Thursday, May 15, 2014

Intriguing Second Circuit opinion concerning which priors trigger 10-year child porn mandatory

Today in US v. Lockhart, No. 13-602 (2d Cir. May 15, 2014) (available here), a Second Circuit panel resolves a notable statutory question concerning what prior sex offenses serve as predicates triggering a 10-year mandatory minimum prison term for a child porn possession offense.  Here is how the opinion in Lockhart starts along with a later paragraph highlighting why this issue could perhaps get Supreme Court attention:

In this case, we must decide whether a sentencing provision that provides for a ten‐year mandatory minimum term of imprisonment if a defendant was previously convicted “under the laws of any State relating to aggravated sexual abuse, sexual abuse, or abusive sexual conduct involving a minor or ward,” 18 U.S.C. § 2252(b)(2), requires that an “aggravated sexual abuse” or “sexual abuse” conviction involve a minor or ward, or whether only “abusive sexual conduct” is modified by the phrase “involving a minor or ward,” such that a sexual abuse conviction involving an adult victim constitutes a predicate offense. We conclude that the statutory text and structure indicate that the latter reading is correct and therefore affirm the district court’s imposition of a ten‐year sentence on Defendant‐Appellant Avondale Lockhart....

Looking at § 2252(b)(2) as a whole, we find, as a number of other circuits have explained, that “it would be unreasonable to conclude that Congress intended to impose the enhancement on defendants convicted under federal law, but not on defendants convicted for the same conduct under state law.” United States v. Spence, 661 F.3d 194, 197 (4th Cir. 2011).... This reasoning compels us to conclude that “involving a minor or ward” modifies only prior state convictions for “abusive sexual conduct,” not those for “sexual abuse” or “aggravated sexual abuse,” each of which would constitute a predicate federal offense if committed against an adult or a child.

We acknowledge that the Sixth, Eighth and Tenth Circuits have reached the opposite conclusion, namely, that the phrase “involving a minor or ward” modifies all three categories of state sexual abuse crimes.  However, the Eighth and Tenth Circuits have drawn this conclusion without elaborating on their reasoning. Indeed, these circuits appear merely to have assumed that a prior state‐law sexual abuse conviction requires a minor victim for purposes of the sentencing enhancement, an assumption that made little difference in those cases since the predicate violations at issue involved minor victims.... The Sixth Circuit has reached this conclusion most explicitly, although it did so because it found that another panel of that court had “already considered the proper construction of the statutory language at issue,” and that that prior decision bound the current panel, even though the earlier opinion did not engage in any express analysis of the statutory language.  United States v. Mateen, 739 F.3d 300, 304–05 (6th Cir. 2014) (citing United States v. Gardner, 649 F.3d 437 (6th Cir. 2011)), reh’g en banc granted, opinion vacated (Apr. 9, 2014).  We are not compelled to follow such unexplored assumptions in coming to our conclusion here.

May 15, 2014 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

How do we reconcile Senator Jeff Sessions' vocal support for the FSA and strong opposition to the SSA?

SessionsThere are many interesting claims and notable contentions in the letter sent by Senators Grassley, Cornyn and Sessions to their colleagues explaining their opposition to the Smarter Sentencing Act (first reported here).  Most notable, I think, are the essential ideas set out at the start and end of the letter: despite a decades-long federal drug war that has grown the size of the federal government and has long included severe mandatory minimums prison terms, we still find ourselves in the midst of a "historic heroin epidemic" which apparently calls for "redoubling our efforts." I believe that the sensible response to ineffective federal government drug policies and practices would be to consider changing some of these policies and practices, not "redoubling our efforts" (and thereby redoubling the size of an apparently ineffective federal government bureaucracy).

But, as the question in the title of this post suggests, I am now especially wondering how Senator Jeff Sessions, who was a vocal supporter of Congress's decision in 2010 to reduce crack mandatory minimum sentences through the Fair Sentencing Act, has now signed on to a letter forcefully opposing a proposal to reduce other drug mandatory minimum sentences through the Smarter Sentencing Act.   Notably, in this March 2010 statement, Senator Sessions stated that he has "long believed that we need to bring greater balance and fairness to our drug sentencing laws" and that the FSA's change to crack mandatory minimums will "achieve needed fairness without impeding our ability to combat drug violence and protect victims." In his words, the FSA's reforms to crack mandatory minimums "strengthen our justice system."

But now, four years later, Senator Sessions has signed on to a letter opposing the Smarter Sentencing Act which claims that this proposal to "reduce sentences for drug traffickers would not only put more dangerous criminals back on the streets sooner, but it would send the message that the United States government lacks the will or is not serious about combatting drug crimes." This letter also asserts that "lower mandatory minimum sentences mean increased crime and more victims."

Critically, the SSA changes federal drugs sentencing laws significantly more than the FSA: the SSA cuts the minimum prison terms for all drug offenses rather than just increasing the amount of one drug needed to trigger existing mandatory prison terms as did the FSA.  Consequently, one can have a principled basis to have supported the FSA's reduction of crack sentences (as did nearly every member of Congress when the FSA passed) and to now oppose the SSA's proposed reduction of all federal drug sentences.  However, back in  2010, Senator Sessions recognized and vocally stated that reducing some federal drug sentences would actually "strengthen our justice system" by helping to "achieve needed fairness without impeding our ability to combat drug violence and protect victims."  I believe (like a majority of the Senate Judiciary Committee) that the SSA would likewise "strengthen our justice system," but Senator Sessions now seem to think it will "mean increased crime and more victims."

Some prior posts about the SSA and debates over federal sentencing reform:

May 14, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (12) | TrackBack

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Another notable letter expressing opposition to SSA ... on US Senate letterhead

As noted here in this prior post, Bill Otis at Crime & Consequences broke the news yesterday that a significant number of significant former federal prosecutors signed on to a public letter to Senators Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell to express publicly their opposition to any reform of federal drug mandatory minimums.   This morning I discovered that late yesterday Bill Otis put up here at C&C more notable news about opposition to drug sentencng form:  apparently this week, Senators "Chuck Grassley, John Cornyn and Jeff Sessions [have written] an all-colleagues letter explaining why the Smarter Sentencing Act should be defeated." 

(Side note: I use the term "apparently" concerning the report from Bill Otis regarding this letter because his reprinting of the letter at C&C here includes only the contents of the letter without any date or reprinted signatures.  In addition, Bill provide no link to the actual letter in any form, nor can I find any public resource or news media reporting on this letter.  Also, and a check/search of the official websites of the US Senate and of Senators Grassley and Cornyn and Sessions so far has produced no copy of the letter.   I assume this letter really exists, and I hope to be able to provide a link to an official public release of this letter shortly.  But I am finding it now more than a bit peculiar and troublesome that Bill Otis and Crime & Consequences has seemingly become the (un)official reporter of official opposition to the Smarter Sentencing Act.   These developments reinforce my fear that Bill Otis and perhaps some other unnamed lobbyists and partisans are playing a very significant and cloistered role in seeking to derail any new federal sentencing reforms in Congress.)

Notably, the substance of the letter reprinted at C&C echoes a lot of the themes that have been stressed by opponents of any federal sentencing reform, and it restates some of the points forcefully stated by Senator Grassley in this Senate floor speech last month.  But the letter is now the strongest collection of many of the strongest arguments against some (but not all) of the provisions of the Smarter Sentencing Act.  I recommend everyone read the letter, and I hope to be able to provide a link to a copy of the actual document from an official source before too long.

