Tuesday, July 10, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 06, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 18, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, June 01, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some of many prior related posts:

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

Sunday, May 27, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some of many prior related posts:

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

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

Sunday, May 06, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few of many prior related posts:

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

Friday, April 27, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few of many prior related posts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 26, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few of many prior related posts:

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

Monday, April 23, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, March 16, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prior related posts:

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

Thursday, March 15, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few prior related posts:

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

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, February 15, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few prior related posts:

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

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

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few prior related posts:

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

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

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few prior related posts:

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

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

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

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

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Highlighting how mandatory minimums can distort pretrial procedures and practices

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Sec. 108. Inventory of Federal criminal offenses.

Sec. 109. Fentanyl.

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

Sec. 202. Recidivism reduction programming and productive activities.

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

Sec. 207. Promoting successful reentry.

Sec. 208. Parole for juveniles.

Sec. 209. Compassionate release initiative.  

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

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

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

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, January 28, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few of many prior related posts:

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

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, January 09, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, January 07, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 31, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 18, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 17, 2017

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

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

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

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

Issue 1: Statutory mandatory minimum sentences are unconstitutional.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Download 2017.06.27 Lavinsky- Answering Brief

December 17, 2017 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (5)

Thursday, November 30, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 26, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Review and modernize sentencing practices and policies.

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

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

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

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

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

The SAFE Justice Act will:

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

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

Additional information about the SAFE Justice Act:

Prior related post from June 2015:

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

Monday, November 06, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

Download LE Groups Ltr re S 1917 Nov02-2017

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

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 27, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

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

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

Summary

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

Key Findings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Resolving Judicial Dilemmas"

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 08, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few prior related posts:

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

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Five notable GOP Senators introduce Mens Rea Reform Act of 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some recent and older related posts:

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

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prior related post:

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

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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