Sunday, February 19, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

February 19, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Thursday, February 09, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, February 02, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, January 30, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Making the case again against mandatory minimums

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, January 06, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 16, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 09, 2016

"How Many Americans Are Unnecessarily Incarcerated?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 07, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Others are even more downbeat.

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 01, 2016

NC Republican Senator reiterates his commitment to federal statutory sentencing reform

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 13, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 10, 2016

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

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

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

End Illegal Immigration Act

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

Restoring Community Safety Act

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 02, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 1, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, October 29, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 05, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, September 30, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 29, 2016

New HELP Act seemingly proposes death — and mandates LWOP — for spiked heroin dealing in every case in which "death or serious bodily injury results"

In this post yesterday I noted that Representative Tom Reed, who represents the 29th Congressional District of New York, last week introduced a bill (with four co-sponsors) that would respond to the current heroin epidemic by expanding the federal death penalty.  In that post, you can find Rep Reed's press release, headlined "Reed Stands with Victims: Offers Death Penalty Proposal for Heroin Dealers," explaining the background and reasons for his proposal.

This morning, I found that this page at Congress.gov providing more information about the Help Ensure Lives are Protected (HELP) Act now has this link to the (quite short) text of Rep Reed's bill.  Somewhat disconcertingly, but not really all that surprisingly, the bill is written in a way that seems to mandate federal life without parole (and permits the death penalty) in any and every case in which any user of spiked heroin suffers even serious bodily injury and even if the person distributing the heroin does not know or even have any reason to know the heroin is spiked or that it could seriously injure a user.  

In other words, as I read the key text of the proposed HELP Act, this bill calls for holding any and all heroin distributors strictly and severely criminally liable for any and all serious injuries or deaths that result from a user ingesting spiked heroin.  This is because the HELP Act simply amends the "Penalties" provision of the Controlled Substances Act by adding "if the mixture or substance [of more than 100 grams] containing a detectable amount of heroin also contains a detectable amount of [spiked substance like fentanyl], and if death or serious bodily injury results from the use of such substance, such person shall be sentenced to life imprisonment or death."

Of course, the Supreme Court long ago concluded that the Eighth Amendment precludes even felony murderers from be subject to the death penalty unless and until it can be shown they were at least extremely reckless in the causing of a death.  Thus, because of constitutional limits, there is little chance this bill if enacted would end up sending lots of drug dealers to federal death row.  But, the Eighth Amendment was interpretted in 1991 to permit Michigan to mandatorily impose LWOP on adults for just the possession of a significant quantity of drugs.  Thus, if the HELP Act were to become law, there is a real reason to expect that a huge numbers of persons involved in heroin distribution throughout the US could soon be facing mandatory life sentences if anyone who gets a spiked drug gets seriously injured.

Prior related posts:

September 29, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

House Speaker Paul Ryan reportedly still eager to push for federal criminal justice reform

This new Politico article , headlined "Ryan pushes sentencing reform in face of skeptical GOP," reports that a very important politician remains very committed to trying to move along federal sentencing reforms.  Here is how the piece starts:

House Speaker Paul Ryan is facing a major obstacle in his months-long quest to pass criminal justice reform: unenthused House Republicans still skittish about looking soft on crime.  The Wisconsin Republican for weeks has repeated his personal desire to move a bipartisan package that would include allowing well-behaved nonviolent prisoners to be eligible for early release and easing some drug-related sentencing requirements.

It would mark a major accomplishment for the speaker, and a chance for Republicans to show racial minorities they care about issues of social justice — plus a salient, positive message countering Donald Trump’s racially charged bid for the White House.

But the odds are decidedly long. With Trump advocating for controversial policies like systematic “stop and frisk,” and the protests in Charlotte, North Carolina, against police-involved shootings causing racial tensions to flare, Ryan’s conference is not eager to vote on the matter.  An internal GOP leadership “survey” last week taking House Republicans’ temperature on the issue showed that most members were lukewarm at best.

That means that if Ryan wants to make a push for criminal justice reform after the election, he will have his work cut out.  “It’s not an easy thing to make these reforms, and the [Judiciary] committee has taken some time doing it; now they’re taking time educating members on it,” Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said Monday of a package of bills drafted by the Judiciary Committee.  “It is a priority for the speaker. There are concerns … so we’re getting all the questions answered.”

The Judiciary panel last year passed 11 bills to reform federal sentencing laws and improve the prison re-entry system. While the package would not eliminate mandatory minimum sentences, it would significantly reduce sentences for nonviolent drug offenders. It would also create a program to reduce recidivism rates.

The politics of criminal justice reform have soured for conservative supporters. Trump has warned repeatedly of dangerous, crime-ridden cities.  And the FBI on Monday released new statistics showing that murders increased 11 percent and violent crimes rose 4 percent in the U.S. last year.  Though the rates are still low by recent historical standards, it's enough to make law-and-order Republican lawmakers nervous.

While proponents argue that reform would go a long way toward easing racial tensions, opponents vow they’ll never vote against the recommendations of law enforcement during a time of unrest.  (Some Republican lawmakers worry that law enforcement could come out against the pitch, though many national police groups haven’t taken a position.)

Even if Ryan managed to get a bill through the House, the Senate and its 60-vote threshold could stop it in its tracks. Hawkish Republicans, including Sens. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Jeff Sessions of Alabama, have been sounding the alarm against criminal justice reform.  Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has shied from the matter because it divides his conference.  Democrats by and large support the reform proposals.

Sources familiar with Ryan’s thinking say he’s not ready to relent just yet because of the charged political environment.  While he wasn’t able to pass the Judiciary package in September as he originally hoped, Ryan is now eyeing the lame-duck session, by which time tensions might have eased.  “I’m trying to get criminal justice reform done this session of Congress,” Ryan said last week during a speech at the Economic Club of New York.  “That train is on the tracks, and I’m hoping we can get that done sooner rather than later.”

September 27, 2016 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, September 16, 2016

GOP Congressman Sensenbrenner explains why federal criminal justice reform is necessary to fix a "broken system" which is "fiscally unsustainable" and "morally irresponsible"

Representative Jim Sensenbrenner has a long and dynamic history working on federal criminal justice issues, and not that long ago he was an ardent supporter of many mandatory minimum sentencing provisions.  But more recently, Rep Sensenbrenner has become a potent voice calling for federal reforms, and his latest pitch on that front appear in this new commentary headlined "Criminal Justice Reform Bills Are On The Table In Congress. Now It Needs To Pass Them."  Here are excerpts from this piece:

In 2013, House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) created the Over-criminalization Task Force which examined the depth, seriousness, and complexities of the problems facing our federal criminal justice system. The findings that came from the task force allowed Members on the Committee to identify key problem areas and begin the reform process.  Last year, momentum for criminal justice reform reached an all-time high. It united a wide range of law enforcement and political organizations, advocacy groups, and Congressional leaders under a common goal: to fix our broken system....

Although a large number the nation’s 2.3 million inmates deserve their place behind bars, too many low-level, non-violent individuals are caught up in broken system.  Their incarceration diverts limited resources away from other priorities, such as policing and the capture and punishment of violent and career criminals.  For too long, the pressing need for criminal justice reform has been put on the backburner.  It has led to increasing financial burdens on taxpayers, violent outbursts in economically depressed neighborhoods throughout the nation, and the breakdown of hundreds of thousands of American families.

Fifty percent of the current prison population suffers from substance abuse problems, mental health issues, or a combination of both.  Our criminal justice system is not equipped to provide these individuals with the help they need to gain control of their lives and acquire the critical work skills necessary to successfully re-enter society and the workforce.  Without these basic tools, the likelihood of recidivism is high....

Each piece of legislation currently on the table addresses specific problems in the current system and offers common sense, fiscally responsible solutions that will increase public safety, support law enforcement and victims of crime, and decrease the overwhelming financial burden on hardworking taxpayers.  However, none of it matters unless Congress is willing to pass legislation and President Obama is ready to sign it.

At the heart of federal criminal justice reform is the desire to create a better way forward for every American struggling under our broken system.  Families ripped apart by incarceration, communities divided by a seemingly impenetrable wall between law enforcement and the neighborhoods they protect, and an ineffective justice system not only weakens the fabric of society, but hinders economic growth and opportunity for all Americans.

Three years ago, Congress began a journey to rectify the injustices in our federal criminal justice system.  Right now, we have the opportunity to finish the job and pass meaningful and effective reform legislation. Our system cannot continue on its current trajectory.  It’s not only fiscally unsustainable, but morally irresponsible.  We must do better and we can do better.

 Prior recent posts regarding some federal CJ work and statements by Rep Sensenbrenner:

September 16, 2016 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, September 11, 2016

NAAUSA sends letter to House members explaining its opposition of federal statutory sentencing reforms

As detailed via some prior posts linked below, the National Association of Assistant US Attorneys (NAAUSA) has been one of the most consistent and vocal opponents of federal statutory sentencing reforms that have been considered in Congress in recent years.  And this group has now just posted here via its website a lengthy letter authored by Steven Cook, NAAUSA's President, addressed to members of the US House of Representatives. Here is how the letter begins, its major headings, and its concluding paragraph:

As the voice of career federal prosecutors across the country, we write to make clear our strong and unequivocal opposition to the Sentencing Reform Act of 2015, H.R. 3713. This legislation, and other bills being advanced under the euphemistic label of criminal justice and prison or sentencing “reform,” will seriously undermine our ability to disrupt and dismantle violent gangs, domestic and international drug trafficking organizations, weaken federal firearm laws, and release thousands of violent convicted felons from federal prison. To explain our concern, we would like to make three points.

1. The federal criminal justice system is not broken. ...

2. Over the last decade the federal criminal justice system has been weakened or “reformed” in significant ways, discounting the need for any further reform. ...

3. The historic reduction in violent crime rates has begun to reverse course and in many cities across the country violent crime is skyrocketing. At the same time, we are suffering from the worst opioid epidemic in the history of our Nation. Now is the wrong time to remove or further weaken the very tools that federal prosecutors and law enforcement officers need to stem the tide of rising crime and prosecute domestic and international drug traffickers, violent gangs, and other violent offenders. ...

In conclusion, the federal criminal justice system has been significantly weakened over the last decade, the federal prison population continues to drop, homicide and violent crime rates are spiraling up across the country, and we are in the grip of the worst heroin and opioid epidemic in the history of our Nation. Now is the wrong time to remove or weaken the last tools available to federal prosecutors and law enforcement agents to combat these problems.

Some prior related posts highlighting some NAAUSA advocacy:

September 11, 2016 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, August 29, 2016

Does a weekend tweet from House Speaker Paul Ryan suggest that federal statutory sentencing reform still has a chance in the months ahead?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this weekend tweet from the account of House Speaker Paul Ryan, which includes a clip of a pro-sentencing reform speech that Speaker Ryan gave earlier this year and has this notable new sentence: "There are over 2 million people in our prisons, and a lot of them are just people who made a mistake."  Ever eager to hope that federal statutory sentencing reform is not completely dead for the current year, I want to consider this tweet a positive development to that end.

That said, I learned of this tweet from this Breitbart posting, and a good bit of the posting highlights why I probably should not really get too excited or hopeful in the wake of this tweet:

In July, Ryan said he believed that Congress “overcompensated” in the 1990s by imposing tough jail sentences to combating a decades-long crime wave and a drug epidemic that destroyed communities and lives across the country. He’s now backing legislation that would slash sentences for convicted drug traffickers.

“In the 1990s, to your first point, I think government, both Republicans and Democrats, overcompensated on our criminal code. And we went too far and there are disparities — crack cocaine vs. powder cocaine — there are clear disparities and more importantly, I think that we’ve learned there are better ways of dealing with some of these problems than locking up somebody for 20 or 30 years,” Ryan told NRP host Steve Inskeep. “You end up ruining their lives, ruining their families, hurting communities, and then when they try to re-enter into society, they’re destitute.”

“So I really think there are better methods of dealing with these problems and I think that is part of criminal justice reform. I think that’s something I put out in the poverty plan that I first authored three years ago. So we intend on bringing these bills up in September,” he added.

Conservative critics have labeled the so-called reform efforts as “jailbreak” bills. For example, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 (SRCA) would reduce penalties for drug traffickers profiting from poisoning communities. Neither would these drug-related penalty reduction bills significantly reduce some racial disparities, law enforcement officials say. “Blacks make up 37.5 percent of the prison population at the state and federal levels. If we released those convicted on drug charges alone the percentage of Black males in prison would drop to 37 percent — a mere half of one percent,” Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke testified before the House Judiciary committee.

Furthermore, the rollbacks will harm the communities they’re allegedly intended to help, say critics. “People who are convicted of a crime and imprisoned are a very small minority of the U.S. population … they comprise approximately 6.6 percent of the population,” Peter Kirsanow and a member of U.S. Commission on Civil Rights wrote in a letter to Grassley. “These people have managed to be less law-abiding than the remaining 93.4 percent of the U.S. population – quite a feat,” he wrote. “It is perhaps less of a feat when one considers that many offenders have serious additional problems that likely incline them toward criminality.”...

“This bill doesn’t touch simple possession, because there’s virtually no simple possession cases in federal court,” said prominent critic Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions. “The Senate bill would drastically reduce mandatory minimum sentences for all drug traffickers, even those who are armed and traffic in dangerous drugs like heroin, and provide for the early release of dangerous drug felons currently incarcerated in federal prison.”

Meanwhile, drug overdoses, mostly heroin and other opioids, killed over 47,000 Americans in 2014 alone and nearly half a million in the past decade. Nearly all heroin sold in the U.S. is imported illegally from Mexico. “While Colombia has historically been the biggest source of heroin sold in the United States, Mexican output has since surpassed it, DEA officials say. Together, the two countries account for more than 90 percent of the U.S. heroin supply, and nearly all of it is smuggled into this country by Mexican traffickers,” the Washington Post reports.

Yet Ryan continues to push the bipartisan elites’ sentencing reduction agenda even as Obama continues his “stigmatize-and-federalize” campaign against local and state law enforcement — and as the Obama administration is set to free 70,000 federal prisoners.  But Republicans’ efforts to partner with Democrats on leniency for criminals has stalled amid public concern.  Fifty-three percent of Americans, and 68 percent of nonwhites, are “worried a great deal” about rising violent crime, according to an April Gallup poll.

The Senate sentencing-rollback bill has been stopped by opposition from multiple Senators, including Sessions and Sen. Tom Cotton.  Also, President Barack Obama has rejected a proposed deal from Sen. Orrin Hatch and other Republicans leaders who have offered to back the rollback bill if Democrats support a “mens rae” rollback of white-collar business prosecutions.

August 29, 2016 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Finding (substantive?) due process violation, federal district judge refuses to apply statutory mandatory minimum made applicable by government stash-house sting

A helpful reader alterted me to a very interesting new federal sentencing opinion authored by Gerald Austin McHugh, Jr. in US v. McLean, No. 13-CR-487 (ED Pa Aug. 8, 2016) (available here). The full 29-page McLean opinion is a must-read for all persons interested in federal drug sentencing and dynamic views on sentencing limits that might be found in the Fifth Amendment's Due Process Clause. The opinion's introduction highlights why this decision is so interesting (and might make for a very interesting case to watch if federal prosecutors appeal to the Third Circuit):

The latitude given to federal authorities in charging drug offenses has been described as creating a “terrifying capacity for escalation of a defendant's sentence.”1 [FN1: United States v. Barth, 990 F.2d 422, 424 (8th Cir. 1993).]  This case exemplifies that reality, as a defendant caught by an undercover “sting” operation faces a Guideline sentence of 35 years to life imprisonment, with a mandatory minimum sentence of 25 years, because of a professed willingness to rob a drug stash house that was invented entirely by Government agents, containing a fictional amount of drugs chosen by those agents.  At sentencing, Defendant Clifton McLean argued that his sentence should be reduced because the Government improperly inflated his culpability by choosing a quantity of drugs — 5 kilograms of cocaine — that would trigger such a high mandatory minimum.

In an earlier opinion, I described the historical background of ATF “sting” cases, and concern among both judges and commentators over the consequences of this particular law enforcement tactic.  United States v. McLean, 85 F. Supp. 3d 825 (E.D. Pa. 2015).  Although I denied Defendant’s Motion to Dismiss the Indictment, resulting in his trial and conviction, as to this issue, I agree that imposing the sentence prescribed for the quantity of cocaine charged would violate his constitutional right to Due Process of Law on the facts of this case.  I have as a result imposed a sentence that excludes consideration of the amount specified by the Government, imposing only two of the three mandatory minimums for the reasons that follow.

August 9, 2016 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, August 08, 2016

Broad perspectives on the narrowness of recent federal clemency and sentencing reform efforts

Two of my favorite lawprof colleagues, Erik Luna and Mark Olser, remind me why they are among my favorites through this new Cato commentary titled "Mercy in the Age of Mandatory Minimums." Here are excertps:

Recently, we stood in a backyard eating barbecue with a man named Weldon Angelos.  He was only a few weeks out of federal prison, having been freed some four decades early from a 55-year sentence for selling a small amount of marijuana while possessing firearms.  Weldon was not among the 562 inmates whose sentences were commuted by President Obama, including Wednesday’s historic grant of commutation for 214 nonviolent prisoners. Instead, Weldon’s release was made possible through a negotiated motion by the government that, alas, cannot be replicated in other cases.

For a dozen years, Weldon had been the poster boy of criminal justice reform for liberals and conservatives alike. His liberation is cause for celebration for those who believed the punishment did not fit the crime.  Nonetheless, the Angelos case remains a cautionary tale about both the inherent ruthlessness of “mandatory minimum” terms of imprisonment and the ineffectiveness of the Obama administration’s clemency initiative.

Mandatory minimum laws bar the consideration of facts upon which a sentencing judge would normally rely.  In Weldon’s case, the law compelled a 55-year sentence.  It didn’t matter that Weldon was a first-time offender with no adult record or that he was the father of three young children.  Nor did it matter that he never brandished or used the firearms and never caused or threatened any violence or injury....

Most of all, it did not matter that the sentencing judge — a conservative Bush appointee known for being tough on crime — believed that the punishment was “unjust, cruel, and irrational.”  Ultimately, the judge was bound not only by the mandatory minimum statute but also the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence, which largely acquiesces to prosecutors’ charging decisions while providing almost no check on excessive prison terms.

Absent a doctrinal reversal by the Supreme Court (don’t hold your breath), any meaningful safeguard against misapplication of mandatory minimums will have to come in the form of legislation from Congress or from the president through the application of the clemency power.  As for the former, lawmakers are considering several [reform] bills... [that] are entirely laudable, but they are also quite modest.  Indeed, the Senate bill passed in April expands some mandatory minimum provisions and adds a couple of new ones to the federal code....

The positive aspects of the reform bills should be supported all the same.  Sadly, legislative efforts appear to be mired in an intramural fight among Republicans, as well as hindered by Democratic intransigence toward another worthy reform, namely, a requirement that law enforcement prove a culpable mental state rather than holding defendants strictly liable.  Until lawmakers can agree on a means to prevent draconian sentences, clemency will remain the only remedy for such miscarriages of justice.

Unfortunately, the federal clemency system is also dysfunctional.  Weldon’s petition for clemency was filed in November 2012 — and it then sat, unresolved one way or another, for three-and-a-half years.  The support for the petition was unprecedented, spanning activists, academics and experts from every political camp imaginable.  While Weldon is not wealthy and could not afford high-priced lobbyists or attorneys, the facts of his case drove the story onto the pages of leading news outlets.  Yet nothing happened.  Even when the Obama administration launched the “Clemency Project 2014” and Weldon’s case was accepted into that program, he languished in prison as the petition slogged through the seven vertical levels of review any successful clemency case must navigate.

Clemency is meant for cases like Weldon’s, where the requirements of the law exceed the imperatives of justice.  The fact that a case like his cannot receive clemency from an administration dedicated to expanding the use of this presidential prerogative lays bare the root problem we face — too much process and bureaucracy coursing through a Department of Justice that bears a built-in conflict of interest....

It was thrilling to see Weldon free, eating off of a paper plate in the light of a Utah evening.  He is just one of many, though, and systemic reform of both mandatory minimums and the clemency process should be an imperative for this and the next administration.

August 8, 2016 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Examples of "over-punishment", Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Two new US Sentencing Commission "Quick Facts" on federal gun sentencing

The US Sentencing Commission late last week released two new Quick Facts publications, which are designed to "give readers basic facts about a single area of federal crime in an easy-to-read, two-page format." Here are links to the latest publications and their summary description from the USSC:

In fiscal year 2015, there were 2,119 offenders convicted under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c) accounting for 3.0% of all offenders sentenced under the guidelines.  The number of offenders convicted of multiple counts of section 924(c) has decreased from 174 offenders in fiscal year 2011 (7.5% of all section 924(c) offenders) to 119 in fiscal year 2015 (5.6% of all section 924(c) offenders).

In fiscal year 2015, there were 4,984 offenders convicted under 18 U.S.C. § 922(g) accounting for 7.0% of all offenders sentenced under the guidelines.  The number of offenders sentenced under this statute has steadily decreased over the last five years from 5,761 in fiscal year 2011 to 4,984 offenders in fiscal year 2015.

July 24, 2016 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Gun policy and sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, July 21, 2016

"An Overlooked Key to Reversing Mass Incarceration: Reforming the Law to Reduce Prosecutorial Power in Plea Bargaining"

The title of this post is the title of this paper recently posted to SSRN and authored by Cynthia Alkon. Here is the abstract:

The need to “do something” about mass incarceration is now widely recognized.  When President Obama announced plans to reform federal criminal legislation, he focused on the need to change how we handle non-violent drug offenders and parole violators.  Previously, former Attorney General Eric Holder announced policies to make federal prosecutors “smart on crime.”  These changes reflect, as President Obama noted, the increasing bipartisan consensus on the need for reform and the need to reduce our incarceration rates.  However, proposals about what to reform, such as President Obama’s, tend to focus on some parts of criminal sentencing and on prosecutorial behavior as stand-alone issues.  These reform suggestions do not consider the fact that ninety-four to ninety-seven percent of criminal cases are resolved through plea bargains and how the use of this process influences incarceration rates.  Prosecutors hold extraordinary power in the criminal justice system. They not only decide what cases get filed, they also decide what charges and enhancements are added, and whether there will be a plea offer.  The structure of our criminal justice system, at both the state and federal level, strengthens prosecutorial power and create a plea bargaining environment with extreme power imbalances.  Prosecutors use this power to put pressure on defendants to accept plea deals, which contribute to the high incarceration rates in the United States.  Therefore, any reform intended to make a meaningful reduction in incarceration rates should recognize the power that prosecutors hold and include reform aimed at changing this underlying structure.

As is well documented, the United States has high incarceration rates and imprisons more people than any nation in the world.  African American and Latino communities suffer even higher incarceration rates.  Our incarceration rates increased dramatically in the 1980s and into the 1990s.  Some commentators identify the “war on drugs” as a major contributor to increasing incarceration rates during this period.  Others suggest that the increase is due to a number of factors including changes in criminal codes that increased potential penalties for crimes across the board, not only for drug crimes.  One scholar, John F. Pfaff, concludes that the single biggest reason for increased incarceration rates since 1990 is not an increase in arrests, or harsher sentencing, or the drug war, but instead is an increase in the percentage of felony filings per arrest.  Pfaff concludes that the reason there are more filings is because prosecutors are filing a higher percentage of cases and therefore prosecutors are the predominate reason for mass incarceration.

This article will begin by briefly describing how plea bargaining works and the often coercive atmosphere of plea bargaining that contributes to mass incarceration.  This article will then discuss Pfaff’s conclusions, based on his empirical studies, that prosecutors are the key reason for mass incarceration.  Building on Pfaff’s conclusions on the key role prosecutors play in mass incarceration, this article will discuss how the current structure of both state and federal codes reinforce prosecutorial power, particularly in the plea bargaining process.  This article will then discuss two proposals for legislative reform that could decrease the coercive atmosphere of plea bargaining.  First, this article will recommend revising how crimes are defined, reducing the number of crimes that can be charged as both misdemeanors and felonies and reducing some felonies to misdemeanors. Second, this article will recommend reducing potential punishment ranges by eliminating mandatory minimums for most crimes and for enhancements.  Legislative change alone will not reverse mass incarceration, but targeted legislative reform could help to change the overly coercive atmosphere of plea bargaining.  This effort can help to change the prosecutorial culture that surrounds plea bargaining and contribute to reducing incarceration rates.

July 21, 2016 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Should we all share Senator Grassley's optimism about federal statutory sentencing reform's prospects?

Long time readers know my hopefulness about significant federal sentencing reform moving through the current Congress has waxed and waned, especially as key leaders and members of both houses of Congress have expressed more or less optimism about the prospects for draft legislation getting full votes.  And, as this post a few weeks ago revealed, I have lately been gespecially pessimistic about the prospects for Congress to summon the spirit or find the time to get any reform bill to President Obama's desk.

But this new local article from Iowa, headlined "U.S. Sens. Grassley, Scott optimistic on sentencing reform," prompts me to become a bit more hopeful again. Here are excerpts:

U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, joined by a fellow Republican lawmaker from South Carolina, is expressing optimism about the prospects for passing federal criminal sentencing reform legislation.

The senior Iowa senator spoke at a news conference Wednesday at the Des Moines International Airport with U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, who gave a powerful speech on the Senate floor last week in which he described being targeted by police because of he is black.  Scott was stopped by law enforcement seven times in one year while he was an elected official, sometimes for speeding, but other times simply because he was driving a new car in the wrong neighborhood or other insignificant reasons, he said.

Scott saluted Grassley's work Wednesday on justice reform issues, saying the proposed legislation has attracted a broad coalition from the far left to the far right.  "This is an unusual time when we seem to have the stars aligning," he added. He described the legislation as serving the best interests of communities as well as individuals.

The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act is authored by Grassley and co-authored by Scott.  The package would reduce mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders and would expand prison programs intended to reduce the likelihood that inmates will re-offend.  It would also reduce sentences for inmates who successfully complete those programs. In addition, the bill would make changes to the federal justice system, such as allowing people convicted of certain crimes as juveniles to expunge their criminal records if they turn their lives around.

The bill has cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is chaired by Grassley, and is awaiting action by the full Senate.  Meanwhile, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., has announced the House will consider several separate pieces of legislation to address criminal justice reform.  Grassley said the House proposals include addressing such issues as asset forfeiture, but he expressed confidence any differences can be ironed out in a House-Senate conference committee.

Grassley said the legislation responds to Iowans who have expressed concerns about a rising federal prison population, costs of housing them and the possibility that some people with relatively minor criminal backgrounds are receiving lengthy sentences intended for hardcore criminals.  "Successfully addressing the different perspectives has not been an easy task, especially if we want to ensure that career criminals and the most violent offenders are not allowed to wreak havoc once again in their communities," Grassley said.  "The work that we started more than a year ago has been a thoughtful, bipartisan deliberation that will promote opportunities to reduce recidivism while protecting our communities from violent career criminals."

My prior post expressed fear that the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act was essentially dead in Congress, but I am certain Senator Grassley knows a lot more than I do about whether it may still have some legislative life left in it. I sure hope so.

July 21, 2016 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Scouting Mike Pence on criminal justice: likely Trump VP pick with notably mixed reform record

According to the latest headlines and alerts Mike-pence on my smart phone, the word today is that GOP Prez candidate Donald Trump is poised to select Indiana Gov Mike Pence as his running mate.  As a supporter of sentencing reform, I am disappointed a bit that Newt Gingrich did not make the cut, as he has been a recent vocal and repeated supporter of the "Right on Crime" sentencing reform efforts.  (That said, Newt often sounded like a member of the tough-and-tougher GOP crowd in the past, and thus I would not have felt confident that even a Newt pick would signal a Trumpian affinity for sentencing reform.)

Gov Pence's record on criminal justice reform is decidedly mixed, and these linked press stories about various aspects of his work as Indiana's chief executive document the basics:

From May 2013 here, "Indiana Gov. Mike Pence signs sentencing, expungement bills into law":

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence has signed bills to revamp the state's felony sentencing laws and give some offenders the ability to expunge their records. "Indiana should be the worst place in America to commit a serious crime and the best place, once you've done your time, to get a second chance," Pence said in a statement.

The sentencing legislation — House Bill 1006 — is the product of three years of work by lawmakers, judges, prosecutors and others. It's the first wholesale overhaul of the criminal code since the 1970s. It will move Indiana's system of four felony classes to one that has six felony levels. It also requires offenders to serve 75 percent of their sentences instead of the 50 percent currently required....

Pence had expressed concerns about an earlier version of the bill, saying it was too soft on offenders convicted of drug crimes. But lawmakers made changes that appeased the governor. Pence said Monday that the bill will "reform and strengthen Indiana's criminal code by focusing resources on the most serious offenses."

House Bill 1482 gives those Hoosiers previously convicted of crimes the opportunity to essentially have their records wiped clean — if they've had a sustained period without a new offense. The bill sets different standards for different crimes.

Pence the bill will strengthen their opportunities for gainful employment. Businesses will no longer be able to ask applicants if they've been convicted of felonies. Instead, they'll have to ask if they've been convicted of felonies that have not been expunged. The new law "will give a second chance to those who strive to re-enter society and become productive, law-abiding citizens," Pence said. 

From March 2016 here, "Pence reinstates mandatory minimum prison terms for some drug crimes":

Gov. Mike Pence is toughening his stance toward drug dealers ahead of a likely bruising re-election campaign where he'll have to answer for Indiana becoming the nation's methamphetamine capital on his watch. The Republican signed into law House Enrolled Act 1235 on Monday, reinstating a 10-year mandatory minimum prison term for a person convicted of dealing meth or heroin who has a prior conviction for cocaine, meth or heroin dealing.

"Drug-abuse problems are not unique to our state, but I'm determined to meet this challenge head-on," Pence said. "We need to make it clear that Indiana will not tolerate the actions of criminals, and I'm pleased to sign into law HEA 1235 to increase penalties on drug dealers."

An analysis of drug-dealing convictions since criminal sentencing reform was enacted in 2014, conducted by the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency, found just four of the 119 individuals convicted of meth or heroin dealing had a prior conviction and were sentenced to less than 10 years in prison — receiving on average 7.5 years.

More concerning for some lawmakers, including state Sen. Karen Tallian, D-Ogden Dunes, is Pence reversing course on his past actions to eliminate mandatory minimums by now reducing the ability of judges to issue the appropriate sentence for each criminal and giving prosecutors the upper hand in plea bargaining with an accused.

Given this governing histry, I am inclined to call Gov Pence comparable to Prez candidate Trump (and also Prez candidate Clinton) in the arena of criminal justice reform: if you try hard enough, you can readily find a basis to be very encouraged or a basis to be very discouraged by his statements and record.

July 14, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Reentry and community supervision, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, July 03, 2016

"Utah Senator Meets Inmate Who Inspired Sentencing Law Rewrite"

Lee_BC_236_062916The title of this post is the headline of this recent Roll Call article reporting on a notable meeting between a prominent advocate for federal sentencing reform and a prominent (former) "poster child" defendant representing the need for reform. The article includes a short video, and here are excerpts of a story that seems worth profiling on a weekend for celebrating US freedoms:

Sen. Mike Lee has told the story of Weldon Angelos’ prison term hundreds of times, describing the 55-year sentence over three marijuana sales in 72 hours as “crazy” and “nuts.”

An improbable set of events brought the two men together Wednesday in the Utah Republican's office on Capitol Hill. The recently freed Angelos hugged the lawmaker who made him a living symbol of the push to overhaul the nation’s sentencing laws.

“I’ve been telling his story a lot,” Lee said during the meeting. “A lot of the time I was telling this good story, I would sit there and wonder, actually, I wonder if he’s going to care if I’m using his name this frequently.”

“But your story was very helpful in explaining to people why we need this legislation and why we need to reform the law,” Lee told Angelos, who has two sons, ages 19 and 17, and a daughter, age 13.

Angelos, 36 and the founder of a hip-hop music label, said he met others in prison with unjust sentences. He plans to tell his story himself in Washington in support of the bipartisan bill. The legislation appears unlikely to pass in this election-shortened year, and amid disagreements among Republicans in both chambers.

“It kept me together, and my family,” Angelos said to Lee. “Your support was amazing and I just wanted to come here and thank you personally for supporting me and your commitment to criminal justice reform.” Lee has credited Angelos' case, which has attracted national attention, for sparking his work to change sentencing laws.

The legal action that freed Angelos on May 31 is somewhat mysterious and extraordinary. There is recent action in his court case — but no sign of a judge’s order releasing him. Lee said President Barack Obama set in motion a way to reopen the case and seek his release.  It wasn’t a commutation or pardon but “another type of action,” Lee said.  The senator, a former assistant U.S. attorney, is among dozens of people who have urged Obama to commute Angelos’ sentence, including former U.S. District Judge Paul Cassell, who sentenced Angelos.

That shows what a lot of extra attention on a case can accomplish, said Molly Gill, government affairs counselor for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a group that flew Angelos to Washington this week and is working to end the types of sentencing laws that resulted in his sentence. “But it also shows there are a lot a people who don’t have and are never going to have that level of support,” Gill said.

Lee said Angelos’ release does not undercut the need for the legislation, since there are others out there who can’t get relief like Angelos. “We know there’s more to be done,” Lee said. A provision in the bill would prevent prosecutors from stacking mandatory minimum sentences related to certain gun possession crimes together in one case. It would reduce that mandatory minimum sentence from 25 years to 15 years.  It would also allow judges to reduce the sentence for prisoners who are in Angelos’ situation.

Angelos was a first-time offender who was arrested in 2002 after Salt Lake City police set up controlled drug deals between Angelos and a confidential informant.... A jury convicted him of 13 charges, including three counts of possession of a gun in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime. Angelos in 2004 received a five-year mandatory minimum sentence for the first charge of possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime; a consecutive 25-year sentence for the second, and another consecutive 25-year sentence for the third, FAMM said.

After nearly 12 years in federal prison, Angelos was surrounded Wednesday by the dark wood and art in Lee’s office. “It’s just overwhelming,” Angelos said. “I feel like I’m in a dream.”

Prior related post:

July 3, 2016 in Celebrity sentencings, Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes | Permalink | Comments (6)

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

US Sentencing Commission publishes "Overview of Federal Criminal Cases – Fiscal Year 2015"

On Monday, the US Sentencing Commission released this new data report, excitingly titled "Overview of Federal Criminal Cases – Fiscal Year 2015."   This USSC webpage provides this summary of the report's contents and findings:

The United States Sentencing Commission received information on 71,184 federal criminal cases in which the offender was sentenced in fiscal year 2015. Among these cases, 71,003 involved an individual offender and 181 involved a corporation or other “organizational” offender. The Commission also received information on 24,743 cases in which the court resentenced the offender or modified the sentence that had been previously imposed. This publication provides an overview of those cases [and includes these key findings]:

  • The 71,003 individual original cases reported to the Commission in fiscal year 2015 represent a decrease of 4,833 (6.4%) cases from fiscal year 2014.

  • Drug cases continued to be the most common type of federal case.  The 22,631 drug cases reported to the Commission in fiscal year 2015 accounted for 31.8 percent of all cases report to the Commission.

  • Immigration cases were the next most common, accounting for 29.3 percent of the total federal caseload.  In fiscal year 2011, immigration cases were the most common federal crime; however, since that year the number of these cases has steadily declined.

  • In fiscal year 2015, an imprisonment sentence was imposed on 87.3 percent of all offenders. Another 7.2 percent of offenders received a sentence of probation (i.e., where no type of confinement was imposed), a rate that has decreased over time from a high of 15.3 percent in 1990.

  • Almost three-quarters of offenders sentenced in fiscal year 2015 received a sentence of less than five years.

  • Methamphetamine offenses were the most common drug trafficking offenses and were the most severely punished drug crime in fiscal year 2015.

  • The proportion of drug offenders convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty was the lowest it has been since 1993.

June 29, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Final SCOTUS order list has nine Mathis GVRs ... and I suspect hundreds more cases will be impacted

The Supreme Court this morning finished up its work before heading out on summer vacation by issuing this order list. Though the Justices granted review in eight new cases, none appear to involve criminal justice issues. But the order list still had a bit of sentencing intrigue by including nine GVRs based on its Mathis ACCA ruling from last week (basics here).

Though it is never surprising to see a spate of GVRs in the wake of any significant ruling about a federal sentencing statute, I suspect that the fall-out from Mathis will extended to many more cases because, as reported via Justice Alito's dissent, it seems the ruling means that "in many States, no burglary conviction will count" as a possible ACCA predicate offense. That reality not only can impact many past, present and future ACCA cases, but also could also echo through the application of burglary (and even other crimes) in past career offender guideline cases.

Ultimately, I would be very surprised in the impact and import of Mathis end up nearly as grand or as complicated as last Term's Johnson ruling. But the consequential sentencing math of Mathis still may be major.

June 28, 2016 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Thursday, June 23, 2016

California legislators introduce bill seeking to mandate that any future Brock Turners face three-year minimum prison terms

As reported in this Reuters piece, headlined "California lawmakers move to change sentencing law following Stanford case," the common legislative reaction by policy-makers to concerns about an unduly lenient sentence is in progress in the wake of the high-profile sexual assault sentencing of Brock Turner. Here are the basics:

Seizing on a nationwide furor over the six-month jail term handed to a former Stanford University swimmer following his conviction for sexual assault on an unconscious woman, California lawmakers on Monday introduced legislation to close a loophole that allowed the sentence. The bill, known as AB 2888, marks the latest response to the sentence given to 20-year-old Brock Turner by Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky in June, which was widely condemned as too lenient. Prosecutors had asked that Turner be given six years in state prison.

"Like many people across the nation, I was deeply disturbed by the sentence in the Brock Turner case," Assemblyman Bill Dodd, one of two California state legislators who introduced the bill, said in a written statement. "Our bill will help ensure that such lax sentencing doesn't happen again."

Turner was convicted of assault with intent to commit rape, penetration of an intoxicated person and penetration of an unconscious person in the January 2015 attack. Under California law, those charges are not considered rape because they did not involve penile penetration. According to the lawmakers, current California law calls for a mandatory prison term in cases of rape or sexual assault where force is used, but not when the victim is unconscious or severely intoxicated and thus unable to resist.

The new legislation, which was introduced in the state assembly on Monday, would eliminate this discretion of a judge to sentence defendants convicted of such crimes to probation, said Ben Golombek, a spokesman for Assemblyman Evan Low, a co-author of the bill. Golombek said that the effect of the proposed new law, which must still be approved by both houses of the legislature and signed by Governor Jerry Brown, is that Turner would have faced a minimum of three years behind bars.

Prior related posts:

June 23, 2016 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Another ACCA win for federal defendants in Mathis

The Supreme Court this morning handed down its last sentencing case this Term, and Mathis v. United States, No. 15–6092 (S. Ct. June 23, 2016) (available here), is another win for federal criminal defendants.  Here is the start of the Mathis opinion for the Court authored by Justice Kagan:

The Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA or Act), 18 U. S. C. §924(e), imposes a 15-year mandatory minimum sentence on certain federal defendants who have three prior convictions for a “violent felony,” including “burglary, arson, or extortion.”  To determine whether a past conviction is for one of those offenses, courts compare the elements of the crime of conviction with the elements of the “generic” version of the listed offense — i.e., the offense as commonly understood.  For more than 25 years, our decisions have held that the prior crime qualifies as an ACCA predicate if, but only if, its elements are the same as, or narrower than, those of the generic offense. The question in this case is whether ACCA makes an exception to that rule when a defendant is convicted under a statute that lists multiple, alternative means of satisfying one (or more) of its elements. We decline to find such an exception.

Justice Kennedy issued a concurring opinion, and so did Justice Thomas. Justice Breyer, joined by Justice Ginsburg, issued a dissenting opinion. And Justice Alito issued his own dissenting opinion.

June 23, 2016 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (4)

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Making the case that Congress should, at the very least, make the Fair Sentencing Act fully retroactive

Julie Stewart, the President of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), has this notable new Huffington Post commentary headlined "The Least Congress Can Do on Criminal Justice Reform." Here are extended excerpts:

Five and a half years ago, I wrote an op-ed in this space in which I urged Congress to apply retroactively the recently passed Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 (FSA).  The FSA reduced the indefensible disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentences from 100:1 to 18:1.  Every member of the U.S. Senate, including Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL), supported the FSA because they recognized that there was simply no scientific or public safety rationale for the disparity and yet ample evidence of its racially discriminatory effect.  Yet five and a half years later, Congress still has not approved FSA retroactivity.

There are approximately 4,900 individuals still serving the crack cocaine sentences Congress repudiated when it passed the FSA.  They are the people whose cases we used to illustrate why the law needed to change, yet they did not benefit.  After the FSA passed, the U.S. Sentencing Commission fixed all of the non-mandatory minimum crack sentences by lowering its guidelines consistent with the new law.  But the Commission only has authority to changes its guidelines, not mandatory minimum punishments set by Congress and found in statutes.

Today, legislation to make the FSA retroactive is included in a broader sentencing reform bill, which was introduced by Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and is pending in the Senate....  [T]he U.S. Sentencing Commission, at FAMM’s urging and with FAMM’s support, has done all it can to reduce drug sentences and make those reductions retroactive for tens of thousands of federal prisoners.  Notably, those who received retroactive relief from the Commission have reoffended at a lower rate than those who served their full sentences.

We recognize that bipartisan consensus and compromise are essential to passing criminal justice reform through the Congress. Because of the hard work of key senators and outside advocates from across the ideological spectrum, we believe that Senator Grassley’s bill would receive more than the 60 votes necessary to invoke cloture and would probably receive closer to 70 votes on final passage.  But in an election year, especially a presidential election year, consensus is not enough. The bar is much higher.  Unanimity, not broad consensus, is required. Without unanimity, any reform bills will require floor time and will be subject to hostile amendments that could significantly weaken them.

Unanimity is lacking today because of a number of factors.  A couple of vocal but mistaken members of Congress insist that any drug sentencing reform will endanger the public, an election-year fearmongering tactic that has no basis in fact. There is also strong disagreement about whether to include minimum criminal intent requirements (“mens rea”) in any final reform bill.  House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) and Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) support broad mens rea protection; the White House and most Democrats strongly oppose it.  The congressional calendar presents an equally daunting challenge.  We are in June of an election year.  The Senate only plans to be in session for roughly 40 days between now and the November election....

For 4,900 people serving sentences Congress itself deemed unfair, members of the Senate and House need not wait a day longer. If prospects for passing a larger package of criminal justice reforms do not dramatically improve in the coming days, Congress should at least pass narrow legislation making the FSA retroactive.  Those serving discredited, excessive sentences for crack offenses should not be forced to wait any longer for justice.  The Sentencing Commission’s evidence suggests that giving retroactive relief to those serving excessive crack sentences does not harm public safety. To the contrary, making the FSA retroactive would save lives, money, and right a terrible wrong. That is a legacy both parties can be proud to share with their voters this Fall.

June 16, 2016 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

GOP Rep Labrador predicts "we’re going to see some of the greatest reforms in a generation" emerging from Congress

Raul-LabradorSomeone should be collecting all the big talk we have heard from elected officials and pundits about the ground-breaking criminal justice reforms that are purportedly soon to happen in Congress (and, so far, just never quite seem to happen).  As noted in this prior post, at least one notable commentatory was saying in summer 2013 that "momentum for sentencing reform could be unstoppable."  Three years later, as reported in this local article discussing comments at a sentencing reform symposium, one notable member of Congress is still talking about momentum continuing to build:

Idaho GOP Rep. Raul Labrador says momentum is building in Congress for major criminal justice reforms aimed at reversing decades of focus on long prison terms that hit even nonviolent and first-time offenders. “I believe that we’re going to see some of the greatest reforms in a generation,” Labrador told a criminal justice reform conference at Concordia University School of Law in Boise on Monday. “Momentum is building for reform. This Congress alone, I’ve already met with President Obama twice. … This is actually one area that I think I can work with the president.”

Labrador, a Republican and tea party favorite, last year co-sponsored major, bipartisan reform legislation, but it didn’t advance. This year, a less ambitious bill is pending in both houses that includes some of the same provisions, including giving judges more discretion on whether to impose mandatory minimum sentences. “We only have 5 percent of the world’s population in the United States, and the U.S. is home to 25 percent of the world’s prison population,” Labrador said. “We should not be proud of that.”

That bill and several others have cleared the House Judiciary Committee, Labrador said, “and House Speaker Paul Ryan has expressed his support for the movement and has promised me to bring a reform package to the floor for a vote this year.”

It hasn’t happened yet, and Labrador acknowledged that hopes are fading as more of the year passes by. “It’s a little bit watered down,” he said. “They had to look at the political reality, what can pass in the Senate and the House.”

Still, he pledged to continue to push the issue, one that Labrador, an immigration and criminal defense attorney, said he started work on as soon as he arrived in Congress.

Here are some more quotes of note that emerged from this Concordia University School of Law sentencing conference:

“Eighty percent of federal drug prisoners have no history of violence, and more than 25 percent have no criminal history at all,” said Alex Kreit, professor at the Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego and an expert and textbook author on controlled substances and marijuana regulation. “This, in a nutshell, is what is driving interest in federal drug sentencing reform.” Half of the federal prison population consists of drug offenders, Kreit said, though they comprise only a quarter of those admitted each year. “Part of that is the lengthy drug sentences that we have.”

Though some reforms have happened, notably congressional action in 2010 to reduce the disparity between crack cocaine and powdered cocaine sentences, federal drug sentencing laws remain largely unchanged. “I think there are a lot of people coalescing around the idea that what we have been doing hasn’t worked in the way we wanted it to work, said Wendy Olson, U.S. Attorney for Idaho. “I think all of us in criminal justice have an obligation to look at that.”

U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill said his 28 years on the bench have shown him that the war on drugs has been “an abysmal failure – we certainly have not reduced drug consumption. Whatever has happened, it has not been worth the price that we have paid.”

He said its casualties have largely been low-level drug offenders who were associated with large quantities of drugs – couriers, truck drivers, addicts hired to unload trucks. “Kingpins are almost immune, in the same way that generals and commanders in chief are typically immune during wars,” Winmill said, “and if they are brought down, what happens is that they’re immediately replaced.”

Plus, though African-Americans and Hispanics use drugs at about the same rate as the general population, Winmill said, “The incarceration rate for African-Americans and Hispanics is off the charts. Now, is that implicit bias? Is it overt bias? Is it a result of a policy from Congress that reflects bias? I don’t know. But I think it certainly is something we need to think long and hard about.”

June 7, 2016 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Friday, June 03, 2016

Weldon Angelos, poster child for need to reform federal mandatory minimums, apparently released after serving 12 years of 55-year sentence

Images (2)Regular readers likely know the name Weldon Angelos and likely recall some of the details of his 55-year mandatory minimum federal sentence based on his convictions for low-level marijuana dealing and firearm possession.  And regular readers likely will also be intrigued and heartened to read this new Washington Post story, headlined "Utah man whose long drug sentence stirred controversy is released," indicating that Weldon was released earlier this week.  Here are the (somewhat mysterious) details:

One federal inmate who was released — but not under Obama’s clemency initiative — is Weldon Angelos, 36, a father of three from Utah who was sentenced in 2004 to a 55-year mandatory minimum prison term in connection with selling marijuana.

The specific circumstances of Angelos’s release are unclear because court records in his case are sealed. But after a long campaign from his supporters, including Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), Angelos was quietly released Tuesday after a federal court granted him an immediate reduction in sentence. He was able to immediately go home to his family without serving three months in a halfway house, as those who receive clemency are required to do. The release allowed Angelos to see the son he left at age 7 graduate from high school Thursday.

Angelos is one of the nation’s most famous nonviolent drug offenders and became a symbol of what advocates said was the severity and unfairness of mandatory sentences. His case was championed by the group Families Against Mandatory Minimums, former FBI director Bill Sessions, conservative billionaire Charles Koch and others. Three years ago, more than 100 former judges and prosecutors, former elected and appointed government officials, and prominent authors, scholars, activists and business leaders signed a letter urging Obama to grant Angelos commutation.

In February, former federal judge Paul G. Cassell, who sentenced Angelos, wrote a letter asking Obama to swiftly grant him clemency. Cassell said that the sentence he was forced to impose was “one of the most troubling that I ever faced in my five years on the federal bench” and that it was one of the chief reasons he stepped down as a judge.

But Obama never granted clemency to Angelos. The granting of mercy instead came from the Salt Lake City prosecutor who charged him in the case, according to his lawyer. “After three and half years of inaction on Weldon’s clemency petition, he is free because of the fair and good action of a prosecutor,” attorney Mark W. Osler said. “He returns to citizenship because of the actions of one individual — just not the individual I was expecting. Weldon’s freedom is a wonderful thing but remains just one bright spot among many continuing tragedies.”

A White House spokeswoman said that the White House cannot respond with details about any individual clemency case. Julie Stewart, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, called the release of Angelos “fantastic news and past due.”

I am inclined to guess, absent hearing any details to the contrary, that the Utah federal prosecutor agreed to what some have come to call a Holloway motion: a motion first engineered by former Judge John Glesson in the case of Francios Holloway (discussed here) by urging prosecutors to move to undo stacked federal gun charges that had resulted in acrazy-long mandatory minimum prison term.

A few of many prior related posts on Angelos and Holloway cases:

June 3, 2016 in Examples of "over-punishment", Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Second Amendment issues, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Sunday, May 22, 2016

A bunch of timely and notable new Quick Facts from the US Sentencing Commission

The US Sentencing Commission has its pretty new website up and running, and my only knock on the site is that it is not easy anymore to see exacly what is new on the site.  Fortunately, I somehow discovered that the Commission released two notable new Quick Facts covering federal drug sentencing and mandatory minimum sentences.  (As the USSC explains, "Quick Facts" are publications that "give readers basic facts about a single area of federal crime in an easy-to-read, two-page format.")

In addition to these two new items, the Commission also released two other timely "Quick Facts" last month, and here are links to all four of these reader-friendly USSC products:

May 22, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, May 20, 2016

Suggesting we suffer from "under-incarceration," Senator Cotton calls federal sentencing reform "dead in this year’s Congress"

As reported in this Politico article, headlined "Sen. Tom Cotton: U.S. has 'under-incarceration problem'," at least one significant opponent of federal sentencing reform is already claiming victory in his efforts to preclude any legislative changes this year to any severe federal statutory mandatory minimums.  Here are the basics via Politico:

Sen. Tom Cotton on Thursday slammed his colleagues' efforts to pass sweeping criminal justice reforms, saying the United States is actually suffering from an "under-incarceration problem."

Cotton, who has been an outspoken critic of the bill in Congress that would reduce mandatory minimum sentences, smacked down what he called "baseless" arguments that there are too many offenders locked up for relatively small crimes, that incarceration is too costly, or that "we should show more empathy toward those caught up in the criminal-justice system."

"Take a look at the facts. First, the claim that too many criminals are being jailed, that there is over-incarceration, ignores an unfortunate fact: for the vast majority of crimes, a perpetrator is never identified or arrested, let alone prosecuted, convicted, and jailed," Cotton said during a speech at The Hudson Institute, according to his prepared remarks. "Law enforcement is able to arrest or identify a likely perpetrator for only 19 percent of property crimes and 47 percent of violent crimes. If anything, we have an under-incarceration problem."

Expanding upon his remarks during a question-and-answer session, Cotton said releasing felons under reduced sentences serves only to destabilize the communities in which they are released.  “I saw this in Baghdad. We’ve seen it again in Afghanistan," recalled Cotton, who served in the Army during both wars.  "Security has to come first, whether you’re in a war zone or whether you’re in the United States of America.”  Those advocating for criminal justice reform through such measures appear to have forgotten the high-crime days of the 1980s, Cotton remarked, noting that the federal prison population is declining....

"I believe the criminal-leniency bill in the Senate is dead in this year’s Congress. And it should remain so if future versions allow for the release of violent felons from prison," he went on to say. "I will, though, happily work with my colleagues on true criminal-justice reform — to ensure prisons aren’t anarchic jungles that endanger both inmates and corrections officers, to promote rehabilitation and reintegration for those who seek it, and to stop the over-criminalization of private conduct under federal law.  But I will continue to oppose any effort to give leniency to dangerous felons who prey on our communities."

Based on these comments from Senator Cotton (which can be read/seen via this link), I am now growing ever more inclined to agree with Senator Cotton's suggestion that a significant sentencing reform bill will not get through Congress before the 2016 election. Despite efforts to tweak the SRCA to appease some conservative critics, the most vocal opponents of the bill, Senators Cotton and Session, remain vocal in their opposition. In addition, as reported here, Senator Marco Rubio has recently expressed opposition to the SRCA. Perhaps most critically, I have yet to see anyone make a truly forceful political argument that any of the most critical current GOP leaders (namely Donald Trump, Mitch McConnell or Paul Ryan) ought to see great political benefits from now starting to aggressively champion federal statutory sentencing reform efforts.

That all said, I think some of the political calculations here remain fluid. It seems to me possible (though not likely) that the White House and/or leading Democrats might relent on opposition to mens rea reform, which could perhaps jump-start the stalled reform bills in the House of Representatives. Or maybe the even unpredictable Donald Trump will see some poll numbers suggesting he could improve his image with younger and minority voters by claiming he is better than the Clintons on criminal justice reform. And, not to be completely overlooked, it seems to me quite possible that lots of folks uncertain about the current national political mood on crime and punishment would feel comfortable moving forward on reforms during the lame duck period after the Nov 2016 elections.

All those speculations aside, I view Senator Cotton's latest comments as still further confirmation of my own long-standing fear that it continues to be much easier for all sorts of federal political actors to talk a lot about sentencing reform than to actually convert all the sentencing buzzing into actual federal statutory reforms. 

A few 2016 related posts:

May 20, 2016 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8)

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Major sentencing reform becomes reality in Maryland

S-l300One of the nicknames for Maryland (which happens to be the state where I grew up) is the "Free State." And today, as reported in this new Baltimore Sun article, the state has now enacted criminal justice reforms that help justify the continued appropriateness of this nickname. Here are the details:

Maryland officials are about to take steps to reduce the state prison population by more than 1,000 inmates while plowing millions of dollars into crime prevention.

Gov. Larry Hogan on Thursday signed the state's broadest criminal justice legislation in decades — a package that will reduce sentencing guidelines for drug dealers, thieves and other offenders, while increasing the number of crimes that can be wiped from an offender's record fivefold. Users of illegal drugs will be steered toward treatment, not incarceration. And new rules will help the state go after criminal gangs.

The Justice Reinvestment Act, a document of more than 100 pages, is a seismic shift from policies adopted during the late-20th century war on drugs, which critics say led to governments wasting money on incarceration that did little to increase public safety.  By reducing the Maryland prison population by about 1,100 people over the next 10 years, officials expect to save an estimated $80 million that can be redirected toward programs intended to prevent crime.

The bill was a compromise reached among Republicans and Democrats, prosecutors and defenders, civil libertarians and victims' rights advocates. Hogan said the bill "represents the largest and most comprehensive criminal justice reform to pass in Maryland in a generation."

But some officials and advocates say Hogan's approval, which came as he signed 144 bills in the final such ceremony this year, should begin an evaluation process. Some say doing away with mandatory minimum sentences was a mistake, as was reducing sentences for some drug offenses. Others bemoan the increased penalty for second-degree murder, and say not enough other penalties have been reduced. Most of the bill's provisions go into effect in October 2017. Some will become law this October....

Supporters say the legislation helps only nonviolent offenders. Del. Herb McMillan, an Anne Arundel County Republican, disagrees. "Pushing heroin and other opioids isn't nonviolent," McMillan told the House during debate last monh. "Reducing jail time for heroin pushers, during an opioid epidemic, does not send the message heroin pushers need to hear."

Maryland is the 30th state to pursue Justice Reinvestment, a concept pushed by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and Del. Kathleen Dumais, both Democrats. pushed after learning about it at legislative conferences. In 2015, the two sponsored successful legislation that created a council to recommend sweeping changes to lawmakers. From those recommendations, the Senate and House of Delegates crafted significantly different bills. The Senate's version was friendlier toward prosecutors. It took a marathon negotiation session two days before the end of the session to reconcile the bills.

The House backed off some of its proposed sentence reductions. The Senate agreed, reluctantly, to the repeal of mandatory minimums.

Sen. Robert A. Zirkin, who as chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee led that chamber's work on the legislation, called its passage one of the best moments of his 18 years in the legislature. "There's never been a bill that I can recall of that magnitude, and it was a completely bipartisan, roll-up-your-sleeves and get-to-work effort," the Baltimore County Democrat said. He pointed to his close collaboration with Sen. Michael Hough, a Frederick County Republican.

Zirkin said one of the most important provisions specifies that treatment, rather than incarceration, should be the sentence for a person convicted of possessing drugs such as heroin or cocaine. "That's a more effective way to get that individual out of the criminal realm and back to being a law-abiding, tax-paying citizen," Zirkin said.

Zirkin said the bill also includes "the single largest expansion of expungement, possibly in this state's history." He said it expands the list of offenses that may be erased from public records from nine to about 50. They include misdemeanors related to theft and drug possession. The change is intended to make it easier for ex-offenders to qualify for jobs, housing and education....

Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott Shellenberger, who represented the state's prosecutors through the process, said he had to swallow hard to accept reductions to mandatory minimum sentences. He said such minimums were an effective tool in striking plea bargains.

Still, Shellenberger said, the legislation moves in the right direction. He said prosecutors have sought the increase in the maximum sentence for second-degree murder to 40 years for years. And he's pleased that lawmakers included Hogan's proposal to adopt a state version of the federal Racketeer-Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) bill to go after criminal gangs.

Paul DeWolfe, Maryland's chief public defender, served on the council that made recommendations. He said he hopes lawmakers continue to build on the reinvestment process in the coming years. An oversight commission created by the bill will make recommendations for further reforms. "I do see this as a first step, and I hope that most members of the commission and the legislature think that way as well," he said.

Shellenberger, a Democrat known for his tough approach to crime, said he hopes the oversight panel will take it slow and let the state absorb the many changes in the bill over several years. "This is such a large change to the criminal justice system that I think we need to take a break and see what savings [result] and what happens as a result of this change," he said.

May 19, 2016 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

New CBO report indicates federal statutory sentencing reform would save many, many millions

This new Reuters article, headlined "Congress forecasters see major savings from sentencing reforms," reports on this new report from the Congressional Budget Office providing a "Cost Estimate" on S. 2123, the proposed Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act. Here are the basics via the Reuters report:

A criminal justice bill awaiting a vote by the U.S. Senate would reduce federal prison costs by $722 million over the next 10 years by releasing thousands of federal prisoners early, congressional forecasters said on Wednesday.

Federal benefits received by the newly released prisoners would increase direct spending by $251 million and reduce revenues by $8 million over the same period, according to the estimate by the U.S. Congressional Budget Office.

The new savings estimate buoyed supporters of the bipartisan measure to lower mandatory minimum sentences for some non-violent federal drug offenders, which is central to President Barack Obama's efforts to overhaul the country's federal criminal justice system and reduce prison overcrowding.

"We have an obligation to change the way we think about incarceration, and today’s CBO report shows that we have a fiscal obligation as well," said the bill's co-authors, U.S. senators Charles Grassley, a Republican from Iowa, and Richard Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, in a statement.

The bill was revised last month to exclude prisoners convicted of violent crimes in an effort to garner more support among conservatives.

May 18, 2016 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Noting that different prosecutors have notably different opinions on the SRCA

ImagesThis lengthy new Daily Signal article, headlined "Is It Time for Criminal Justice Reform?  2 Law Enforcement Groups Are at Odds," details that the heads of the National District Attorneys Association and of the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys have taken different positions on the leading statutory sentencing reform proposal in Congress. I recommend the piece in full, and here are excerpts:

While the unusual coalition of President Barack Obama and conservative groups hold out hope for the chance at what they call the most meaningful reform to criminal sentencing laws in a generation, frontline law enforcement officials are debating what the changes would mean for their communities.

Steven Cook, whose organization represents more than 5,500 assistant United States attorneys, believes Congress’ attempts to reduce prison sentences for certain low-level offenders will “substantially harm” law enforcement’s ability to “dismantle and disrupt drug trafficking organizations.”

William Fitzpatrick, the president of the official body representing state-level district attorneys across the U.S., views the issue differently, recently writing to congressional leaders that a Senate plan to reduce sentences for drug crimes allows “lower level offenders a chance for redemption.”

Cook and Fitzpatrick are two veteran law enforcement officials with vastly different jobs, but they have outsized roles in a debate over criminal justice reform with high stakes for the people they represent — not to mention the thousands of offenders who could benefit from changes to sentencing laws.

Fitzpatrick made headlines late last month when he authored a letter — on behalf of the National District Attorneys Association — to Senate leaders Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Harry Reid, D-Nev., expressing support for compromise legislation meant to reduce mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenders. That endorsement has encouraged other law enforcement groups to get on board, with both the International Association of Chiefs of Police and Major County Sheriffs’ Association announcing their support last week....

But Cook, and his National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys, remain opposed to the legislation, and he and the organization have the ear of still skeptical lawmakers like Sens. Tom Cotton, R-Ark.; Jeff Sessions, R-Ala.; and David Perdue, R-Ga.  “The notion we should save the American people money by releasing these repeat drug traffickers — and to take tools away from prosecutors needed to successfully prosecute them — is a breach of the fundamental responsibility that the federal government has to protect its citizens,” Cook told The Daily Signal.

Cook and Fitzpatrick know each other well, and have been in frequent communication about their positions on the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, as the Senate’s legislation is known (although Cook says he was “very surprised” when Fitzpatrick endorsed the new bill).  Cook has served as an assistant U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of Tennessee for the last 29 years. Fitzpatrick is the district attorney for Onondaga County in New York, a position he’s held for 24 years.

McConnell is ultimately responsible for deciding whether to allow the full Senate to vote on the bill.  In weighing his decision, McConnell is no doubt considering both sides of the argument communicated by Cook and Fitzpatrick.

As most compromises go, the legislation’s actual provisions are relatively modest.  The bill aims to reduce certain mandatory minimum prison sentences created in the 1980s and ’90s during the war on drugs, which are laws that require binding prison terms of a particular length, and designed to promote consistency in punishment.  Critics charge these laws have proven to be inflexible, and, by limiting judge’s discretion to rule on the specifics of a case, have led to unfair punishments for lesser offenders.

“The number one priority of the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act is the promotion of public safety,” Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, a bill sponsor, told The Daily Signal.  “Our criminal justice system is undermined when punishment delivered by the government does not fit the crime.  Our bill better protects the American people by bringing balance back to federal sentencing.”

The bill, for example, would reduce the mandatory prison sentence required for drug offenders with two or more “serious violent felony” or “serious drug felony” convictions from life without parole, to 25 years. The bill’s authors adjusted this provision, and others, so that it does not allow violent offenders from being able to petition a judge for a retroactive early release.  “To say a third-time drug offender gets 25 years instead of life, is that going to impact public safety?” Fitzpatrick said. “Not in my judgment. If you are lucky, you get 75 years on planet Earth.  If you take a third of a person’s life away from him or her, that is not what I would call a slap on the wrist.  In this society, we can survive safely in giving someone 25 to 30 years as opposed to life.”...

Still, for people who view drug trafficking as an inherently violent crime, as Cook does, the reform would reduce the punishment for offenders who have done more than possess and use drugs. “We are not prosecuting drug users in federal court,” Cook said. “This whole notion of low-level nonviolent drug offenders is wrong because that’s not who is coming into federal prison.  We are dealing with dismantling large drug trafficking organizations.”...

According to Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a nonprofit advocating for sentencing reform, 92 percent of the 20,600 federal drug offenders sentenced in fiscal year 2015 did not play a leadership or management role in the offense, and nearly half had little or no prior criminal record.

Even so, Cook contends that prosecutors would lose a major leverage tool with weakened mandatory minimums, making it harder for them to get cooperation from defendants who would help them dismantle drug trafficking organizations.  “It’s absolutely right that it [mandatory minimums] encourage people to cooperate with law enforcement officials and identify others involved in a conspiracy,” Cook said.  “There are strong incentives for offenders to not help us identify other participants, and this is the only tool we’ve got.  These are not easy people to deal with. They understand one thing, and that is how long they will be in prison.”

Fitzpatrick counters that prosecutors still could effectively do their jobs with less severe mandatory minimum sentences.  “There will always be the give and take of plea bargaining and trying to get people to cooperate,” Fitzpatrick said.  “I don’t think this statute undermines that, not when high-level offenders will still get significant prison time.”

May 17, 2016 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Friday, May 13, 2016

Assailing the former drug czars for "their demagoguery" and "fact-free fearmongering"

Earlier this week I posted this commentary arguing against federal statutory sentencing reform headlined "Drug dealing is a violent crime" and authored by William J. Bennett, the director of drug control policy for President George H. W. Bush, and John P. Walters, the director of drug control policy for President George W. Bush. Now I see that Kevin Ring, Vice President of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, has this new Daily Caller commentary in response headlined "Drugs Czars Peddle Fear." Here are excerpts:

Harry Anslinger, the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, once offered his insight into America’s nascent drug problem: “There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the U.S., and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers.  Their Satanic music, jazz and swing, result from marijuana usage.  It’s easy to laugh off Anslinger’s ignorant comments because they were made in another era. But recent claims from two other former drug czars are similarly anachronistic and wrongheaded.

William Bennett and John Walters, who served as drug czars for Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, respectively, wrote in a recent Washington Examiner op-ed, “Considering all that America knows about drug addiction, only the dishonest or willfully blind can claim that drug trafficking is a non-violent crime.”  But who’s being dishonest? After all, words have meanings. “Violent,” for example, means to use physical force to do harm.  Yet Bennett and Walters would like people to believe that Debi Campbell, a drug addict herself who sold drugs to buyers in other states through the mail, was violent.  Campbell’s most violent act was opening an envelope, yet she served 17 years in federal prison. Stephanie Nodd was sentenced to 30 years in federal prison for helping a friend sell drugs for one month. Stephanie was just 23 years old and had never lifted a finger against any person. Neither Campbell nor Nodd could by any conceivable measure be considered “violent” criminals.  Bennett and Walters don’t want you to know they exist. But they do, and there are thousands more just like them.

Indeed, the U.S. Sentencing Commission found that of the 22,000 federal drug offenders sentenced in fiscal 2104, only 142 — or 0.7 percent — used actual violence or threats of violence. 84 percent neither used nor had a weapon during the commission of their offense.  And while Bennett and Walters are correct that most federal drug offenders are not college kids who were caught smoking a joint, they mislead readers when they describe them as “experienced traffickers.”  Nine out of ten federal drug offenders played no leadership or management role.  Many sold drugs solely for the purpose of feeding their own addiction.  Again, words mean things.  Pretending every drug sale is by definition an act of “violent victimization” is simply false....

One wonders if Bennett and Walters realize how increasingly out of step they are with conservatives across the country. Conservative governors and state lawmakers are utilizing evidence-based solutions to reduce crime and bloated prison budgets, a win-win situation for taxpayers.  Many conservatives in Washington, including Senators Ted Cruz (R-TX), Mike Lee (R-UT), and Jeff Flake (R-AZ) support sentencing reform. Cruz has written, “Harsh mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug crimes have contributed to prison overpopulation and are both unfair and ineffective relative to the public expense and human costs of years-long incarceration.”

But, the old drug czars say, “The cost of incarcerating drug dealers is small compared to the true cost of their crimes to society.” Even if that’s true, it’s irrelevant. The choice before Congress is not between incarcerating drug offenders and doing nothing. The more important question is whether sentencing flexibility for drug crimes can more effectively reduce recidivism — and at less cost to taxpayers — than harsh mandatory minimums.  The indisputable answer, based on decades of states’ experiences, is yes.

Refusing to let any tragedy go to waste, Bennett and Walters suggest that the frightening increase in heroin overdoses is further evidence of the need for tough drug sentencing laws.  What they fail to mention is that heroin dealers are already subject to stiff mandatory minimum sentences and have been for the past 30 years.  This heroin epidemic is occurring under the regime Bennett and Walters helped to create.  If that were not damning enough to their case, consider that the rate of illegal drug use by teenagers is the same today as it was when Bennett quit as drug czar in 1988.

I know that Bennett and Walters are genuinely concerned about making the country safer.  And I agree with them that drug dealing is reprehensible and deserving of swift and certain punishment.  Too often, however, their demagoguery appears calculated to exploit the public’s fears about safety the way Harry Anslinger exploited its racial prejudices decades ago.  Conservatives interested in reducing crime and drug abuse should ignore fact-free fearmongering and support reforms that are rooted in science, evidence, and experience.

Prior related post:

May 13, 2016 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, May 12, 2016

An effective accounting of why "Sentencing Reform is Seriously Stuck"

The quoted portion of the title of this post is from the headline of this effective new Roll Call commentary authored by David Hawkings, and it carries this astute subheadline "Presidential politics, poison pills and attack ads threaten hopes for bipartisan accord." Here are excerpts:

For more than 18 months, a rewrite of laws governing federal criminal punishments has been touted as the exception that was going to prove the rule: An effort that had so galvanized both conservatives and liberals that it would become one of the few memorable policy achievements of the current Congress.  Well, the rule has held true about the deadlocked-by-polarization Capitol becoming only more so in the sessions before a presidential election. But the exception, by fits and starts, is growing ever less likely to be exceptional.

“Sentencing reform,” as it’s known on the Hill, is seriously stuck.  On the surface, it may not appear that way.  Just offstage, there’s a fundamental impasse that looks as if it can only be broken if one sitde caves in, thereby imperiling the highly unusual bipartisan coalition that has been the issue’s signature feature.

Complicating matters further, there are solid presidential and congressional campaign rationales for a deal, but also political arguments in opposition being at least as forcefully expressed. All this is on clearest display in the Senate, where the legislation looks to be riding a little wave of momentum but may be close to publicly coming off the rails – buffeted by anxieties about Willie Horton on the right and anger at Wall Street greed on the left....

[T]here’s a decent chance the [latest revised sentencing reform] bill will come to the floor this summer, assuming the appropriations process inevitably seizes up and there no longer is the need to devote the Senate’s time to spending bills.

Along the way, the measure is going to face one assault from powerful Republicans determined to kill it outright, and another from Republicans willing to love it to death. Ted Cruz of Texas, who returned to the Capitol this week vowing to press ahead with the combative outsider tone of his presidential campaign, and Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the first senator to endorse de facto GOP nominee Donald Trump, are leading the lambasting of the bill as going way too soft on crime.

A floor debate would give Cruz an opportunity to put his scorched-earth style for opposing legislation back on C-SPAN display.  And though Trump has not taken an explicit position on the bill, his many authoritarian statements suggest he’ll take Sessions’ advice and come out emphatically against it – especially if his likely opponent, Hillary Clinton, who’s become newly critical of “mass incarceration,” decides to endorse the bill. So it’s quite easy to envision law-and-order groups producing 30-second TV spots, evocative of the legendary Willie Horton ad from the 1988 presidential campaign, chiding even the GOP backers of the bill as pro-drug-dealer criminal justice weaklings.

The other big obstacle, which might prove even more problematic, goes by the much nerdier label, mens rea.  That Latin phrase, which translates as “guilty mind,” is law school shorthand for the way prosecutors are sometimes required to prove a defendant’s criminal intent in order to obtain a conviction. Under federal law, many categories of behavior are crimes only when the accused know what they’re doing is wrong and do it anyway – but some actions can bring convictions and imprisonment whether or not there’s any willful criminal intent.

Many influential Republicans, urged on by their business allies and such conservative fundraising forces as the Koch brothers, are eager to apply a blanket mens rea requirement across the federal criminal code.  They say the government has too much power to convict companies and their executives without having to prove any criminal intent. And they are eyeing the sentencing overhaul bill as their best available vehicle for getting the job done.

Lawmakers and activists from the Bernie Sanders wing of the Democratic Party deride this proposal as a thinly veiled effort to deliver a permission slip for more “What, me worry?” sketchy behavior to the same sort of bad actors in the corporate and investment worlds who melted down the economy eight years ago.  These liberal forces, too, have the ability to produce punchy campaign commercials targeting those in Congress who go along.

Even if the bill gets through the Senate without having to swallow the mens rea poison pill, top Republicans in the House are insisting that sentencing legislation will only move if it’s lashed together with their efforts to expand the need to prove criminal intent. The Obama administration argues the opposite, that the only way to sign a bill on sentencing this year is to negotiate protections for unwitting white collar criminals on a separate track.

One again this campaign season, it’s the small clusters of combative voices at the edges that are likely to have more power than any collaborative majority in the middle.

Not only does this piece effectively detail all the ways in which and reasons when the revised SRCA might not make it through the legislative process over the next six month, it also hints at an intriguing and perhaps disconcerting reality that for me has now emerged: GOP Prez front-running Donald Trump is now perhaps the political power-player with the greatest opportunity to "unstick" the SRCA.

If GOP Prez candidate Trump were to make nice to certain key GOP leaders like Paul Ryan and Chuck Grassley and John Cornyn (not to mention key GOP funders like the Koch brothers) by getting seriously and vocally behind the significant sentencing reform efforts by the "establishment right" (with or without mens rea reform), then I would increase my optimism about the odds of these reforms becoming a reality. But if Trump stays mum on this front, or especially if prodded by folks like Jeff Sessions and Chris Christie to oppose any reforms, I think the 2016 campaign dynamics will come to doom reform at least until we get to the lame duck period.

A few 2016 related posts:

May 12, 2016 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Friday, May 06, 2016

Commissioner of U.S. Commission on Civil Rights expresses concerns to Senator Grassley about efforts to reduce federal prison sentences

Kirsanow,PA helpful reader just forwarded to me a fascinating, lengthy letter authored by Peter Kirsanow, a long-serving Commissioner on the US Commission on Civil Rights, expressing concerns about federal sentencing reform efforts.  I recommend everyone following the current debats over federal statutry sentencing reforms to read the full letter, which can be downloaded below.  These extended excerpts from the start and body of the letter (with footnotes removed but emphasis preserved from the original) should help explain why I find it fascinating:

I write as one member of the eight-member U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, and not on behalf of the Commission as a whole. I also write as a person who lives in a high-crime, predominantly African-American neighborhood. The purpose of this letter is to express my concerns about the Sentencing Reform Act of 2015, particularly the various provisions that reduce the length of prison sentences.

Three years ago, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights held a briefing on the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s [EEOC] revised guidance on the use of criminal background checks in hiring. The guidance was motivated by many of the same concerns that seem to underlie the Sentencing Reform Act — primarily that minority men, particularly African-American men, are disproportionately likely to be incarcerated and have criminal records, a concern about burgeoning prison populations, and a sense that as a society we should focus on rehabilitation, not retribution.

During our briefing, witnesses testified about the difficulty ex-convicts face in obtaining employment, a very real and troubling concern. But one would have concluded from the briefing that rehabilitation was the norm for ex-offenders, stymied only by a callous society that refused to give them a second chance.  One also would have thought that ex-offenders were essentially indistinguishable from non-offenders.  Further research revealed this to be far from the truth....

The Sentencing Reform Act is predicated on the belief that rehabilitation is not only possible, but likely.  Yet scholarly literature indicates that a person who has been convicted of multiple offenses is always more likely to offend (again) than is a person who has never offended.  Indeed, even a person who has been arrested only once is always more likely to be arrested than is a never-arrested person....

We can rest assured, then, that a substantial number of released prisoners will re-offend.  Who are their victims likely to be?   It is likely, given the disproportionate presence of AfricanAmerican men in the prison population, that any relaxation of sentencing or early release will disproportionately benefit African-American men.  Indeed, the racial disparity in incarceration is widely acknowledged to be the primary motivation for sentencing reform on the Left, and perhaps in some corners of the Right as well.  Those African-American men will then return to their communities, which are more likely to be predominantly African-American.  It is therefore likely that the victims of those released early will also be disproportionately likely to be black.  This is not surprising — people tend to live in communities predominantly comprised of members of their own racial or ethnic group.  White ex-offenders are therefore likely to victimize other white people. But the drive for sentencing reform is motivated by concern over black offenders, and so it is worth noting that their future victims are also likely to be black.  If we are going to play the disparate impact card, which is much of the impetus behind sentencing reform, we should note that the disparate impact works both ways. Yes, blacks are disproportionately likely to be incarcerated.  But the lives not lost or damaged because of their incapacitation due to incarceration are also disproportionately likely to be black....

There is one other thing I would like to note. Everyone at least tacitly acknowledges that much of the political pressure behind this bill is animated by a sense of racial grievance — that African-American men are incarcerated at higher rates than their presence in the population. Yet one of the reasons why we have some of these stiff sentences is because when crime was rampant, African-Americans protested the violence visited upon their communities and asked the government to get tougher on crime.  If we relax sentencing, there is a very good chance that crime will go up, it will disproportionately go up in African-American communities, and then some of the same people who are presently supporting sentencing leniency will be demanding harsher penalties because of the increasing crime in their communities; and, if recent history is a guide, they will claim the increase is due to racially discriminatory policies.

Download Letter re Sentencing Reform Act May 5 2016

May 6, 2016 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Extended commentary assails prosecutorial power enabled by federal mandatory minimums

Amos Irwin, who serves as Chief of Staff at the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation (CJPF), has this lengthy new Huffington Post commentary headlined "The Laws that Betrayed Their Makers: Why Mandatory Minimums Still Exist."  Here are excerpts that highlight some of its main themes:

[R]ather than serving Congress’s purpose, federal mandatory minimum drug laws actually function as a prosecutor’s tool of interrogation. Since the same prosecutors who select the charges are also trying to extract information, they threaten defendants with wildly disproportionate mandatory minimums in order to force them to cooperate. They are open about this practice. The President of the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys protested in July that if Congress reduces mandatory minimums, “prosecutors would lose a tool to extract information.”

They omit the fact that mandatory minimums are primarily useful for extracting information from the low-level offenders.... There are two problems with threatening long sentences to extract cooperation from low-level drug offenders.  First, this strategy is ineffective in impacting the drug trade. Second, it inflicts immense collateral damage on innocent people and low-level offenders, while letting the guiltiest offenders off more easily — the opposite of what Congress intended...

Federal appeals courts have explicitly approved of prosecutors threatening defendants’ wives with charges that are rarely prosecuted, solely to force the defendants to cooperate. Federal appeals courts have explicitly approved of prosecutors threatening defendants’ wives with charges that are rarely prosecuted, solely to force the defendants to cooperate.  Why would federal prosecutors threaten family members, knowing that they might have to follow through on those threats?  Prosecutors see that the War on Drugs is not working, and many conclude that they need to fight the enemy more aggressively.

May 4, 2016 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, May 02, 2016

Reviewing the type of federal drug case that the SRCA should most impact

Mandatory_minimums_1abe826ceaaedee05283c916fe4b2585.nbcnews-ux-600-480This lengthy new NBC news piece, headlined "As Drug Sentencing Debate Rages, 'Ridiculous' Sentences Persist," focuses on one notable federal drug defendant subject to a notable federal drug mandatory minimum that could be impacted by federal statutory sentencing reform. Here are excerpts:

When he was an addict and petty criminal, Leo Guthmiller knew little, and cared less, about the federal government's harsh drug sentencing laws. The worst he'd endured was 90 days at the county lockup in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Then, last April, nearly two years after he'd stopped popping painkillers and smoking methamphetamine, Guthmiller was arrested by two federal agents as he headed for a drug counseling session. He later learned why: a junkie and his girlfriend, facing stiff prison sentences, had told investigators that Guthmiller had introduced them to his meth dealer around the time he was getting sober. That made him the middleman in a street-level drug distribution scheme.

Because this was a federal case, and the amount of meth exceeded 500 grams, or 1.1 pounds, Guthmiller was suddenly facing at least 10 years behind bars as a co-conspirator.... The charge thrust him, unwittingly, into a raging debate over a pillar of America's war on drugs: mandatory-minimum sentences. Intended to sideline high-level traffickers, the laws have been used to sweep thousands of nonviolent, small-time offenders into epic prison terms....

Guthmiller didn't dispute the couple's accusation. But he bristled at the government's portrayal of him as a scheming operative. Besides, he was a changed man: sober, working, studying for his GED, leading AA meetings, completing a drug court program, newly married. Still, he pleaded guilty, unwilling to risk a trial that could end in an even longer prison term. "I'm not an innocent person, but at the same time this is all a bit much, I feel," Guthmiller told NBC News.

At his sentencing in mid-February, U.S. District Court Judge John Gerrard agreed. He praised Guthmiller's turnaround, but said federal drug statutes gave him no choice. He called the case "Exhibit A" on why Congress needed to pass The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, which would give judges more flexibility. "A 10-year mandatory minimum sentence in a case like this is absolutely ridiculous," Gerrard said from the bench. "And the only reason I am imposing the sentence that I am imposing today is because I have to."...

The judge's remarks caught the attention of the Washington, D.C., advocacy group Families Against Mandatory Minimums. As he prepared to spend the next decade behind bars, Guthmiller found himself cast as a case study in America's unforgiving drug laws. "The whole idea is these 10-year sentences were written by Congress to go after serious drug offenders, and they're being applied to a guy who is home and is going to drive himself to prison," said Kevin Ring, the group's vice president. "He obviously isn't this major criminal that everyone should be so scared of."

This is a key point in the drug-law reform effort, which has inspired an unlikely alliance among Democrats and Republicans, many of whom gathered at the White House last week to discuss their campaign. Mandatory minimum sentences, toughened during 1980s crime panics, established criteria under which judges had to impose lengthy prison terms for drug trafficking. The penalties depended on the type of drug, the amount of it, the offender's criminal history and the nature of the crime — including whether the offense involved violence, weapons or children. The new laws triggered an explosion in the U.S. prison population, contributing to a dramatic decline in crime rates but also costing taxpayers millions.

That cost-benefit balance has since tipped. Researchers now say that mass incarceration's impact on the crime rate has ebbed. Studies show that the likelihood of punishment, rather than the length of a prison sentence, is more likely to deter criminals. And there are now millions of nonviolent ex-offenders — a disproportionate number of whom are black — unable to contribute to the economy, including many who return to crime. Reformers argue that the money America spends on prisons would be better used for cops, schools and alternatives to jail, such as probation and drug courts.

In a 2011 report to Congress, the U.S. Sentencing Commission found that mandatory minimums focused too heavily on the amount of drugs and not enough on the offender's role in the trafficking operation. The commission has since loosened some of its guidelines retroactively, allowing thousands of nonviolent, low-level drug offenders to leave prison early. President Barack Obama joined the effort by granting clemency to many others.

Those moves are considered Band-Aids compared to the larger fix offered by the Sentencing Reform Act, legislation that would allow judges to impose shorter prison terms for bit players. But the bipartisan bill is bogged down by election-year politics. The Justice Department, meanwhile, has tried to change the system from within, ordering federal prosecutors to focus on high-level dealers. It appears to be working: the number of mandatory-minimum cases has dropped to 45 percent of all federal drug cases, down from 66.8 percent in 2007.

John Higgins, chief of the narcotics unit at the U.S. Attorney's Office in Nebraska, said in a statement that his prosecutors followed the Justice Department's advice, seeking mandatory minimums "only in those cases that warrant it." That included Guthmiller's, he said. He declined to go into detail, but pointed to court hearings in which prosecutors alleged that Guthmiller's 2013 matchmaking between the dealer and the couple led to the sale of 15-pounds of meth. "Methamphetamine is the number one drug threat in Nebraska," Higgins said.

May 2, 2016 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)