Friday, May 08, 2015

Senator Grassley's home-state paper tells him to stop blocking federal sentencing reforms

This new editorial from the Des Moines Register, headlined "Grassley should not block sentencing reforms," highlights that some notable folks are frustrated by Senator Charles Grassley's apparent unwillingness to move forward significantly with federal sentencing reforms proposed by his colleagues. Here are excerpts:

Amid hysteria over growing use of illegal drugs 30 years ago, Congress passed tough new criminal laws carrying long mandatory prison sentences. Regardless of whether mandatory sentences had any effect on drug abuse, they have contributed to a 500 percent increase in the federal prison population and a 600 percent increase in federal prison spending.

Besides filling prisons and imprisoning a generation of largely minority males from inner cities, these one-size-fits-all sentences tie the hands of judges who should tailor penalties to the unique circumstances of individual defendants.  And this obsession with criminalizing drug use has diverted resources that instead should be used to help people overcome their addictions.

Something extraordinary has happened recently, however: A consensus has emerged that this nation has put far too many people behind bars, and in the process it has created an unemployable underclass with criminal records.  That consensus includes a remarkable cross-section of politicians from both ends of the political spectrum, along with religious leaders, corporate executives and opinion leaders.

While there is growing bipartisan support in Congress for changing the mandatory-minimum sentencing law, one potential stumbling block remains stubbornly in place: U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley, who as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee is in a position to allow federal sentencing reforms to move forward.

Grassley’s rhetoric has not encouraged optimism.  He was dismissive and defensive when a “Smarter Sentencing Act” was introduced in March with the support of senators ranging from Republicans Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky to Democrats Dick Durban of Illinois and Patrick Leahy of Vermont.  He referred to supporters of the sentencing reform bill in a floor speech as the “leniency industrial complex.”

Although he recently seemed to soften his tone, saying he is “ready to address some of these issues,” Grassley has ruled out any across-the-board cut in mandatory minimum sentences.  Three Iowa bishops in a guest opinion published by the Register May 1 called on him to support sentencing reform, but he promptly responded with an opinion piece that amounted to a full-throated defense of mandatory minimum sentences.

The argument in favor of mandatory sentences is that the prospect of spending decades in prison gives prosecutors leverage to get lower-tiered dealers to produce evidence against “drug kingpins.”  But this gives prosecutors enormous power to force defendants to plead guilty, and with no prior involvement of a judge in open court.

Despite the assertion that mandatory sentences are aimed at putting away drug lords, “offenders most often subject to mandatory minimum penalties at the time of sentencing were street-level dealers — many levels down from kingpins and organizers,” according to research by the U.S. Sentencing Commission....

This nation’s war on drugs focused on criminal punishment instead of treatment has been a complete failure.  At long last there is growing support for changing that.  Iowa’s senior senator should not stand in the way.

Some recent related posts:

May 8, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Imprisonment for 15 years for sex on the beach?!?! Really?!?!

ImagesI had heard earlier this week about the Florida couple getting into criminal trouble for having sex in public on a beach, but only this morning have I focused on the reality that, thanks to Florida's severe recidivist sentencing laws, it appears that one of the defendants may have to serve 15 years(!!) in state prison for this crime.  This local story, headlined "Couple found guilty of having sex on Florida beach," explains:

A jury Monday found a couple guilty of having sex on Bradenton Beach after only 15 minutes of deliberation. The convictions carry a maximum prison sentence of 15 years.

Jose Caballero, 40, and Elissa Alvarez, 20, were charged with two counts each of lewd and lascivious behavior for having sex on a public beach on July 20, 2014. Video played in the courtroom during the 1- 1/2-day-long trial showed Alvarez moving on top of Caballero in a sexual manner in broad daylight. Witnesses testified that a 3-year-old girl saw them.

Both Caballero and Alvarez will now have to register as sex offenders.

A sentencing date was not announced, but Assistant State Attorney Anthony Dafonseca said they will pursue a harsher sentence for Caballero than Alvarez, since Alvarez has no prior record and Caballero has been to prison for almost eight years for a cocaine trafficking conviction.

The state will ask for jail time for Alvarez and prison time for Caballero. Dafonseca said due to Caballero being out of prison less than three years before committing another felony, he's looking at serving the maximum time of 15 years. "We gave them a reasonable offer, what we felt was reasonable, and they decided it wasn't something they wanted to accept responsibility for," Dafonseca said. "Despite the video, despite all the witnesses."

Ronald Kurpiers, defense attorney for the couple, said his clients were "devastated," by the verdict. Though Dafonseca hinted that they'd be speaking with the judge about whether or not 15 years was appropriate for Caballero, Kurpiers said the judge would have no discretion. "That's what he'll get," Kurpiers said.

Ed Brodsky, elected state attorney for the 16th judicial district, joined Defonseca in prosecuting the case. When asked why the case was an important one to the state attorney, Dafonseca said it was important that the community knew what wouldn't be tolerated on public beaches. "We're dealing with basically tourists, that came from Brandon and Riverview and West Virginia, and they're here on the beaches of Manatee County, our public beaches," Dafonseca said, referring to the witnesses. "So you want to make sure that this isn't something that just goes by the wayside. And that it is well known to the community, what will be tolerated and what won't be."

Family members who witnessed the act and a Bradenton Beach police officer, as well as Caballero, testified in the case. The defense argued that the two weren't actually having sex, but that Alvarez had been dancing on Caballero or "nudging" him to wake him up. "She wasn't dancing," Dafonseca said during closing arguments. "It's insulting your intelligence to say that she was dancing."

Kurpiers said since the witnesses had not seen genitals or penetration, and neither was visible in the video, either, that saying the two had sex was speculation. "You folks cannot speculate," Kurpiers told the jury. "And in order to say they had intercourse, you would have to speculate."

Brodsky said they weren't calling it the crime of the century, but it was still a violation of Florida law. "Did they try to cuddle, or do it discreetly? Did they go in the water, where people couldn't see?" Brodsky asked the jury. "Did Ms. Alvarez try to drape a towel over herself, or anything? They didn't care."

I do not know Florida sentencing law well enough to know if defendant Caballero is in fact going to have to be sentenced and actually going to have to serve a decade or more in state prison for his misguided dirty dancing on a public beach. This press report makes it sound as though perhaps there may be some means for the sentencing judge to impose a lesser sentencing term, and I think a constitutional challenge based on the Eighth Amendment might also be viable here if state law really does mandate such a severe term in this case.

In addition to wondering whether and how Florida sentencing law may provide the judge with some sentencing discretion in this setting, I especially wonder about the terms of the "reasonable offer" that prosecutors offers to resolve this case via a plea deal. Specifically, I wonder if the offer required either or both defendants to serve significant time incarcerated and required sex offender registration. Especially given all the housing restrictions on registered sex offenders in Florida, that component of any conviction may have led to the defendants being especially eager to try to fight the charges.

May 6, 2015 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Oklahoma Gov signs "safety valve" legislation giving judges more sentencing discretion

As noted in this prior post, a few month ago the Oklahoma House passed by a significant margin a state Justice Safety Valve Act authorizing state judges to give sentences below otherwise-applicable mandatory minimums.  Now, as effectively reported via this FreedomWorks posting, this notable sentencing reform has become law.  The piece is headlined "Oklahoma becomes the latest Republican state to enact meaningful justice reforms," and here are the details (with links from the original).

Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin signed a major bill into law allowing judges to sentence nonviolent offenders below mandatory minimum sentences, a big government, one-size-fits-all policy that costs taxpayers big bucks....

Introduced in February by state Rep. Pam Peterson (R-Tulsa), the Justice Safety Valve Act, HB 1518, is aimed at reducing the rate of incarceration in the Oklahoma, which is among the highest in the United States. The bill allows sentences below mandatory minimums if a judge determines, based on a risk assessment, that a nonviolent offender is not a public safety risk. The bill would allow the state to save much-needed bed space for dangerous criminals.

"Our prison bed space is being taken up with people who don’t need to be there," Peterson told in February. "These people are breaking the law, but I think we’ve gone to the point now where we need that space for violent offenders and are filling it up with too many nonviolent offenders."

"The courts' hands are often tied because of these mandatory minimums," she said. “Longer sentences do not equate to public safety.”

HB 1518 passed both chambers of the Republican-controlled Oklahoma State Legislature with relative ease. The House approved the bill in March by a 76 to 16 vote. The Senate followed suit in late April, passing the bill in a 31 to 13 vote.  Fallin, a Republican, signed the bill on Monday.

In her State of the State address delivered in February, Fallin urged lawmakers to get "smart on crime," offering support for alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent offenders. Incarceration, she explained, actually increases the likelihood that an offender will continue a cycle of crime.

"Personal and community safety remain top priorities, and violent criminals will continue to be incarcerated. But the fact is, one in eleven Oklahomans serve time in prison at some point in their lives. Many of our current inmates are first time, nonviolent offenders with drug abuse and alcohol problems. Many also have mental health issues they need treatment for," said Fallin. "For some of these offenders, long sentences in state penitentiaries increase their likelihood of escalated criminal behavior.

"Oklahoma must ramp up its 'smart on crime' policies, including the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, designed to intervene for low-risk, nonviolent offenders and more readily offer alternatives such as drug-courts, veterans courts and mental health courts," she continued. "Implementation of coordinated 'smart on crime' efforts between state and local governments and tribal nations has demonstrated significant cost savings and improved outcomes for offenders and public safety."...

"It costs the state around $19,000 a year to house an inmate, but only $5,000 a year to send an addict through drug court and on to treatment," Fallin explained. "In addition to being less expensive, it’s also more effective; the recidivism rate for offenders sent to drug court is just one-fourth of the rate for those sent to prison."

The Justice Safety Valve Act will take effect on November 1.

May 5, 2015 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Friday, May 01, 2015

Iowa faith leaders urge Senator Grassley to move forward with drug sentencing reforms

2015-SKO-Website-Flyer-3_12_151Last week, US Senator Charles Grassley spoke at the Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition Forum, and the Faith & Freedom Coalition asserts here that its beliefs are rooted in the view "that the greatness of America lies not in the federal government but in the character of our people — the simple virtues of faith, hard work, marriage, family, personal responsibility, and helping the least among us." If Senator Grassley really shares this view, I would expect him to be significantly moved by this new Des Moines Register op-ed authored by clergy members headlined "Bishops call on Grassley to reform sentencing." Here are excerpts:

As bishops and as Christians, we are called to love and serve all people, share compassion and aid God's most vulnerable children. That is why we were among 130 of Iowa's faith leaders who last week signed a letter [available here] delivered to Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, the leader of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee. The letter advocates for sentencing reforms that affect men and women in federal prison for non-violent drug offenses.

We abhor the damage and death caused by addictive drugs. Too many Iowa families are in pain because of drug addiction, particularly from heroin. We seek to aid these families and the addicted, by supporting broader access to drug treatment, counseling and medical care. Incarceration is not an appropriate treatment for curing drug addiction.

We believe in accountability for the men and women responsible for selling illegal drugs. Those who are addicted themselves and sell drugs to support their habit should also have access to rehabilitative services. Punishment for distributing drugs is necessary; however, where we seek to influence our elected leaders is in how much punishment is justified.

Under federal law, people convicted of drug offenses are subject to strict mandatory minimum sentences based largely on the quantity of drugs possessed by the defendant. Judges have limited discretion to sentence below a mandatory sentence, even when evidence supports doing so.

For example, Mason City native Mandy Martinson received a mandatory 10-year drug sentence in 2004 for her affiliation with a boyfriend who sold marijuana and methamphetamine. She received an additional five years because two firearms were found in their home. At her sentencing hearing, the judge stated that "the evidence demonstrated that [Martinson] was involved due to her drug dependency and her relationship with [her boyfriend] and that she was largely subject to his direction and control. ... Upon obtaining reasonable drug treatment and counseling and in the wake of what she is facing now, the Court does not have any particular concern that Ms. Martinson will commit crimes in the future." Despite the judge's assessment, he had no choice but to sentence her to 15 years in federal prison.

Martinson remains in prison today, but we believe she has been in prison long enough. She is joined by nearly 100,000 people — most of whom are non-violent — serving excessive sentences in federal prisons for drug offenses. We recognize no simple solutions exist when it comes to protecting liberty and public safety, and crime demands accountability. However, a "lock em' up and throw away the key" philosophy actually undermines both of these values. Mandatory minimum sentences do not allow for consideration of an individual's experiences that led them to crime, nor to consider their age, mental capacity, or ability to learn their lesson and redeem themselves....

As many of chaplains and prison ministry volunteers know, prison overcrowding makes it difficult to operate effective faith-based and other rehabilitation programs that are proven to reduce recidivism and make our communities safer. Finally, there is an intangible expense paid by family members, particularly children, who must cope with the pain and burden of having a loved one incarcerated for far too long. Among the saddest of statistics is that some 10 million young people have had a mother or father — or both — spend time behind bars at some point in their lives.

As Iowans, we are privileged to have Senator Grassley hold unique influence in the trajectory of America's sentencing policy. We hope he will use this authority to enact drug sentencing reforms that are more appropriate, will reduce the prison population and take into account the complicated factors that lead people to sell drugs.

In the meantime, we pray for the thousands of Iowans still behind bars, their families and the many thousands more who will be subject to extreme sentencing policies in years to come if lawmakers choose not to act. Those prayers and our advocacy efforts are the best things we can do for them. Now it is time for our elected leaders to do their part.

I strongly share the view that "the greatness of America lies not in the federal government but in the ... people" and that the "virtues of faith, hard work, marriage, family, personal responsibility, and helping the least among us" should inspire the work of all government officials. To that end, if Senator Grassley is truly committed to these virtues, I hope he takes to heart the advice given by these faith leaders to move forward ASAP on "drug sentencing reforms that are more appropriate, will reduce the prison population and take into account the complicated factors that lead people to sell drugs."

Notably, as highlighted in this recent post about recent criminal justice reform essays from GOP leaders, a large number of leading GOP candidates seeking to become president seem to share the view that federal drug sentencing needs to be reformed ASAP.  Senator Ted Cruz, for example, has said this is simply a matter of common sense.  If that is true, I am not sure what Senator Cruz would call Senator Grassley's seemingly steadfast opposition to various drug sentencing reforms proposals that have garner lots of support from lots of different quarters.

Some recent related posts:

May 1, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Religion, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Senator Grassley yet again says he is open to some federal sentencing reforms

As reported in this new Washington Times article, "Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley on Monday said he supported looking into sentencing reform." Here is more of this (not-quite-new) news:

Mr. Grassley, Iowa Republican, has long opposed reducing mandatory minimums, and was seen as a barrier to advancing any sort of sentencing reform legislation while at the committee’s helm. “Over the last several months, I’ve been accused of being a roadblock to sentencing reform. Let me be clear. I have told my colleagues and the White House that I’d like to sit down and talk about how we can move forward,” Mr. Grassley said in prepared remarks Monday, where he laid out his committee’s priorities for the session. “I’m ready to address some of these issues.”

He reiterated that he wasn’t willing to do “an across-the-board cut in mandatory minimums,” but did agree that some should be cut, and perhaps some should be raised, such as for those who commit white-collar crimes. Mr. Grassley also spoke about the need for his committee to look into indigent defendants who are not provided with legal counsel, as the Constitution requires, when they are arrested on misdemeanors and may face jail time....

Mr. Grassley’s stance aligns him with more liberal and libertarian groups, who have long advocated civil justice reforms. In February, Koch Industries, which is led by the billionaire conservative kingmaker Charles Koch, formed a coalition with the Center for American Progress — a bitter adversary on economic and tax issues — to champion proposals to reduce prison populations, reform sentencing guidelines and reduce people’s lapses back into criminal behavior....

The effort has been building traction in Congress with libertarian-leaning republicans such as Utah’s Mike Lee, and Kentucky’s Rand Paul, joining with liberals including Sens. Dick Durbin and Patrick Leahy. Those efforts were expected to face an uphill climb with Mr. Grassley, who took to the Senate floor this year to say the system wasn’t sending a huge uptick of nonviolent drug offenders to prison under lengthy mandatory minimums, and criticized the Senate proposal to change sentencing laws as possibly reducing sentences for terrorists who used drug trafficking to finance terrorism....

Earlier this month, faith leaders in Iowa encouraged Mr. Grassley to embrace the various bipartisan bills in front of him and encouraged reintegration of people returning from prisons and jails. A group of more than 100 pastors, reverends, bishops and other faith leaders suggested in an April 20 letter that Mr. Grassley limit disproportionate sentences “particularly for drug offenses.” “We believe justice can be better served and proportionality restored by lowering penalties,” the letter states. The unnecessarily lengthy incarceration of people with drug offenses has burdened the federal criminal justice system and produced increasing costs that are unsustainable.”

On Monday, Mr. Grassley seemed willing to negotiate — or at least sit down and listen to their concerns. “I told a lot of people that are for sentencing reform that I want to sit down and talk to them,” said Mr. Grassley. “There is some talk going on, I don’t know how far its progressed at this point, at the staff level. But yes, I’m willing to do some legislation in that area.”

Mr. Grassley also said he supported having video cameras in the Supreme Court and wanted to examine the fairness of asset forfeiture by the police and federal law enforcement. In addition, Mr. Grassley plans to introduce a Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act reauthorization bill this week. The bill, he said, has the support of Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on crime and terrorism.

The full speech by Senator Grassley delivered yesterday at the National Press Club Newsmakers News Conference is available at this link. As highlighted in prior posts linked below, these comments from Senator Grassley do not reflect any major change of position, but it does reinforce my belief that any and all persons seriously committed to serious federal sentencing reforms need to figure out just what kinds of reforms Senator Grassley is prepared to support or allow to get to a vote in his critical committee.

April 28, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

"Residual Impact: Resentencing Implications of Johnson v. United States’ Potential Ruling on ACCA’s Constitutionality"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new and timely paper concerning the potential impact of the Supreme Court case re-argued yesterday.  The piece is authored by Leah Litman, and here is the abstract:

This Essay examines the impact a favorable decision in Johnson v. United States could have at the various stages of post-conviction relief for three categories of prisoners -- prisoners whose convictions have not yet become final; prisoners whose convictions have become final but who have not yet filed a petition seeking post-conviction relief; and prisoners whose convictions have become final and who have already filed at least one petition seeking post-conviction relief.  In doing so, it offers a reading of the relevant cases and statutes that permits any defendant sentenced under the Armed Career Criminal Act to obtain relief based on a decision invalidating the residual clause.  It also highlights some under-explored statutes and doctrinal questions that courts will confront as they determine which prisoners should be resentenced in light of Johnson.