Some prior posts about the SSA and debates over federal sentencing reform:

UPDATE:  I am pleased and grateful that I was able to receive from a helpful reader a pdf copy of the original letter sent by the Senators referenced in this post and reprinted originally at C&C.   Minus the footnotes, here are the first two paragraphs of the letter followed by a downloadable copy:

The nation is in the midst of an historic heroin epidemic that is wreaking havoc in cities and towns from New England to the Pacific Northwest. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the amount of heroin seized at the southwest border has increased nearly 300% from 2008 to 2013, while heroin-overdose deaths have increased by 45%. At the same time, approximately 4.3 million people abuse or are dependent on marijuana. In 2012, almost 32 million people ages 12 and older reported using marijuana within the past year and, in 2013, one out of every 15 high school seniors reported being a near daily user. According to the 2013 National Survey Results on Drug Use, 50% of high school seniors reported having used illegal drugs at some point in their lives.

It is against this grim backdrop that we write to express our concerns with S. 1410, the "Smarter Sentencing Act of 2014," which would benefit some of the most serious and dangerous offenders in the federal system by cutting in half (or more) mandatory minimum sentences for high-level drug trafficking offenses. The proponents of S. 1410 claim that it will reduce sentences for so-called "low-level, non-violent" drug offenders. These terms, as well as the bill's claimed effect, are highly misleading. In fact, nothing in this bill will affect the lowest level federal drug offenders at all.

Download Senators letter to Colleagues on SSA

May 13, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

Monday, May 12, 2014

Significant collection of significant former federal prosecutors write to Senators to oppose SSA

Thanks to this new post by Bill Otis at Crime & Consequences, titled "Former Top DOJ Leaders Oppose the SSA," I have learned that a significant number of significant former federal prosecutors — including former US Attorneys General William Barr and Michael Mukasey — have signed on to a public letter to Senators Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell to express publicly their opposition to any reform of federal drug mandatory minimums. The full text of the letter is available at C&C, and here are excerpts:

Because the Senate is now considering revisiting the subject of mandatory minimum penalties for federal drug trafficking offenses, we take this opportunity to express our personal concerns over pending legislative proposals.  We are concerned specifically by proposals that would slash current mandatory minimum penalties over federal drug trafficking offenses — by as much as fifty percent.  We are deeply concerned about the impact of sentencing reductions ofthis magnitude on public safety.  We believe the American people will be ill-served by the significant reduction of sentences for federal drug trafficking crimes that involve the sale and distribution of dangerous drugs like heroin, methamphetamines and PCP.  We are aware of little public support for lowering the minimum required sentences for these extremely dangerous and sometimes lethal drugs. In addition, we fear that lowering the minimums will make it harder for prosecutors to build cases against the leaders of narcotics organizations and gangs — leaders who often direct violent and socially destructive organizations that harm people throughout the United States.

Many of us once served on the front lines of justice. We have witnessed the focus of federal law enforcement upon drug trafficking — not drug possession offenses — and the value of mandatory minimum sentences aimed at drug trafficking offenses.

Existing law already provides escape hatches for deserving defendants facing a mandatory minimum sentence.  Often, they can plea bargain their way to a lesser charge; such bargaining is overwhelmingly the way federal cases are resolved.  Even if convicted under a mandatory minimum charge, however, the judge on his own can sidestep the sentence if the defendant has a minor criminal history, has not engaged in violence, was not a big-time player,and cooperates with federal authorities.  This "safety valve," as it's known, has been in the law for almost 20 years. Prosecutors correctly regard this as an essential tool in encouraging cooperation and, thus, breaking down drug conspiracies, large criminal organizations and violent gangs.

We believe our current sentencing regimen strikes the right balance between Congressional direction in the establishment of sentencing levels, due regard for appropriate judicial direction, and the preservation of public safety.  We have made great gains in reducing crime.  Our current sentencing framework has kept us safe and should be preserved.

In addition to thinking this letter is a pretty big deal, I am now wondering if it represents the final nail in the Smarter Sentencing Act's coffin or instead reveals that the SSA might still have some legs. Based on the lack of action on the SSA over the last few months, I have been assuming this effort at federal sentencing reform was dying a slow death, and this letter from a lot of prominent former prosecutors provides yet another reason and basis for member of Congress to express additional concerns about the sentencing reforms in the SSA. And yet, if the SSA was already in its death throes, I doubt there would have been so much obvious energy devoted to getting all these prominent former prosecutors speaking out against the reforms in the SSA.

All that said, I continue to find the discussion and debate over the SSA an intriguing (and valuable?) distraction from all the other arguably much-more-consequential federal sentencing developments that are afoot. The fact that prominent Tea-party leaders in the GOP like Rand Paul, Mike Lee and Ted Cruz all support significant federal sentencing reform, the fact that state marijuana reforms seem to be continuing apace, the fact that the US Sentencing Commission has voted to lower most of the drug guidelines, the fact that most federal sentences are now outside the guidelines, and the fact that DOJ and Prez Obama are working hard on clemency reform all will be likely impacting federal sentencing realities more than whether or not the SSA is passed by Congress. (This is not to say that the SSA is not important or potentially consequential, but it is to say that a whole host of much broader forces are changing the dynamics of modern federal sentencing policies and practices.)

Some prior posts about the SSA federal prosecutorial perspectives on sentencing reform:

May 12, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Saturday, May 03, 2014

Noting challenges for mandatory minimum sentencing in Pennsylvania in wake of Alleyne

This local story from Pennsylvania, headlined "Mandatory sentencing disrupted by Supreme Court," discusses some of the difficult issues arising in the Keystone state as a result of the Supreme Court's Sixth Amendment ruling in Alleyne last year. Here are some details:

For the second time in a month, a Common Pleas Court judge has declared a mandatory sentencing provision inserted into a drug trafficking charge unconstitutional because it contradicts a U.S. Supreme Court decision handed down in June of last year.  Judge Phyllis Streitel, in a one-page order issued Tuesday, said the provision that would set a prison term at three years for the defendant, Demetrius Aaron Hardy of Las Vegas, Nev., could not be applied to him in the formal charges leveled by the prosecution without butting up against the high court’s decision....

Alleyne has set prosecutors across the state, including in Chester County, scrambling to add the minimum mandatory provision to drug charges.  It has also led to a slew of challenges to the moves, including an earlier county case that is now before the state Supreme Court.  “It’s a mess,” said one veteran West Chester defense attorney familiar with the appeals but who spoke on the condition on anonymity because he was not authorized to comment on the matter.  “Most of the judges are finding these cases to be unconstitutional.  It has go to be fixed by the legislature, or else there won’t be any more mandatories.”

Mandatory sentences gained popularity in the 1980s, and are now commonplace in many drug prosecutions.  District attorneys appreciate them because they add a level of security in what sentence a particular defendant will receive.  Judges are uncomfortable with them at times, because they remove a level of discretion they have in sentencing individual defendants.  And defense attorneys bristle at them, because they give the prosecution added leverage during plea negotiations with the threat of imposing a mandatory minimum should the defendant seek to go to trial....

Streitel issued a similar order on April 25 in the case of a 49-year-old West Nantmeal man, Dennis “Spanky” Alenovitz, who was arrested in early 2013 on charges that he sold methamphetamine to an confidential informant from his home on Pumpkin Hill Road over a two-month period. Alenovitz is also represented by Green.

The weights of the methamphetamine Alenovitz is alleged to have sold would have in the past automatically set his mandatory prison terms at three or four years, depending on the transaction, should be the prosecution asked the judge sentencing him to impose it.  But under the Alleyne ruling, the weight of the drugs triggering those mandatory sentences would have to be determined by a jury hearing Alenovitz’s case, not a judge, and be proven beyond a reasonable doubt....

Judge David Bortner had already ruled in another county case that adding mandatory provision to a criminal charge was unconstitutional.  That case, involving a Kennett Square man arrested by state police in April 2012, involves a mandatory sentence for selling drugs in a school zone.  That case is currently before the state Supreme Court on appeal by the prosecution.  It is among 11 such cases the court has agreed to hear to sort out the constitutionality of the provision, including ones from Montgomery and Luzerne counties....

Whether or not the mandatory provisions added to the charges are upheld or thrown out, the cases against Hardy, Alenovitz, and the defendant in Bortner’s case are not going to disappear; they will still be charged with selling drugs. If convicted, they would also still be subject to possible prison terms — even as long as the mandatory sentences the prosecution is seeking. But the eventual sentence in those cases would be up to a judge, not a prosecutor.

May 3, 2014 in Blakely in the States, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Thursday, May 01, 2014

DEA head tells Senate DEA supports "scientific research efforts" concerning marijuana

As reported in this Washington Post article, headlined "DEA chief says marijuana-trafficking spiking in states near Colorado," the head of the Drug Enforcement Agency testified in Congress yesterday and expressed concerns about marijuana legalization and expressed support for mandatory minimum drug sentences:

Administrator Michele Leonhart said the DEA is troubled by the increase in marijuana trafficking in states surrounding Colorado and worries that the same phenomenon could be repeated around Washington state, where recreational marijuana is expected to be sold legally soon. In Kansas, she said, there has been a 61 percent increase in seizures of marijuana from Colorado.

Speaking to the Senate Judiciary Committee, Leonhart said the softening of attitudes nationwide about the risk of marijuana has confirmed some of the agency’s fears. “The trends are what us in law enforcement had expected would happen,” she said. “In 2012, 438,000 Americans were addicted to heroin. And 10 times that number were dependent on marijuana.”...

DEA officials have expressed frustration privately about the legalization of marijuana by Colorado and Washington state, where local officials consider the change an opportunity to generate tax revenue and boost tourism. But in January, James. L. Capra, the DEA’s chief of operations, called marijuana legalization at the state level “reckless and irresponsible,” and warned that the decriminalization movement would have dire consequences. “It scares us,” he said during a Senate hearing. “Every part of the world where this has been tried, it has failed time and time again.”...

On Wednesday, Leonhart spoke about why she thinks marijuana is dangerous. She said that marijuana-related emergency-room visits increased by 28 percent between 2007 and 2011 and that one in 15 high school seniors is a near-daily marijuana user. Since 2009, she said, more high school seniors have been smoking pot than smoking cigarettes....

Leonhart also spoke out in support of mandatory minimum sentencing for drug crimes, an issue Holder has highlighted recently as part of his initiative to reduce prison crowding and foster equity in criminal sentencing. Holder has instructed his 93 U.S. attorneys to use their discretion in charging low-level, nonviolent criminals with offenses that impose severe mandatory sentences.

Leonhart, in response to a question from Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), said: “Having been in law enforcement as an agent for 33 years [and] a Baltimore City police officer before that, I can tell you that for me and for the agents that work at the DEA, mandatory minimums have been very important to our investigations. We depend on those as a way to ensure that the right sentences equate the level of violator we are going after.”

Though the press coverage of the DEA chief's remarks suggest she is continuing the standard drug war posture of all modern administrations, her prepared testimony (available here) included thes three notable sentences about the DEA's support for medical marijuana research:

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and other components of the National Institutes of Health are conducting research to determine the possible role that active chemicals in marijuana, like tetrahydrocannabinol, cannabidiol, or other cannabinoids may play in treating autoimmune diseases, cancer, inflammation, pain, seizures, substance use disorders, and other psychiatric disorders.  DEA supports these, scientific research efforts by providing Schedule I research registrations to qualified researchers.  In fact, DEA has never denied a marijuana-related research application to anyone whose research protocol had been determined by the Department of Health and Human Services to be scientifically meritorious.

Perhaps these kinds of statements from DEA in support of "scientifically meritorious" medical marijuana research are not uncommon.  Still, these sentences struck me as notable and telling in the context of the DEA chief's many other anti-marijuana-legalization comments.

May 1, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

"Why innocent people plead guilty": Judge Jed Rakoff suggests "tens of thousands of innocent people" have been "coerced into pleading guilty"

Judge-Jed-Rakoff-400x400The title of this post is drawn from this report via USC News summarizing a provocative recent speech given by Judge Jed Rakoff (which a kind reader alerted me to). Here are excerpts:

Rakoff, who sits on the Federal District Court in Manhattan, N.Y., spoke recently at the USC Gould School of Law’s Neiman Sieroty Lecture on “Why Innocent People Plead Guilty.”...

“The criminal justice system is nothing like you see on TV — it has become a system of plea bargaining,” Rakoff said. Today, only 2 percent of cases in the federal system go to trial, and 4 percent of cases in the state system go before a jury. As a result, accepting a deal from prosecutors — despite one’s guilt or innocence — has become a common choice for individuals accused of a crime.

“Plea bargains have led many innocent people to take a deal,” Rakoff said. “People accused of crimes are often offered five years by prosecutors or face 20 to 30 years if they go to trial. … The prosecutor has the information, he has all the chips … and the defense lawyer has very, very little to work with. So it’s a system of prosecutor power and prosecutor discretion. I saw it in real life [as a criminal defense attorney], and I also know it in my work as a judge today.”

What can be done? Rakoff said prosecutors should have smaller roles in sentence bargaining and the mandatory minimum sentences should be eliminated. “But to be frank, I don’t think, politically, either of those things is going to happen. … When it comes right down to it, I think the public really wants these high penalties, and that’s because when these harsh penalties were imposed [in the 1980s], the crime rate went down.”

Another more controversial solution is to allow judicial involvement in the plea bargain process. A judge who is not involved in the case could take a first pass at an agreement, working with prosecutors and defense attorneys. “What I have in mind is a magistrate judge or a junior judge would get involved,” Rakoff said. “He would take offers from the prosecutor and the defense. … He would evaluate the case and propose a plea bargain if he thought that was appropriate, and he might, in appropriate cases, say to the prosecutor, ‘You don’t have a case and you should drop it.’ This would be very difficult for the judiciary; it’s not something I come to lightly, but I can’t think of any better solution to this problem.”

Until extraordinary action is taken, Rakoff said little will change. “We have hundreds, or thousands, or even tens of thousands of innocent people who are in prison, right now, for crimes they never committed because they were coerced into pleading guilty. There’s got to be a way to limit this.”

April 29, 2014 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (14) | TrackBack

Saturday, April 26, 2014

"Not just clemency, but smarter sentencing: Congress must act to make criminal justice more just"

The title of this post is the headline of this recent Washington Times op-ed authored by Craig DeRoche who is president of Justice Fellowship. Here are excerpts:

President Obama’s decision to grant clemency to a large number of nonviolent offenders in federal prison has ignited a much-needed national discussion on criminal justice reform, but voices on both sides are missing some key underlining problems.

Over the past several decades, Congress has passed disproportionate mandatory-minimum sentences for nonviolent offenses that infringe upon the moral and constitutional duties of judges to ensure fair and equitable justice.  As the head of a faith-based organization guided by the Christian values of redemption and transformation, I am called to advocate for a system that values compassion and mercy as necessary policy counterweights to justice.

Justice is giving someone what they deserve, based on the harm they have caused, whereas mercy is extending leniency that is undeserved.  Clemency was designed to be an instrument of mercy, while lawmaking is an exercise of justice.

If the aim of Mr. Obama’s clemency initiative is to correct unjust policy rather than extend mercy in specific cases, then it does nothing to address systematic problem plaguing America’s burgeoning criminal justice system; namely, the disproportionate and ineffective sentencing laws for nonviolent crimes that have led to a federal prison system at 38 percent above capacity.

This unacceptably high level of overcrowding is dangerous for both prison guards and prisoners.  It also diminishes the capacity for faith-based nonprofits such as ours to provide effective programming that helps transform prisoners into law-abiding citizens when they return to our communities.  Not to mention that paying for the skyrocketing federal prison population is essentially accomplished by theft from budgets that formerly went toward victims’ services, prosecutors, investigations and crime-prevention tools.

Some on the political right, in particular members of Congress, object to what Mr. Obama is proposing on the grounds that this is yet another executive action by an imperial president who they think is interfering with the constitutional prerogatives of lawmakers to make policy.

While there is no doubt that both the current and previous occupants of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue have governed — sometimes questionably — through executive action, the Constitution clearly assigns the power of both clemency and pardons to the chief executive.  This is, in fact, a presidential prerogative inherited by way of ancient English constitutional law, which has always held the head of state to be the lead in executing prosecution, punishment and mercy.

The issue is not whether the president has the power to grant clemency, but rather whether Mr. Obama will overreach with that power in a way that undermines the long-term policy changes that can only be established through Congress’ lawmaking power.  Instead of using clemency as a blunt instrument to fix the broken policies and laws governing the criminal justice system, all three branches of government must work together to rebalance the scales of justice and restore a system that is no longer working for anyone....

Congress and the president have the opportunity to fulfill their constitutional obligations with two pieces of pending legislation that have attracted strong bipartisan support and affirm the growing consensus in support of reforming the criminal justice system.

One of the bills is the Smarter Sentencing Act, which has attracted the co-sponsorship of two polar opposites in the Senate: Mike Lee, a Tea Party Republican from Utah, and Richard J. Durbin, a liberal Illinois Democrat. The other is the Recidivism Reduction and Public Safety Act, co-sponsored by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, an unabashed liberal Democrat from Rhode Island, and John Cornyn, a Texas Republican conservative, which passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee on a 15-2 vote.

This rare consensus should not be taken for granted. Discussions and hearings alone are lip service. If Congress wants to avoid an executive-dominated approach to the challenges facing our criminal justice system, it must take the lead in not only proposing, but passing, long-term solutions. All three branches of government working as our Founding Fathers envisioned will not only show the American public that our democracy still works, but that our society has become a more just one.

April 26, 2014 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

President Bartlet urges Congress to pass the Smarter Sentencing Act

I am pleased and intrigued to learn via this Mother Jones piece, headlined "Martin Sheen Reprises His 'West Wing' Role — for a Sentencing Reform PSA," that a high-profile celebrity is making the case for federal sentencing reform. Here are the details (along with links):

On Tuesday, Brave New Films released a new PSA calling on Congress to pass the Smarter Sentencing Act. The proposed sentencing-reform legislation aims to reduce prison populations and costs by creating less severe minimum terms for nonviolent drug offenders. (On Monday,Yahoo News reported that President Obama could grant clemency to "hundreds, perhaps thousands" of nonviolent drug offenders by the end of his second term.) The video was produced in partnership with the ACLU and Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), and stars actor Martin Sheen. It's titled "President Bartlet has a message for Congress," in reference to Sheen's role on Aaron Sorkin's political drama The West Wing.

"When BNF joined with FAMM and the ACLU to rally support for the Smart Sentencing Act, we couldn't think of a better spokesperson than Martin Sheen," Brave New Films president Robert Greenwald said. "When he portrayed President Bartlett on The West Wing, his character commuted the sentences of nonviolent drug offenders. In the real world, Martin Sheen has been an advocate for sentencing reform and alternatives to the harsh, long prison sentences we give to nonviolent drug offenders."

April 23, 2014 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Monday, April 14, 2014

House Judiciary Chair suggests Smarter Sentencing Act still facing uphill battle on the Hill

DownloadCQ News has this important new article on federal sentencing reform developments in Congress under the headline "Goodlatte: Don't 'Jump to Conclusions' on Mandatory Minimums." Here are excerpts:

House Judiciary Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte, R-Va., is not convinced that Congress should scale back mandatory minimum drug sentences, even as the Obama administration and a bipartisan coalition in the Senate step up their efforts to do so.  Goodlatte, speaking to reporters from CQ Roll Call and Politico during a pre-taped interview that aired Sunday on C-SPAN’s “Newsmakers” program, said the severity of drug sentences “is a legitimate issue for us to be examining.”

He noted that his committee has set up a task force to review mandatory minimum sentences and many other aspects of the federal criminal code, and he did not rule out taking up a bipartisan, administration-backed Senate proposal (S 1410) that would reduce some minimum drug penalties by as much as 60 percent.  The Senate could take up the proposal in the coming weeks after the Judiciary Committee approved it 13-5 in March.

Despite signaling his willingness to consider sentencing changes, Goodlatte said, “I want to caution that we shouldn’t jump to conclusions about what is right and what is wrong with the law yet.” Asked whether he believes that some federal prisoners are facing dramatically long sentences for relatively minor drug crimes — a claim frequently made by supporters of an overhaul — Goodlatte expressed skepticism.

“If you’re talking about 25- or 30-year sentences, you’re talking about something that the judge and the jury found appropriate to do above mandatory minimum sentences, because those are five-year and 10-year sentences,” he said.  Regarding the mandatory minimum sentences themselves, he said, “you’ll find that the quantities of drugs that have to be involved are very, very large.”

In the case of marijuana possession, for example, it takes “hundreds” of pounds of the drug to trigger a five-year mandatory minimum penalty and “thousands” of pounds to trigger a 10-year mandatory minimum penalty, Goodlatte said.  “With other drugs that are very potent in much, much smaller doses, those quantities are much, much lower,” he said. “But if you look at it from the standpoint of what someone has to be engaged in dealing, you’re talking about large quantities before you get those minimums.”

The Senate bill, which is supported by conservatives including Ted Cruz, R-Texas, Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Rand Paul, R-Ky., would reduce 10-year minimum sentences for certain drug crimes to five years, while reducing five-year minimum sentences for other drug crimes to two years.  If those drug crimes result in “death or serious bodily injury,” mandatory minimum penalties would be slashed from their current 20 years to 10 years.  In all of the penalties being reconsidered, mandatory sentences are triggered based on the quantity of drugs involved in a particular crime....

Molly Gill, government affairs counsel for the advocacy group Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said in an e-mail that the quantity of drugs involved in a crime is “bad proxy for culpability” and suggested that it should not be used as the basis to defeat proposed changes to fixed drug sentences....

She noted that the independent U.S. Sentencing Commission, which sets advisory sentencing guidelines for the federal judiciary, found in a 2011 study that “the quantity of drugs involved in an offense is not closely related to the offender’s function in the offense.” So-called “drug mules,” for example, physically transport large quantities of narcotics for others but are not themselves major traffickers or kingpins, Gill said.

Even as Goodlatte showed skepticism about lowering mandatory drug sentences, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. kept up his call for Congress to take action on the Senate proposal, known as the Smarter Sentencing Act.

After the Sentencing Commission approved its own changes in drug sentencing guidelines last week — a move that is expected to reduce some drug offenders’ penalties by an estimated 11 months — Holder urged Congress to follow up with more sweeping, statutory changes. “It is now time for Congress to pick up the baton and advance legislation that would take further steps to reduce our overburdened prison system,” he said in a statement.  “Proposals like the bipartisan Smarter Sentencing Act would enhance the fairness of our criminal justice system while empowering law enforcement to focus limited resources on the most serious threats to public safety.”

The full video of the interview with Rep. Goodlatte is available at this C-Span archive, and sentencing fans will want to cue the video up to a little after the 10 minute mark. Not long after that point, there is a discussion of federal marijuana policies and then the interview turn to drug sentencing generally. A review of the whole segment makes me a bit less pessimistic about the possibilities of federal sentencing reform making it through the House of Representatives. But being a bit less pessimistic is hardly being optimistic.

Some prior posts about federal prosecutorial perspectives on sentencing reform:

April 14, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

"Law Enforcement Lobby Quietly Tries To Kill Sentencing Reform"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new Huffington Post piece.  Here are excerpts:

Several organizations representing state and local law enforcement are quietly trying to kill a bipartisan bill that would roll back tough mandatory sentences for people convicted of federal drug offenses under legislation passed during the height of America’s drug war three decades ago.

These groups include the National Sheriffs' Association, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the National Narcotic Officers' Associations' Coalition, the National Association of Police Organizations and the Major County Sheriffs' Association, The Huffington Post has learned.

They hope to weaken congressional support for the Smarter Sentencing Act, which would reform the nation's mandatory minimum statutes, authorizing federal judges to sentence drug defendants to less time behind bars than what current law requires. The legislation passed the Senate Judiciary Committee in January, when, in a rare instance of bipartisan collaboration these days, Republicans Mike Lee of Utah, Ted Cruz of Texas and Jeff Flake of Arizona joined the committee’s Democrats in supporting the measure. Its House counterpart is still sitting in committee....

Major drug dealers “need to be locked up somewhere,” [Bob] Bushman [president of the National Narcotic Officers' Associations' Coalition, one of the groups fighting the bill] told HuffPost. “Some of these folks have worked hard to get to prison."...

A number of law enforcement agencies have already joined advocacy groups like the ACLU in endorsing the bill. They include the Major Cities Chiefs Association, the International Union of Police Associations, the American Correctional Association, the International Community Corrections Association and the American Probation and Parole Association. Attorney General Eric Holder backs the measure as well.

Bushman and his allies, however, aren’t the first law enforcement advocates to speak out against the bill. The Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association and the National Association of Assistant United States Attorneys have also come out against federal sentencing reform in recent months. Unlike Bushman’s cohorts, both of these groups represent officials who work for the federal government, and both have stated their positions in public.

The National Narcotic Officers' Associations' Coalition, the National Sheriffs' Association and the other state and local groups have been working behind the scenes. Several of them had previously lined up against Debo Adegbile, the president's nominee to head the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, and helped block his confirmation last month.

Lobbyists with the National Association of Police Organizations and other groups met with Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Kay Hagan (D-N.C.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and John Walsh (D-Mont.) to discuss their opposition to the reform package. A spokeswoman for the International Association of Chiefs of Police confirmed that the organization was lobbying against changes on Capitol Hill, but said it wasn't prepared to speak publicly on the topic.

Fred Wilson, an official with the National Sheriffs' Association, said his group isn't formally opposed to the legislation in principle but believes the bill needs more study -- even though it has already passed through the Senate Judiciary Committee. "It may be [late], but our legislative folks seem to think not all is lost," Wilson said.

A letter from Bushman and his group to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) -- just one of several letters written by the Smarter Sentencing Act opponents that Bushman said are floating around Capitol Hill -- argues that federal policy should not be driven by "second-order effects of America’s drug problem" like incarceration costs....

Bushman said it was "a little early" to talk about whether law enforcement groups could be won over with a compromise bill this time, but said members of Congress first need to look at the "broader implications" of rolling back mandatory minimums. Democratic congressional aides acknowledged that they have been speaking with a number of law enforcement groups about the bill and said they hoped some of the concerns raised would be addressed, but likewise noted it was still relatively early in the legislative process.

April 2, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (32) | TrackBack

"Two church leaders urge Senate to pass Smarter Sentencing Act"

The title of this post is the headline of this article from what appears to be a prominent Catholic newspaper. Here are excerpts:

Two Catholic leaders called on the U.S. Senate to pass the Smarter Sentencing Act, which would reform rigid sentencing policies for certain nonviolent drug offenders. Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski of Miami, chairman of the U.S. bishops' Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, and Father Larry Snyder, president of Catholic Charities USA, said in a March 27 letter to senators that tough minimum sentences "are costly, ineffective and can be detrimental to the good of persons, families and communities." They called the bill a "modest first step in reforming our nation's broken sentencing policies."

The bill would cut minimum existing sentences by half and allow judges to use discretion when imposing jail terms against lower-level offenders. The legislation also would permit crack cocaine offenders to seek lighter sentences if they were jailed under the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010. The bill's supporters tout it as a necessary first step to reduce overcrowding in prisons and begin whittling down the massive cost of incarceration.

Despite supporting the bill, Archbishop Wenski and Father Snyder questioned three new categories of mandatory sentencing minimums that were added to the original bill, saying they would not ease prison overcrowding or reduce costs. The new categories cover sexual assault, domestic violence and arms trading....

Noting that annual incarceration costs for state and federal governments total about $80 billion annually, the clergymen wrote that it is time for the government to support programs aimed at crime prevention, rehabilitation, education and substance abuse treatment and as well as probation, parole and reintegration into society. "Our Catholic tradition supports the community's right to establish and enforce laws that protect people and advance the common good. But our faith teaches us that both victims and offenders have a God-given dignity that calls for justice and restoration, not vengeance," the letter said. 

The full letter referenced in this article is available at this link, and here is the closing paragraph:

Though imperfect, the Smarter Sentencing Act will help begin a long, overdue reform of our nation’s ineffective and costly sentencing practices.  Pope Francis recently said, “God is in everyone’s life.  Even if the life of a person has been a disaster, even if it is destroyed by vices, drugs or anything else — God is in this person’s life.”  We join the pope by advocating for reforms to our nation’s sentencing policies that will lead to healing and restoration, rather than simply punishment.

Though I am not sure this would be an entirely fair and accurate statement, I love that this last paragraph allows me to reasonably assert that wise religious leaders say "Pope Francis supports the Smarter Sentencing Act."  Indeed, maybe based on this letter I can even consider claiming that God supports the SSA (and, in so doing, provocativey and humorously speculate aloud about who is really behind the forces opposing the SSA).

April 2, 2014 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Forecasting the uncertain present and future of federal legislative sentencing reform

Writing for CQ Weekly (which calls itself the "definitive source for news about Congress") John Gramlich has this fascinating and lengthy new article about the state of federal sentencing reform efforts. The piece is headlined "The Prison Debate, Freshly Unlocked," and here are excerpts from a piece that merits a full read:

A bipartisan Senate coalition intent on shrinking the swollen federal prison population will see its toughest test yet in the weeks ahead. Party leaders face the delicate task of shepherding legislation through a politically charged chamber that could ease punishment for tens of thousands of felons — in an election year, no less.

The political stakes, particularly for Democrats, are substantial.  Control of the Senate is up for grabs in November and if Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada presses forward with a debate over crime and punishment, he could force members of his own caucus to cast difficult votes on a subject that has haunted the party in the past.  Many vulnerable Democrats want to focus on jobs rather than softening criminal penalties.

Despite the risks, it’s clear that Congress is closer than it has been in decades to slowing the growth of the federal prison population, which has ballooned to about 216,000 today from 25,000 in 1980.  Overhaul supporters have covered their bases, building consensus and deliberately pushing legislation through the committee process. But floor consideration will pressure any cracks in the coalition, given lingering reservations from influential lawmakers in both parties and opposition from prosecutors, which could stoke public fears about crime.

Reid has two bills on his slate, both of which would cut criminal penalties for a broad cross-section of federal offenses.  One would slash mandatory minimum sentences for some drug offenders by as much as 60 percent and give judges more leeway to impose lighter penalties than those set out in statute.  It also would allow crack cocaine users and dealers who were sentenced under a system that Congress abolished in 2010 to seek shorter sentences retroactively.

The other measure would allow as many as 34,000 currently incarcerated inmates — more than 15 percent of the federal correctional population — to leave prison early, provided they successfully complete rehabilitation programs first.

Both bills have support from opposite ends of the ideological spectrum, further undermining the decades-old caricature of party orthodoxy on criminal justice: that Republicans are “tough on crime” while Democrats are “soft.”...

Predicting the outcome of an election year Senate debate about criminal justice is not easy. Reid is still weighing whether to bring the legislation up in a year in which his party is at risk of losing control of the Senate for the first time since 2007.

And even if legislation passes the Senate, finding a path through the House is more difficult.  The House Judiciary Committee has set up a task force to examine sentencing and prison population issues.  But House leadership has, so far, shown no interest in taking up companion bills to the Senate measures. House Judiciary Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican, said his panel “is taking a comprehensive look at the prison reform issue, and plans to continue its review over the next several months.”...

Lobbying from law enforcement organizations could still prove pivotal in this debate, particularly if it focuses on the specter of increased crime.  The sentencing bill sponsored by Durbin and Lee has sparked notable opposition from the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys, a prosecutors’ group that took the rare step of publicly breaking with Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. — their boss — to denounce the legislation and warn that it could endanger public safety....

Meanwhile, the Fraternal Order of Police ... has its own concerns about any proposals that might reduce time behind bars.  The group is still evaluating both bills.  “The argument that we hear most often for reducing the prison population is cost,” James Pasco, the executive director of the group’s legislative advocacy center, says.  “Well, you know, the fact of the matter is if somebody commits a crime serious enough for lengthy incarceration, it’s at variance with common sense to suggest that’s not a good penalty just because it costs too much.”

“We have had conversations with the administration and we’ve had conversations with both sides in Judiciary, and they are aware of our apprehensions [about the bills],” Pasco added. “But the game really begins now.”

Bipartisan opposition from a handful of holdouts could make for speed bumps on the floor, if not outright problems.  California Democrat Dianne Feinstein, a senior member of the Judiciary panel, warned that the early-release bill could endanger public safety because “we do not know the facts of any of the 34,000 inmates estimated to be affected by this bill.”

Judiciary Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, also withheld his support for the early-release bill by voting “present” in committee. Leahy expressed concerns that the measure, which would let lower-risk inmates earn credits allowing them to transfer from prison to halfway houses and other forms of supervision, could worsen “racial and socioeconomic disparities in our prison system” and place an unfunded mandate on the Bureau of Prisons by requiring the agency to do widespread risk assessments on the inmates it incarcerates.

Holder has endorsed the sentencing measure, but stopped short of endorsing the early-release proposal, telling the U.S. Sentencing Commission in March that it needs changes to make it “as good as it might be.”

The sentencing bill also faces likely amendments.  In an interview with CQ Roll Call, South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham said he and fellow Judiciary member Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat, are working on an amendment that would scale back some of the bill’s sentencing reductions.

Republicans, for their part, are divided about whether they want both measures to reach the floor at all.  Tea-party-backed members such as Lee and Paul support both bills, but Cornyn and the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, represent the party’s establishment wing and support only the early-release measure.  “If Sen. Reid would take up the prison reform legislation, I think then it has a good chance of passing. It’s got good, strong bipartisan support,” Cornyn, the Senate minority whip, says. “If they’re going to try to pair it with the sentencing reform, I think that’s a problem.”

In the Senate, where opposition from even a single member can stop legislation dead, Alabama Republican Jeff Sessions is still evaluating his options to oppose both bills. Sessions, another member of the Judiciary Committee and a former federal prosecutor who helped broker a new law in 2010 to reduce sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine offenses, voted against both of the new proposals in committee.

“One of the reasons people want to reduce sentences is because the crime rate is down,” Sessions said. “They think that just happened. But a fundamental reason is we enhanced enforcement, we enhanced the likelihood that you’d be apprehended and actually convicted, and we enhanced the penalties.  I believe the changes in the law that they have proposed are larger and more impactful than the sponsors fully realize.”

Though I sincerely hope I am very wrong, I take away one fundamental message from this story (aided, in part, by reading between the lines): the real chance of passage of any significant federal sentencing or prison reform legislation this year seems slim, at best.

April 1, 2014 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (16) | TrackBack

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

"Efficiency shouldn’t trump effectiveness in drug sentencing"

The title of this post is the headline in the Washington Post given to this letter from lawprof Mark Osler in response to that paper's recent coverage of prosecutorial opposition to proposals for federal drug sentencing reform.  Here is the full text of the letter as published:

As a former federal prosecutor who now trains criminal lawyers, I read with great interest the March 13 front-page article “Prosecutors fight plan to lower drug sentences.”  At best, the objections by some federal prosecutors to sentencing reform ring hollow.  At worst, they echo that most unfortunate plea of employee organizations: Keep our jobs easy.

Mandatory minimums make it easy to plead a case out, eliminating the effort and expense of trial.  That efficiency is worthwhile if a problem is being solved, but there is no evidence that the mass incarcerations created by mandatory minimums solve any problem.  If they were working, the supply of illegal narcotics would constrict and the price would go up, but some narcotics are cheaper now than 30 years ago.

The anti-reformers argue that mandatory minimums “provide a critical tool to dismantle drug networks by getting cooperation from lower-level defendants and building cases that move up the criminal chain of command.”  It is a worthwhile argument, if true, but U.S. Sentencing Commission data have shown that the overwhelming majority of federal cocaine convicts are low-level actors — street dealers, couriers and the like.

Mandatory minimums do create efficiency.  But when that efficiency is primarily used to force pleas from low-level defendants without solving a problem, it is just bullying.

Some prior posts about federal prosecutorial perspectives on sentencing reform:

March 19, 2014 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (17) | TrackBack

Friday, March 14, 2014

"Some prosecutors fighting effort to eliminate mandatory minimum prison sentences"

The title of this post is the headline of this new Washington Post article highlighting that not all prosecutors agree with Attorney General Eric Holder about the need for significant sentencing reforms.  Here are excerpts:

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.’s broad effort to eliminate mandatory minimum prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenders and reduce sentences for defendants in most drug cases is facing resistance from some federal prosecutors and district attorneys nationwide. Opponents of the proposal argue that tough sentencing policies provide a critical tool to dismantle drug networks by getting cooperation from lower-level defendants and building cases that move up the criminal chain of command....

Longer prison terms for more criminals have led to a significant decline in the crime rate over the past 20 years, these critics say, and they argue that Holder’s proposed changes are driven by federal budget constraints, not public safety. “Rewarding convicted felons with lighter sentences because America can’t balance its budget doesn’t seem fair to both victims of crime and the millions of families in America victimized every year by the scourge of drugs in America’s communities,” Raymond F. Morrogh, commonwealth’s attorney in Fairfax County and director at large of the National District Attorneys Association, testified Thursday to the U.S. Sentencing Commission....

The prospect of ending mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses had drawn fire from the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys, which has been lobbying senior lawmakers to try to prevent legislation that would change the system. “We believe our current sentencing laws have kept us safe and should be preserved, not weakened,” said Robert Gay Guthrie, an assistant U.S. attorney in Oklahoma and president of the prosecutors’ organization. “Don’t take away our most effective tool to get cooperation from offenders.”

The organization that represents line federal prosecutors has written letters to Holder, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) and Sen. Charles E. Grassley (Iowa), the panel’s ranking Republican, urging them not to change the sentencing rules. Guthrie said that 96 percent of about 500 prosecutors who were surveyed in an association poll did not support Holder’s plan.

But other assistant U.S. attorneys — as well as several who were interviewed — said the new guidelines would reduce prison overcrowding and would be more equitable to certain defendants who can face severe sentences under the current system. “It allows us to be more fair in recommending sentences where the level of culpability varies among defendants in a large drug organization, but where the organization itself is moving large quantities of drugs,” said John Horn, first assistant U.S. attorney in the Northern District of Georgia. “Before the new policy, every defendant involved with over five kilos of coke would be subject to a minimum 10 or 20 years, whether he was a courier, someone in a stash house, a cell head or an organizational leader, and those distinctions can be important.”

Or, as Neil MacBride, a former U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, put it: Former Mexican drug lord “Chapo Guzman and some low-level street dealer in Richmond simply don’t pose the same existential threat to society.”...

Sally Yates, the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Georgia, said any new system will require some period of adjustment. “This is a sea change for assistant U.S. attorneys,” said Yates, who was appointed by President Obama after working as an assistant U.S. attorney for more than 20 years. “They grew up in a system in which they were required to seek the most serious charge, which often resulted in the longest sentence. Now, the attorney general is saying, ‘Look at the circumstances of every case and his or her prior criminal history in determining the fair and appropriate charge.’ That’s a lot harder than robotically following a bright line rule.”

Timothy J. Heaphy, the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Virginia, said prosecutors in his office at first had concerns similar to those of the association. “But as time goes on,” he said, “people are understanding that we’re spending less money on prisons and it is more fair to tailor our charging discretion.”

In the end, a Justice Department official said, assistant U.S. attorneys are free to express their opinions internally, but they don’t make policy. They must follow guidelines, the official added. Indeed, when Guthrie was asked Thursday about Holder’s newest proposal, he acknowledged: “We’ll follow the direction of the attorney general. He’s our boss.”

Some prior posts about AG Holder and prosecutorial perspectives on sentencing reform:

March 14, 2014 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (23) | TrackBack

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Sixth Circuit to hear oral argument on extreme application of ACCA in US v. Young

A number of months ago in this post, titled "A few shotgun shells landed a man 15 years in federal prison," I reported on a remarkable federal sentencing story out of Tennessee involving an extreme application of the 15-year mandatory minimum federal sentencing term set out in the Armed Career Criminal Act.  I am now excited that tomorrow morning, a Sixth Circuit panel is scheduled to hear oral argument in this matter, US v. Young.  I am excited in part because I authored a brief on behalf of the National Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys (NACDL) setting out why this sentencing should be deemed unconstitutional under a proper application/interpretation of the Eighth Amendment.  And the Sixth Circuit has afforded me five minutes of argument time (taken from the Appellant's alloted time).

Notably, counsel for Mr. Young has on appeal has developed a Fifth Amendment challenge to the conviction as well as making Eighth Amendment arguments against the sentence.  And the feds, not surprisingly, contend there is no constitutional problem with the conviction and sentence in this case.  Readers interested in this case and the legal issues on appeal can review the briefs, which I am uploading here:

Download Brief of Appellant in US v. Young

Download Young Amicus FILED

Download Appellee's Briefin US v. Young

Download Reply Brief of Appellant in Young

Related prior posts:

March 12, 2014 in Examples of "over-punishment", Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Monday, March 03, 2014

"Holder and Republicans Unite to Soften Sentencing Laws"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new New York Times article, which includes these excerpts:

Shortly after Senator Rand Paul filed suit last month against the Obama administration to stop its electronic dragnet of American phone records, he sat down for lunch with Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. in his private dining room at the Justice Department.

Mr. Paul, a Kentucky Republican, is one of the Obama administration’s most vocal critics. But their discussion focused on an issue on which they have found common cause: eliminating mandatory-minimum prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenders.

The Democratic attorney general and the possible Republican presidential candidate are unlikely allies. But their partnership is crucial to an alliance between the nation’s first African-American attorney general, who sees his legacy in a renewed focus on civil rights, and some of Congress’s most prominent libertarians, who have accused the Obama administration of trampling on personal freedom with drones, wiretaps, tracking devices and too much government.

Together, they could help bring about the most significant liberalization of sentencing laws since President Richard M. Nixon declared war on drugs. In 2010, Congress unanimously voted to abolish the 100-to-1 disparity between sentences for crack cocaine offenses and those for powdered cocaine, a vestige of the crack epidemic. Now, the Obama administration and its allies in Congress are pushing to go even further. Mr. Holder wants to make prisoners eligible for early release if they were sentenced under the now-abolished crack guidelines. And he wants judges to have more discretion when it comes to sentencing nonviolent drug offenders....

Libertarian-minded Republicans see long prison sentences as an ineffective and expensive way to address crime. “This is the definition of how you get bipartisan agreement,” Mr. Paul said in an interview. “It’s not splitting the difference. It’s finding areas of common interest.”

Mr. Paul is backing a sentencing overhaul bill, also supported by Mr. Holder and the Obama administration, that he predicts will pass the Senate with support from up to half of its Republicans. The bill’s sponsors include Democratic stalwarts such as Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois and Senator Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the Judiciary Committee chairman, as well as Republicans with strong Tea Party credentials like Senator Mike Lee of Utah and Senator Ted Cruz of Texas

Similar legislation is pending in the House, where libertarians and Tea Party conservatives will be crucial to determining its fate if it comes up for a vote. That is the same group that bucked the Obama administration and nearly succeeded in passing legislation prohibiting the National Security Agency from seizing the phone records of millions of Americans.

Some Republicans say that they are the ones being consistent on matters of protecting liberties, and that Mr. Holder’s push for changes to the sentencing laws is a step in their direction, not the other way around. “I would say Eric Holder supports me and my civil liberties bill,” said one of the House bill’s sponsors, Representative Raúl R. Labrador, an Idaho Republican who once demanded Mr. Holder’s resignation over the botched gun-trafficking case called Operation Fast and Furious....

Mr. Holder noted that a third of the Justice Department’s budget is spent running prisons. That resonates with fiscal conservatives like Representative Jason Chaffetz, Republican of Utah. Mr. Chaffetz once suggested that Republicans might have Mr. Holder arrested for contempt. But Mr. Holder recently had him for breakfast at the Justice Department....

Mr. Chaffetz said his conversations with Mr. Holder represented “one of the few instances I can point to where we’re starting to make some kid steps forward” toward bipartisan collaboration.... “I think there’s a realization that we’re not actually solving the problem with some of these drug crimes,” Mr. Chaffetz added. “But on the other side of the coin, there’s no trust with the Obama administration. None.”...

Representative Trey Gowdy, a South Carolina Republican and a former federal prosecutor, joined Mr. Chaffetz for breakfast at the Justice Department and described Mr. Holder as a gracious host. “The fact that he’s taking the time to talk to two backbenchers, he certainly didn’t have to do that,” Mr. Gowdy said.

Mr. Gowdy said he was convinced that mandatory sentences made little sense for minor offenses. But he doubts that a sentencing bill can pass the House, in part because voters in Republican districts oppose so many of the Obama administration’s policies. Mr. Holder’s push for same-sex marriage does not make it easier, he said.

Mr. Paul was more optimistic. He said conservatives and liberals would join in support of changing sentencing laws, just as they have joined in opposition of the N.S.A.'s domestic surveillance programs.... As the meeting concluded, they agreed to work together and said their goodbyes. Then Mr. Paul wryly added, “I’ll see you in court.”

Some old and newer related posts about AG Holder and the "new politics" of sentencing reform:

March 3, 2014 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (26) | TrackBack

Detailing the impact and import of Burrage on the federal drug war

The Supreme Court a few weeks ago in Burrage v. United States, No. 12-7515 (S. Ct. Jan. 27, 2014) (available here), rejected federal prosecutors' arguments to expand the reach and application of a mandatory minimum sentencing provision for a drug defendant.  Now, via this notable ABC News report headlined "U.S. Drug Cases Getting Rehabbed After Supreme Court Decision," we learn about some of the early impact of this ruling:

A week before actor Philip Seymour Hoffman overdosed on a mix of heroin, cocaine and other drugs, the Supreme Court restrained what one top prosecutor called "the strongest tool" federal authorities have to go after dealers in such cases, and now some U.S. drug prosecutions are getting sent to rehab. "We may not be able to meet the standard of proof in those cases," the U.S. Attorney in Vermont, Tris Coffin, said of overdose cases involving a cocktail of drugs. "It will have some impact."

In fact, a federal judge in Kentucky has already vacated the most severe charge against 53-year-old Harold Salyers, a father who was certain to spend decades in prison after being convicted last year of selling heroin to a man who then died. In Alaska and Ohio, defense attorneys are separately hoping their clients can similarly benefit from the high court's recent decision.

On average, drug traffickers in federal cases are sentenced to less than seven years behind bars.  But "when death or serious bodily injury results," the dealer can face a mandatory minimum of 20 years and as long as life in prison, according to federal law. Federal authorities have long sought the stiffer charge when a dealer's drugs contributed in some way to an overdose.

In January, though, the Supreme Court ruled the dealer's drugs need to do more than just contribute, they need to be "the straw that broke the camel's back," as one Justice Department official put it. That's "problematic," especially in overdose cases where an accused dealer's drugs are not the only drugs involved, according to the official. Nearly half of all overdoses involve multiple drugs, federal statistics indicate. "Now we need to [prove] not that just drugs killed them, but which drugs killed them," said the Justice Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity....

The Supreme Court decision in Burrage v. United States initially received scant news coverage and only moderate notice since actor Hoffman's overdose -- a case being handled by local authorities in New York that highlights some of the obstacles to bringing federal charges.  Still, top federal prosecutors said they don't believe the high court's decision is "a significant setback" or "a real game-changer for us."

Medical experts will just have to dig deeper to determine a drug's exact role in death, and federal prosecutors rarely seek the stiffer charge anyway, even when an overdose occurs, according to both Coffin and Harvey, the U.S. attorneys. "We're going to be fine" and will bring "most of the cases we want to bring," Harvey said.

But the Justice Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said finding medical experts who can determine a drug's exact role is not so easy and "is a big burden on the government." Plus, the official said, the Supreme Court decision could be "a blow" to investigative efforts. "The 20-year mandatory minimum has been tremendously efficient in scaring the dickens out of people so they cooperate up the chain," the official said. "It's been a really good negotiating tool."

There are so many interesting aspects to this Burrage follow-up story, and it highlights for me that it might be very interesting and very valuable for some researchers to assemble and analyze data on how the mandatory minimum sentencing provision at issue in Burrage has been applied in the years before this SCOTUS ruling and how it gets applied in the coming years.

But I especially like and find helpful the candid and astute quotes from the unnamed Justice Department official reprinted at the end of this excerpt. The quote so efficiently and effectively captures the real work and importance of all modern mandatory minimum sentencing terms in the federal system: they mostly exist to reduce "a big burden on the government" by providing a ready and "tremendously efficient" to scare "the dickens out of people so they cooperate up the chain" and thus serve as a "really good negotiating tool."

As I have said before and will say again, for those who favor a big federal criminal justice system having lots of power with limited burdens on a "tremendously efficient" means scare "the dickens out of people so they cooperate" with government officials, the current operating structure and modern application of federal mandatory minimums are still working pretty well despite the setback that Burrage may represent for one of these potent prosecutorial weapons in the drug war. But for those who are suspicious of a big federal criminal justice system having lots of power concentrated in executive branch official not subject to the rule of law or really any regulation or review of how its power gets used (persons that include Senator Rand Paul and yours truly), reform of all federal mandatory minimums seems to be essential to restore fully the vision of limited federal government power and individual rights that inform and infuse the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

March 3, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (12) | TrackBack

Friday, February 28, 2014

More fascinating "Quick Facts" from the US Sentencing Commission

I am so pleased to see and to be able to report that the US Sentencing Commission is continuing to produce insightful little documents as part of its terrific new series of reader-friendly "Quick Facts" publications.  (Regular readers may recall from this prior post that the USSC describes these publications as a way to "give readers basic facts about a single area of federal crime in an easy-to-read, two-page format.")

As I have said repeatedly before, I think this is a very valuable innovation coming from the USSC, and I have already learned a lot and benefited greatly from all the publications in the series.  This latest one on certain firearm offenses, Section 924(c) Offenders , includes these notable data:

From among 84,173 cases reported to the USSC in FY2012, "2,189 involved convictions under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)" which criminalized possession/use of a firearm in furtherance of another offense and:

The average length of sentence for offenders convicted under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c) was 165 months.

  • The average length of sentence for offenders convicted of one count under section 924(c) was 84 months.
  • The average length of sentence for offenders convicted of one count under section 924(c) and another offense not carrying a mandatory minimum penalty was 132 months. When the other offense carried a mandatory minimum penalty the average sentence was 181 months.
  • The average length of sentence for section 924(c) offenders who were determined to be career offenders was 252 months.
  • The average length of sentence for offenders convicted of multiple counts of section 924(c) was 358 months.

February 28, 2014 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Are we "headed for a crime-riddled future" without mandatory minimums?

The question in the title of this post is drawn from a notable quote toward the end of this notable new article from The Economist. The article is headlined "Sentencing reform: Kinder, gentler; Less time inside for less-serious crimes." Here are excerpts:

Last August Eric Holder, America’s attorney-general, issued a memo to federal prosecutors. It directed them not to charge certain low-level, non-violent, non-recidivist drug defendants without ties to cartels with crimes serious enough to trigger mandatory minimum sentences.  The direct effects of this policy shift seem small: Paul Hofer, a lawyer who specialises in sentencing matters, found that just over 500 of the roughly 25,000 defendants sentenced under federal drug laws in 2012 might have got a smaller rap if Mr Holder’s policy had been in place then.  But it appears to have given sentencing reform a strong shot in the arm.

In early January the United States Sentencing Commission (USSC), the agency that sets sentencing policies for federal courts, published proposed changes to sentencing guidelines, one of which would reduce penalties for some drugs charges....

Congress also seems to be shedding its usual lethargy on the subject. On January 30th the Senate Judiciary Committee sent the Smarter Sentencing Act to the full Senate for a vote. This bill would, first, reduce mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders and direct the USSC to lower sentencing guidelines accordingly.  Second, it would make the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 retroactive, so that anyone imprisoned under the old law could apply to have his sentence reduced....

Not everyone is happy with these changes.  The National Association of Assistant United States Attorneys (NAAUSA), which represents a minority of federal prosecutors, urged senators not to “weaken the benefits of mandatory minimum sentencing” — ie, the fact that harsh sentences terrify defendants into co-operating with prosecutors.  One member of the NAAUSA frets that without mandatory minimums, “we are headed for a crime-riddled future.”

Yet reform continues. Barack Obama has yet to commute many long federal sentences, but the Justice Department wants to find more candidates for presidential clemency.  On February 11th Mr Holder urged states to repeal laws that bar ex-convicts from voting. Anecdotal evidence from federal courts in Tennessee, Vermont and Virginia shows that some judges are already shifting position because they expect the Smarter Sentencing Act to pass.  Advocates for ever-harsher sentences appear to be losing the whip hand.

February 20, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack