnecessarily enter prison in the first place.  For this reason, 67 of our members wrote in support of a previous version of the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act in early 2016.

We ask the Senate, House, and White House to work together to pass the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act in addition to any reentry legislation.  The Act would shorten unnecessarily long sentences for lower-level offenders, a solution that has been shown in other parts of the country to successfully reduce crime and incarceration together.

April 23, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

SCOTUS grants cert on yet another set of ACCA cases, this time to explore when burglary qualifies as "burglary"

Though I am always excited when the Supreme Court takes up sentencing issues, I must admit growing somewhat annoyed that issues related to the application of the Armed Career Criminal Act continued to be the focal point of so much SCOTUS activity. That patterns continues today via this new SCOTUS order list in which cert was granted in these two cases (which were consolidated for one hour of argument):

United States v. Stitt, 17-765 (from the Sixth Circuit)

Issue: Whether burglary of a nonpermanent or mobile structure that is adapted or used for overnight accommodation can qualify as “burglary” under the Armed Career Criminal Act of 1984, 18 U.S.C. § 924(e)(2)(B)(ii).

United States v. Sims, 17-766 (from the Eighth Circuit)

Issue: Whether burglary of a nonpermanent or mobile structure that is adapted or used for overnight accommodation can qualify as “burglary” under the Armed Career Criminal Act of 1984, 18 U.S.C. § 924(e)(2)(B)(ii).

Because the government was seeking cert on these cases after losing in big Circuit rulings and because there is a split in the circuits, I am not at all surprised by these grants. But I remain troubled that so many other issues that are so very consequential to so many more cases — e.g., the functioning of reasonableness review or the proper application of Graham and Miller — have been unable to get the Justices' attention while nearly a dozen ACCA cases have been taken up by SCOUS in the last decade.

April 23, 2018 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (6)

Friday, March 16, 2018

The latest account of Trump Administration's latest punitive ideas for responding to drug problems

Politico has this lengthy new article reviewing the soon-to-be-released (and perhaps still in development) plan from the Trump Administration to respond to the opioid crisis and other drug problems.  The piece is headlined "Trump finalizing opioid plan that includes death penalty for dealers," and here are excerpts (with an emphasis on punishment pieces though it seems there will be important public health parts to the coming plan):

The Trump administration is finalizing a long-awaited plan that it says will solve the opioid crisis, but it also calls for law enforcement measures — like the death penalty for some drug dealers — that public health advocates and congressional Republicans warn will detract from efforts to reverse the epidemic.

The ambitious plan, which the White House has quietly been circulating among political appointees this month, could be announced as soon as Monday when President Donald Trump visits New Hampshire, a state hard hit by the epidemic. It includes a mix of prevention and treatment measures that advocates have long endorsed, as well as beefed-up enforcement in line with the president’s frequent calls for a harsh crackdown on drug traffickers and dealers.

Trump’s plan to use the death penalty in some cases found at least one fan among congressional Republicans: Rep. Chris Collins of New York, one of the president’s most consistent cheerleaders. “I’m all in on the capital punishment side for those offenses that would warrant that,” he said when asked about the plans Thursday afternoon. “Including drug cases. Yep.”

But several congressional Democrats said they were alarmed by Trump's plan to ramp up punishment. “We are still paying the costs for one failed 'war on drugs,' and now President Trump is drawing up battle plans for another," said Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts. "We will not incarcerate or execute our way out of the opioid epidemic."

The White House's most concrete proposal yet to address opioids comes after complaints from state health officials and advocates that Trump has moved too slowly to combat the epidemic after his bold campaign promises to wipe out the crisis touching all parts of the country.

However, the plan could cost billions of dollars more than Trump budgeted — and likely far more than any funding package that Congress would approve — raising questions about how much of it can actually be put into practice. Trump's emphatic embrace of the death penalty for some drug dealers has also alarmed some advocates, who say the idea has been ineffective when tried in other countries and resurrects the nation’s unsuccessful war on drugs.

Under the most recent version of the plan, which has gone through several revisions, the Trump administration proposes to change how the government pays for opioid prescriptions to limit access to powerful painkillers. It also calls on Congress to change how Medicaid pays for treatment, seeking to make it easier for patients with addictions to get inpatient care. It would also create a new Justice Department task force that more aggressively monitors internet sales....

POLITICO obtained two versions of the White House plan and spoke with four individuals who have reviewed it. The White House confirmed that a plan was in development but didn’t respond to multiple requests for further comment. Many of the measures in the plan were recommended by the president’s opioids commission last fall or discussed at a March 1 White House opioid summit. For instance, it endorses a long-promised priority: greatly expanding first responders' access to naloxone, a medication used to reverse opioid overdoses. It also calls on states to adopt a prescription drug monitoring database that health care providers can access nationwide to flag patients seeking out numerous opioid prescriptions.

On the policing side, the plan would ramp up prosecution and punishment, underscoring the tension in how public health advocates and law enforcement officials approach the crisis. Public health advocates say the nation's opioid epidemic should be treated as a disease, with emphasis on boosting underfunded treatment and prevention programs. But some law enforcement officials back tougher punishments as a deterrent, especially for drug dealers. The two camps don’t always see eye-to-eye, at times pitting HHS and DOJ officials against each other. “There is a lot of internal dissension between the health folks and the enforcement folks,” said an official involved in the crafting of the plan.

While Trump this month repeatedly suggested using the death penalty to deter drug dealers and traffickers — an idea roundly opposed by public health advocates — many lawmakers have said they weren’t sure whether to take the idea seriously. “I would have to strongly evaluate and look at any proposal like that,” said Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) on Wednesday. “I don’t know if the president was serious or just said it off the cuff. … It’s a big issue when you decide to bring a capital case or pass a law that allows for capital punishment.”

According to language circulating this week, the Trump administration will call for the death penalty as an option in "certain cases where opioid, including Fentanyl-related, drug dealing and trafficking are directly responsible for death."

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), whose home state is one of the hardest hit by the opioid epidemic, said she doesn't support the death penalty for drug cases. “I mean, I get the message he’s delivering: We’ve got to treat it seriously,” she said. “I don’t see that that’s going to solve the problem.”

The White House plan also calls for making it easier to invoke the mandatory minimum sentence for drug traffickers who knowingly distribute illegal opioids that can be lethal, like fentanyl. It also proposes a new Justice Department task force known as “Prescription Interdiction and Litigation,” or PIL, which would be empowered to step up prosecutions of criminally negligent doctors, pharmacies and other providers.

As serious sentencing fans perhaps already realize, though any proposal for the death penalty for drug dealers is sure to garner a lot of attention, proposals to expand the reach or application of mandatory minimum sentences are sure to be far more consequential to the day-to-day operation of the federal criminal justice system.

Prior related posts:

March 16, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (8)

Thursday, March 15, 2018

"Mandatory Minimum Penalties for Firearms Offenses in the Federal Criminal Justice System"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new 80-page report issued today by the United States Sentencing Commission. Here is the USSC's Summary and account of Key Findings from this webpage:

This publication is the third in the Commission’s series on mandatory minimum penalties. Using fiscal year 2016 data, this publication includes analyses of the two statutes carrying a firearms mandatory minimum penalty, 18 U.S.C. § 924(c) (relating to using or possessing firearms in furtherance of drug trafficking or crimes of violence) and the Armed Career Criminal Act, 18 U.S.C. § 924(e), as well as the impact of those provisions on the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) population. Where appropriate, the publication highlights changes and trends since the Commission’s 2011 Mandatory Minimum Report....

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 firearms offenses. As part of this analysis, the Commission makes the following key findings:

Firearms mandatory minimum penalties continue to result in long sentences although they have decreased since fiscal year 2010.

  • In fiscal year 2016, offenders convicted under section 924(c) received an average sentence of over 12 years (151 months) of imprisonment, which is 13 months less than in fiscal year 2010. The average sentence length depended on the applicable mandatory minimum penalty under section 924(c), increasing from 118 months for the five-year mandatory minimum penalty to 302 months where a 30-year mandatory minimum penalty applied.
  • Similarly, in fiscal year 2016, offenders convicted of an offense carrying the 15-year mandatory minimum penalty under the Armed Career Criminal Act received an average sentence of over 15 years (182 months) of imprisonment, which is nine months less than in fiscal year 2010.
  • As a result of these long sentences, offenders convicted of an offense carrying a firearms mandatory minimum penalty continued to significantly contribute to the size of the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ population, constituting 24,905 (14.9%) of the 166,771 offenders in federal prison as of September 30, 2016.

Offenders charged with and convicted of multiple counts under section 924(c) received exceptionally long sentences as a result of the statutory requirement that the sentence for each count be served consecutively.

  • While only 156 (7.9%) of the 1,976 offenders convicted under section 924(c) in fiscal year 2016 were convicted of multiple counts under that statute, they received exceptionally long sentences. The average sentence for offenders convicted of multiple counts under section 924(c) exceeded 27 years of imprisonment (327 months), nearly two-and-a-half times the average sentence for offenders convicted of a single count under section 924(c) (136 months).
  • The average sentence for offenders who remained subject to the mandatory minimum penalty required by multiple counts under section 924(c) was even longer at almost 36 years (431 months).

In addition, other charging and plea decisions also play a significant role in the application and impact of firearms mandatory minimum penalties.

  • The majority of section 924(c) offenders (85.5%) were also convicted of another offense, which is consistent with the statutory requirement that an offender must have used or possessed a firearm during and in relation to, or in furtherance of, an underlying federal offense in order to be convicted under section 924(c).
  • Conversely, 14.5 percent of offenders were convicted of an offense under section 924(c) alone, although those cases necessarily involved another federal offense for which they were not charged and convicted.
  • Those offenders convicted of an offense under section 924(c) alone received an average sentence that was five years shorter than offenders convicted under section 924(c) and another offense (99 months compared to 159 months).

Statutory relief under 18 U.S.C. § 3553(e) for providing substantial assistance to the government plays a significant role in the application and impact of firearms mandatory minimum penalties.

  • The 21.6 percent of offenders who received relief from the mandatory minimum penalty under section 924(c) for providing substantial assistance received average sentences of 95 months, compared to 166 months for offenders who remained subject to the mandatory minimum penalty at sentencing.
  • The impact of receiving relief is even more pronounced for offenders convicted of multiple counts under section 924(c). Such offenders received average sentences that were less than one-third as long as offenders who remained subject to the mandatory minimum penalty required under section 924(c)—136 months compared to 431 months.
  • Similarly, almost one-fifth (19.7%) of offenders convicted of an offense carrying the mandatory minimum penalty under the Armed Career Criminal Act received relief for providing substantial assistance, and their average sentence was 112 months compared to 200 months for offenders who remained subject to the mandatory minimum penalty at sentencing.

While the rate at which firearms offenders were convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum has been stable, the number of offenders convicted of offenses carrying such penalties has decreased significantly since fiscal year 2010.

  • Less than one-third (30.8%) of all firearms offenders in fiscal year 2016 were convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty, which is almost identical to fiscal year 2010 (30.6%).
  • However, between fiscal years 2010 and 2016, the number of offenders convicted under section 924(c) decreased from 2,360 to 1,976, a 16.2 percent decrease. The number of offenders convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty under the Armed Career Criminal Act decreased 51.4 percent from 626 to 304, which is the lowest number of such offenders since fiscal year 2002 (n=292).
  • Firearms offenses accounted for 16.8 percent of all offenses carrying a mandatory minimum penalty in fiscal year 2016 compared to 14.4 percent in fiscal year 2010.

Firearms mandatory minimum penalties continue to impact Black offenders more than any other racial group.

  • Black offenders were convicted of a firearms offense carrying a mandatory minimum more often than any other racial group. In fiscal year 2016, Black offenders accounted for 52.6 percent of offenders convicted under section 924(c), followed by Hispanic offenders (29.5%), White offenders (15.7%) and Other Race offenders (2.2%).
  • The impact on Black offenders was even more pronounced for offenders convicted either of multiple counts under section 924(c) or offenses carrying a mandatory minimum penalty under the Armed Career Criminal Act. Black offenders accounted for more than two-thirds of such offenders (70.5% and 70.4%, respectively).
  • Black offenders also generally received longer average sentences for firearms offenses carrying a mandatory minimum penalty than any other racial group. In fiscal year 2016, Black offenders convicted under section 924(c) received an average sentence of 165 months, compared to 140 months for White offenders and 130 months for Hispanic offenders. Only Other Race offenders received longer average sentences (170 months), but they accounted for only 2.2 percent of section 924(c) offenders.
  • Similarly, Black offenders convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty under the Armed Career Criminal Act received longer average sentences than any other racial group at 185 months, compared to 178 months for White offenders, 173 months for Hispanic offenders, and 147 months for Other Race offenders. 

March 15, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Gun policy and sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Senator Grassley talking up Senate vote on his SRCA bill along with any prison reform bill lacking sentencing reforms

As reported in this post, the White House yesterday signaled its disaffinity for key parts of the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act when an official was quoted as saying the "sentencing reform part still does not have a pathway forward to getting done."   But Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Chuck Grassley is seemingly not prepared to give up on his bill, as detailed in this new press article headlined "Grassley: I'll fight for sentencing reforms."  Here are the key details:

U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, pledged Wednesday to fight for a criminal justice proposal that includes reducing certain mandatory prison sentences, and he raised the prospect of blocking a package of related reforms the White House and congressional Republicans are said to be interested in if he can't get an agreement....

Late Tuesday, the White House expressed interest in proposals to reduce recidivism among offenders, but not changes to sentences. A White House official who wasn't identified said the sentencing reform piece "does not have a pathway forward to getting done," according to several news reports. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, also is said to be an obstacle to getting the legislation to the floor.

On a conference call with Iowa reporters Wednesday, Grassley disputed the idea his bill can't pass and said with Democrats and Republicans, there are at least 60 votes for his proposal. The bill passed the Senate Judiciary Committee two weeks ago on a 16-5 bi-partisan vote.

Grassley said people pushing for a narrower approach just want to get a bill passed. "Well, if they take up prison reform, they’re going to have to have 60 votes to get prison reform up.  And I’ll bet we’ve got, if all the Democrats go along with me, we can stop that from coming up until we get a deal to get a vote on my sentencing reform," Grassley said.

Grassley, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee and has been a key figure in getting the Trump administration's court picks through the confirmation process, said he planned to talk to Durbin first before deciding whether to take that route....

On the conference call Wednesday, Grassley said the chances for his proposal, at the moment, aren't very good.  But he said he isn't going to give up.  "This would be a bipartisan policy win for the administration. And it seems like a no-brainer to me."  He said he hasn't spoken to President Trump about the proposal yet.

A few prior related posts:

February 28, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Former federal judge explains how severe sentencing and mandatory minimums prompted his resignation

Last year I remember reading this local article about former US District Judge Kevin Sharp leaving the federal bench after only six years.  The former judge's complaints about mandatory minimum sentencing realities were partially spelled out in that article, but now I see this notable new Cato piece titled "Powerless on the Bench" which reprints Sharp's accounting for his decision.  I recommend the piece in full, and here are excerpts:

Like a lot of judges who take the bench, I had limited experience in criminal law.  Criminal law is fairly simple — much simpler than the tax code or some of the other things that I had done.  But it soon became the hardest thing I did on the bench.  In civil cases, my rulings generally concerned money.  But in criminal cases, when I said the “sentence is imposed as stated,” somebody was placed in handcuffs and led away by a U.S. marshal.

Early on, I sentenced a young man, Antonio, who was 27.  He was charged as a felon in possession of a firearm.  He had been convicted of two armed robberies at 17 years old.  At 27, Antonio is doing what we all hope a criminal defendant does after being convicted: he gets a job.  He is in contact with his family.  He does not do drugs . He does not drink.  But Antonio had been doing one thing that he should not have been.

Antonio was driving down the street and, without being too graphic, he and his girlfriend were engaged in an activity that caused him to cross slightly over the double-yellow line. The police saw it and pulled him over.  The police suspected his girlfriend was a prostitute, so they split Antonio and his girlfriend up and asked them questions. The police realized based on her answers that she in fact was Antonio’s girlfriend. Then, the police said, “OK, we are going to let you go.  Oh, by the way, do you mind if we search your car?” Antonio, forgetting that he had an unloaded pistol under the front seat of his car, responded, “No, go ahead.”

Antonio was charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm.  Because he was convicted as an adult in his prior crimes, his mandatory minimum sentence was 15 years.  I read his case and thought this could not be right.  Fifteen years? What are “mandatory minimums”?  I did not fully understand what they were at the time.  I spent the next several days trying to figure out how to get around the minimum sentence — it cannot be done.

Regrettably, I did what I had to do.  I sentenced Antonio to 15 years.  I thought to myself, “What in the world are we doing?  Why would the government take away my ability to fashion a fair sentence?  I know what a judge is supposed to consider in determining how to fashion a sufficient sentence.  What I have done is in no way, shape, or form an appropriate sentence.”

Several years later, I had the same conversation with myself.  This time, the case involved a 22-year-old kid, Chris Young.  He was caught up with a group of members of the Vice Lords, a gang known for running cocaine and crack through middle Tennessee.  Chris was not a member of this gang.  He was an aspiring rapper who would hang out with members of the Vice Lords because one of the gang members had a studio. He was occasionally asked to make crack, but he did not know how.

Chris was arrested as part of a 30-person indictment for drug conspiracy.  Chris was such a minor player in the drug conspiracy — he did not even know how to make crack.  I think the only reason the DEA arrested him was because he happened to be at a gas station when they took down the Vice Lords’ leader.  He was at the wrong place with the wrong group at the wrong time.  The only evidence showing Chris’s connection to the gang were tapes from their wiretaps where Chris is talking to the gang’s leader about how he cannot figure out why the crack he has cooked did not turn out right.  The leader gets frustrated and finally says, “I’ll just come over and do it myself.”  That was basically the extent of it.

The prosecutor told Chris, “You can plead guilty, and we will give you twelve years.”  Chris is 22 and thinks, “12 years, no! I’m so minor in all of this, I will go to and win at trial.”  His lawyer convinces him that he should not go to trial, given his two prior drug convictions (one for less than half a gram of crack, which is about a sugar packet of crack) and the penalty he could face if convicted again — a mandatory life sentence.  At this point, the prosecutor changes his mind and says, “12 years was last week’s price — this week’s price is 22 years, and if you turn this down, next week’s price may be higher.”  A 22-year-old, Chris thought, “22 years is life! I’ll take my chances at trial.” Only three people of this 30-person group arrested, by the way, went to trial.  Everybody else pled guilty.  At trial, these three people, who happened to also be the lowest members of this conspiracy, all got life in prison.  Every single one of them.  Yes, the Vice Lords were selling a lot of drugs, but not Chris, and not the other two defendants who also decided to go to trial.  They all are behind bars for life.

Chris Young grew up in the projects, did not know his father, and saw his mother in and out of jail for her drug addiction.  When his mother had been sent to jail, Chris and his brother would stay in the house without electricity, water, or money for food.  They would eat out of garbage cans or ask neighbors to give them food.  When they were tired of the way that they smelled, they asked neighbors if they could take a shower.  This is how Chris grew up.  His brother eventually died.  It is unclear as to whether he committed suicide or was murdered.  I could not consider any of his hardships.  I could only look at how he was charged, and his charges led to his mandatory life sentence....

Members of Congress, in their desire to be elected and reelected, often show how tough on crime they can be, and they say, “Look, mandatory minimums are necessary so that we can take discretion away from the judges.”  But these legislators have not taken away discretion, they have just moved it to the prosecutor, who has a dog in the hunt.  If somebody said, “Well wait a minute, let’s not allow the prosecutor to do it but the defense counsel,” they would say “You’re insane!  Why would you do that?”  My position, then, is why would you give discretion to the prosecutor?

Because of the way that I grew up, as I saw criminal defendants come through my court, I would think about how I may have gone to high school or have worked at an oil refinery with these people.  These were real people who faced real consequences.  And, despite my position, I was told what to say.  I was just a messenger.  And I thought to myself, “Somebody else can be a messenger.  If real change is going to be made, then I need to do that on the other side of the bench.  Sure, I am giving up a lifetime appointment, but am I going to walk in here every day and do things that I do not think are just? The government can pay me for life to do that, but that is not enough for me.  The government does not pay me enough for this — I cannot be paid enough to do this.”

February 21, 2018 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (7)

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Interesting statements from Senate Judiciary Committee on Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017 ... and now passage by 16-5 vote!

As I write this, the Senate Judiciary Committee is in the midst of a discussion of the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017, and the discussion is quite interesting (though relatively predictable given the articulated past and present positions of various members).   The discussion can be followed at the SJC website here, where one can also find a host of amendments offered by members and Senator Chuck Grassley's official statement.  Here is a portion of Senator Grassley's statement, which summarizes the bill and also why Senator Grassley has become its chief advocate:

Today, we’re also marking up the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act. This legislation reforms mandatory minimum prison sentences to focus on the most serious drug offenders and violent criminals. This is a bipartisan bill that cuts costs, reduces crime, and optimizes the criminal justice system. It is supported by a diverse array of groups including FreedomWorks, the American Conservative Union, Prison Fellowship, Families against Mandatory Minimums, the NFL, the ACLU, and the NAACP.

It is also a bill with policies that enjoy broad national support. A recent poll showed that the American people strongly support improving our criminal justice system. 87% of Americans and 83% of Republicans believe that mandatory minimums for nonviolent offenders should be replaced by a system focused on judicial discretion. 76% of Americans and 68% of Republicans believe the criminal justice system needs significant improvements. 87% of Americans and 80% of Republicans think we’re spending too much money on prisons that should be used instead for treatment, rehabilitation, law enforcement, and victim services.

The bill gives judges additional discretion in sentencing defendants with minimal non-violent criminal histories that may trigger mandatory minimum sentences under current law. It also applies some of these reforms retroactively, including the Fair Sentencing Act.  But before this happens, judges must first review eligible inmates’ individual cases, including criminal histories and conduct while incarcerated to determine whether a sentence reduction is appropriate.

Importantly, the bill preserves cooperation incentives to aid law enforcement in tracking down kingpins and stiffens penalties for individuals convicted of serious violent felonies. It also adds new mandatory minimums for certain crimes involving interstate domestic violence and the provision of weapons to terrorists and prohibited countries.

Additionally, it creates a new five-year sentencing enhancement for trafficking of heroin laced with fentanyl.  In addition, the bill establishes recidivism reduction programs to help prepare low-risk inmates to successfully re-enter society. Qualifying inmates may receive reductions to their sentences through time credits upon successful completion of recidivism reduction programming....

Yesterday, Attorney General Sessions sent us a letter setting forth his views on the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act.  When I read his letter, it was almost as if Senator Sessions was back on the Judiciary Committee.  But that’s the problem. He is now the Attorney General and is charged with executing the laws that Congress passes, not interfering with the legislative process.  Certainly we value input from the Department of Justice, but if General Sessions wanted to be involved in marking up this legislation, maybe he should have quit his job and run for the Republican Senate seat in Alabama.

I’ve talked to Attorney General Sessions about this bill many times. He opposes the elimination of mandatory minimums, as do I.  He believes in being tough on crime, and so do I. But I also believe in being fair.  This is a view shared by the last Republican Attorney General, Michael Mukasey, who testified in support of this bill last Congress. So we have one Republican Attorney General who thinks this bill is good policy, and one who has some concerns....

This bill is good public policy. It is the result of years of careful negotiations.  We’ve demonstrated that this bill has significant bipartisan support.  Twenty-two United States Senators are cosponsors, including more than half of the members of this committee.  I look forward to continuing to work with the administration and the House on a legislative solution that the President can sign into law.

A few prior related posts:

UPDATE: Around 12noon and after an interesting debate over an amendment proposed by Senator Cruz to strip the SRCA of its retroactivity provisions and other reforms, the full SJC voted finally on the bill as proposed and voted 16-5 in favor of it. Now the issue becomes whether Senate Majority Leader will bring the bill to the Senate Floor for a full vote. I fear he will not, but we shall see.

February 15, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (7)

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

AG Sessions writes to Senator Grassley to say passages of SRCA "would be a grave error"

Via this new HuffPost piece, headlined "Jeff Sessions Opposes Bipartisan Drug Sentencing Reform Bill," I see that Attorney General Jeff Sessions has now officially weighed in on the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017 due to be considered by the Senate Judiciary Committee tomorrow morning. Here are the basics:

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has come out swinging against a bipartisan drug sentencing reform bill that has the support of many of his former Republican colleagues in the Senate, warning that the legislation would be a “grave error” and not allow adequate punishment for “a highly dangerous cohort of criminals.”

In a Feb. 14 letter to his former colleague Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sessions wrote that he “strongly” urged the Senate to consider the ramifications of the bill.

“In recent years, convicted drug traffickers and other violent criminals have received significant sentencing breaks from the federal courts and the United States Sentencing Commission.” Sessions wrote. “Passing this legislation to further reduce sentences for drug traffickers in the midst of the worst drug crisis in our nation’s history would make it more difficult to achieve our goals and have potentially dire consequences.”

The full text of the three-page letter from AG Sessions to Senator Grassley is embedded in the HuffPost piece (and is also available here thanks to Politico), and it starts this way:

This letter presents the views of the Department of Justice on S. 1917, the "Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017." S. 1917 presents issues of very great importance to the public safety of the United States and will impact a number of cases.

The legislation would reduce sentences for a highly dangerous cohort of criminals, including repeat dangerous drug traffickers and those who use firearms, and would apply retroactively to many dangerous felons. regardless of citizenship or immigration status. In my opinion, if passed in its current form, this legislation would be a grave error....

I would strongly urge the Senate to consider carefully the potential ramifications of this legislation in its current form.  In recent years, convicted drug traffickers and other violent criminals have received significant sentencing breaks from the federal courts and the United States Sentencing Commission.  Passing this legislation to further reduce sentences for drug traffickers in the midst of the worst drug crisis in our nation's history would make it more difficult to achieve our goals and have potentially dire consequences.  In addition, as you know, the Administration supports helping former inmates who have served lawfully imposed sentences and have demonstrated a commitment to a better life, and is working closely with Congress to achieve a responsible reform along these lines.  Respectfully, this legislation runs counter to this serious Administration-wide effort.

A few prior related posts:

UPDATE: I just saw that Senator Grassley took to Twitter to respond to the letter from AG Sessions:

February 14, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Mapping the politics and making the case against the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017

Over at the Powerline blog, Paul Mirengoff has this lengthy post about the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017 titled "Leniency Legislation Is Back."  The post title previews Paul's disaffinity for the SRCA, and his post explains why after some forecasting about the politics surrounding the bill.  I recommend his post in full, and here are excerpts:

The [SRCA] bill that died two years ago is before the Judiciary Committee.  It will breeze through that body. Three of the legislation’s main opponents two years ago — Jeff Sessions, David Perdue and David Vitter — are no longer on the committee (Sessions and Vitter are no longer in the Senate).  Sens. Orrin Hatch and Ted Cruz remain and are likely to oppose the bill again, and Sen. Ben Sasse, a new member of the committee, might join them. But the committee will approve the leniency legislation, most likely with only three dissenters.

What happens then? I hope McConnell will make the same calculation he made two years ago under similar circumstances. However, Team Leniency, which includes the Majority Whip (Sen. Cornyn) and the Judiciary Committee chairman (Sen. Grassley), will push hard for a vote.

Meanwhile, many potential opponents of the legislation are focused on other matters, most notably immigration reform. The opposition troops have not yet been rallied.

On the plus side, though, Sen. Tom Cotton, who along with Jeff Sessions led the charge against leniency legislation two years ago, has his eye on this ball, notwithstanding his key role in the immigration battle.

The biggest difference between now and two years ago is, of course, that Donald Trump is president, not Barack Obama. The second biggest difference, for purposes of the sentencing reform debate, flows from the first — Jeff Sessions is the Attorney General.

Sessions still vigorously opposes reducing the mandatory minimums. His view is shared, I think, by President Trump. I’ve heard that the White House might make its opposition known publicly this week.

If Trump is against the leniency bill, it would be especially pointless for McConnell to bring it to a vote. Why split the GOP members and force them to vote on highly controversial legislation when the president doesn’t want the bill and likely would veto it?

My main purpose in writing this post is to call attention to the push for leniency legislation — to rally the troops. As for the merits of the bill, there are three main reasons why I oppose it.

First, the current mandatory minimums have been instrumental in the dramatic decrease in violent crime the U.S. has enjoyed since they were instituted. Why change a system that has been so effective in reducing violent crime?

Second, the leniency legislation would apply retroactively, Thus, thousands of prisoners could petition to be released even though they haven’t completed their legally imposed sentences.  Given the high recidivism rate for federal drug offenders — around 70 percent — the legislation is guaranteed to yield more crime, and not just by those released early but also by those sentenced to less time under the bill.

Third, the leniency legislation grants judges too much discretion in sentencing.  We know from the high-crime era before mandatory minimums that liberal judges will abuse that discretion to go soft on serious offenders.  With a raft of new Obama-appointed judges, this error will likely produce the same sort of damage we lived through during that era....

As I said, the leniency bill is a done deal in committee. What counts now is how President Trump and Majority Leader McConnell respond.

I’m cautiously optimistic that the legislation will again die on the vine, but we shouldn’t simply assume that it will. We need to watch this one closely.

Paul's analysis and criticism of the SRCA is crude in a number of particulars, mostly because he is discussing and taking issue only with Title I of the SRCA dealing with sentencing reform, while ignoring the arguably more consequential parts of the bill dealing with corrections and the creation of a national crime commission.  But I still thought it useful to reprint the thinking and rhetoric of those inclined to be against the bipartisan criminal justice reform effort moving forward in the Senate this week.

A few prior related posts:

UPDATE: One reason I described Paul Mirengoff's criticisms of the sentencing part of the SRCA as crude is because I thought he had his data off about the "recidivism rate for federal drug offenders" which he pegs at "around 70 percent."   I just had a chance to check his numbers aided by this big report that the US Sentencing Commission released last year titled "Recidivism Among Federal Drug Trafficking Offenders." Here is one key statistic from the report's executive summary: 

Federal drug trafficking offenders had a substantially lower recidivism rate compared to a cohort of state drug offenders released into the community in 2005 and tracked by the Bureau of Justice Statistics.  Over two-thirds (76.9%) of state drug offenders released from state prison were rearrested within five years, compared to 41.9 percent of federal drug trafficking offenders released from prison over the same five-year period.

Paul may have been thinking of the BJS report on state drug offenders when coming up with his 70 percent number, but the Commission data shows the recidivism rate to be much lower. That said, even a much lower predicated recidivism rate does not completely undercut his basis for arguing that retroactive application of sentencing reductions will "yield more crime."   By the same token, these recidivism realities themselves help make the case for corrections part of the SRCA; high rates of recidivism provide strong evidence that our prison system needs the kinds of "Recidivism reduction programming and productive activities" that appear in Title II of the SRCA.

February 13, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Highlighting how mandatory minimums can distort pretrial procedures and practices

LawProf Jeff Bellin his week had this effective Slate commentary on a notable recent Second Circuit ruling. The Second Circuit in US v. Tigano, available here, found the defendant's Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial was violated by almost seven years of pretrial detention. Bellin's piece, headlined "Waiting for Justice: One man’s seven-year wait for a trial reveals the ways mandatory minimums distort our courts," spotlights how mandatory minimum sentencing statutes lurked below this (not-so) remarkable case.  Here are excerpts:

Tigano’s case fits a familiar narrative of clogged courts and bureaucratic indifference. But there is one important complication coverage has overlooked.  While the appeals court and subsequent media portrayals suggest that prompt trials are the solution to cases like Tigano’s, the real fix is long-delayed, bipartisan sentencing reform.  That is because the problem in Tigano’s case was not neglect, but a 20-year mandatory-minimum sentence that loomed over every decision in the case.

Tigano’s case was no Agatha Christie mystery.  Federal agents found 1,400 marijuana plants growing in Tigano’s residence.  What’s more, three separate agents testified that Tigano confessed that he grew the marijuana.  That’s a tough case to fight.  He was going to lose at trial, it seemed, and he was going to lose big.  While many states are lining up to cash in on marijuana legalization, federal law still dictates that a person who grows “1,000 or more [marijuana] plants … shall be sentenced to a term of imprisonment which may not be less than 10 years.”  That’s a 10-year mandatory prison term for growing marijuana — doubled for anyone, like Tigano, with a prior felony drug conviction.

That is why the attorneys and lower court judges in Tigano’s case overlooked the speedy trial rule.  They were not neglecting Tigano.  They were, instead, repeatedly delaying his case — to the point of ordering three needless mental competency examinations — in the hope that Tigano would agree to a plea deal.  With 20 years on the horizon, everyone, including Tigano’s own attorneys, could put up with an otherwise unconscionable delay that would ultimately be deducted from his eventual sentence.

Tigano, however, insisted on his constitutional right to a trial.  After seven years, he finally got it.  There were no surprises. The jury convicted and the judge sentenced him to 20 years in federal prison. Of course, no one expected the final twist.  On appeal, the lengthy pretrial delay set Tigano free....

The appeals court’s opinion says that “no single, extraordinary factor caused the cumulative seven years of pretrial delay.”  That’s wrong.  The 20-year mandatory sentence for growing marijuana ignited all the chaos in Tigano’s case.  That’s the dirty secret about mandatory minimums: They don’t just lead to unjust sentences; they distort proceedings in countless cases where they are never imposed.  Most alarmingly, harsh mandatory sentences pressure even innocent people to plead guilty to avoid long prison sentences.  And for the bold few who still go to trial, like Tigano, these laws prevent judges from imposing fair sentences....

Mandatory minimums don’t just ensure harsh, often disproportionate sentences.  They also cause massive distortions in the criminal justice system, leaving it a pale shadow of this nation’s ideals.

February 10, 2018 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017 on the agenda for the Senate Judiciary Committee coming meeting

A helpful colleague made sure I saw the exciting news appearing at the very bottom of this agenda for an Executive Business Meeting of the United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary.  After a long list on nominees, we see on that agenda this item:


II. Bills
S.1917 Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017 (Grassley, Durbin, Graham, Feinstein, Lee, Leahy, Flake, Whitehouse, Klobuchar, Booker)   

I think this notice means that there is now some tangible movement (dare I say momentum) on one very significant federal criminal justice proposal.  Clicking though to the text of S.1917 Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017, one discovers that this bill has a whole lot of stuff stuffed into its three big sections. For example, "TITLE I — SENTENCING REFORM" includes, inter alia:

Sec. 101. Reduce and restrict enhanced sentencing for prior drug felonies."

Sec. 102. Broadening of existing safety valve....

Sec. 106. Mandatory minimum sentences for domestic violence offenses....

Sec. 108. Inventory of Federal criminal offenses.

Sec. 109. Fentanyl.

And "TITLE II — CORRECTIONS ACT" includes, inter alia:

Sec. 202. Recidivism reduction programming and productive activities.

Sec. 203. Post-sentencing risk and needs assessment system....

Sec. 207. Promoting successful reentry.

Sec. 208. Parole for juveniles.

Sec. 209. Compassionate release initiative.  

And "TITLE III — NATIONAL CRIMINAL JUSTICE COMMISSION ACT" would create another notable federal criminal justice entity.

I can state with confidence that Attorney General Jeff Sessions is surely opposed to the provisions in Title I of this bill, but I he may be supportive of Title II and maybe even Title III. And, of course, since he is no longer in the Senate, Jeff Sessions does not get a vote on legislation, and it will be interesting to see (assuming there is a vote tomorrow of sometime soon) whether there are many (or any) strong opponents of this bill even in this huge form.

February 7, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

"Expansion of the Federal Safety Valve for Mandatory Minimum Sentences"

Download (7)The title of this post is the title of this relative short "Issue Brief" from FreedomWorks authored by Jason Pye and Sarah Anderson. The five-page document provides a basic overview of the federal statutory safety valve in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(f) which, as the brief explains, provides "an exception to mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders with little to no criminal history." Here are excerpts:

The Sentencing Reform Act, Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, and the Smarter Sentencing Act proposed an expansion of eligibility for the safety valve by increasing the number of criminal history points an offender may have on his or her record.  The safety valve does not prevent an eligible offender from serving time in prison.  It does, however, reduce overcrowding and allows the limited number of prison beds to be used for violent criminals.  The safety valve also restores a partial measure of judicial discretion, allowing a judge to sentence below a statutory mandatory minimum, should the judge believe the sentence is too harsh for the offense committed....

Since the creation of the federal safety valve, more than 80,000 federal offenders have received fairer, more just sentences.  These lesser sentences for nonviolent, low-level drug offenders allow limited prison resources to be used on violent, repeat offenders who are true threats to public safety....

The proposed changes to the federal code to expand the safety valve to offenders who have up to three or four criminal history points, with exceptions for some of those points coming from more serious or violent offenses, is a modest, common sense change.  Nothing in the safety valve prevents judges from sentencing prisoners at or above the mandatory minimum even if they are eligible for the safety valve, but simply allows judicial discretion to ensure that prison resources are being used where they can best protect public safety, and not wasted on nonviolent, low-level drug offenders.

In the 115th Congress, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) has reintroduced the Sentencing Reform and Correction Act and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) has reintroduced the Smarter Sentencing Act, both of which include an expansion of the federal safety valve.  Although the Sentencing Reform Act has not yet been reintroduced by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), the Prison Reform and Redemption Act, sponsored by Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) would serve as a likely vehicle for sentencing reforms similar to those found in the Sentencing Reform Act.

Should the House Judiciary Committee markup the Prison Reform and Redemption Act, FreedomWorks urges the committee to include an expansion of the federal safety valve that would allow judicial discretion in sentencing qualifying offenders to ensure that lengthy sentences and prison resources are spent on criminals who represent a serious threat to our communities. 

In addition to being a helpful review by a notable organization of one piece of the federal sentencing system, this document strikes me a timely and astute effort to start building the case for incorporating at least a little bit sentencing reform into the prison reform efforts that now are gaining steam in Congress. Because it appears to have the blessing of Prez Trump and maybe even Attorney General Sessions, the Prison Reform and Redemption Act right now looks like the proposed federal legislation with the greatest chance of enactment. This Issue Brief wisely highlights why it would be a wise decision to add a modest sentencing reform provision into that proposal.

January 30, 2018 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Noticing that ALEC is now joining growing calls for reforming drug-free zone laws

Regular readers likely remember some recent and many older posts discussing the problems with drug-free zone laws that can sometimes result in first-time and low-level drug offenders facing and receiving extreme prison sentences when just happening to be inadvertently in the wrong place at the time of their offense.  Via this post at Reason, headlined "ALEC Urges State to Reform Drug-Free School Zone Laws," I see that a not-so-usual suspect is now calling for the reform of these laws. Here are the details (with links from the original):

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a conservative, pro-business organization that drafts model bills for state legislatures, passed a resolution Friday urging states to reform their drug-free school zone laws.  The conservative group is the latest in a growing bipartisan chorus opposing punitive drug-free school zone laws, which exist in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

"Most Drug-Free Zone laws were established decades ago," the resolution says, "but have not been reformed despite evidence that Drug-Free Zones are arbitrary and often unnecessarily broad, are ineffective at deterring drug- related crime, and create significant unintended consequences, including unwarranted disparate impacts on minority defendants."

That's exactly what a December Reason investigation into Tennessee's Drug-Free School Zone Act found.  Tennessee's drug-free school zones extend 1,000 feet from the real property of every school, library, park, and daycare in the state. Using GIS data obtained from the state, Reason found there were 8,544 separate drug-free zones in Tennessee, amounting to 5 percent of the overall area of the state and 26 percent of urban areas.

Those enhanced sentencing zones were rarely, if ever, used to prosecute drug crimes involving children, according to interviews with prosecutors and defense attorneys. But they did result in first-time and low-level drug offenders receiving longer prison sentences than if they had been found guilty of second-degree murder or rape. Sentencing data also showed wide racial disparities in who received drug-free school zone sentences, with blacks making up 69 percent of all current inmates serving time for violations of the act, despite only making up 17 percent of the state population. The zones, which tend to cluster in low-income and minority neighborhoods, also give prosecutors immense leverage to squeeze plea deals out of defendants.

Several states have passed reforms to their laws over the past decade, shrinking the size and number of zones. The Tennessee legislature is considering a similar reform this year to shrink its zones from 1,000 feet to 500 feet. A bipartisan group of civil liberties and criminal justice organizations are supporting the bill, such as Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM). Conservative lawmakers recognize that drug-free school zone laws have proven to be a costly failure," FAMM president Kevin Ring said in a statement on the ALEC resolution. "These laws stick low-level offenders with long sentences even when no children are involved and, as a result, they waste resources that could be better spent on more serious offenders."

A few of many prior related posts:

January 28, 2018 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Detailing how AG Sessions seeks to block sentencing reforms in White House criminal justice reform push

Vice News has this new piece providing a little backstory on how and why the event last week at the White House was focused only on prison reform and lacked any discussion of sentencing reform.  The piece is headlined "Jared Kushner’s prison reforms hit a brick wall called Jeff Sessions," and here are excerpts:

For the past six months, the president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner has been working on a potentially bipartisan initiative: to reform the U.S. criminal justice system.  Kushner has been holding “listening sessions” to develop White House agenda on criminal justice reform, including policy recommendations such as providing incentives to companies for hiring former felons, investing in inmates once they leave prison, and perhaps most importantly, reforming sentencing laws, including mandatory minimum sentencing, a relic of the 1980s and 90s war on drugs and the focus of a three-year bipartisan reform effort in the Senate.

It all culminated in last week’s White House roundtable discussion on prison reform with President Trump, several Republican governors, and conservative activists. Except one thing was missing: sentencing reform.  Attorney General Jeff Sessions opposes reforming mandatory minimum sentencing and effectively blocked it from becoming part of the White House reform agenda, according to three people who attended meetings with White House advisors on the issue over the past few months.

“Sessions was very powerful in the Senate, but I think he’s actually more powerful now to oppose the bill,” a source familiar with White House meetings on the issue said. “He has an ability to keep in line several members on the conservative side, the DOJ would take a position on the bill, that would scare the Republicans.”

As the prison reform debate played out, Kushner expressed support for limiting mandatory minimum sentencing, according to individuals who have discussed these issues with him, aligning him with Senate Republicans on the Judiciary Committee.  But Kushner dropped the issue from the agenda in order to get Sessions to attend the roundtable discussion last week.

At the meeting Trump suggested creating more programs for job training, education, mentoring and drug addiction aimed at rehabilitation.  There was no discussion of sentencing laws. The White House did not respond to a request for clarification about the Kushner’s nor the White House’s official position on sentencing reform.

“The president directed the Attorney General to reduce violent crime in this country and he is focusing the Department’s efforts on achieving that goal. Incarceration remains necessary to improve public safety, and the effectiveness of incarceration can be enhanced by the implementation of evidence-based reentry programs,” a spokesperson for the Department of Justice said.

“They were never going to be able to get the President to say he supports sentencing reform based on what Sessions has told him,” a source familiar with the meetings said.

A majority of Republicans and Democrats support reforming mandatory minimum sentencing, which takes sentencing leeway away from judges.  Since then the federal prison population has quadrupled; more than half of all federal inmates were sentenced using mandatory minimum laws.

Meaningful sentencing reform is considered key to any reform package that could be brought to vote in the Senate.  Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, Judiciary Committee Chairman, said sentencing reform is a must-have if Trump wants a bill to pass.  “Any proposal that doesn't include sentencing reform is not going to get through the committee,” a spokesman for Grassley said in an email....

In October, the Senate Judiciary Committee unveiled its latest criminal justice reform bill — the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act — to eliminate many mandatory-minimum sentences for drug crimes.  This is not the first time Congress has tried to pass comprehensive reform.  The same bill made it out of the committee in 2015, but was never voted on due to loud opposition from a group of Republicans, including then-Senator Jeff Sessions.

I remain confident that any number of bills with sentencing reform components could get a majority of votes on the floor of the House and the Senate if leadership would bring these bills up for a vote.  But I surmise AG Sessions has enough sway with leadership (especially in the Senate) to get them to prevent a vote on any bills the AG opposes.

That all said, the kinds of prison reform being discussed and seemingly now endorsed by AG Sessions — some version of the corrections part of the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act — could be a very significant type of reform that could have a positive impact for every federal offender. Sentencing reform in the form of a reduction in the length and reach of mandatory minimums would be very important in lots of ways, but these mandatories only directly impact roughly 1/4 of all new federal offenders each year and it is unclear exactly when and how any mandatory minimum sentencing reforms would be extended to the roughly 90,000 current federal drug offense prisoners. Corrections reforms that allow prisoners to earn reductions in their sentences could and likely would impact all 180,000+ current federal prisoners and all those new prisoners brought into the system every years.

Of course, we need to see the particulars of any "evidence-based reentry programs" and other prison reforms that AG Sessions can abide before being able to assess effectively who might benefit from a reform bill with only the corrections part of the reform equation.  But my main point it to highlight that the import and impact of any discussed reform always has devilish elements in the details, and a that good form of prison reform may be even better and much more consequential than a middling form of sentencing reform.

January 17, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, January 09, 2018

Two notable new additions to the Senate Judiciary Committee that should generally hearten sentencing reform advocates

As reported here by the Washington Post, "The Senate Judiciary Committee will welcome its first African American members in this century after Democrats added Sens. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) to the panel that handles judicial nominations and appointments to the Justice Department." Here is more:

“The Congressional Black Caucus could not be more proud of both of our Senate members and know the experience and expertise they bring to the Committee will be beneficial for all Americans,” said Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.), the CBC’s chairman, in a statement.

Harris, a former attorney general of California, was seen as a likely candidate to join the committee after Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) announced his resignation late last year. The appointment of Booker was more of a surprise, coming one year after Booker testified against the appointment of then-Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) as attorney general, a rare move for one senator to make against another. Sometime after that hearing, Booker learned that he and Harris were “second and third in line” if openings came up.

“The Trump administration has repeatedly demonstrated its hostility to the ideals of civil rights and equal justice for all,” Booker said Tuesday in a statement announcing his appointment. “As a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, I will make it my mission to check and balance President Trump and Attorney General Sessions.”

No African American senator has sat on the Judiciary Committee since the 1990s, when Carol Moseley Braun, a Democrat from Illinois, became the first black woman elected to the Senate. There had been pressure on Democrats to elevate Harris; in the end, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer opted to elevate both of the Senate’s black Democrats.

Harris’s appointment was possible because Democrat Doug Jones’s victory last month in Alabama shrank the Republican advantage on two committees. (Republicans now have one-seat advantages on the Judiciary Committee (11 to 10) and Finance Committee (14 to 13); Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), who is in his second term, will join the latter committee.)

Senator Booker has been a fairly vocal advocate for sentencing reform since his election to the Senate back in 2013, and he has sponsored bills on a range of criminal justice issues. Senator Harris has worked as a state prosecutor and has expressed support for criminal justice reform in various ways since becoming a Senator just last year.  (Conveniently, Mother Jones has this interesting lengthy new profile of Senator Harris, headlined "The Secret to Understanding Kamala Harris: And why it’s making her a flash point in the Democratic Party," which highlights why some on the left do not see her as a true reform ally.)

Critically, in recent years it has been Senate leadership, not the Senate Judiciary Committee, that has been a roadblock to getting significant statutory sentencing reform enacted.  Thus, the addition of Senators Booker and Harris to the Judiciary Committee does not, in and of itself, directly impact in any dramatic way the likelihood of some form of sentencing reform getting passed in 2018.  But their knowledge and reform-minded vision could and should impact the Committee's work in various ways in the coming year that should be heartening to advocates of sentencing reform.  And their place on the Committee could become a very big deal if the Democrats were able to take back control of the Senate come November.

January 9, 2018 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Sunday, January 07, 2018

Candid confession of error on mandatory minimums from former Idaho Attorney General and Chief Justice

This recent op-ed from a local newspaper, headlined "Why warehouse low-risk drug offenders?," caught my attention primarily based on its author and its very first sentence.  The author is Jim Jones, and here is his bio from the piece: "Jim Jones, an Idaho native, was elected as Idaho Attorney General in 1982 and served two elected terms.  He was elected to the Idaho Supreme Court in 2004 and re-elected in 2010.  Jones served as Chief Justice from August 2015 until his retirement from the Supreme Court in January."  And here is how his commentary starts and ends:

I’ll be the first to admit that it was a mistake to support mandatory minimum sentences for drug traffickers during my tenure as Idaho Attorney General in the 1980s.  Most observers have come to realize that long mandatory sentences are not appropriate for every offender.  Legislatively mandated sentences tie the hands of judges who are best positioned to tailor the appropriate punishment for the crimes committed by a particular defendant.  And, while they do not reduce recidivism, they do needlessly inflict damage on the families of low-risk offenders.  In 2014, Idaho adopted the Justice Reinvestment Act to provide for earlier release of low-level offenders, to ensure their success by providing them greater supervision, to reduce the number of repeat offenders, and to reduce the cost of Idaho’s prison program.  The legislation had broad-based support and holds out great promise for success....

Having observed the judicial system from the inside for 12 years, I believe that our trial court judges have a good feel for who deserves to be incarcerated for a long stretch and who shows promise for staying out of further trouble.  Our judges take into account who is before them and whether they pose a societal risk, rather than just the weight of the drugs they had in their control.  That is how justice is served.  It is not served by a one-size-fits-all system of sentencing where a set of scales determines the length of the prison term.

The court system has worked hard to educate judges as to the correct balance between incarceration and rehabilitation.  Judges share information about sentencing for various offenses throughout the state to bring about a certain amount of uniformity.  The judicial system has developed drug courts to help lower-level offenders get free of drugs and put their lives back on track.  These are the measures that can reduce recidivism, salvage those who can be rehabilitated, and keep families together.  Mandatory sentences do not.  My 1980s mindset was wrong, as was the 1992 legislation.

Last year, Reps. Ilana Rubel and Christy Perry introduced legislation to eliminate the mandatory minimum sentences in the 1992 statute.  Their bill retained the maximum sentences for drug trafficking but left the length of the sentence up to the judge, who can set a minimum prison term of his or her choosing.  That legislation will come up again this year and people should urge their legislators to support it.

January 7, 2018 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Is criminal justice reform really "poised to take off in 2018"?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this lengthy Washington Examiner article headlined "Criminal justice reform poised to take off in 2018."  Here are excerpts:

Criminal justice reform came back with such renewed energy this year after sputtering out in Congress in 2016 that meaningful bipartisan legislation is poised for success in 2018.

In October, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, announced he and a bipartisan group of senators were reintroducing the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, which would overhaul prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenders and allow for more judicial discretion during sentencing. The bill mirrors legislation introduced last Congress that failed after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., refused to bring it up.

Then days later, Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., and John Cornyn, R-Texas, reintroduced the Corrections Oversight, Recidivism Reduction, and Eliminating Costs for Taxpayers In Our National System Act, which builds off of successful criminal justice reforms in the senators' respective states.

The CORRECTIONS Act requires the Department of Justice and its Federal Bureau of Prisons to find a way to reduce inmate recidivism rates. It also calls for lower-risk inmates to be put in less-restrictive conditions to reduce prison costs and allow for more resources to be shifted to law enforcement. The legislation also expands recidivism-reduction programs, and requires the federal probation office to plan for re-entry of prisoners ahead of time....

And finally, the Mens Rea Reform Act was introduced by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and co-sponsored by Republican Sens. Mike Lee of Utah, Ted Cruz of Texas, David Perdue of Georgia and Rand Paul of Kentucky....

Kara Gotsch, who oversees the Sentencing Project's federal advocacy work, told the Washington Examiner, she sees the likelihood of legislation passing as "small" and cited changes being made at the federal level in the Department of Justice under Attorney General Jeff Sessions as a cause for concern. "Areas to watch are how Sessions' harsher charging and sentencing policies take effect now that more Trump-appointed U.S. attorneys are being installed," Gotsch said, noting the Justice Department has predicted an increase in the prison population in 2018 after four years of decline under the Obama administration.

"Also, the U.S. Sentencing Commission is poised to issue new guideline amendments related to alternatives to incarceration which would expand eligibility for federal dependents to receive a non-incarceration sentence. I will be watching to see how far they extend it."

The Justice Department says it will "continue to enforce the law" as the nation faces an opioid epidemic and rising violent crime. “In 2016, 64,000 Americans died from drug overdoses. For two straight years, violent crime has been on the rise. Americans voted for President Trump's brand of law and order and rejected the soft on crime policies that made it harder to prosecute drug traffickers and put dangerous criminals back on the street where our law enforcement officers face deadly risks every day," Justice Department spokesman Ian Prior said.

Where Congress could fail in 2018, states are there to pick up the slack....

For example, Republican Gov. Rick Snyder of Michigan signed an 18-bill criminal justice reform package in March, and state legislators in Florida ended the year championing various bills that they say would help reduce the state’s burgeoning prison population. A pair of measures are set to be taken up that would implement pre-arrest diversion programs statewide that Florida lawmakers say would reduce crime and incarceration rates, as well as a measure that would restore voting rights to some 1.6 million felons in the Sunshine State.

Other states such as New Jersey, Virginia, Alabama and New York elected candidates during the 2017 elections who openly support criminal justice reform, setting up the possibility for revamping at the state and local levels next year.

Phil Murphy, who was elected in a landslide to be the new governor of New Jersey, promised he would put the Garden State in a position to pass criminal justice reform. On his campaign website, he promises changes such as creating a commission to examine mandatory minimum laws, implementing bail reform to prevent someone from being stuck behind bars for being unable to pay a fine, and the legalization of marijuana “so police can focus resources on violent crime.”

"It's important to recognize that 2017 saw passage of criminal justice reform in red and blue states throughout the nation, in contrast to reforms stalling on the federal level," Udi Ofer, deputy national political director at the America Civil Liberties Union said. The ACLU worked to help pass 57 pieces of criminal justice reform legislation in 19 states, he noted.

"From sentencing reform in Louisiana and bail reform in Connecticut, to drug reform in Oregon and probation reform in Georgia, this year proved that the movement for criminal justice reform continues to be strong in the states, even under a Trump-Sessions administration," Ofer said, adding that in 2018, the ACLU expects "these reforms to continue, and to grow, particularly around bail reform, prosecutorial reform and sentencing reform."

For 2018, he said the ACLU is working on bail reform in 33 states including California, Georgia, Ohio and New York. In July, Sens. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and Rand Paul, R-Ky., introduced the Pretrial Integrity and Safety Act, which would encourage states to change or replace the process they use for allowing people to pay money to avoid sitting in jail until their trial. Ofer also said he expected the issues of mass incarceration and criminal justice reform to "play a larger role in federal and state elections in 2018" following the wins of candidates supporting such reforms in 2017.

As is my general tendency, I am hopeful but not optimistic about the prospects for federal statutory sentencing reform during a pivotal election year. If other possible "easier" legislative priorities get completed (or falter), I could see at least some modest reforms making it through the legislative process. But inertia can be a potent political and practical force in this setting, especially in an election year, so I am not holding my breath.

December 31, 2017 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Monday, December 18, 2017

"The Myth of the Playground Pusher: In Tennessee and around the country, 'drug-free school zones' are little more than excuses for harsher drug sentencing."

The title of this post is the headline of this extended article authored by C.J. Ciaramella and Lauren Krisai published in the January 2018 issue of Reason magazine. The full article merits a full read, and here is just a snippet of the important work in this piece:

Drug-free school zone laws are rarely if ever used to prosecute sales of drugs to minors. Such cases are largely a figment of our popular imagination — a lingering hangover from the drug war hysteria of the 1980s.  Yet state legislatures have made the designated zones both larger and more numerous, to the point where they can blanket whole towns. In the process, they have turned minor drug offenses into lengthy prison sentences almost anywhere they occur.

In some cases, police have set up controlled drug buys inside school zones to secure harsher sentences.  That gives prosecutors immense leverage to squeeze plea deals out of defendants with the threat of long mandatory minimum sentences.

In recent years, this approach has begun to trouble some state lawmakers, and even some prosecutors are growing uncomfortable with the enormous power — and in some cases, the obligation — they have been handed to lock away minor drug offenders.  Nashville District Attorney Glenn Funk ran for office in 2014 on a platform that included not prosecuting school zone violations except in cases that actually involve children.  He says almost every single drug case referred to his office falls within a drug-free zone.

He's right.  Data obtained from the Tennessee government show there are 8,544 separate drug-free school zones covering roughly 5.5 percent of the state's total land area.  Within cities, however, the figures are much higher.  More than 27 percent in Nashville and more than 38 percent in Memphis are covered by such zones.  They apply day and night, whether or not children are present, and it's often impossible to know you're in one.

For a drug offender charged with possession of under half a gram of cocaine with intent to distribute, a few hundred feet can mean the difference between probation vs. eight years of hard time behind bars.  "In places like Nashville, almost the entire city is a drug-free zone," Funk says.  "Every church has day care, and they are a part of drug-free zones.  Also, public parks and seven or eight other places are included in this classification.  And almost everybody who has driven a car has driven through a school zone.  What we had essentially done, unwittingly, was increased drug penalties to equal murder penalties without having any real basis for protecting kids while they're in school."...

States created drug-free school zones thinking that the threat of draconian prison sentences would keep dealers away from schools.  But the very size of these zones undercuts that premise.  If a whole city is a drug-free zone, then the designation has no targeted deterrent effect. In practice, it exists to put more people in prison for longer periods of time, not to keep children safe.

"Drug-free school zone laws show how good intentions can go horribly wrong," says Kevin Ring, president of the advocacy group Families Against Mandatory Minimums.  "Adult offenders who aren't selling drugs to or even near kids are getting hammered with long sentences.  Most don't even know they are in a school zone. These laws aren't tough on crime.  They're just dumb."

By covering wide swaths of densely populated areas in drug-free zones, states end up hitting low-level and first-time drug offenders with sentences usually reserved for violent crimes.  Tennessee's drug-free school zone laws bump up drug felonies by a level and eliminate the possibility of an early release.  For example, a first-time drug offender found guilty of a Class C felony for possession with intent to distribute of less than half a gram of cocaine — which carries a maximum six-year sentence — instead receives a Class B felony with a mandatory minimum sentence of eight years.

These penalties are zealously applied. Knoxville criminal defense attorney Forrest Wallace says that one of his clients received an enhanced drug sentence for merely walking through a school zone that bisected the parking lot of his apartment complex on his way to meet the informant who had set him up.  The client received a normal sentence for the sale of the cocaine, but an enhanced charge of possession with intent to distribute for passing through the school zone.  "If they can prove it's in a zone, you know they're going to charge it," Wallace says.  "That's just the way it is."

Undercover cops and confidential informants sometimes go to extra lengths to get these enhanced sentences.  David Raybin, a Nashville criminal defense attorney, says that police informants often purposely set up deals in school zones, a practice that has led to accusations of entrapment from defendants and rebukes from judges dismayed by the practice.  "The police will frequently have people sell drugs in a school zone so they can enhance them," Raybin says.  "The only cases that I'm aware of involving dealing drugs on or in a school are always kids selling to other kids.  Usually in those cases, you don't want them getting a two-year mandatory minimum. It's just totally in appropriate."

December 18, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

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 (5)

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)