April 21, 2015 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Monday, April 20, 2015

Intricate federal criminal law statutory questions on SCOTUS docket this week

Most casual Supreme Court fans are surely looking ahead to next week's oral arguments in the same-sex-marriage and lethal injection cases.  But this week brings two other exciting and intricate cases before SCOTUS for federal criminal justice fans, as these SCOTUSblog brief summarizes reveal: 

Johnson v. US, No. 13-7120: Whether mere possession of a short-barreled shotgun should be treated as a violent felony under the Armed Career Criminal Act [and whether ACCA's residual clause is unconstitutionally vague].

McFadden v. US, No. 14-378: Whether, to convict a defendant of distribution of a controlled substance analogue -- a substance with a chemical structure that is “substantially similar" to a schedule I or II drug and has a “substantially similar” effect on the user (or is believed or represented by the defendant to have such a similar effect) -- the government must prove that the defendant knew that the substance constituted a controlled substance analogue, as held by the Second, Seventh, and Eighth Circuits, but rejected by the Fourth and Fifth Circuits.

Regular readers know that the Johnson case is getting a second argument this week after SCOTUS asked the parties to brief the constitutional issue it raised on its own after the first oral argument. And helpful Rory Little via SCOTUSblog provides these informative new posts with more on what can be expected in this week's arguments:

In addition, Garrett Epps has this extended new Atlantic piece discussing both Johnson and McFadden headlined "Too Vague to Be Constitutional: Two indecipherable criminal laws passed in the 1980s now face scrutiny at the Supreme Court."

April 20, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Canadian Supreme Court declares gun mandatory minimums unconstitutional

A helpful reader alerted me to a notable sentencing ruling from our northern neighbor reported in this press account headlined "Supreme Court quashes mandatory minimum sentences for gun crimes: Court upholds Ontario ruling that struck down mandatory minimum sentences of 3 and 5 years." Here are the basics:

The Supreme Court of Canada dealt the Harper government's tough-on-crime agenda a serious blow Tuesday by striking down a law requiring mandatory minimum sentences for crimes involving prohibited guns. The 6-3 ruling, penned by Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin, said the statute was unconstitutional as it upheld a 2013 Ontario Court of Appeal ruling that labelled the law cruel and unusual.

The ruling said the mandatory minimum sentence could ensnare people with "little or no moral fault" and who pose "little or no danger to the public." It cited as an example a person who inherits a firearm and does not immediately get a license for the weapon. "As the Court of Appeal concluded, there exists a 'cavernous disconnect' between the severity of the licensing-type offence and the mandatory minimum three-year term of imprisonment," McLachlin wrote for the majority.

Justice Minister Peter MacKay said in a statement that the government will review the decision to determine "next steps towards protecting Canadians from gun crime and ensuring that our laws remain responsive."...

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said there is a place for mandatory minimums in certain situations, noting that past Liberal governments have introduced them for "extreme crimes."

"But I think the over-use of them that the Supreme Court has highlighted, by this Conservative government, isn't necessarily doing a service to Canadians, both by not necessarily keeping us that much safer and also wasting large amount of taxpayers dollars on unnecessary court challenges," he told reporters in Oakville.

Keeping Canadians safe is cited by the government as the reason for its tough sentencing laws. McLachlin took aim at that justification in her ruling. "The government has not established that mandatory minimum terms of imprisonment act as a deterrent against gun-related crimes," she wrote. "Empirical evidence suggests that mandatory minimum sentences do not, in fact, deter crimes."

The court was deciding two appeals involving mandatory minimum sentences for gun crimes brought by the Ontario and federal attorneys general. The top court upheld the appeal court's quashing of both the three-year mandatory minimum for a first offence of possessing a loaded prohibited gun, as well as the five-year minimum for a second offence.

The Ontario and federal governments argued that the minimums do not breach the charter protection against cruel and unusual punishment. The new sentencing rules were enacted in 2008 as part of a sweeping omnibus bill introduced by the federal Conservatives.

The full ruling from the Supreme Court of Canada is available at this link.

April 15, 2015 in Gun policy and sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Second Amendment issues, Sentences Reconsidered, Sentencing around the world, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Senator Grassley again expresses interest in talking about federal criminal justice reform

Senator Charles Grassley is right now arguably the most significant and most important player in all on-going debates over federal sentencing and criminal justice reform.  As Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Senator Grassley can (and seems eager to) block the advancement of any and every federal criminal justice reform bill that he does not personally favor.  

Consequently, even if the vast majority of Senators strongly support significant reforms to federal mandatory minimum sentencing provisions or to federal marijuana provisions, Senator Grassley can ensure— at least until 2017, and perhaps after that if the GOP retains control of the Senate — that federal reform bills do not even get a committee hearing, let alone a committee vote.   Indeed, even if the vast majority of 300 million Americans, and even if the vast majority of the 718,215 Iowans who voted for Senator Grassley in 2010, would strongly favor a reform bill, the bill is likely DOA if Senator Grassley himself is not keen on the bill's particulars.  Frustratingly, that is how our democracy now functions.

Bill Otis, whom I believe has Senator Grassley's ear and with whom he shares many sentencing views, predicted after the 2014 election that Senator Grassley's position as Judiciary Chair all but ensured that there would be almost no chance of significant federal sentencing reform until at least 2017.  But this new piece in Roll Call, headlined "Grassley Resistant to Criminal Justice Overhaul, but Says He’s Willing to Talk,"  provides at least of glimmer of hope that this old Senate dog might be open to some new sentencing tricks.  Here is an excerpt:

Grassley has made no bones about his passionate opposition to reducing mandatory minimum prison sentences, as proposed by Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah and Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois in the so-called Smarter Sentencing Act (S 1410). On the floor, Grassley has called rolling back such fixed sentences “dangerous,” “ill-conceived” and “indefensible.” Last year, he tried to gut a version of the bipartisan bill, which the Obama administration backs, with an amendment in committee.

Even so, Grassley told CQ Roll Call that he’s ready to start looking for common ground with the bill’s supporters. What’s been missing, he adds, is an invitation — from Obama, from the senators sponsoring the bill, from their staffs — from anyone willing to start a conversation. “First of all, nobody’s asked me even though for three months, including my speech last week, I said I would be glad to meet people about what we could possibly do because I’m open to some reform,” Grassley says.

Juvenile justice is among his top legislative priorities, and he has said he plans to co-sponsor a bill with Rhode Island Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse to reauthorize the 1974 Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act. That law has not been reauthorized since 2002.

Grassley says he thinks there could be some reductions in mandatory minimums, but at the same time he wants to see increases in minimum sentences in other areas, such as child pornography and white-collar crime. He has also cited the need to prevent abuses in the forfeiture of civil assets, and to ensure that offenders receive fair representation. “It may just be time” to start criminal justice talks, Grassley says.

Long story short: anyone and everyone seriously interested in the passage of federal criminal justice reform anytime soon would be wise to invest considerable time and energy figuring out exactly what Senator Grassley is now willing to talk about.  Notably, as stressed in this prior post, Senator Grassley recently penned a strong commentary extolling the importance of transparency and accountability in the federal criminal justice system, and I urge advocates to highlight for Senator Grassley and others how statutory mandatory minimums and other laws that empower and enhance federal prosecutorial overreaches significantly undermine these important goals.

A few prior related recent posts:

April 14, 2015 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Friday, April 10, 2015

Controversy surrounding California judge who sentenced 19-year-old child rapist way below mandatory minimum 25-year-term

As reported in this lengthy CNN piece, headlined "California judge faces recall try over sentence in child rape case," a judge's decision to impose only a 10-year prison term on a child rapist is causing a big stir in Los Angeles. Here are some of the details:

Three county supervisors in California announced Thursday a campaign to recall a judge who sentenced a man to 10 years in prison -- instead of the state mandatory minimum of 25 years -- for sodomizing a 3-year-old girl who is a relative.

At the center of the controversy is Orange County Judge M. Marc Kelly who, according to transcripts of a February court proceeding, was moved by the plea for leniency by the mother of the defendant. The judge expressed "some real concerns" about the state's minimum sentence of 25 years to life in prison for a child sodomy conviction and about "whether or not the punishment is disproportionate to the defendant's individual culpability in this particular case," according to a transcript of the February proceeding.

"I have not done this before, but I have concerns regarding or not this punishment as prescribed would fall into the arena of cruel and unusual punishment and have constitutional ramifications under the Eighth Amendment," the judge said in February, according to the transcript. "I know this is a very rare situation. It doesn't come up very often."... [An] account of [the April 3] sentencing quoted the judge as saying the mandatory sentence would be appropriate in most circumstances, but "in looking at the facts of ... (the) case, the manner in which this offense was committed is not typical of a predatory, violent brutal sodomy of a child case," Kelly said. The judge noted that the defendant "almost immediately" stopped and "realized the wrongfulness of his act," according to the newspaper.

"Although serious and despicable, this does not compare to a situation where a pedophilic child predator preys on an innocent child," the judge said, according to the newspaper. "There was no violence or callous disregard for (the victim's) well-being."

Three Orange County supervisors held a press conference Thursday to announce the campaign to collect 90,829 signatures needed to hold a recall election of Kelly. They were Orange County Board of Supervisors Chairman Todd Spitzer, County Supervisor and Vice Chairwoman Lisa Bartlett and Supervisor Shawn Nelson. ...

Spitzer said he was responding to "a huge community outcry" against the judge's sentence and his comments from the bench. "We as a community spoke on behalf of the victim today, the 3-year-old child," Spitzer said. "If it was a stranger, the mom would have thrown the book at the guy. The family cares about the perpetrator. It's a family member," Spitzer said. "The victim is related to the perpetrator, and that is what is so difficult here."

But Spitzer said the judge didn't follow state law. "We don't want a judge that legislates from the bench," Spitzer said. "It's just unfathomable that the judge would try to describe what is a brutal sodomy," Spitzer added. "Sodomy of a 3-year-old child is a brutal, violent act in itself."...

Orange County District Tony Rackauckas has called the sentence "illegal," and his office will appeal it, said his chief of staff, Susan Kang Schroeder. "We believe that his decision, his sentencing was illegal because there was a mandatory minimum set up by statute by the legislature," Schroeder said. "We're doing what the people of Orange County have asked us to do. We're going to fight through the courts."...

The June crime occurred in the garage of the family home in Santa Ana, where the defendant, then 19, was playing video games, prosecutors said. CNN is not identifying any family members so the victim can remain anonymous. The defendant also made the victim touch his penis, and he covered the girl's mouth while the mother called out to her, prosecutors said....

"As a 19-year-old, defendant appears to be mentally immature and sexually inexperienced. It is difficult to explain away defendant's actions, however, as sexual frustration," prosecutors said in court papers. "All things considered, defendant appeared to be a relatively normal 19-year-old, aside from the crime of which he is convicted." But the defendant "poses a great danger to society and probably will for the majority of his life," prosecutors added.

During the February court proceeding, a statement by the mother was read aloud to the court by her husband, according to the transcript. "While a mother's love is nothing less than unconditional, I am clearly aware of the gravity of my son's actions and the inevitable discipline that he must now confront," the mother's statement said. "It has been not only extremely difficult, but utterly devastating for me and my family to fully come to terms with the events that took place."

The mother said she hadn't had the strength or courage yet "to directly talk" to her son about the crime, but she said her son "has allowed God into his heart and has committed himself to God's guidance." Her son "is not a bad person," and she asked for forgiveness for his "transgressions and for the opportunity to have a second chance at liberty," the husband told the judge, summarizing his wife's statement.

The judge remarked about the rarity of the mother's plea. "I have never had a situation before like this where a mother is the mother of the victim of the crime and the mother of the defendant who was convicted of the crime," the judge said. "It's very rare in these situations. So I know it must be very difficult for you."

Defense attorney Erfan Puthawala said his client never denied his responsibility "for the heinous act he committed" and, in fact, cooperated with investigators. "He made a statement essentially incriminating himself, which he did not have to do," the attorney said.

"He expressed remorse for the actions he took and the mistake he made. He understands that a momentary lapse has had lifelong ramifications for his sister the victim, for his family, and for himself," Puthawala added. "It is important to note that (my client) is not a pedophile, he is not a sexual deviant, he is not a sexually violent predator, and he poses a low risk of recidivism." Those findings came from an independently appointed psychologist who wrote a report to assist the judge in sentencing, Puthawala said.

Intriguingly, the judge at the center of this controversial sentencing was a senior local prosecutors for more than a decade before he became a member of the state judiciary. Perhaps because of that history, this judge perhaps though the prosecutor who charged this case likely had some discretion not to charge an offense that carried a 25-year mandatory minimum and thus perhaps he thought he should have some discretion not to sentence based on the mandatory minimum. Based on this case description, too, I wonder if this judge found that some of the Eighth Amendment themes stressed by the Supreme Court in Graham and Miller had some applicability in this setting because the defendant was only 19.

April 10, 2015 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Saturday, April 04, 2015

In praise of Senator Charles Grassley's advocacy for criminal justice transparency and accountability (and his one blind spot)

GrassleyWith respect to sentencing policy and procedure, I frequently disagree with the current Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Charles Grassley.  But on the topic of federal court transparency, I surmise that Senator Grassley and I have very similar views as evidence by this new National Law Journal op-ed penned by the Senator.  The piece is headlined "Legislation Allowing Cameras in the Courtroom More Important Than Ever, and here are excerpts:

In [the Boston Bombing] high-profile case and countless others, the mechanics of our criminal justice system work day in and day out to provide equal justice under the law.  Before a jury of peers, prosecutors make the government's case on behalf of the people, and the defense works to give the accused a fair trial.  America's system of justice, including our bedrock constitutional principles guaranteeing due process, a fair and speedy trial, and the right to counsel, is a tangible right of citizenship that too often goes unnoticed. That's because a majority of Americans aren't able to look under the hood to see it — at least not in federal courts, which ban cameras from their courtrooms.

The federal trial in Boston carries significant public interest.  And yet, the ban on cameras disallows the public to bear witness to the public proceeding.  Courtroom sketches and tweets from reporters arguably don't do justice for most people, especially those who have a keen interest to see justice served.

In this day and age when the American public is hard-wired to access what they want to see, when they want to see it, it's hard to square the injustice of essentially banning broad civic engagement from our judicial system by banning cameras from the federal courtroom.

Blockbuster trials certainly ­generate a lot of attention.  They renew ­interest in something I've been working to achieve for nearly two decades.  And that is to unlock the federal courtroom door to cameras.  As a co-equal branch of the federal government, the federal judiciary serves a fundamental function in our ­system of self-government.  It alone interprets the constitutionality of laws passed by Congress and managed by the executive branch.  Although removed from electoral politics by constitutional design, the federal judiciary and Article III judges are not part of a royal class or monarchy.  The federal judiciary is the custodian of constitutional rights and providing equal justice under the law. If anything, the federal judiciary ought to be the first to throw open the shutters to bring this extraordinary branch of government to life for ordinary Americans.

As a longtime crusader for more transparency, I've worked to spread sunshine through the halls of the federal government.  Transparency, and the accountability that comes with it, renews credibility in our institutions of government and strengthens our free and open society.  The same goes for civic engagement.  Allowing courtroom proceedings to be broadcast would give more citizens an opportunity to develop a better appreciation for the federal judiciary and how the wheels of justice serve the public good.

With very few exceptions, the public's business ought to be public.  Period.  My leadership on this issue has prompted a few steps in the right direction, such as the adoption of pilot programs to allow cameras into some federal courts.  The most recent program was launched in 2011 and includes 14 federal trial courts.  So far, the sky has not fallen and the program will wrap up this summer.  The courts will report back to Congress next year.

Each of the 50 states allows some level of camera access in their courtrooms.  As far as I know, the recording and broadcasting of state trials haven't turned the carriage of justice into a pumpkin.  To me, it's a miscarriage of justice that the 20th century courtroom camera ban still exists in the 21st century at the federal level....

[M]y bipartisan bill would allow the presiding judge discretion to protect the privacy of witnesses and private conversations among clients, lawyers and the judge.  It prohibits the televising of jurors and includes measures to protect due process rights.  The bipartisan verdict on this issue exceeds reasonable doubt. Allowing cameras into the federal courtroom would foster better civic engagement with our courts of law and, ultimately, strengthen the court of public opinion about the integrity of our judicial system in American society.

The burden of proof is clear.  It's time to lift this arbitrary barrier to transparency.  Let's end the camera ban and raise the bar on good government.

I could not agree more strongly with this forceful assertion by Senator Grassley: "With very few exceptions, the public's business ought to be public. Period."  Now I just wish Senator Grassley would come to understand that his righteous commitment to transparency and accountability in the federal criminal justice system is deeply undermined by his steadfast support for federal mandatory minimum sentencing statutes and the extraordinary hidden power they place in the hands of unelected federal prosecutors.

Existing federal mandatory minimum statutes enable federal prosecutors to make profoundly consequential sentencing decision behind closed doors without any explanation, transparency or accountability. The US Sentencing Commission and others have frequently documented the profound sentencing impact of the hidden charging and bargaining decisions made by federal prosecutors using mandatory minimum sentencing provision.  It is near impossible to even know what decisions are being made by prosecutors in the use of mandatory minimum sentencing provisions, let alone to assess effectively the legitimacy of the factors employed by prosecutors in their charging and bargaining decisions, because prosecutors need never explain or justify these sentencing decisions in any way.

My general disaffinity for federal mandatory minimum sentencing statutes is deeply based in my strong belief that "the public's business ought to be public."  Because it seems Senator Grassley is truly and deeply committed to the values of transparency and accountability in the federal criminal justice system, I hope he will at some point come to understand how his support for federal mandatory minimums problematically disserve these critical values.

April 4, 2015 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (13) | TrackBack

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Justices Kennedy and Breyer urge Congress to reform "broken" federal criminal justice system

BreyerKennedyHearing-638x362This new ThinkProgress piece, headlined "Supreme Court Justices Implore Congress To Reform The Criminal Justice System — ‘It’s Not Humane’," effectively reports on the notable comments made about criminal justice reform by two Justices who were testifying before Congress on budget issues yesterday. Here are some of the details:

The prisons are one of the most misunderstood institutions of government. Solitary confinement drives individuals insane. And mandatory minimum sentences are a bad idea. These were the assertions of U.S. Supreme Court Justices Anthony Kennedy and Stephen Breyer in testimony before a House Appropriations subcommittee Monday afternoon.

Asked by Rep. Steve Womack (R-AR) about United States “capacity to deal with people with our current prison and jail overcrowding,” each justice gave an impassioned response in turn, calling on Congress to make things better. “In many respects, I think it’s broken,” Kennedy said of the corrections system. He lamented lawyer ignorance on this phase of the justice system:

I think, Mr. Chairman, that the corrections system is one of the most overlooked, misunderstood institutions we have in our entire government. In law school, I never heard about corrections. Lawyers are fascinated with the guilt/innocence adjudication process. Once the adjudication process is over, we have no interest in corrections. doctors know more about the corrections system and psychiatrists than we do. Nobody looks at it. California, my home state, had 187,000 people in jail at a cost of over $30,000 a prisoner. compare the amount they gave to school children, it was about $3,500 a year. Now, this is 24-hour care and so this is apples and oranges in a way. And this idea of total incarceration just isn’t working. and it’s not humane.

Kennedy, traditionally considered the swing vote among the current set of justices, recalled a recent case before the U.S. Supreme Court in which the defendant had been in solitary confinement for 25 years, and “lost his mind.”

“Solitary confinement literally drives men mad,” he said. He pointed out that European countries group difficult prisoners in cells of three or four where they have human contact, which “seems to work much better.” He added that “we haven’t given nearly the study, nearly enough thought, nearly enough investigative resources to looking at our correction system.”

Kennedy’s comments come just weeks after a federal review of U.S. solitary confinement policy also found that the United States holds more inmates in solitary confinement than any other developed nation. Confinement typically involves isolation in an often windowless cell with a steel door for 23 hours a day, with almost no human contact. The treatment has been found to have a psychological impact in as many as a few days, though, as Justice Kennedy pointed out, many are held for decades. In the wake of the new report, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) called upon the Federal Bureau of Prisons to alter its practices.

In his response, Breyer honed in on Womack’s use of the word “priorities” to suggest that prioritizing long prison sentences was not the best use of resources. “Do you want to have mandatory minimums? I’ve said publicly many times that i think that’s a terrible idea,” Breyer said. “And I’ve given reasons, which I’ll spare you.”

“Is it worth your time on earth, or mine, to try to work out ways of prioritizing? I think it is,” Breyer said. “I think it is a big problem for the country. and so I can’t do anything more in the next minute or 30 seconds other than say I like the word prioritize. I hope you follow it up. And I hope do you examine the variety of ways that there of trying to prioritize and then work out one that’s pretty good.”

As far back as 1998, Breyer has called for the abolition of mandatory minimum sentences, which mandate minimum prison terms by law according to the crime, amount of drugs, or other factors, and give judges no discretion to lower those sentences. He has said they “set back the cause of justice” because they don’t allow for exceptions depending on the circumstances of a given case. Particularly for drug crimes, they have sent low-level drug offenders to prison for sentences that start at 5 or 10 years and quickly ratchet up from there.

This Wall Street Journal article, headlined "Two Supreme Court Justices Say Criminal-Justice System Isn’t Working: Justice Breyer says mandatory minimum sentences are 'a terrible idea'," provides some more notable quotes from the Justices.

March 24, 2015 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Might a President Ted Cruz champion "common sense" mandatory minimum sentencing reform?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this political news from Houston: "Ted Cruz to announce presidential bid Monday."  Here are highlights about Senator Cruz's plans:

Senior advisers say Cruz will run as an unabashed conservative eager to mobilize like-minded voters who cannot stomach the choice of the "mushy middle" that he has ridiculed on the stump over the past two months in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. "Ted is exactly where most Republican voters are," said Mike Needham, who heads the conservative advocacy group Heritage Action for America. "Most people go to Washington and get co-opted. And Ted clearly is somebody that hasn't been."

For various reasons, I am pleased that Senator Cruz is the first GOP candidate to officially throw his hat into the ring and that he will be running as a "unabashed conservative." As explained in this prior post, this unabashed conservative has stated that he believes a commitment to "fairness" and "justice" and "common sense" calls for passage of the Smarter Sentencing Act and other federal reforms which would help avoid "a world of Le Miserables, where a young man finds his entire future taken away by excessive mandatory minimums.

A few recent and older posts on the modern "conservative politics" of federal sentencing reform:

March 22, 2015 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Sparring over sentencing reform lingo involving the media and Senator Grassley

LogoVia this recent Washington Post piece, I see that Senator Charles Grassley last week delivered this notable floor speech assailing the Smarter Sentencing Act.  Notably, the Post piece, headlined "The Orwellian deception of Chuck Grassley’s 'leniency industrial complex'," attacks some language in Senator Grassley's speech, a speech which itself attacks some language used by advocates of sentencing reform. Here are excerpts from the Post piece:

In a strongly-worded floor speech on Tuesday, Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Ia.) blasted the Smarter Sentencing Act, which is currently before his committee. Grassley accused the bill's bipartisan supporters, including fellow Republicans Ted Cruz, Mike Lee and Rand Paul, of being part of a so-called "leniency industrial complex," a rather colorful turn of phrase.  In the past, he's defined this as "some people in Congress, the public, academia, and the media, who think that sentences that are being imposed on serious criminal offenders are too stringent."  Notice, though, the complete lack of "industry" in Grassley's "industrial complex."

The Smarter Sentencing Act is a fairly modest bill that does not in any way repeal mandatory minimum sentences.  But it does reduce some of them, and it gives federal judges more discretion in how to apply them, particularly ones that apply to nonviolent drug offenders.

That small step toward reform is evidently a bridge too far for Grassley.  He opened his speech with a litany of the dangers and harmful effects of the narcotics trade -- that heroin use is on the rise, that some terrorist groups profit from the drug trade, etc. These facts are hardly in dispute.

The problem is that Grassley believes, contrary to a mountain of evidence, that mandatory minimum sentences are effective tools for combating these problems.... Perhaps the most damning case against mandatory minimum drug sentences is that since they were instituted in the 80s and 90s, the use of illicit drugs has risen and their price has fallen dramatically....

Grassley accuses supporters of the bill of being "Orwellian" in their rhetoric.  In his essay Politics and the English Language, Orwell wrote that "political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness."  There may be no finer example of this than Grassley's use of the term "leniency industrial complex," which would seem to imply the existence of a powerful corporate network that would profit, somehow, from keeping people out of jail....

The only thing Orwellian about the debate over the Smarter Sentencing Act is Grassley's continued insistence that it would cost money, promote crime and benefit an unnamed "industrial complex" -- when in fact it would do the exact opposite.

I share the view that it is silly to speak of a "leniency industrial complex," and there are lots of other linguistic flourishes in Senator Grassley's floor speech that could be extensively picked apart for rhetorical excess and inaccuracy.  But, but the same measure, I understand Senator Grassley's expressed concern with terms like "low-level" and "non-violent" (echoing points previously made here by Bill Otis) because use of these terms in sentencing reform debates are "question-begging" and do involve "sheer cloudy vagueness."  Though I may myself be sometimes guilty of using or repeating these terms, I think a term like "less serious" is a better term that "low-level" (though still vague).  And what can and should qualify as violent or non-violent crime has been such a problem in federal law that the US Sentencing Commission has given up trying to fix this matter and the US Supreme Court might soon blow up a statute for its vagueness in this arena.

Semantic debates aside, the Senator Grassley speech appears most significant for its apparent indication that the mandatory minimum drug sentencing reforms in the Smarter Sentencing Act will not be going anywhere while he is in charge of the Senate Judiciary Committee.  I hope this does not mean all federal sentencing reform is dead, but it does suggest any significant reforms are going to be a long, hard slog.  On a more positive note for would-be reformers, Senator Grassley's latest floor speech indicates that he recognizes "[p]roblems do exist in the criminal justice system," including that "for too many times in America, equality under the law is not a reality [because] the poor do not receive the same justice in many instances."  Perhaps if sentencing reformers can start to emphasize economic inequalities regarding who gets slammed with the toughest sentences, maybe this key Senator will be more open to hearing ideas for reform 

March 17, 2015 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Monday, March 16, 2015

Massachusetts Chief Justice taking on prosecutors concerning drug mandatory minimums

This lengthy local article, headlined "Chief justice: Prosecutors “hold the cards” on sentencing," spotlights a war of words in the Bay State over the impact and import of mandatory minimums for drug offenses. Here are excerpts:

The chief justice of the state’s highest court lashed into the mandatory minimum sentencing of drug offenders on Monday, saying the current set-up needs to be abolished because it is “unfair” to minorities, fails to address the drug epidemic and is a “poor investment” of public funds.

In a sharp rejoinder, Boston’s top prosecutor said Monday that Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph Gants was advocating for a “return to a failed policy” from 30 years ago. When judges had “unfettered” discretion, they exercised it “poorly,” Suffolk District Attorney Dan Conley said.

Conley, who holds an elected position, said he has not seen judges appear at community meetings in response to crime in Dorchester, Mattapan and Roxbury.  “Have you ever seen a judge out there listening to the community? No,” Conley said.  “Maybe they don’t see that as their position, but they’re operating in a vacuum. They don’t understand how drug traffickers and drug dealers and gang members are turning some neighborhoods in our city into very, very violent communities.”...

In a speech to attendees of a criminal justice conference at UMass Boston, Gants, who has emerged as a vocal critic of mandatory minimum sentencing in drug cases, acknowledged prosecutors have concerns about eliminating the mandatory minimums policy. “Now, let’s be honest: When some district attorneys say they fear judicial leniency, they really are saying that they do not want to relinquish to judges the power to impose sentences that minimum mandatory sentences give to prosecutors,” Gants said.  “They would prefer that prosecutors decide what sentence a drug dealer receives.”

Gants, who worked as a federal prosecutor for eight years, said prosecutors are seeking to maintain “leverage” to induce a plea by dropping the mandatory minimum charge. “I understand why they would like to preserve their power to sentence,” he said.  “What card player would agree to surrender the cards that yield a superior hand? For as long as prosecutors, rather than judges, hold the cards that determine sentences, we will not have individualized, evidenced-based sentences and we will not be applying any of the three principles of just and effective sentencing.”

According to Gants, the three principles are considering the circumstances of the crime and the role of the defendant; ensuring that “the sentence should be no greater than necessary to accomplish the first principle”; and crafting a sentence that enables the defendant to “get past the past” and reduce recidivism.

Gants said the judiciary will implement the three principles through a “best practices” committee created by each trial court department with criminal jurisdiction. The committees will have a first draft prepared by Thanksgiving, and Gants is aiming for implementation of the “best practices” by next spring for cases where mandatory minimums don’t apply....

Gants’ remarks were the keynote address at a summit put together by the Massachusetts Criminal Justice Reform Coalition. During one of the panels that followed Gants’ talk, Conley responded to the chief justice, calling himself “the skunk at the garden party” and the “only alternate voice” in the room.

“I hope at the next summit that we have some more alternate voices and more vigorous debate on the efficacy of minimum mandatory sentences and how they’ve impacted our communities,” Conley said.

Conley said the state’s 11 district attorneys exercise their discretion “judiciously and wisely.” “There needs to be consistency across courtrooms, across counties, across regions, and I would argue that the 11 district attorneys, who are responsive to the public, are in the best position to exercise that discretion,” he said.

Out of a population of about 6.75 million residents, Massachusetts has about 1,000 individuals serving mandatory minimum drug sentences, according to Conley. Massachusetts “ought to be held up, frankly, as a beacon of how other states ought to do it,” Conley said. Conley added: “We shouldn’t leave to chance the idea that 400 judges with 400 different views on how defendants who commit drug offenses ought to be sentenced, and give them full and unfettered discretion. It is a recipe for disaster, I believe.”

During Conley’s response, Gants sat a few feet away from the stage with a smile. When Conley walked off the stage, Gants stood up, smiled again and they shook hands. Gants said he has also spoken to prosecutors about his views. “I deal in a court [in] which there are often dissents, so I’m comfortable with disagreement. It’s respectful disagreement, and we’ll keep talking,” he said.

March 16, 2015 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Colson Task Force highlights " biggest driver of growth in the prison population is in federally sentenced drug offenders"

Images (2)As reported in this Crime Report piece, the Charles Colson Federal Corrections Task Force has just released this notable new research brief titled "Drivers of Growth in the Federal Prison Population." Here are excerpts from the document (with emphasis in original):

The federal prison population has grown by 750 percent since 1980, resulting in rapidly increasing expenditures for incarceration and dangerous overcrowding.  In response, Congress created the Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections to examine trends in correctional growth and develop practical, data-driven policy responses.  Following the example of many states that have recently engaged in criminal justice reform, the first step for the Task Force is to understand the underlying drivers of growth in the prison population.

The biggest driver of growth in the prison population is in federally sentenced drug offenders, almost all of whom were convicted of drug trafficking.  In fiscal year (FY) 2013, there were almost 50,000 more drug offenders in federal prisons than there were in FY 1994.  Incarceration for drug offenses disproportionately affects nonwhite offenders: in FY 2013, over 75 percent of all drug offenders in federal prison were black or Hispanic....

The population growth is driven by both the number of people who are admitted to prison for drug crimes every year and the length of their sentences.   In FY 2013, more people were admitted to federal prison for drug crimes than any other crime type, and the average sentence for those entering prison was almost six years.  Every year, about 95 percent of federally sentenced drug offenders receive a term of incarceration as part of their sentence, up from about 76 percent in the year before the passage of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act in 1986, which established mandatory minimum penalties for certain drug offenses.

In particular, length of stay for drug offenders, often dictated by statutory mandatory minimum penalties, has driven most of the recent growth.  Though the number of admissions has remained largely constant over time, the number of drug offenders in federal prison has increased because of people serving longer sentences.

March 11, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Monday, March 09, 2015

"Hey, Grandpa: End Mandatory Minimums!"

The title of this post is the headline of this Daily Beast piece highlighting the generational divide which now impacts the fate and future of some proposed federal sentencing reforms. Here are excerpts:

[A] wave of young conservative leaders has been pushing for a variety of reforms to address problems that, in many cases, disproportionately affect the African-American community. The bad news it that these conservatives have a formidable adversary: Their elders.

When word leaked last month the Smarter Sentencing Act would be reintroduced, Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, 81, wasted little time in going nuclear. “It is a fact that the so-called Smarter Sentencing Act would cut in half the mandatory minimum sentences that Congress put in place for distributing drugs to benefit terrorists or terrorist organizations,” he said. ... Terrorists?!?

The bipartisan Smarter Sentencing Act included Republicans Mike Lee, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Jeff Flake as co-sponsors — hardly the sort to want to help fund terrorists. But this isn’t a new line for Grassley, who is chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and it isn’t clear whether the terrorist line is a sincere (albeit wrongheaded and crank-ish) concern, or merely a way to kill reform....

According to Vikrant Reddy, a senior policy analyst for the conservative Right on Crime, the generational divide — not the partisan divide — is the issue. “It is true that Senator Grassley has expressed skepticism about the Cruz-Lee proposals, but it is also true that Dianne Feinstein voted against last year’s Recidivism Reduction and Public Safety Act," Reddy said. “Senators Grassley and Feinstein have very little in common, but they do share a generation: They are both exactly 81 years old.”

Meanwhile, the loudest voices for criminal justice reform in Congress are members of Generation X: Mike Lee is 43, Ted Cruz is 44, and Cory Booker is 45. But Reddy doesn’t want to bash his elders just for the sport of it. There is, he insists, a perfectly good explanation for the generational divide: Grassley and Feinstein came of age in an era of high crime....

But the violent crime rate has consistently dropped in recent decades, and many reformers believe the pendulum has swung too far. “We may be at the point where high levels of incarceration are themselves ‘criminogenic,’ meaning that they actually cause more crime than they prevent, because extremely lengthy prison stays produce high recidivism rates,” says Reddy.

It would be a mistake to return to the bad old days of being soft on crime, but it would also be foolish to fail to adapt to changing times.  Rather than resting on our laurels, we should continue to tweak and fix problems.  Bipartisan agreement is rare in Washington, and it would be a shame to scuttle one of the few areas where conservative reformers have a real opportunity to do well by doing good.

... And they might have gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for those meddling codgers.

March 9, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Thursday, February 26, 2015

US Sentencing Commission releases report on LWOP sentences in federal system

I am intrigued and pleased to see that today the US Sentencing Commission has released this effective (reader-friendly) new report titled "Life Sentences in the Federal System." The entire 20-page report is a must read for anyone (like me) who fears we pay too much attention to much attention to a handful of death sentences and too little attention to hundreds of LWOP sentences. Here is how this new report gets started:

Life imprisonment sentences are rare in the federal criminal justice system. Virtually all offenders convicted of a federal crime are released from prison eventually and return to society or, in the case of illegal aliens, are deported to their country of origin. Yet in fiscal year 2013 federal judges imposed a sentence of life imprisonment without parole on 153 offenders. Another 168 offenders received a sentence of a specific term of years that was so long it had the practical effect of being a life sentence. Although together these offenders represent only 0.4 percent of all offenders sentenced that year, this type of sentence sets them apart from the rest of the offender population. This report examines life sentences in the federal system and the offenders on whom this punishment is imposed.

There are numerous federal criminal statutes that authorize a life imprisonment sentence to be imposed as the maximum sentence. The most commonly used of these statutes involve drug trafficking, racketeering, and firearms crimes. Additionally, there are at least 45 statutes that require a life sentence to be imposed as the minimum penalty. These mandatory minimum penalties generally are required in cases involving the killing of a federal official or other government employee, piracy, or repeat offenses involving drug trafficking or weapons. In fiscal year 2013, 64 of the 153 offenders who received a sentence of life imprisonment were subject to a mandatory minimum penalty requiring the court to impose that sentence.

February 26, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Passage of Smarter Sentencing Act is reportedly "very important" to Prez Obama

This notable new USA Today piece, headlined "Bipartisan sentencing bill gets White House support," reports that President Obama indicated at a meeting yesterday with congressional leaders that he was interested and eager to have the Smarter Sentencing Act become law. Here are the details:

President Obama is throwing his support behind a bipartisan proposal to change the nation's sentencing laws by cutting many mandatory minimum sentences in half. That commitment came out of a meeting with 16 members of Congress at the White House Tuesday night, called by the president to gather their ideas on how to overhaul the criminal justice system.

Members of Congress who attended said the main topic of conversation was the Smarter Sentencing Act, a bill sponsored by Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, that would reduce mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders.

Obama supported a similar bill in the last Congress, but the current proposal goes even further. Mandatory life sentences would be reduced to 20 years — effectively cutting life sentences in half because the current life sentence averages 40 years.

Another change: Those convicted of importing drugs into the United States would not be eligible for the reduced sentences unless they were merely couriers whose role was limited to transporting or storing drugs or money.

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, who has introduced a companion bill in the Senate, said Obama "focused specifically" on the Smarter Sentencing Act "and his desire to have it passed."

"It was showing us that this is very important to him, and he has the resources of his administration that he's been willing to put out there," Lee told KSL Radio in Salt Lake City Wednesday.

White House spokesman Frank Benenati said Wednesday that the White House is still reviewing the text of the legislation, but that "it certainly appears" that the Labrador proposal meshes with the president's aims to "make our communities safer, treat individuals more justly and allow more efficient use of enforcement resources."

Obama has signaled his support for sentencing changes as recently as Monday, when he praised governors who had signed similar bills at a White House dinner. "Last year was the first time in 40 years that the federal incarceration rate and the crime rate went down at the same time," Obama said. "Let's keep that progress going, and reform our criminal justice system in ways that protect our citizens and serves us all."

Labrador said that's an important point for Obama to make. "The main obstacle is the perception that sentencing reform will lead to more crime. And I think the opposite is true," he said. "The concern is that we want to continue to be tough on crime, but we want to be smart on crime."...

House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., who also attended the meeting with Obama, would not comment on the meeting. He's been cool to sentencing changes in the past, but Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., said he thought Goodlatte seemed "remarkably open" to the issue.

February 25, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Monday, February 23, 2015

SCOTUS denies review for Eighth Amendment challenge to 15-year mandatory minimum sentence for possessing shotgun shells

I am quite bummed, and more than a bit grumpy, that the Supreme Court this morning denied certiorari review via this new order list of the case of Edward Young, who is serving a "mandatory fifteen-year prison sentence for the crime of possessing seven shotgun shells in a drawer."  I am bummed because, as detailed in this post, I helped file an amicus brief in support of Young's Eighth Amendment claim in the Sixth Circuit and also in support of his SCOTUS cert petition.

I am grumpy because the Supreme Court's willingness to deny review in this case, without even requiring the feds to file a brief in opposition and without any noted dissents, highlights yet again that modern Supreme Court Justices remain much more concerned with whether the worst-of-the-worst state murderers might feel some momentary pain while being executed than with whether Congress and federal prosecutors have gone to far in their application of extreme mandatory prison sentencing terms.   In my amicus brief, I had these concluding sentiments about the Young case and its implications:

The essential facts of this case read like a fictional story about a totalitarian dystopian state imagined by the likes of Franz Kafka or George Orwell: after unintentionally coming into possession 18 of a handful of shotgun shells while helping his widowed neighbor — conduct which is not a crime in his home State or in the vast majority of States in our Union — Edward Young was prosecuted by federal officials using a federal law that mandated a sentencing judge to order Mr. Young to spend the next 15 years of his life locked in a cage.  Disconcertingly, this nightmare tale of extreme punishment is not only true, but it has occurred in the United States of America — a country which was supposedly “conceived in liberty,” Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address, and in which school children still recite their commitment to “liberty and justice for all.”  Pledge of Allegiance (codified in Title 4 of the United States Code § 4)....

[I]f Mr. Young’s fifteen-year mandatory federal prison term based on his harmless possession of shotgun shells is allowed to remain in place without further review, this Court would essentially signal to Congress that it very well could constitutionally make even “overtime parking a felony punishable by life imprisonment.” Rummel v. Estelle, 445 U.S. 263, 274 n.11 (1980).

Edward Young can, and I hope will, continue to assail his prosecution and sentencing via a 2255 petition, but such actions are subject to all sorts of additional difficulties (including the absence of a right to counsel).  Moreover, for me this case was not just about how Young's minor crime was treated by the feds, but whether federal judges believe that the Eighth Amendment provides any limit on the mandatory prison terms that could be imposed by federal authorities.  I strongly believe the Framers thought they were doing something about extreme sentences like the one given to Edward Young when they enacted the Eighth Amendment, but it seems no modern federal judges agree with me on this front.  Grrr.

Prior related posts:

February 23, 2015 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (13) | TrackBack

Senators respond to NY Times criticisms of their sentencing work

I noted and commented here last week on this New York Times editorial about on-going debates over proposed federal sentencing reforms.  Today, the New York Times reprints two letters from the Senators whose work was subject to the Times' criticisms under the headline "Sentencing Reform: 3 Senators Speak Out."  Here are excerpts:

JOHN CORNYN & SHELDON WHITEHOUSE:  “The Roadblock to Sentencing Reform” (editorial, Feb. 17) expressed concerns about our legislation to enable federal inmates to earn earlier release from prison if they complete programs proved to reduce the risk that they’ll commit future crimes.

You worry that our “risk assessment” tools could disproportionately help white prisoners over minorities. But states across the country have found that risk assessments typically lead to results that are fairer for all groups, including minorities.  You yourself wrote last year that data­-based risk-assessment tools have been used in “at least 15 states ...with good results” (editorial, Feb. 17, 2014).  And our bill would emphasize “dynamic” risk factors — things prisoners can change — so that all inmates can lower their risk of recidivism....

We agree that we should reform other aspects of our criminal justice system. But no one should minimize the importance of ending the cycle of recidivism, reducing prison costs and helping inmates succeed upon release.


CHUCK GRASSLEY:  I disagree with your editorial.  The reality is that reductions in federal mandatory minimum sentences are misguided.  These sentences are vital in obtaining the cooperation necessary to prosecute leaders in the drug trade. The so-­called Smarter Sentencing Act, sponsored by Senators Mike Lee, Republican of Utah, and Dick Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, would arbitrarily cut in half the mandatory minimum sentences for importing, manufacturing and distributing drugs like heroin, PCP, methamphetamine and cocaine. Enacting such a bill during a well­-documented heroin epidemic would be irresponsible.

Both the Drug Enforcement Administration and the United States attorney in Manhattan have warned that terrorist organizations are using the drug trade to fund their operations. Under Supreme Court rulings, mandatory minimum sentences are the only tool available to Congress to ensure that judges impose adequate and more uniform sentences.

According to the United States Sentencing Commission, unlike in the states, virtually no citizen is in federal prison for drug possession.  Because a “safety valve” eliminates mandatory minimums and lowers sentences for first-time offenders, most federal drug inmates are repeat offenders who did not respond to shorter sentences, and many have extensive criminal histories, including violence.

A few recent related posts on federal sentencing reform:

February 23, 2015 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Friday, February 20, 2015

Can Senator Ted Cruz, who says "Smarter Sentencing Act Is Common Sense," get SSA through Congress?

Long-time readers and most federal sentencing policy gurus know about the long-time discussion of the Smarter Sentencing Act.  The SSA seemingly had lots of bi-partisan support when got through the Senate Judiciary Committee in the last Congress, but the drug warriors helped ensure it did not get any further.

Now we have a new Congress with new leadership in the Senate and, as reported here, a new introduction of a new version of the SSA, the Smarter Sentencing Act of 2015.  In part because new Senate Judiciary Chair Charles Grassley has been a vocal opponent of any significant statutory drug sentencing reform, I am not especially optimistic that the new SSA has a much better chance of passage than the old SSA.  But, as the question in the title of this post highlights, the new SSA appears to have an especially prominent new advocate, as demonstrated by this press release from the office of Senator Ted Cruz tited "Sen. Cruz: Smarter Sentencing Act Is Common Sense." Here is an excerpt from Senator Cruz's remarks last week during the introduction of the new SSA:

The issue that brings us together today is fairness. What brings us together is justice. What brings us together is common sense. This is as diverse and bipartisan array of members of Congress as you will see on any topic and yet we are all unified in saying commonsense reforms need to be enacted to our criminal justice system. Right now today far too many young men, in particular African American young men, find their lives drawn in with the criminal justice system, find themselves subject to sentences of many decades for relatively minor non-violent drug infractions. We’ve seen the impact of these kind of reforms in the states, the states are laboratories of democracy. My home state of Texas implemented similar reforms and from 2005 the state of Texas has seen a 22 percent decrease in crime and a 12 percent decrease in expenditures on criminal justice....

All of us agree, if you have violent criminals, if you have criminals who are using guns, who are using violence, who are dealing drugs to children, the criminal justice system should come down on them like a ton of bricks. But at the same time we need to recognize that young people make mistakes, and we should not live in a world of Le Miserables, where a young man finds his entire future taken away by excessive mandatory minimums.

There surely are issues about which Senator Cruz and I might not always agree (even though were educated around the same time at the same two higher-education institutions). But I completely agree with his view that the Smarter Sentencing Act is a common sense reform seeking to address the real problem that "today far too many young men, in particular African American young men, find their lives drawn in with the criminal justice system [and] find themselves subject to sentences of many decades for relatively minor non-violent drug infractions."

Notably, Senator Cruz in the past has not let GOP establishment figures stop him from being an aggressive and persistent voice for legal reforms he considers important. I am hopeful that Senator Cruz will fight the good fight on the SSA and other sentencing reform measures so as not to let old establishment folks like Senator Grassley keep the SSA and other proposals from coming up for a vote in the Senate.

A few recent and older posts on the "conservative politics" of federal sentencing reform:

February 20, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

AG Holder brags about achievements of DOJ's Smart on Crime initiative

The Department of Justice has just made available these two notable items:

I view both of these documents to be must-reads for any and all sentencing fans, and I will here highlight the data reported by AG Holder in his speech that strike me as most intriguing, as well as the AG's closing policy pitch:

In the year before our Smart on Crime charging policy took effect, roughly 64 percent of federally-charged drug trafficking offenses carried a mandatory minimum sentence. Last year, the new policy brought that number down to approximately 51 percent — a reduction of 20 percent relative to the prior year.  Put another way, we have gone from seeking a mandatory minimum penalty in two out of every three drug trafficking cases, to doing so in one out of two.  That’s a major reduction.  In fact, it is historic.  The Sentencing Commission confirms that these numbers show that federal prosecutors sought mandatory minimum penalties at a lower rate in 2014 than in any other year on record....

Even though mandatory minimums have been charged significantly less frequently under our new policies, the percentage of cases in which we receive substantial cooperation from defendants has remained exactly the same.  This also holds true of the ability of our prosecutors to secure guilty pleas in these cases. In the year before Smart on Crime took effect, our prosecutors won guilty pleas in approximately 97 percent of drug trafficking cases.  A year later, despite significant reductions in our uses of mandatory minimums, this percentage stands at 97.5.  So the notion that the Smart on Crime initiative has somehow robbed us of an essential tool is contradicted not only by our history – but by clear and objective facts....

The work we have done is nothing short of groundbreaking.  But this is no time to rest on our laurels. Significant challenges remain before us.  And a great deal of work remains to be done.

Our prisons are still overcrowded.  Across the country, far too many people remain trapped in cycles of poverty, criminality, and incarceration.  Unwarranted disparities are far too common. Law enforcement is distrusted in far too many places and cops are not appreciated for the tough job they do so well.  And if we hope to build on the record we’ve established so far — and to make the Smart on Crime initiative not only successful, but permanent — it will be incumbent upon all Americans — most especially our Congress — to work together to ensure that all of this is just the beginning. From critical improvements to the juvenile justice system, to a range of back-end criminal justice reforms, we must continue to advance promising, bipartisan legislation to make our communities safer, treat individuals more justly and allow more efficient use of law enforcement resources.

Our efforts over the last six years have laid a strong foundation for a new era of American justice. Congress can help us build on this foundation by passing important, bipartisan legislation like the Smarter Sentencing Act, which would give judges more discretion in determining sentences for people convicted of certain federal drug crimes. And going forward – with measures like this one, and with the tireless work of our United States Attorneys and their colleagues, the strong leadership of our outstanding new Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General, and the robust engagement of the American people – I believe there’s good reason for confidence in where this work will lead us.

February 17, 2015 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

New bipartisan federal prison reform bill introduced (with good chance of passage?)

This article from The Hill, headlined "Senators unveil prison reform bill," reports on the latest iteration of a bipartisan federal criminal justice reform proposal.  Here are the details: 

Two members of the Senate Judiciary Committee are reintroducing a prison reform bill they say will achieve a major goal of criminal justice reformers: reducing the size of the federal inmate population. Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) pushed the Corrections Oversight, Recidivism Reduction, and Eliminating Costs for Taxpayers in Our National System (CORRECTIONS) Act at a press conference Tuesday.

The law is meant to reduce the number of people — currently just over 210,000 — incarcerated in federal prisons.  The package proposed by the two senators takes a more moderate approach to reducing prison populations than other proposals that would implement reductions to mandatory sentences.  It also supports programs that help prisoners avoid returning to crime after being released.

Prisoners would undergo a risk assessment to determine whether they present a low, medium or high risk of committing another offense.  Prisoners determined to have a low or medium risk of offending again would be eligible to earn time off of their sentences by participating in recidivism reduction programs, including drug counseling or vocational training, a release from Whitehouse’s office said.

In total, prisoners can earn 25 percent of their sentence off through the law. The bill, though, prevents certain types of prisoners, like those serving time for sex offenses or terrorism, from benefiting from the law. "We want to go forward with what's passable without subjecting the bill to the kind of Willie Horton-type critique that it might receive,” Whitehouse said of the decision not to have the law cover some types of prisoners....

Cornyn and Whitehouse said they are open to debating additional measures, including changing the mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug crimes. But they touted their measure as a good starting point for a larger conversation about criminal justice. “This is a debate that we welcome,” Cornyn said when asked whether sentencing reform could conceivably be added to the bill. “There's a lot of things we can do to improve our criminal justice system, and there's a lot of it being discussed. Things like mandatory minimums, sentencing reform, over criminalization, particularly of the regulatory environment. There are a lot of things we can do better.”

"Given the new open amendment process in the United States Senate, anybody who's got a good idea and 60 votes — 59 plus theirs — can offer it by way of an amendment," he added.

Whitehouse said that having a criminal justice bill moving through the Senate could buoy other ideas for reforming the criminal justice system.  "I think if this bill proves to be a catalyst for further legislation in the area of sentencing reform and criminal justice reform, John and I would have no objection to that,” he said....

Some, including Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), have been reluctant to support changes to the mandatory sentences. But Grassley recently expressed an openness to having his committee consider the idea in an interview at a conservative event last month.

As the title of this post highlights, I have little idea if this CORRECTIONS Act has a real chance at passage. But I am keeping my fingers crossed.

February 11, 2015 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Monday, February 09, 2015

Briefs seeking SCOTUS review of 15-year mandatory federal sentence for possessing shotgun shells

As regular readers may recall from this post, a few months ago a Sixth Circuit panel rejected an Eighth Amendment challenge brought by Edward Young, who is serving a "mandatory fifteen-year prison sentence for the crime of possessing seven shotgun shells in a drawer."  I helped file an amicus brief on in support of Mr. Young's claim in the Sixth Circuit, and now I have  helped put together another amicus brief in support of his SCOTUS cert petition.  

The SCOTUS cert amicus, which can be downloaded below, makes a number of distinct points based in part on the (little-known) fact that the Supreme Court has never reviewed on the merits a federal term-of-years sentences under modern Eighth Amendment doctrines.  Writing along with Prof Michael J. Zydney Mannheimer, this brief starts and ends this way: 

This Court has never addressed how the Eighth Amendment’s proportionality and procedural safeguards for defendants facing the most serious penalties are to be applied when federal courts consider a challenge to a federal sentence. Both the original meaning of the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause and modern Eighth Amendment jurisprudence reasonably suggest that the proportionality and procedural safeguards in the Eighth Amendment should have a more robust application when federal courts are reviewing federal sentences, especially when a severe sentence significantly conflicts with state punishment norms.

These realities call for this Court to take up Mr. Young’s petition for certiorari and declare unconstitutional his fifteen-year mandatory federal prison term based on his harmless possession of shotgun shells in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1).  The vast majority of U.S. States do not even criminalize possession of shotgun shells by a convicted felon (surely because mere passive possession of ammunition alone is neither inherently dangerous nor a ready instrument of crime absent possession of a firearm).  The handful of States that do criminalize this possession offense treat the crime as a misdemeanor or set a statutory maximum prison sentence for the offense well below the 15- year mandatory minimum federal term Mr. Young received. Moreover, Amici are unaware of any case from any State or locality in which a defendant received any prison sentence of any duration for offense conduct that involved only the harmless possession of a small number of shotgun shells. Legislative enactments and state practices thus provide in this case potent objective evidence of a national consensus against Mr. Young’s federal punishment....

Perhaps a majority of this Court has come now to the view that the Eighth Amendment functionally and formally provides no restrictions whatsoever on how severe Congress may punish adults through prison terms for conduct it deems criminal, and that only structural provisions like the Commerce Clause “impose[] real limits on federal power” and establish “boundaries to what the Federal Government may do” in the exercise of its police powers through the federal criminal justice system.  Alderman v. United States, 562 U.S. ___ (2011) (Thomas, J., dissenting from the denial of certiorari).  But, as explained above, a sounder originalist and modern understanding of the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause is as a constitutional provision that can operate to protect individual Americans from the most extreme application of severe mandatory prison terms for the most minor transgression of federal law.  Indeed, if Mr. Young’s fifteen-year mandatory federal prison term based on his harmless possession of shotgun shells is allowed to remain in place without further review, this Court would essentially signal to Congress that it very well could constitutionally make even “overtime parking a felony punishable by life imprisonment.” Rummel v. Estelle, 445 U.S. 263, 274 n.11 (1980).

  Download Young v US Cert Amicus

Prior related posts:

February 9, 2015 in Examples of "over-punishment", Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Thursday, February 05, 2015

"Could 2015 be the year Congress finally gets serious about criminal-justice reform?"

The title of this post is the subheading of this new Mother Jones piece which carries this main headline: "On These 5 Things, Republicans Actually Might Work With Dems to Do Something Worthwhile." Here are highlights (mostly) from the start and end of the piece:

Recently, bipartisan momentum has been building behind an issue that has historically languished in Congress: criminal-justice reform. Recent Capitol Hill briefings have drawn lawmakers and activists from across the political spectrum—from Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) to Koch Industries general counsel Mark Holden, whose boss, conservative megadonor Charles Koch, has made reform a key philanthropic priority.

The emergence of this unlikely coalition has been building for some time: Liberals have long been critical of the criminal-justice status quo, and many "tough on crime" conservatives — growing concerned by the staggering costs of mass incarceration and the system's impingement on liberty — are beginning to join their liberal and libertarian-minded colleagues. In the past, bills aimed at overhauling the criminal-justice system have stagnated on Capitol Hill, but the bipartisan players who are coming together to push for change means that there are some reforms that could realistically gain traction, even in this divided Congress....

Earned-time credits....

Easing up mandatory minimums....

Juvenile-justice reform....

Reducing recidivism....

Sealing and expunging records....

Despite the bipartisan efforts, many experts still believe that there are plenty of issues that could pose serious obstacles to compromise. Beyond the disagreement on mandatory minimums, there's potential conflict on the role of for-profit prisons, which conservatives praise and Democrats like Booker loathe. Additionally, support for loosening drug penalties — particularly for marijuana — is growing broadly popular, but powerful Republicans remain vocal opponents....

There is one especially powerful force pushing along reform: The federal government is expected to spend nearly $7 billion on prisons this year, and conservatives in charge of Congress will be under pressure to bring down costs. "With every Congress, I'm hopeful for reform," Hurst says. "But this Congress' argument is based on money, not humanity, which is why it's more realistic that it'd happen."

February 5, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

A positive perspective on possible prison reform emerging from Congress

This lengthy new article in The National Journal provides an interesting and informative look at the politics and people at the center of federal sentencing and prison reform discussions. The piece's headlined highlights its themes: "This Is How Justice Reform Can Actually Happen This Year: Chuck Grassley's power will change the dynamics of sentencing reform. But there's still a bipartisan way forward in the Senate." The full piece is a must-read for anyone closely following congressional reform realities, and here is how the article starts:

The rise of Sen. Chuck Grassley to the head of the Judiciary Committee has made a lot criminal-justice reform advocates nervous.

Four months ago, before Republicans took back the Senate, it appeared that reducing mandatory minimums had overcome crucial hurdles.  The Smarter Sentencing Act, which would reduce mandatory minimums for some drug offenders, passed out of committee in January 2014 and attracted a roster of high-profile backers, from former GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan to progressive leader Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. Potential 2016 presidential candidates such as Sens. Rand Paul and Ted Cruz had decried mandatory minimums.  Even President Obama and the Koch brothers, who have spent millions against him, agreed the sentencing requirements had to be reduced.

But, like many conservatives who came to power in an era when Republicans branded themselves as the "tough on crime" party, Grassley has made it clear that he sees the steady reduction in violent crime in the United States over the last 30 years as a direct reflection of more-effective policing strategies.  And he believes that mandatory minimum laws that ensure criminals stay locked up have been key to that progress.

Grassley's posture toward mandatory minimums has given some advocates pause. "I do think we can work with him," Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., a member of the Judiciary Committee, said of Grassley.  "He knows some changes need to be made, but it does influence how far you can go if the chairman stands opposed."

In a Democratic-controlled Congress, many saw a clear path for reducing mandatory minimums.  A handful of vocal GOP supporters have continued to say justice reform should remain a key priority in the new Senate.  But with Grassley in charge, the path forward for criminal-justice reform will likely look very different.

And we may get our first true glimpse of it next week — when GOP Sen. John Cornyn of Texas introduces a rare bill that could actually get through Congress and be signed by the president.  That legislation would be similar to what was known as the Recidivism Reduction and Public Safety Act in the 113th Congress.  That bill was also bipartisan but far less contentious than the Smarter Sentencing Act among the Republican rank-and-file. Even Grassley voted it out of committee last year, where it passed 15 to 2.  Many of the same members are still sitting on the committee with a few GOP additions, including Thom Tillis of North Carolina and David Perdue of Georgia.

The bill next week will focus on transitioning prisoners back into the community after they have served their time. It requires that each inmate undergo a risk assessment to evaluate his or her propensity for recidivism.  Then it allows those deemed medium- and low-risk to earn credits for participating in programs such as job training or substance abuse counseling.  Certain well-behaved and low-risk offenders could then use those credits to serve out the final days of their sentences under some kind of community supervision.

Grassley's office insists that it is early, and no decisions have been made on what bills will make it through the committee.  There is an attorney general to confirm and more on the committee's docket that comes before discussions about far-reaching justice reform.  But, shuffling down the hallways of the Dirksen Senate Office Building in January, Grassley rattled off his top three goals for the committee. "Juvenile-justice reform, patent trolling, and ... prison reform," he said.  "There are some things where there is a pretty good shot of getting some bipartisan agreement."  And, if the Senate GOP's No. 2 introduces the bill, it will make it harder for Grassley to ignore.

February 4, 2015 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

A test for the Kochs' influence: seeking justice and freedom for Weldon Angelos

Download (1)If the wealthy truly have extraordinary influence on modern federal politics and policies, a notable defendant serving a mandatory 55-year sentence as a result of a few small marijuana sales ought to be getting out of prison before too long.  I say this because, according to this Daily Beast piece, my former client Weldon Angelos is now a "poster boy" for the latest Koch-brothers-backed political effort.  This piece is headlined "The New Face of the Koch Campaign" and here is its subheading: "A father of two was sentenced to 55 years in jail for selling pot. The Koch brothers want to help set him free and make him the face of their new campaign for criminal justice reform."  Here are excerpts:

Weldon Angelos could have hijacked a plane and spent less time in jail.  But due to mandatory sentencing laws, the father of two was sentenced to 55 years in jail for selling pot — a term so long even the judge who gave it to him protested its injustice.  A group backed by the Koch brothers agrees, and is now fighting to get him out of prison.

Angelos is an extreme case: even though the crime was considered non-violent, Angelos carried a firearm during a series of marijuana sales to a Salt Lake City police informant —  so federal mandatory minimums required that he be put in jail until he’s 80 years old. Judge Paul Cassell protested the sentence when he was forced to make it in 2004, a move he told The Daily Beast he considers “the most unjust, lengthy sentence that I had to hand down.”...

Angelos is now 35 years old and has spent some 11 years behind bars.  He has more than 40 years left to go.  Even though his crime was non-violent, parole is not an option at the federal level.  His only hope for relief from his sentence is an order by the president.

“If we’re going to deprive someone of liberty, and deal with the high cost of incarceration, it better solve a problem.  And in this case, it doesn’t solve any problem,” argued Mark Osler, Angelos’ lawyer, who filed a clemency petition on his behalf in 2012.

This is where the Koch brothers come in.  The case is being highlighted by Koch-backed group Generation Opportunity, which targets millenials, in a broader campaign to press for criminal justice reforms this year.  They will kick off the campaign with a documentary highlighting Angelos’ predicament, premiering at Washington, D.C.’s Newseum next week. “[This year] offers a unique moment in history in which people of different backgrounds and political leanings are coming together to facilitate a substantive dialogue on how to fix [the criminal justice system],” said Evan Feinberg, the group’s president. “We can work towards a more just system that reflects the rule of law without overcriminalizing non-violent offenses.”

The new campaign will target the overcriminalization of non-violent crime, mandatory minimum laws, and helping criminals who have served their sentences reintegrate into society.  The demilitarization of police and the excesses of civil asset forfeiture will also be addressed.

Generation Opportunity worked with Families Against Mandatory Minimums on the documentary.  FAMM founder Julie Stewart was in the room during Angelos’ first sentencing hearing.  It was, she said, a severe example of a worrisome trend in the criminal justice system....

“A lot of people just thought that because of the amount of time my brother was [sentenced to], he had done something terrible, just because of the ignorance that is out there about mandatory sentencing,” said Lisa Angelos, Weldon’s older sister and advocate. “Before the case, I had no idea that this was possible in America.”  The judge who was forced to hand down the sentence, Paul Cassell, said the Angelos case is an example of “clear injustice marring the public perception” of the federal courts — and victimizing taxpayers who have to pay to keep him locked up.

“We have in place in our country today some very draconian penalties that distort our whole federal sentencing scheme,” Cassell said.  “When people look at a case like Weldon Angelos and see that he got 55 years, and they see other cases where victims have gotten direct physical or psychological injuries and don’t see a similar [result] from the system, they start to wonder if the system is irrational.”

When he was sent to prison, Angelos’ children were small, now both are in their teens. Without their father, the family fell on hard financial times.  His children rarely talk to him, Weldon’s sister says, because they can’t afford a cell phone on which they can be reached.  “When I tell him stories about his kids, you can tell how very hard it is for him to hear it… to know that he can’t be here,” Lisa Angelos said. “It’s destroyed him in many ways.”

The Angelos’ have waited for more than two years for word on their executive clemency request.  The average successful clemency request takes approximately four years, according to his lawyer.  Weldon Angelos deserves clemency, Osler said, because his sentencing “doesn’t correlate in this country with what’s wrong, and what those wrongs deserve.”

Long-time readers are likely familiar with the Angelos case, which came to my attention on a few months after I started this blog 11 years ago. I litigated pro bono, unsuccessfully, Weldon's 2255 motion with claims (that I still find compelling) that his prosecution and sentencing involved violations of the Second, Fifth, Sixth and Eighth Amendments. I continue to hope Weldon will receive clemency or some other form of relief soon not merely to remedy the injustice of his extreme prosecution and sentencing, but to vindicate critical constitutional principles.

Related prior posts providing some Angelos case history:

February 3, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Examples of "over-punishment", Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

SCOTUS unanimously rejects defense effort to limit reach of sentence enhancement in federal robbery statute

The US Supreme Court this morning handed down an impressively short unanimous opinion in Whitfield v. US, No. 13-9026 (S. Ct. Jan. 13, 2015) (available here), which swiftly rejects a bank robber's attempt to limit the reach of a provision of the statute with which he was convicted.  Here is the start of the opinion by Justice Scalia for the Court, as well as a few passages that my most interest sentencing fans:

Federal law establishes enhanced penalties for anyone who “forces any person to accompany him” in the course of committing or fleeing from a bank robbery. 18 U. S. C. §2113(e).  We consider whether this provision applies when a bank robber forces someone to move with him over a short distance....

In an attempt to support his position that “accompany” should be read to mean “accompany over a substantial distance,” Whitfield observes that a forced-accompaniment conviction carries severe penalties: a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years, and a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.  In 1934, a forced-accompaniment conviction could even be punished with death.  Act of May 18, 1934, ch. 304, §3, 48 Stat. 783. The severity of these sentences, Whitfield says, militates against interpreting subsection (e) to capture forced accompaniment occurring over a small distance.

But it does not seem to us that the danger of a forced accompaniment varies with the distance traversed.  Consider, for example, a hostage-taker’s movement of one of his victims a short distance to a window, where she would be exposed to police fire; or his use of the victim as a human shield as he approaches the door.  And even if we thought otherwise, we would have no authority to add a limitation the statute plainly does not contain.  The Congress that wrote this provision may well have had most prominently in mind John Dillinger’s driving off with hostages, but it enacted a provision which goes well beyond that.  It is simply not in accord with English usage to give “accompany” a meaning that covers only large distances.

January 13, 2015 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Saturday, January 10, 2015

SCOTUS orders new briefing and argument on ACCA's constitutionality in Johnson!?!?!

The US Supreme Court on Friday afternoon added a remarkable twist to what had been a small sentencing case, a case which had its (first) SCOTUS oral argument earlier this Term, via this new order:


This case is restored to the calendar for reargument. The parties are directed to file supplemental briefs addressing the following question: "Whether the residual clause in the Armed Career Criminal Act of 1984, 18 U. S. C. §924(e)(2)(B)(ii), is unconstitutionally vague."  The supplemental brief of petitioner is due on or before Wednesday, February 18, 2015.  The supplemental brief of the United States is due on or before Friday, March 20, 2015.  The reply brief, if any, is due on or before Friday, April 10, 2015.  The time to file amicus curiae briefs is as provided for by Rule 37.3(a). The word limits and cover colors for the briefs should correspond to the provisions of Rule 33.1(g) pertaining to briefs on the merits rather than to the provision pertaining to supplemental briefs.  The case will be set for oral argument during the April 2015 argument session.

As some readers likely know, and as Will Baude effectively explains in this new post at The Volokh Conspiracy, "Justice Scalia has been arguing with increasing force that the Act is vague, and the reargument order suggests that there’s a good chance he may finally have convinced his colleagues that he’s right."

This strikes me as huge news, especially because I think any ruling that part of ACCA is unconstitutionally vague would be a substantive constitutional judgment that should get applied retroactively to hundreds (and potentially thousands) of federal prisoners serving mandatory minimum terms of 15 years or more. US Sentencing Commission data suggests that perhaps 5000 or more federal defendants have been sentenced under ACCA over the last decade, though I would guess the majority of these cases did not hinge on the ACCA subprovision that SCOTUS might now find unconstitutional.

January 10, 2015 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Monday, January 05, 2015

"Is Obama Finally Ready To Dial Back The War On Drugs?"

Meme1The title of this post is the headline of this lengthy Forbes piece by Jacob Sullum, which provides preview of sorts of of some of the biggest federal criminal justice issues to keep an eye on in the year to come. The piece merits a full read, and here are excerpts:

Some critics of the war on drugs — a crusade that Obama had declared “an utter failure” in 2004 — predicted that he would improve in his second term.  Safely re­elected, he would not have to worry that looking soft on drugs would cost him votes, and he would finally act on his avowed belief that the war on drugs is unjust and ineffective.  As Obama embarks on the third year of his second term, it looks like the optimists were partially right, although much hinges on what he does during the next two years.  Here are some of the ways in which Obama has begun to deliver on his promises of a more rational, less punitive approach to psychoactive substances:

Marijuana Legalization. Although the federal government cannot stop states from legalizing marijuana, it can make trouble for the ones that do by targeting state­licensed growers and retailers.  Under a policy announced in August 2013, the Justice Department has declined to do so, reserving its resources for cannabis operations that violate state law or implicate “federal law enforcement priorities.”...

Federal Marijuana Ban.... Contrary to the impression left by the president, the executive branch has the authority to reschedule marijuana without new legislation from Congress. In September, a few days before announcing that he planned to step down soon, Holder said whether marijuana belongs in the same category as heroin is “certainly a question that we need to ask ourselves.” Since the Controlled Substances Act empowers Holder to reclassify marijuana, it would have been nice if he had asked that question a little sooner. Still, Holder was willing to publicly question marijuana’s Schedule I status, something no sitting attorney general had done before.

Sentencing Reform.  Obama supports the Smarter Sentencing Act, which would make the 2010 crack penalty changes retroactive, cut the mandatory minimums for certain drug offenses in half, and loosen the criteria for the “safety valve” that allows some defendants to escape mandatory minimums.  Beginning last year, Holder has repeatedly criticized our criminal justice system as excessively harsh. Under a new charging policy he established last year, hundreds of drug offenders could avoid mandatory minimums each year....

Clemency.  After a pitiful performance in his first term, Obama has signaled a new openness to clemency petitions.  Last April an unnamed “senior administration official” told Yahoo News the administration’s new clemency guidelines could result in “hundreds, perhaps thousands,” of commutations.  Obama’s total so far, counting eight commutations announced a few weeks ago, is just 18, but he still has two years to go....

A few months ago, Obama chose former ACLU attorney Vanita Gupta, a passionate critic of the war on drugs who emphasizes its disproportionate racial impact (a theme Obama and Holder also have taken up), to head the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.  A year before her appointment, Gupta had criticized Holder’s moves on drug sentencing as an inadequate response to mass incarceration.  The previous month, she had endorsed marijuana legalization. The next two years will show whether Gupta’s appointment is a sop to disappointed Obama supporters or a signal of bolder steps to come.

If Obama actually uses his clemency power to free thousands, or even hundreds, of drug war prisoners, that would be historically unprecedented, and it would go a long way toward making up for his initial reticence.  He could help even more people by backing sentencing reform, which has attracted bipartisan support in Congress.  And having announced that states should be free to experiment with marijuana legalization, he could declare the experiment a success....

If none of those things happens, Obama’s most significant drug policy accomplishment may be letting states go their own way on marijuana legalization.  Even if our next president is a Republican drug warrior, he will have a hard time reversing that decision, especially given the GOP’s lip service to federalism.

This piece reviews some important basics, though hard-core sentencing fans know that there is a lot more the Obama Administration could be doing to radically reshape the battlefield in the modern federal drug war.

On the marijuana front, for example, DOJ could (and I think should) play an significant role defending Colorado as it gears up a response to the recent Supreme Court suit brought Nebraska and Oklahoma attacking its marijuana reform efforts. In addition, DOJ could (and I think should) be willing to interpret broadly the recent provisions enacted by Congress precluding it from using funds to interfere with state medical marijuana reform efforts.

On the broad drug war front, Prez Obama and DOJ could not only support the Smarter Sentencing Act but even try to give renewed life to the Justice Safety Valve Act. The JSVA, which Senator Rand Paul introduced and robustly promoted, would effectively reform the operation of all mandatory minimum sentencing provisions. Also Prez Obama and DOJ, especially in light of renewed concerns about racial biases in criminal justice systems, could (and I think should) return to the issue of crack sentencing reform. Specifically, given the apparent success of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which only reduced the crack-powder disparity from the ridiculous 100-1 ratio to a ghastly 18-1, the Prez ought to get behind what I would call the Fully Fair Sentencing Act to eliminate any and all crack-powder sentencing disparity completely.

January 5, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Pot Prohibition Issues, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Notable NPR coverage of the "Human Casualties Of Mandatory Sentencing"

Download (3)I am pleased and intrigued to see that National Public Radio seems to be starting a deep dive into some of the personal stories surrounding the debate over federal mandatory minimum.  This introduction, headlined "From Judges To Inmates, Finding The Human Casualties Of Mandatory Sentencing," sets up the discussion this way:

This year, everyone from Attorney General Eric Holder to Tea Party Republicans in Congress has argued those stiff mandatory minimum prison sentences do more harm than good for thousands of drug offenders. Legislation to cut the tough-on-crime penalties has stalled on Capitol Hill, but it's likely to be reintroduced in 2015. Meanwhile, the White House and the Justice Department have taken the unprecedented step of asking for candidates who might win early release from prison through presidential pardons or commutations in the final years of the Obama presidency. That effort, known as Clemency Project 2014, is moving slowly.

Amid the backdrop of debate inside Washington and across the country, NPR decided to focus on the human toll of these mandatory prison sentences. We talked with judges who expressed tearful misgivings about sending people away for the rest of their lives for crimes that involved no violence and a modest amount of drugs. We found a newly-released inmate trying to reacquaint herself with her community in the Florida panhandle and rebuild ties with her grieving children after 17 years away from home. And we went inside a medium-security prison in New Jersey to find a lifer who says he deserves another chance. These people acknowledge they broke the law and accept the need for punishment. But they say their decades-long incarcerations cast a shadow that lingers over their families, damage that far outweighs the wrongs they did to put them in prison.

The series' first lengthy piece here is titled "Judge Regrets Harsh Human Toll Of Mandatory Minimum Sentences," has lots of good content and quotes from Judge John Gleeson and Professors Rachel Barkow and Bill Otis.

December 16, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Friday, December 05, 2014

District Judge pushes federal prosecutors to back off extreme trial penalty sentence

As reported in this Reuters article, headlined "Prosecutors rethink convict's sentence after judge cites Holder," a federal judge earlier this week put some bite into the Attorney General's advocacy for reducing reliance on extremely long prison term by urging local federal prosecutors to reconsider an extreme sentence driven by application of mandatory minimum sentencing provisions. Here are the details of an interesting on-going sentencing story:

Prosecutors are reconsidering a 50-year sentence for a convicted robber and drug dealer, after a judge on Wednesday suggested they call Attorney General Eric Holder to ask him whether it was fair to "punish" a man for rejecting a plea deal and opting for a trial.

Randy Washington, 27, the Bronx man who faced the lengthy term after turning down a 10-year plea deal and getting convicted at trial, had been scheduled for sentencing in New York federal court on Wednesday.  But the hearing was adjourned so prosecutors could rework a deal carrying a shorter sentence, after U.S. District Judge Richard Sullivan repeated his criticism that the 50-year mandatory minimum sentence appeared to "punish" Washington for going to trial.

Sullivan even suggested prosecutors call Holder himself to ask if their actions comport with his recent directive cautioning prosecutors against routinely using the threat of harsher sentences to induce defendants to plead guilty.  "He won't look with pride on what you're doing here today," Sullivan said....

In September, Holder issued a memo advising prosecutors to avoid employing the prospect of longer mandatory minimum prison terms in plea talks.  Sullivan cited the memo Wednesday in criticizing the sentence for Washington, who was convicted of robbery, narcotics and related charges.

In July, Sullivan said the potential 50-year term was legal but "unnecessary and unjust" and in a rare move pushed Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara's office to seek a reduced sentence. In response, prosecutors offered to drop a 10-year enhancement based on a prior felony conviction for Washington.

They separately offered Washington a new 25-year deal, which Washington rejected as it included an appellate waiver, a provision Sullivan questioned on Wednesday. "I'm not sure there's great consistency in the position that says, 'We agree that 50 years is too long, but it's too long only if you give up your appellate rights,'" he said.

After prosecutors consulted with Bharara himself, Assistant U.S. Attorney Telemachus Kasulis told Sullivan they would consider a 25-year deal without requiring Washington to waive all of his appellate rights. Sentencing was rescheduled for Dec. 12.

December 5, 2014 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

SCOTUS hears argument on application of mandatory minimum sentencing provision in Whitfield

The Supreme Court has another notable criminal justice case on tap for oral argument this morning, and this effective SCOTUSblog preview, titled "Parsing “accompany” in the federal bank robbery statute," provides all the details and context.  Here is how the preview starts and ends: 

One part of the federal bank robbery statute, 18 U.S.C. § 2113(e), provides that a bank robber who “forces another person to accompany him” will receive a minimum sentence of ten years in prison, with a life sentence as a maximum.  [Tuesday December 2] the Court will hear oral arguments on how broadly this provision should apply — and in particular, whether it should apply to a North Carolina man who, while attempting to elude capture after a failed bank robbery, required the elderly woman in whose home he was hiding to move with him from one part of her home to another.  [This] hearing could also tell us whether the Justices regard this case as a run-of-the-mill statutory interpretation case or instead — like last month’s Yates v. United States and last Term’s Bond v. United States  — as the latest in a series of criminal cases in which overzealous federal prosecutors have overstepped their authority....

At last month’s argument in Yates, Justice Samuel Alito — who is normally the government’s most reliable ally in criminal cases — suggested to the lawyer arguing on behalf of the United States that, although the federal government had a variety of good arguments, it was nonetheless asking the Justices to endorse too expansive an interpretation of a federal law targeting the destruction of evidence.  Whitfield and his lawyers no doubt hope that the Justices will be equally dubious of the government’s interpretation in this case.  On the other hand, although Whitfield ultimately proved to be a bumbling bank robber, his conduct was unquestionably far more grave than John Yates’s destruction of some undersized fish: even if he only intended to hide from police after the failed bank robbery and never meant to harm [his elderly victim], she did die.  And that may be enough to make several of the Justices less skeptical, and significantly more serious, at Tuesday’s oral argument.

UPDATE: Via SCOTUSblog, I see that the transcript in Whitfield v. United States is now avaiable here

December 2, 2014 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Massachusetts special commission urges repeal of all drug mandatory minimums

DownloadAs reported in this local article, "a special commission studying the state's criminal justice system recommended eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for all drug offenses in Massachusetts."  Here is more about the commission's work and recommendations to date:

The commission also voted to recommend parole eligibility for all state prison sentences after an inmate has served at least two-thirds of the lower end of their sentence, except in cases of murder or manslaughter, and to maintain the current parole eligibility standards in houses of correction of half-time served on sentences of 60 days or more.

The commission, formed over two years ago, is trying to produce an in-progress report before the end of the year to inform Governor-elect Charlie Baker's administration. Baker, during his campaign for governor, voiced support for striking mandatory minimums for non-violent drug offenses as part of a broader approach to combat substance abuse.

The Special Commission to Study the Commonwealth's Criminal Justice System on Tuesday began debating legislative recommendations members plan to make to strengthen post-release supervision, improve prisoner reentry outcomes and reduce recidivism, and address overcrowding in the state's jails and prisons.

"Drug offenses are a huge reason we have so much overcrowding in the prison system," said Patty Garin, a criminal defense attorney and co-director of the Northeastern University Law School Prisoners Assistance Program. Garin and other commission members argued judges should be able to practice evidence-based sentencing, and suggested mandatory minimums disproportionately impact poorer communities and communities of color.

The 9-2 vote, with Attorney General Martha Coakley's representative abstaining, came over the objections of Cape and Islands District Attorney Michael O'Keefe, who sits on the commission. O'Keefe did not attend Tuesday's meeting, but submitted a letter expressing his opposition and later told the News Service that mandatory minimums are a tool prosecutors "use and use very effectively to stem the flow of drugs into communities."

"We utterly reject this notion that the criminal justice system is warehousing these non-violent drug offenders. That simply is not the case. People have to work extremely hard to get themselves into jail here in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts," O'Keefe said.

The commission was formed by Gov. Deval Patrick and the Legislature in 2012, and Undersecretary of Criminal Justice Sandra McCroom said she hopes to publish a report by the end of the year, though she acknowledged that all of the commission's work likely won't be completed by then. Patrick has also reconstituted the Sentencing Commission, which has met twice over the past two months and whose work could coincide with the criminal justice commission's recommendations....

Public Safety Secretary Andrea Cabral, who does not have a vote on the commission, said she would have carved out an exception from the mandatory minimum recommendation for trafficking crimes. While supporting enhanced drug treatment options, she said not all people convicted of drug offenses are struggling with addiction, and some are driven by money. "I think there should be a line drawn on trafficking," Cabral said.

Others on the commission, including Garin and Anthony Benedetti, chief counsel at the Committee for Public Counsel Services, argued that judges should be given discretion even in trafficking cases, expressing confidence that harsh sentences will be issues for those who deserve them. Worcester County Sheriff Lewis Evangelidis, a Republican, and a staff member representing Judiciary Committee Vice Chairman Rep. Chris Markey (D-Dartmouth) voted against the recommendation to do away with mandatory minimum sentences. "To me it's overreaching and too broad," said Evangelidis, a former state representative....

O'Keefe, the recent past president of the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association, expressed concern that if the Legislature were to eliminate mandatory minimum drug sentences, the courts would see defendants shopping for more lenient judges to avoid prison time. "Mandatory minimum sentences came into being in the first place to ensure relative uniformity in the sentencing of individuals distributing drugs," O'Keefe said....

Attorney General-elect Maura Healey has also backed ending mandatory minimums for non-violent drug offenses, and during her campaign called for expanding the use of drug courts.

November 19, 2014 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Investigation reveals "mandatory" Minnesota gun sentence not imposed in majority of cases

635518507863570129-sent-5This interesting local investigative press report from Minnesota provides further evidence that mandatory minimum sentencing schemes are rarely applied consistently or evenly.  The article is headlined "Mandatory sentences not always the case for Minnesota gun crimes," and here are excerpts:

Hennepin County judges have come under fire recently for their sentencing habits. Several top Minneapolis leaders are claiming some judges are soft on gun crimes, allowing dangerous criminals back on the streets when they could be in prison. To separate fact from fiction, KARE 11 Investigators analyzed every sentence for every felony gun crime during the past three years. We found that judges do not hand down mandatory minimum sentences in the majority of gun crime cases.

Under Minnesota law there is a mandatory minimum amount of time criminals who use a gun should be sentenced to serve in prison. But our KARE 11 investigation found the amount of time they are sentenced to prison, if they get prison time at all, varies greatly from court to court and judge to judge....

Our analysis of sentencing data provided by the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission reveals in gun cases across all of Minnesota, judges give less than the mandatory minimum sentence 53% of the time. In Hennepin County, that jumps to 56%. Judge Richard Scherer, Judge Susan Robiner, Judge Mark Wernick, Judge Joseph Klein and Judge Daniel Moreno downward depart from mandatory sentencing in felony gun cases in more than two thirds of the cases they oversee. "And that's too much" said Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman.

Freeman's office routinely butts heads with district judges when it comes to sentencing in gun cases, especially when the conviction is for a felon being in possession of a handgun. On average in Minnesota, prosecutor's object to a judge's reduced sentence in gun cases only 12% of the time. But in Hennepin County, it happens in nearly 30% of gun cases. "I think the numbers speak for themselves. There's a different climate on this bench than there is elsewhere in this state," said Freeman.

But 4th District Chief Judge Peter Cahill disagrees. He says judges cannot be a rubber stamp for police and prosecutors, and the most important thing for them is to be fair and impartial. "We can't worry about stats," said Cahill. When KARE 11 Investigative reporter A.J. Lagoe asked Chief Judge Cahill if mandatory did not mean mandatory in Minnesota, Cahill responded, "not really." He says calling the state's mandatory minimum sentences mandatory is a "bit of a misnomer."

Cahill said the issue is very complex, and added "If you read the statute specifically, the legislature gave the court the ability to depart from the gun sentencing scheme." There is a section in Minnesota's minimum sentencing law that allows judges to disregard mandatory sentencing in gun cases if there are "substantial and compelling" reasons to do so. “If you read the statute specifically, the legislature gave the court the ability to depart from the gun sentencing scheme.”

Are there truly "substantial and compelling reasons" to hand down a lesser sentence in the majority of gun cases? It depends on who you ask. In the wake of a series of deadly summer shootings, Minneapolis's Police Chief Janee Harteau said, "we are arresting people who should have been kept in jail." Harteau and City Council President Barb Johnson began publically calling out Hennepin County judges for being soft on gun crimes and allowing dangerous criminals back on the street unnecessarily. "I am calling to them publicly this time to take gun crime seriously," said Johnson. "The penalties are there, impose them! When someone is arrested with a gun they need to do time!"

Minnesota sentencing statutes have a section referred to by the legal community as "mandatory mandatory sentences." If you're convicted a second time for a gun offense, judges are given no wiggle room. The law requires them to hand down at least the mandatory minimum. "Those are what we call hard 'mandatories' where there's no leeway for the court and we do impose those," said Chief Judge Cahill.

But KARE 11's investigation found that's not always the case. Take for example the rap sheet of Khayree Copeland. Copeland was busted in 2008 as a juvenile for possession of a short barreled shotgun. In 2011, now an adult, he was caught again with a gun. As a felon in possession, the mandatory minimum sentence he was facing was five years in prison. However Judge Robiner sentenced him to probation. Later that same year, Copeland was arrested again while carrying a handgun. His second offense as an adult, this time the law requires he get the "mandatory- mandatory" five years. But court records show Judge Richard Scherer gave him only four years in prison. "Members of my office protested both times and rightly so," said Freeman....

NOTE: While Hennepin judges see far and away more gun crime cases than any other jurisdiction, Carlton County judges are the most likely to cut a defendant a break. Judges there gave less than the mandatory minimum 100% of the time in the past three years.

November 18, 2014 in Gun policy and sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

"A Comprehensive Administrative Solution to the Armed Career Criminal Act Debacle"

The title of this post is the title of this notable and timely new piece authored by Avi Kupfer and available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

For thirty years, the Armed Career Criminal Act (“ACCA”) has imposed a fifteen-year mandatory minimum sentence on those people convicted as felons in possession of a firearm or ammunition who have three prior convictions for a violent felony or serious drug offense.  Debate about the law has existed mainly within a larger discussion on the normative value of mandatory minimums. Assuming that the ACCA endures, however, administering it will continue to be a challenge.  The approach that courts use to determine whether past convictions qualify as ACCA predicate offenses creates ex ante uncertainty and the potential for intercourt disparities.  Furthermore, the Supreme Court's guidance on sentencing ACCA defendants has been unclear.  The resulting ambiguity creates inequity between defendants and fails to give them fair warning of the statute's scope.  This ambiguity also depletes the resources of courts, defendants, and prosecutors and prevents the statute from realizing its full potential of deterring violent crime.

This Note argues that rather than allowing this debacle to continue, Congress should delegate to a federal agency the task of compiling a binding list of state statutes that qualify as predicate offenses.  Under this approach, the states would assist the federal agency by providing initial guidance on their ambiguous statutes.  The U.S. Sentencing Commission has the manpower, subject familiarity, and institutional incentives to build and maintain the appendix, and state sentencing commissions would make ideal partners. In states that do not have sentencing commissions, comparable agencies and even properly incentivized attorneys general may be able to aid the federal Sentencing Commission. Congress should leverage this undertaking to resolve related definitional questions about the meaning of a violent crime in other areas of federal law.

November 12, 2014 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Monday, November 03, 2014

Judge Rakoff highlights prosecutorial sentencing power in explaining "Why Innocent People Plead Guilty"

Download (2)Regular readers know that US District Judge Jed Rakoff has become a prominent regular critic of many aspects of the modern federal criminal justice system. In the latest issue of The New York Review of Books, Judge Rakoff provides an astute and effective review of how prosecutors have come to possess considerable unregulated sentencing powers in our modern system dominated by plea bargainiang.  His lengthy article's title, "Why Innocent People Plead Guilty," spotlights one key aspect of Judge Rakoff's concerns with the current system.  But, as these passages reveal, his central theme in this must-read piece is unregulated prosecutorial powers:

The Sixth Amendment guarantees that “in all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury.”  The Constitution further guarantees that at the trial, the accused will have the assistance of counsel, who can confront and cross-examine his accusers and present evidence on the accused’s behalf. He may be convicted only if an impartial jury of his peers is unanimously of the view that he is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt and so states, publicly, in its verdict.

The drama inherent in these guarantees is regularly portrayed in movies and television programs as an open battle played out in public before a judge and jury. But this is all a mirage.  In actuality, our criminal justice system is almost exclusively a system of plea bargaining, negotiated behind closed doors and with no judicial oversight.  The outcome is very largely determined by the prosecutor alone....

Until late last year, federal prosecutors were under orders from a series of attorney generals to charge the defendant with the most serious charges that could be proved — unless, of course, the defendant was willing to enter into a plea bargain.  If, however, the defendant wants to plead guilty, the prosecutor will offer him a considerably reduced charge — but only if the plea is agreed to promptly (thus saving the prosecutor valuable resources).  Otherwise, he will charge the maximum, and, while he will not close the door to any later plea bargain, it will be to a higher-level offense than the one offered at the outset of the case.

In this typical situation, the prosecutor has all the advantages. He knows a lot about the case (and, as noted, probably feels more confident about it than he should, since he has only heard from one side), whereas the defense lawyer knows very little.  Furthermore, the prosecutor controls the decision to charge the defendant with a crime. Indeed, the law of every US jurisdiction leaves this to the prosecutor’s unfettered discretion; and both the prosecutor and the defense lawyer know that the grand jury, which typically will hear from one side only, is highly likely to approve any charge the prosecutor recommends.

But what really puts the prosecutor in the driver’s seat is the fact that he — because of mandatory minimums, sentencing guidelines (which, though no longer mandatory in the federal system, are still widely followed by most judges), and simply his ability to shape whatever charges are brought — can effectively dictate the sentence by how he publicly describes the offense.  For example, the prosecutor can agree with the defense counsel in a federal narcotics case that, if there is a plea bargain, the defendant will only have to plead guilty to the personal sale of a few ounces of heroin, which carries no mandatory minimum and a guidelines range of less than two years; but if the defendant does not plead guilty, he will be charged with the drug conspiracy of which his sale was a small part, a conspiracy involving many kilograms of heroin, which could mean a ten-year mandatory minimum and a guidelines range of twenty years or more. Put another way, it is the prosecutor, not the judge, who effectively exercises the sentencing power, albeit cloaked as a charging decision.

Long-time readers know that this article gets to the heart of debates that Bill Otis and I have often had over the virtues and vices of mandatory minimum sentencing provisions. Because Judge Rakoff comes down on my side of this debate, few should be surprised to hear that I am a big fan of this article (though I wish Judge Rakoff had also discussed and lamented how acquitted conduct sentencing rules in the federal system further enhances prosecutors' charging/plea/sentencing powers).

Prior related posts on Judge Rakoff's commentaries:

November 3, 2014 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (13) | TrackBack

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Due to Alleyne, Kansas Supreme Court requires resentencing of murderer of abortion provider

As reported in this local article, headlined "Kansas Supreme Court vacates Roeder's 'Hard 50' sentence," the top court in the Sunflower State reversed a state mandatory minimum sentence in a high-profile murder case.  Here are the details:

The Kansas Supreme Court on Friday upheld the premeditated first-degree murder conviction of Scott Roeder, convicted in the 2009 church killing of Wichita abortion provider Dr. George Tiller, but vacated his “Hard 50” life sentence.

In ordering Roeder’s sentence remanded to the Sedgwick County District Court, the Kansas high court noted the 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision that deemed a sentence of 50 years without the possibility of parole must be levied by a jury as opposed to the trial judge.

The Kansas court has vacated and remanded at least five other Hard 50 sentences in light of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Alleyene vs. United States....

The court rejected all of Roeder’s other arguments in his bid for a new trial. Among those arguments was that Sedgwick County District Court Judge Warren Wilbert declined to allow Roeder to present a voluntary manslaughter defense based on the “imperfect defense of others” concept.  Roeder never denied at trial that he intended to shoot and kill Tiller in the vestibule of the doctor’s Wichita church before services on Sunday, May 31, 2009, but said he did so to prevent the abortion provider from taking the lives of unborn children.

Roeder, who testified that his anti-abortion activities began after his 1992 conversion to Christianity, said his frustration grew after Tiller was acquitted in 2009 of 19 charges brought by former Kansas Attorney General Phill Kline alleging that Tiller broke state law in performing late-term abortions. Roeder testified that upon learning of Tiller's acquittal, he believed that “nothing was being done” and the legal process had been exhausted....

But the district court ruled that Roeder wasn’t entitled to use a necessity defense, based in part on a previous Kansas Supreme Court ruling — also involving an anti-abortion case — that a person isn’t entitled to a such a defense if the activity they were trying to stop was a legal activity....

“Even for Roeder's professed purpose of stopping all abortions, not just illegal abortions, the Draconian measure of murder was not the only alternative,” Justice Lee Johnson wrote in the unanimous decision. The district court also ruled, and the Supreme Court agreed, that Roeder wasn’t entitled to a voluntary manslaughter defense because no imminent threat existed on that Sunday morning to justify the use of lethal force....

The Kansas Legislature, responding to the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Alleyene, rewrote the Kansas law on Hard 50 sentencing during a special session in 2013.  The new law says a jury must determine whether special circumstances exist to impose the increased minimum sentence.  But how such new sentencing will be conducted has yet to be determined, as none has yet been conducted in the cases where a Hard 50 sentence has been vacated.  Sedgwick County District Attorney Mark Bennett said Friday after the Roeder decision that he intended to conduct such a hearing.

The full 50+ page opinion of the Kansas Supreme Court in Kansas v. Roeder, No. 104,520 (Kansas Oct. 24, 2014), is available at this link.

October 25, 2014 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Monday, October 20, 2014

New top Justice in Massachusetts urges repeal of mandatory minimums for low-level drug offenders

Download (2)I just came across this notable Boston Globe article discussing this notable speech delivered late last week by the new Chief Justice of Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.  Here is how the Globe article starts:

The head of the state’s highest court called for an end to mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenders on Thursday, saying they interfere with judges’ discretion, disproportionately affect minorities, and fail to rehabilitate offenders.  

Citing the opioid-addiction crisis, Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants said the state needs to find better ways to treat addicts than sending them to jail. In 2013, 674 people died of opioid overdoses, compared with 338 in 2000.  “To those who favor the status quo in the so-called war on drugs, I ask: How well is the status quo working?” Gants said.

Gants, selected as chief justice by Governor Deval Patrick, called on the Legislature to pass laws to abolish mandatory sentencing.  His remarks, in his first State of the Judiciary speech, were part of a call for broader changes in the court system.  “We need our sentences not merely to punish and deter, but also to provide offenders with the supervision and the tools they will need to maximize the chance of success upon release and minimize the likelihood of recidivism,” he said.

Sworn in just 80 days ago, Gants said he will convene a group of judges, probation offices, prosecutors, and defense attorneys to study best practices to ensure what he called “individualized, evidence-based sentences.”  That means considering mental health or substance abuse treatment as well as time in prison.  Mandatory minimum sentences are automatic prison terms for those convicted of certain crimes, limiting judges’ discretion.

Gants’s proposal drew quick praise from members of the Massachusetts Bar Association, his audience at the association’s annual Bench-Bar Symposium in the John Adams Courthouse.  Marsha V. Kazarosian, president of the bar association, called Gants’s call to action “a gutsy move.”  She said there are “no cookie-cutter remedies” for drug defendants, and that an offender’s background should taken into consideration, and “that’s exactly what a judge is supposed to do.”

Anthony Benedetti, chief counsel for the Committee for Public Counsel Services, the state’s public defender agency agreed. “So many people involved in the criminal justice system have substance abuse and mental health issues,” Benedetti said.  “That’s the root of the problem, and this gets back to individual, evidence-based sentencing.”

The proposal was criticized by Essex District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett, head of the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association, who argued that the laws are designed to target drug traffickers, not merely drug users.  “The midst of an opiate overdose epidemic is not the time to make it easier for drug traffickers to avoid accountability and incarceration,” Blodgett said.  “An experienced trial judge should know that the drug defendants sentenced to incarceration are the ones who carry and use firearms, who flood communities with poison, and who commit the same distribution offenses over and over again.”

Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Gants' full speech is worth reading, and here is a notable excerpt from the text:

Mandatory minimum sentencing in drug cases has had a disparate impact upon racial and ethnic minorities.  In fiscal year 2013, 450 defendants were given mandatory minimum sentences on governing drug offenses. In that year, which is the most recent year for which data are available, racial and ethnic minorities comprised 32% of all convicted offenders, 55% of all those convicted of non-mandatory drug distribution offenses, and 75% of all those convicted of mandatory drug offenses.  I do not suggest that there is intentional discrimination, but the numbers do not lie about the disparate impact of mandatory minimum drug sentences.

The impact of mandatory minimum drug sentences is far greater than the number of defendants who are actually given mandatory sentences.  Prosecutors often will dismiss a drug charge that carries a mandatory minimum sentence in return for a plea to a non-mandatory offense with an agreed-upon sentence recommendation, and defendants often have little choice but to accept a sentencing recommendation higher than they think appropriate because the alternative is an even higher and even less appropriate mandatory minimum sentence.  For all practical purposes, when a defendant is charged with a drug offense with a mandatory minimum sentence, it is usually the prosecutor, not the judge, who sets the sentence.

I have great respect for the prosecutors in this Commonwealth, and for the exercise of prosecutorial discretion that comes with the job; I was a prosecutor myself for eight years.  But where there is a mandatory minimum sentence, a prosecutor's discretion to charge a defendant with a crime effectively includes the discretion to sentence a defendant for that crime.  And where drug sentences are effectively being set by prosecutors through mandatory minimum sentences, we cannot be confident that those sentences will be individualized, evidence-based sentences that will not only punish and deter, but also minimize the risk of recidivism by treating the root of the problem behind many drug offenses -- the problem of addiction.

October 20, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Thursday, October 09, 2014

New survey shows significant and growing support for "eliminating mandatory minimum prison sentences for nonviolent offenders"

As reported via this FAMM news release, which is headlined "New Poll Finds 77% of Americans Support Eliminating Mandatory Minimums for Non-Violent Offenses," there is new polling data suggesting that large and growing percentages of Americans favor mandatory minimum sentencing reform. Here are the basic details:

A new Reason-Rupe Public Opinion Survey finds that 77 percent of Americans support eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenses.  That number is up from 71 percent in December 2013, the last time Reason-Rupe polled on the question.  You can find the full survey results here (PDF); mandatory minimums are question 17. 

“Almost three decades have passed since the United States instituted harsh mandatory minimums for non-violent drug offenses.  During that time, countless lives have been ruined and countless families destroyed.  The American people have noticed, and they want no more of it,” said Julie Stewart, president and founder of Families Against Mandatory Minimums.

The poll question Reason-Rupe posed reads as follows: “Would you favor or oppose eliminating mandatory minimum prison sentences for nonviolent offenders so that judges have the ability to make sentencing decisions on a case-by-case basis?”

Seventy-seven percent of respondents said they favored eliminating mandatory minimums, while only 17 percent of respondents said they were opposed.  When Reason-Rupe asked the same question in December 2013, 71 percent of respondents were in favor of eliminating mandatory minimums, and 24 percent were opposed.

October 9, 2014 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Rolling Stone laments enduring casualties of drug war's mandatory minimums

ImagesRolling Stone magazine has just published this extensive "special report" titled "The Nation's Shame: The Injustice of Mandatory Minimums." The piece details the stories of seven notable low-level drug defendants serving high-level prison sentences. The piece has this subheading: "For decades, lawyers, scholars, and judges have criticized mandatory drug sentencing as oppressive and ineffective. Yet tens of thousands of nonviolent offenders continue to languish behind bars."  And here is a portion of the lead into the seven cases profiled:

Widely enacted in the Eighties and Nineties amid rising crime and racially coded political fearmongering, mandatory penalties — like minimum sentences triggered by drug weight, automatic sentencing enhancements, and three-strikes laws — have flooded state and federal prisons with nonviolent offenders.  Intended to ensure uniform discipline, these policies simply shifted discretion to prosecutors.  Judges lost latitude to tailor sanctions based on whether someone was a kingpin or courier, for example, while [Professor Mark] Osler says, prosecutors gained "a big hammer.  The easy way of doing things is to threaten people with a lot of time, and then plead them out," he says.  "But easy and justice don't go together very well."...

[T]he drug war is entrenched in decades of prison buildup. Between 1980 and 2010, state incarceration rates for drug crimes multiplied tenfold, while the federal drug prisoner population ballooned by a factor of 20.  Every year, taxpayers shell out $51 billion for drug war spending.  Meanwhile, 2.2 million people — or a quarter of the world's prisoners — crowd a system that exacts its harshest toll on the most vulnerable. Racism undermines the justice process from initial stop to sentence, and 60 percent of those incarcerated are people of color.  Rates of illiteracy, addiction, and mental illness are disproportionately high.

Amid utter congressional deadlock, sentencing reform is the only issue that has cut across partisan bickering to unite such normally irreconcilable voices as Rand Paul, Dick Durbin, Ted Cruz, Elizabeth Warren, Paul Ryan and John Conyers.  Yet the proposed Smarter Sentencing Act, which passed the Senate Judiciary Committee in January, has since run aground. The bill would halve key mandatory minimums, make relief under the Fair Sentencing Act available to 8,800 federal crack defendants locked up before 2010 and save $4 billion in the process.  More than 260,000 people have been imprisoned under federal drug mandatory minimums, and more will continue to cycle through the system — even as others are granted clemency — as long as reforms remain stalled.  At the state level, reforms without retroactive application strand drug defendants in prison even after the laws that put them there are reassessed as unjust.  The following seven cases epitomize the rigid regimes of the past, and the challenges involved in dismantling them.

October 7, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Friday, October 03, 2014

SCOTUS preview guest-post: "Measuring the Dangerousness of Felonies for Sentencing Purposes"

ThIn this post I lamented that the Supreme Court this week did not grant cert on any new sentencing cases.  But there is still some sentencing fun on the SCOTUS docket thanks to the Justices seemingly never having enough fun with interpretations of the Armed Career Criminal Act.  Helpfully, Professor Stephen Rushin, who filed in an amicus brief in the latest ACCA case, was kind enough to prepare for posting here a thoughtful preview of a case to be argued to the Justices in early November.

With kudos and thanks to Prof Rushin for this material, here is his preview:


What criminal offenses pose the greatest risk of injury to others? This is the empirical question at issue in a case, Johnson v. United States, before the U.S. Supreme Court this coming term. The case stems from the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA), which provides for punishment enhancements for offenders previously convicted of burglary, arson, extortion, use of explosives, and any other felony that presents “serious potential risk of injury to another.”

Since the passage of the ACCA, courts and litigants have struggled to determine which felonies pose such a “serious potential risk of injury to another.” The Court has interpreted this so-called residual clause of the ACCA to cover a range of felonies, including attempted burglary and fleeing from a police officer in a motor vehicle.    

In Johnson, the Court must now decide whether the residual clause also covers the possession of a short-barreled shotgun. So how dangerous is mere possession of an unlawful weapon? Professors Evan Lee, Eric Johnson, and I recently submitted an amicus brief in the Johnson case, arguing that the ACCA ought to cover these sorts of weapons law violations. 

At first, our argument may seem counter-intuitive. How, after all, can mere possession ever pose a “serious potential risk of injury to another?” Well that depends on how you define a “potential risk of injury.” Admittedly, offenses like weapons possession cannot, or usually do not, injure another person directly. But that does not mean that such offenses do not pose “serious potential risk of injury to another.” Congress’s use of the word “potential” in conjunction with the word “risk” suggests that a felony need not be the direct or exclusive source of an injury in order to qualify under the residual clause. We read the ACCA to mean that any offense that facilitates or is otherwise meaningfully associated with highly injury-prone offenses “poses a serious potential risk of injury.”

Of course, this raises the next obvious question—to what extent are weapons law violations, like possession of a short barreled shotgun, associated with injuries to victims? In previous ACCA cases, the Court has turned to a wide range of statistical data to measure the dangerousness of various felony offenses. In each case, the Court has attempted to find accurate statistical measures of how frequently a particular felony offense leads to injuries. The Court then compares this to the approximate injury frequency of injuries stemming from the offenses explicitly enumerated in the ACCA—burglary, arson, extortion, and use of explosives. 

This basic methodology makes perfect sense. Since Congress specifically enumerated a small number of offenses as “violent felonies” in the ACCA, the Court should presume that any offense of equal or greater dangerousness also warrants inclusion under the residual clause. But in employing this methodology, the Court has often relied on weak statistical data.

In entering into this ongoing debate, my coauthors and I make a simple recommendation to the Court in our amicus brief. We suggest that the Court should use the National Incident Based Reporting System (NIBRS) in measuring the dangerousness of offenses under the ACCA residual clause. For the unfamiliar, we have traditionally recorded crime data in the U.S. via the Uniform Crime Reports (UCR), which primarily record aggregate-level information on the prevalence of eight major criminal offenses—homicide, aggravated assault, rape, burglary, larceny, arson, and auto-theft. With the exception of homicides, these UCR records little to no details about the circumstances surrounding each offense. Recently, though, the FBI has begun collecting additional crime data through the database known as NIBRS. This system requests information from local law enforcement agencies on 46 different offense categories. NIBRS also groups together criminal offenses into incident-level data. This means that if an offender commits two different offenses as part of a single criminal incident, NIBRS groups these two offenses together for data analysis purposes. For example, suppose that an offender commits an assault in the course of committing a burglary. Traditionally, the UCR would register that event as two separate criminal events. By contrast, NIBRS groups together these two criminal offenses into a single incident. Police agencies that use NIBRS also report information on the circumstances of each criminal incident, including whether the incident resulted in any physical injuries to victims.

Of course NIBRS is not perfect. The NIBRS database is not perfectly representative of the United States. Although NIBRS greatly expands on the number of offense categories traditionally used in the UCR, it still cannot capture every single offense category. Nevertheless, NIBRS represents perhaps the best statistical resource available for measuring the “potential risk of injury” associated with felony offenses. For one thing, NIBRS represents the largest and most comprehensive database on injuries associated with criminal offenses. In addition, because NIBRS groups together multiple offenses into incidents, it allows researchers to measure more accurately the risk associated with criminal offenses. And NIBRS allows the Court to compare the dangerousness of different felony offenses accurately because it uses a consistent methodology across reporting jurisdictions.

So how do weapons law violations stack up compared to the explicitly enumerated felonies listed in the ACCA? In a previous study, Evan Lee, Lynn Addington, and I found that weapons law violations like possession of a short-barreled shotgun were more frequently associated with injuries than burglaries, arsons, or extortions. 5.36 percent of incidents involving weapons law violations in 2010 led to some type of physical injury to a victim, compared to just 4.41 percent of extortions, 1.11 percent of arsons, and 1.02 percent of burglaries.

Of course, these sorts of statistics alone cannot resolve the question before the Court. But we argue that this data cuts in favor of including weapons law violations under the ACCA residual clause.

October 3, 2014 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Monday, September 29, 2014

Notable new AG Holder memorandum on charging policies and plea negotiations

I learned over the weekend that last week Attorney General Eric Holder issued a short memo to DOJ lawyers to provide "Guidance Regarding § 851 Enhancements in Plea Negotiations."  This full one-page memo, which is dated September 24, 2014, can be downloaded below.  Here are its most notable sentences, with my emphasis added:

The Department provided more specific guidance for charging mandatory minimums and recidivist enhancements in drug cases in the August 12, 2013, "Department Policy on Charging Mandatory Minimum Sentences and Recidivist Enhancements in Certain Drug Cases."  That memorandum provides that prosecutors should decline to seek an enhancement pursuant to 21 U.S.C. § 851 unless the "defendant is involved in conduct that makes the case appropriate for severe sanctions," and sets forth factors that prosecutors should consider in making that determination. Whether a defendant is pleading guilty is not one of the factors enumerated in the charging policy. Prosecutors are encouraged to make the§ 851 determination at the time the case is charged, or as soon as possible thereafter.  An § 851 enhancement should not be used in plea negotiations for the sole or predominant purpose of inducing a defendant to plead guilty.  This is consistent with long-standing Department policy that "[c]harges should not be filed simply to exert leverage to induce a plea, nor should charges be abandoned to arrive at a plea bargain that does not reflect the seriousness of the defendant's conduct." "Department Policy on Charging and Sentencing," May 19, 2010.

While the fact that a defendant may or may not exercise his right to a jury trial should ordinarily not govern the determination of whether to file or forego an § 851 enhancement, certain circumstances -- such as new information about the defendant, a reassessment of the strength of the government's case, or recognition of cooperation -- may make it appropriate to forego or dismiss a previously filed § 851 information in connection with a guilty plea. A practice of routinely premising the decision to file an § 851 enhancement solely on whether a defendant is entering a guilty plea, however, is inappropriate and inconsistent with the spirit of the policy.

Download AG-Letter-Regarding-Enhancements-in-Plea-Negotiations

I am inclined to speculate that AG Holder felt a need to issue this short memo in part because of reports that some US Attorneys may have had a "practice of routinely premising the decision to file an § 851 enhancement solely on whether a defendant is entering a guilty plea."

September 29, 2014 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Highlights from AG Holder's big speech today at the Brennan Center for Justice

As noted in this prior post and as detailed in this official Justice Department press release, Attorney General Eric Holder gave a big speech today in New York at the Brennan Center for Justice's conference on the topic of "Shifting Law Enforcement Goals to ​Reduce Mass Incarceration." Here are some highlights from a speech that all sentencing fans will want to read in full:

As you know, we gather this afternoon just over a year after the launch of the Justice Department’s Smart on Crime initiative — a series of important changes and commonsense reforms I set in motion last August.  Already, these changes are fundamentally shifting our response to certain crime challenges —particularly low-level, nonviolent drug offenses.  And this initiative is predicated on the notion that our work as prosecutors must be informed, and our criminal justice system continually improved, by the most effective and efficient strategies available.

After all — as I’ve often said — the United States will never be able to prosecute or incarcerate its way to becoming a safer nation.  We must never, and we will never, stop being vigilant against crime — and the conditions and choices that breed it.  But, for far too long — under well-intentioned policies designed to be “tough” on criminals — our system has perpetuated a destructive cycle of poverty, criminality, and incarceration that has trapped countless people and weakened entire communities — particularly communities of color....

Perhaps most troubling is the fact that this astonishing rise in incarceration — and the escalating costs it has imposed on our country, in terms both economic and human — have not measurably benefited our society.  We can all be proud of the progress that’s been made at reducing the crime rate over the past two decades — thanks to the tireless work of prosecutors and the bravery of law enforcement officials across America.  But statistics have shown — and all of us have seen — that high incarceration rates and longer-than-necessary prison terms have not played a significant role in materially improving public safety, reducing crime, or strengthening communities.

In fact, the opposite is often true.  Two weeks ago, the Washington Post reported that new analysis of crime data and incarceration rates — performed by the Pew Charitable Trusts, and covering the period of 1994 to 2012 — shows that states with the most significant drops in crime also saw reductions in their prison populations.  States that took drastic steps to reduce their prison populations — in many cases by percentages well into the double digits — saw crime go down as well.  And the one state — West Virginia — with the greatest increase in its incarceration rate actually experienced an uptick in crime.

As the Post makes clear: “To the extent that there is any trend here, it’s actually that states incarcerating people have seen smaller decreases in crime.”  And this has been borne out at the national level, as well.  Since President Obama took office, both overall crime and overall incarceration have decreased by approximately 10 percent.  This is the first time these two critical markers have declined together in more than 40 years. And although we have a great deal of work to do — and although, last year, some states continued to record growth in their prison populations — this is a signal achievement....

Over the past year, the federal prison population declined by roughly 4,800 inmates — the first decrease we’ve seen in many ‎decades.  Even more promising are new internal projections from the Bureau of Prisons. In a dramatic reversal of prior reports — which showed that the prison population would continue to grow, becoming more and more costly, overcrowded, and unsafe — taking into account our new policies and trends, our new projections anticipate that the number of federal inmates will fall by just over 2,000 in the next 12 months — and by almost 10,000 in the year after.‎

This is nothing less than historic.  To put these numbers in perspective, 10,000 inmates is the rough equivalent of the combined populations of six federal prisons, each filled to capacity.  Now, these projected decreases won’t result in any prison closures, because our system is operating at about 30 percent above capacity.  But my hope is that we’re witnessing the start of a trend that will only accelerate as our Smart on Crime changes take full effect.

Clearly, criminal justice reform is an idea whose time has come.  And thanks to a robust and growing national consensus — a consensus driven not by political ideology, but by the promising work that’s underway, and the efforts of leaders like Senators Patrick Leahy, Dick Durbin, Mike Lee, and Rand Paul — we are bringing about a paradigm shift, and witnessing a historic sea change, in the way our nation approaches these issues. ...

The Smart on Crime initiative is in many ways the ultimate expression of my trust in the abilities — and the judgment — of our attorneys on the front lines.  And although some have suggested that recent changes in charging and sentencing policies might somehow undermine their ability to induce cooperation from defendants in certain cases, today, I want to make it abundantly clear that nothing could be further from the truth.

As I know from experience — and as all veteran prosecutors and defense attorneys surely recognize — defendant cooperation depends on the certainty of swift and fair punishment, not on the length of a mandatory minimum sentence.  Like anyone old enough to remember the era before sentencing guidelines existed and mandatory minimums took full effect, I can testify to the fact that federal guidelines attempted to systematize the kinds of negotiations that were naturally taking place anyway.  As our U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Wisconsin, John Vaudreuil, often reminds his colleagues, even without the threat of mandatory minimums, it remains in the interests of all attorneys to serve as sound advocates for their clients — and for defendants to cooperate with the government in exchange for reduced sentences.

Far from impeding the work of our prosecutors, the sentencing reforms I’ve mandated have strengthened their discretion.  The contention that cooperation is somehow dependent on mandatory minimums is tied to a past at tension with the empirical present, and is plainly inconsistent with history, and with now known facts.  After all, as the Heritage Foundation observed earlier this year: “[t]he rate of cooperation in cases involving mandatory minimums is comparable to the average rate in all federal cases.”

Of course, as we refine our approach and reject the ineffective practice of calling for stringent sentences against those convicted of low-level, nonviolent crimes, we also need to refine the metrics we use to measure success; to evaluate the steps we’re taking; and to assess the effectiveness of new criminal justice priorities.  In the Smart on Crime era, it’s no longer adequate — or appropriate — to rely on outdated models that prize only enforcement, as quantified by numbers of prosecutions, convictions, and lengthy sentences, rather than taking a holistic view.  As the Brennan Center and many others have recognized — and as your landmark report on Federal Prosecution for the 21st Century makes crystal clear — it’s time to shift away from old metrics and embrace a more contemporary, and more comprehensive, view of what constitutes success....

Your concrete recommendations — that federal prosecutors should prioritize reducing violence, incarceration, and recidivism — are consistent with the aims of the Smart on Crime initiative.  The new metrics you propose — such as evaluating progress by assessing changes in local violent crime rates, numbers of federal prisoners initially found in particular districts, and changes in the three-year recidivism rate — lay out a promising roadmap for us to consider.  And my pledge to you today is that my colleagues and I will not merely carefully study this critical report — we will use it as a basis for discussion, and a vital resource to draw upon, as we engage in a far-reaching process to develop and codify new success measures — with the aim of cementing recent shifts in law and policy.

One of the key points underscored by your report — and emphasized under the Smart on Crime approach — is the need for the Justice Department to direct funding to help move the criminal justice field toward a fuller embrace of science and data. This is something that we — and especially our Office of Justice Programs and Bureau of Justice Assistance  — have taken very seriously throughout the Obama Administration.  And nowhere are these ideals more fully embodied — or more promisingly realized — than in our Justice Reinvestment Act and Second Chance Act programs....

Thanks to bipartisan support from Congress, funding for the Justice Reinvestment Initiative has more than quadrupled this year.  That, on its own, is an extraordinary indication of the power and importance of this work.  And this additional funding is allowing us to launch a new challenge grant program — designed to incentivize states to take the next major step in their reform efforts.

Today, I am pleased to announce that five states — Delaware, Georgia, Louisiana, Ohio, and Oregon — will be receiving these grants, which can be used to expand pre-trial reforms, to scale up swift and certain sanctions, to institute evidence-based parole practices, or a number of other options.  I am also pleased to announce that five states have been selected to receive new funding under the Second Chance Act to help reduce recidivism. Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, and Vermont will each be awarded $1 million to meet their recidivism reduction goals.  And each will be eligible for an additional $2 million over the next two years if they do so.

September 23, 2014 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Monday, September 15, 2014

Effective commentary on Sixth Circuit panel upholding 15-year ACCA sentence for possession of shotgun shells

I am pleased to see that by LawProf Richard M. Re  now has posted on his (wonderfully titled) Re's Judicata blog some new critical thoughts about the Sixth Circuit panel ruling late last week in US v. Young, No. 13-5714 (6th Cir. Sept. 11, 2014) (available here).  Young rejected an Eighth Amendment claim by the defendant by ruling that a mandatory 15-year federal imprisonment term was not grossly disproportionate for a felon's possession of shotgun shells.  I first blogged about the Young ruling here, and I have not (yet) commented further because I was involved in the briefing and argument to the Sixth Circuit as an amicus representing NACDL.

Helpfully, Prof Re's extended post on Young, which is titled "A 'Shell' Game in the Sixth Circuit?", highlights some of my own deep concerns about the ruling. I recommend everyone check out the full post, which gets started this way:

In US v. Young, the Sixth Circuit recently affirmed a startlingly severe sentence for what seems like innocuous conduct, and the blogosphere has taken note.  As Eugene Volokh put it in his post title, the case involved a “15-year mandatory minimum federal sentence for possessing shotgun shells (no shotgun) almost 20 years after past felonies.”  The case might go to the Supreme Court on the Eighth Amendment question it raises.

Viewed from another angle, Young illustrates two reasons to lament the rarity of executive clemency.  First, whether Young’s sentence is just seems to depend on factors that weren’t pressed in court but that executive officials likely know about.  A robust clemency tradition would bring those factors to light.  Second, in the absence of executive clemency, the Sixth Circuit seems to have reached outside the proven record to do the executive’s job for it — and, in doing so, the court relied on allegations and innuendo instead of judicial findings.

Prior related posts on Young case:

September 15, 2014 in Examples of "over-punishment", Gun policy and sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Congressional Budget Office reports Smarter Sentencing Act would save federal taxpayers $4.36 billion

As reported in this new piece from The Hill, which is headlined "CBO: Drug sentencing reform saves $4B," this is now an official congressional estimate of just how much federal taxpayer monies would be saved if the Smarter Sentencing Act were to become law. Here are the basics:

Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) announced that their bill to reform nonviolent drug sentencing would reduce prison costs by more than $4 billion. “Making smart reforms to our drug sentencing laws will save the taxpayers billions of dollars,” Lee said on Monday.

On Monday, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) reported that Durbin and Lee’s bill would save the federal government $4.36 billion in prison costs by giving federal judges more discretion in sentencing those convicted of non-violent drug offenses.

“Today’s CBO report proves that not only are mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenses often unfair, they are also fiscally irresponsible,” Durbin said. “By making the incremental, targeted changes that Senator Lee and I have proposed in our Smarter Sentencing Act, we can save taxpayers billions without jeopardizing public safety.”

This press release from Senator Mike Lee's office provides more context and details about potential SSA savings and the broad support the bill has already garnered:

CBO is the second government agency to conclude that the Durbin-Lee bill would produce billions of dollars in savings. The Department of Justice, which administers our federal prison system, has estimated that the bill would avoid prison costs of nearly $7.4 billion in 10 years and $24 billion in 20 years.

With federal prison populations skyrocketing and approximately half of the nation’s federal inmates serving sentences for drug offenses, the Smarter Sentencing Act would give federal judges more discretion in sentencing those convicted of non-violent drug offenses....

The bipartisan Smarter Sentencing Act is supported by faith leaders from the National Association of Evangelicals to the United Methodist Church. It is supported by groups and individuals including Heritage Action, Justice Fellowship of Prison Fellowship Ministries, Major Cities Chiefs Association, the ACLU, Grover Norquist, International Union of Police Associations, the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, more than 100 former prosecutors and judges, the NAACP, Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, the Sentencing Project, American Conservative Union, Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), the Council of Prison Locals, Ralph Reed, Open Society Policy Center, American Correctional Association, the American Bar Association, National Black Prosecutors Association, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, National Task Force to End Sexual and Domestic Violence, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, Texas Public Policy Foundation, and the Constitution Project.

September 15, 2014 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Sixth Circuit panel finds mandatory 15-year imprisonment term not grossly disproportionate for possession of shotgun shells

Because I filled an amicus brief on behalf of defendant Edward Young and participated in oral argument as well, I am much too close to the Eighth Amendment issue resolved against the defendant today in US v. Young, No. 13-5714 (6th Cir. Sept. 11, 2014) (available here), to provide any objective analysis and perspective.  And rather than provide my biased analysis in this post, let me for now be content to reprint the start the Sixth Circuit panel's per curiam ruling: 

Edward Young received a mandatory fifteen-year prison sentence for the crime of possessing seven shotgun shells in a drawer.  He came into possession of the shells while helping a neighbor sell her late husband’s possessions. When he eventually discovered them, he did not realize that his legal disability against possessing firearms — resulting from felonies committed some twenty years earlier — extended to ammunition. See 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1). Under the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA), Young received a mandatory fifteen-year sentence.

Young now asks this court to conclude that the ACCA, as applied to him, is unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment because the gravity of his offense is so low as compared to the harshness of his sentence, and unconstitutional under the Fifth Amendment because he lacked notice.  Our precedent compels us to reject these claims and to affirm Young’s sentence.

To its credit, the per curiam decision in Young engages somewhat with some Eighth Amendment principles I sought to stress in my amicus efforts in this case, and Judge Stranch authored an extended concurrence discussing the policy arguments against mandatory minimums. But these aspects of the Young opinion do very little to salve my seething aggravation and frustration with this ruling.

A number of judges on the Sixth Circuit have a (somewhat justified) reputation for going to great lengths to bend and extend Eighth Amendment jurisprudence to block state efforts to execute brutal murderers after a state sentencing jury imposed the death penalty.  Consequently, I was hopeful (though not optimistic) that at least one member of a Sixth Circuit panel could and would conclude the modern Eighth Amendment places some substantive and judicially enforceable limits on extreme application of extreme federal mandatory minimum prison terms.  Apparently not.  Though surely not the intent of this ruling, I think the practical message is that one needs to murder someone with ammunition rather than just possess it illegally for the Sixth Circuit to be moved by an Eighth Amendment claim. (I was hoping to save a screed about this ruling for a future post, but obviously this is already a bit too raw for me to be able to hold my blog tongue.)

I am hopeful that the defendant will be interested in seeking en banc review and/or SCOTUS review, and thus I suspect the (obviously uphill) legal fight against this extreme sentence will continue. I plan to continue helping with that fight, and I would be eager to hear from others eager to help as well.

Prior related posts:

September 11, 2014 in Examples of "over-punishment", Gun policy and sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (25) | TrackBack

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Split Third Circuit panel concludes Allenye error can be harmless

Sixth Amendment fans will want to find the time to check out the Third Circuit's notable opinion today in US v. Lewis, No. 10-2931 (3d Cir. Sept. 9, 2014) (available here).   The start of the majority opinion (per Judge Fisher) in Lewis suggest there is not too much of note in the case: 

This case requires us to determine the applicable standard of review for situations where a district court has imposed a mandatory minimum sentence based upon facts that were never charged in the indictment or found by a jury beyond a reasonable doubt. Such errors occur when a sentence is imposed in violation of the rule recently set forth in Alleyne v. United States, 133 S. Ct. 2151 (2013). Appellant Jermel Lewis challenges his sentence and contends that the failure of the indictment to charge an Alleyne element, combined with Alleyne error in jury instructions and at sentencing, is structural error.  We hold that Alleyne error of the sort alleged here is not structural and is instead subject to harmless or plain error analysis under Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 52.  We conclude that the District Court’s error in Lewis’s case was harmless and will therefore affirm.

But the end of of the dissenting opinion (per Judge Rendell) in Lewis suggests there is a lot more to the matter:

Over a decade ago in Vazquez, I noted that the logic in that decision would mean that the “government can charge and convict a defendant of manslaughter, but sentence him for murder, and, as long as the government produced evidence at trial that would support that sentence, we would not notice or correct the error under [plain error review] and require resentencing in accordance with the jury’s verdict.”  271 F.3d at 130 (Rendell, J. dissenting).  Today the majority goes beyond even that dire prediction as it upholds a sentence for a crime different from that of conviction, under de novo review.  Under the majority’s reasoning, and contrary to Alleyne, a district court may now sentence a defendant pursuant to an improper mandatory minimum, in violation of the Sixth Amendment, and we would be obligated to uphold the sentence if we, an appellate court, find the evidence at trial to have been sufficient.  In short, today’s decision strikes at the very heart of the jury trial and grand jury protections afforded by the Constitution.

But perhaps I am wrong.  Perhaps we live in a brave new world where judges may determine what crimes a defendant has committed without regard to his indictment or jury verdict, and sentence him accordingly.  Or maybe Alleyne does not really mean what it says, when it proclaims brandishing and carrying offenses to be separate and distinct crimes, and that a defendant is entitled to be sentenced consistent with the jury’s findings.  But I take the Supreme Court at its word.  Until clearly instructed otherwise, I maintain that different crimes are just that, and district court judges cannot sentence a defendant to an uncharged crime simply because the evidence fits, nor can an appellate panel affirm such a sentence because they find that the evidence fits.  I adhere to the principle that both appellate and trial judges are required by the Constitution to respect, and sentence according to, a valid jury verdict, and on this basis I respectfully dissent.

September 9, 2014 in Blakely in Appellate Courts, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Recuenco and review of Blakely error, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

"Life sentence for buying marijuana?"

CA6K4VHLThe question and title of this post comes from the headline of this new CNN commentary by Vanita Gupta, who is deputy legal director at the ACLU.  An editorial note at the start of this piece provides this background: "CNN's David Mattingly reports on the case of a Missouri man sentenced to life in prison for purchasing marijuana Wednesday at 7 p.m. on Erin Burnett OutFront."  And this companion piece, headlined "The price of pot," provides this additional preview:

Penalties for the personal use of marijuana vary across the country, the most severe standing in stark contrast as more states legalize medical and even recreational use. Possession of an ounce of pot in Colorado is penalty-free, but if you’re in Kansas, that same ounce could land you a year in jail and a $2,500 fine.

This week on "Erin Burnett OutFront," CNN's David Mattingly investigates two marijuana cases involving stiff penalties, including one man spending life in prison on pot charges. "OutFront" asks: Does the punishment fit the crime?  Watch the two-part "OutFront" investigation Wednesday and Thursday, September 3-4 at 7 p.m. ET.

  And now here are now excerpts from the commentary by  Vanita Gupta: 

Clearly something is broken when a Missouri man named Jeff Mizanskey can be sentenced to die in prison for purchasing seven pounds of marijuana. With two nonviolent marijuana convictions already on his record, Jeff received life without parole under Missouri's three strikes law.

The punishment of growing old and dying behind bars for offenses like Mizanskey's is extreme, tragic, and inhumane. This should outrage us, but it should not surprise us. This country has spent 40 years relentlessly ratcheting up the number of people going to prison and dramatically expanding the time we hold them there. We've spent decades criminalizing people with drug dependency, passing extreme sentencing laws, and waging a war on drugs that has not diminished drug use. Small wonder, then, that even less serious crimes like Mizanskey's marijuana purchase result in costly and cruel sentences....

While many of the lawmakers who passed harsh sentencing laws thought they were doing the right thing, the results are now in: This approach has devastated families and communities, generated high recidivism rates, drained state budgets from more productive investments, and has reinforced generations of poverty and disadvantage that disproportionately fall on communities of color. There were ways to hold Mizanskey and others like him accountable for their actions short of sentencing them to die in prison.

We can and must do better. It's time for states to end the costly criminalization of marijuana and recalibrate sentencing laws so that the punishment actually fits the crime as opposed to a politician's reelection agenda. Public attitudes toward marijuana are rapidly evolving, and a Gallup poll last year found for the first time that a majority of Americans now favor legalization as a better course than criminalization.

Unfortunately, laws and police practices that enforce them are out of step with public opinion. Nationally, nearly half of all drug arrests are for marijuana offenses. At least one person is arrested for marijuana possession every hour in Mizanskey's home state of Missouri, which also wasted nearly $50 million on marijuana enforcement in 2010. Although black people and white people use marijuana at about the same rate, a black person in Missouri was 2.6 times more likely to be arrested for having marijuana than a white person.

The solution is clear. Instead of taxpayers spending millions of dollars on this unnecessary enforcement and keeping folks like Mizanskey in prison for the rest of their lives, states could follow Colorado and Washington by taxing and regulating marijuana and investing saved enforcement dollars in education, substance abuse treatment, and prevention and other health care.

But even if states are not ready to expand their tax base in this manner, state lawmakers need to take a good, hard look at their sentencing laws and eliminate penalties that far outweigh the crimes they seek to punish. It is tempting to think that Mizanskey's case is an anomaly, but that is not the case.

According to a report released by the American Civil Liberties Union last year, there are currently 3,278 people serving life sentences without parole for nonviolent crimes, including marijuana offenses. Many of them, like Mizanskey, are there because of three-strikes laws and mandatory sentencing regimes. These policies force judges to impose excessively cruel sentences and forbid corrections officials from granting early release or parole, even despite exemplary records in prison.

The good news is that there is a growing bipartisan consensus all over the country that our criminal justice system has gone too far and that we can and must safely downsize our prison population. Missouri recently reformed the three strikes law that sentenced Jeff to prison for life. If he were sentenced today, he could have received a significantly shorter sentence and be eligible for parole.

As states like Missouri make these kinds of reforms, we must not forget the people who languish behind bars because of old sentencing laws now thought to be excessive. Smart reforms that correct past injustice should be made retroactive, and governors must use their clemency powers more frequently. Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon should grant clemency to Jeff Mizanskey. Public safety is not served by having him die in prison.

September 3, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Examples of "over-punishment", Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Pot Prohibition Issues, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack