Sunday, February 02, 2014

Heritage Foundation apparently endorsing Smarter Sentencing Act; where do other conservative groups and media stand?

A conservative friend alerted me to this notable entry from the blog of The Heritage Foundation authored by Evan Bernick and headlined "Time to Reconsider Mandatory Minimum Sentences."   Here are excerpts: 

The Smarter Sentencing Act is narrowly tailored to address one of the most pressing problems with mandatory minimums — arbitrary, severe punishments for nonviolent offenses— while leaving for another day the question of whether mandatory minimums should apply to violent crimes....

Mandatory minimums were intended to address widely acknowledged problems with the criminal justice system. But good intentions don’t necessarily give rise to good results. In particular, some drug offenses, which make up a significant proportion of mandatory minimums, can give rise to unduly severe punishments. The difference between a drug quantity that triggers a mandatory minimum and one that does not will often produce a “cliff effect.” For example, someone with 0.9 grams of LSD might not spend much time incarcerated, but another fraction of a gram will result in a five years behind bars. It is difficult to conclude that the additional one-tenth of a gram demands a minimum sentence of five years’ imprisonment in every case, regardless of its facts.

The Smarter Sentencing Act would allow judges to sentence nonviolent drug offenders below a mandatory minimum if the court finds that the defendant is not a serious offender (that is, the defendant has a limited or no criminal history, as defined by the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines, and no prior firearm, racketeering, terrorism, or sex offense convictions). The act would also make retroactive the Fairness in Sentencing Act of 2010, which prospectively reduced the disparity between the amount of crack cocaine and powder cocaine needed to trigger mandatory minimum sentences.

Mandatory minimum sentences have wrought terrible injustices in certain cases.  Granting district courts some additional limited sentencing discretion would improve the status quo without returning us to the era of unbounded judicial discretion.  It’s encouraging that, at a time when bipartisan consensus is difficult to come by, there is broad agreement that there are some problems with our federal criminal laws that ought to be addressed.  Too many mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenses committed by low-level offenders do not serve the ends of justice and leave no room for mercy.

I am not sure if this blog post represents the official view of The Heritage Foundation and therefore amounts to an official endorsement of the SSA.  But I am sure that those eager to see the SSA move forward in Congress should be encouraged to see this kind of sentiment being expressed on the website of a very influential think tank which says here that its "mission is to formulate and promote conservative public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense." 

I am hopeful, based in part on the calls for reform represented by the votes and voices of Senators Ted Cruz, Mike Lee and Rand Paul, that a number of other groups and media with a mission "to formulate and promote conservative public policies" will also be vocal supporters of the Smarter Sentencing Act. If other prominent conservative groups echo the sentiments expressed above, my optimism about serious sentencing reforms being passed through this Congress may start to grow considerably.

A few older and more recent related posts:

February 2, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (41) | TrackBack

Saturday, February 01, 2014

Very eager to provide very thorough and fair coverage of prosecutors' views on Smarter Sentencing Act

Over at Crime & Consequences, Bill Otis complains in posts here and here about the lack of media coverage of the expressed opposition by the National Association of Assistant United States Attorneys (NAAUSA) to statutory sentencing reforms endorsed by Attorney General Eric Holder.  Specifically, in this post, Bill states that AG Holder's decision to express support for the Smarter Sentencing Act (SSA)  is "contrary to the views, not of dozens, but of hundreds of career lawyers," which "subvert[s] the experience and judgment of the Department's career lawyers" and is thus "a very big story."  In Bill's words, when "hundreds of [DOJ lawyers] take the risks of speaking out against the Attorney General on a matter this important, that is a news story."

I agree that this is a "very big story," especially for those interested in federal sentencing reforms and the use of mandatory minimums in the prosecution of the federal drug war.  Consequently, I am eager to give this story all the attention it merits and to do so in thorough and fair ways to help ensure all federal prosecutors' views on the Smarter Sentencing Act are widely known and widely understood.

Helpfully, a few hours of research on the NAAUSA website provided me with a much fuller understanding of NAAUSA's expressed opposition to the SSA.  This Sept/Oct 2013 NAAUSA newsletter has a lengthy piece headlined "Members Asked to Weigh In on the Debate on Mandatory Minimums," which includes a report of a on-going survey of federal prosecutors in the works concerning their views on MMs.  In turn, this two-page NAAUSA position paper on mandatory minimums thereafter states that a "recent NAAUSA survey documented strong opposition to any weakening of mandatory minimums." And this eleven-page NAAUSA document provides lengthy statements from prosecutors in response to the survey.

In an effort to provide very thorough and fair coverage of prosecutors' views here, I am eager to see (and to post here and publish in the Federal Sentencing Reporter) the survey instrument sent to NAAUSA members and the full results.  The statements from prosecutors reprinted in this document does reveal strong opposition to eliminating federal mandatory minimum provisions.  However, many comments express the strongest concerns about the possibility of eliminating all federal mandatory minimums, whereas the Smarter Sentencing Act endorsed by AG Holder only calls for reducing the length of mandatory minimums only for drug offenses.  

Especially because the SSA is going to be up for further debate in Congress following its passage through the Senate Judiciary Committee, and especially because the views of career DOJ lawyers are very important in this debate, I am genuinely eager to provide here as much coverage of prosecutorial perspectives as possible.  And I would be eager for readers to use to comments to help me fully and fairly cover this "very big story" and ask the right sets of questions of relevant stakeholders as I do.

A few recent related posts:

UPDATED MEDIA COVERAGE: A few helpful commentors have provided links to some additional "new media" coverage of the SSA and prosecutorial perspectives on its proposed reforms.

At TalkLeft in this post titled "Amended Weakened Version of Sentencing Reform Bill Passes Judiciary Comm.," Jeralyn provides a very helpful and effective review of the process through which the SSA was amended and was voted through the Senate Judiciary Committee. I found especially interesting this account of the various amendments offered to the SSA:

In all, Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa introduced 6 Amendments weakening the bill and adding new mandatory minimums and increased penalties for other offenses. He got 3 of them passed.  The bill, with Grassley's amendments, now includes a new mandatory minimum for sex offenses and makes some sex offenses death penalty eligible.  It increases penalties for domestic violence offenses.  It adds new mandatory minimum sentences for some terror and arms-related crimes.

Grassley didn't get everything he wanted.  His failed amendments included one which would have abolished the Sentencing Commission and another that would have allowed prisoner transfers to foreign countries over the objection of the defendant.

Consistent with the themes of this post, I wonder if career DOJ prosecutors favor abolishing the Sentencing Commission.  To my knowledge, the Bll Otis is the only person who has publicly called for abolishing the US Sentencing Commission, though perhaps again there may be reason to believe Senator Grassley's efforts to this end are channelling the interests of hundreds of prosecutors.  

And at Simple Justice in this post titled "The Great Prosecutor Revolt of 2014 (Update)," Scott notes that Bill Otis is concerned that the "mainstream media isn’t 'covering' the career prosecutor revolt and he indicates that he will be "doing everything [he] can to get [the] story out."

February 1, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (27) | TrackBack

Friday, January 31, 2014

Are "hundreds of career prosecutors" (or mainly just Bill Otis) now in "open revolt" over AG Holder's support for the Smarter Sentencing Act?

The very serious question and inquiry in the title of this post is prompted by this notable recent post by Bill Otis that I just saw over at Crime & Consequences.  Bill's post is titled "Hundreds of Career Prosecutors Revolt Against Holder," and here is how the post gets started and its main points:

I spent 25 years [at DOJ], split between Main Justice in Washington and the US Attorney's Office.  Today something happened that, in my experience, is unprecedented.  Hundreds of career lawyers broke into open revolt against the Attorney General on a matter of prepossessing importance to federal sentencing.   If something like that had happened in the Bush Administration, I guarantee you it would be a Page One story. Whether it gets any coverage at all in the present Administration remains to be seen.

The Attorney General announced last week that he would support the Durbin-Lee bill pending in the Senate. That legislation would drastically cut back on mandatory minimum sentences for drug pushers -- not just for pot, but for all drug offenses, including major and repeat trafficking in heroin, meth, PCP and other extremely dangerous, and often lethal, drugs....

When the Attorney General decided to join the effort to kneecap mandatory minimums, career attorneys could remain silent no longer... [and] a letter [was sent by] the National Association of Assistant United States Attorneys [to] Mr. Holder three days ago....

[T]he fact that hundreds of career prosecutors -- not political appointees, but the men and women in US Attorney's Offices across the country hired on merit -- have revolted against the Attorney General is a development whose importance is difficult to overstate.

Career prosecutors, I can tell you from experience, are uncomfortable taking any role in what could be portrayed as a political issue. They are Republicans, Democrats and Independents, and generally have all the differences of opinion one would expect from a group so large and diverse. They view divorcing themselves from politics as essential. That they have spoken up here, and done so publicly, is a testament to how dreadfully damaging they know the Durbin-Lee bill would be.

I concur completely with Bill's claim in this post that it would be huge "Page One" news if, in fact, there were hundreds of federal prosecutors who "broke into open revolt against the Attorney General."  But I must question whether the mere fact that a letter signed by Robert Gay Guthrie, the President of the National Association of Assistant United States Attorneys, and sent to Attorney General Holder concerning these matters really is evidence of an "open revolt" by hundreds of federal prosecutors.

I believe the letter referenced by Bill Otis above is available at this link via the website of the National Association of Assistant United States Attorneys.  The only "open" name on the letter that I see is Robert Gay Guthrie.  The letter does use the term "we" consistently, so I surmise this letter represents the views of more than just Mr. Guthrie.  But, unless and until I see the names of other Assistant United States Attorneys who openly signed onto this letter (or unless we hear other public reports of public complaints coming from AUSAs), I have a hard time seeing this two-page letter as proof of an on-going open revolt.  Indeed, the tone and text of the letter does not even strike me as a "revolt" as much as an expression of a viewpoint.

In addition, I cannot help but notice that a lot of the concepts (and even some phrases) in the NAAUSA letter sound like comments often made by Bill Otis here and in other writings he has done in support of the existing system of federal mandatory minimums.  I have heard rumors that Bill serves as a lobbyist for the National Association of Assistant United States Attorneys, and thus I must wonder aloud whether the only person really in "open revolt" right now against AG Holder is Bill Otis.  That said, if Bill helped ghost-write this letter for the National Association of Assistant United States Attorneys and Robert Gay Guthrie, even Bill's own efforts to revolt is not really all that "open."

I raise these matters not because I am troubled that Bill Otis and Robert Gay Guthrie and other past and present federal prosecutors might weigh in on this important on-going federal sentencing reform debate.  But I am truly puzzled by Bill's assertion that there is now an "open revolt against the Attorney General" involving hundreds of federal prosecutors and by his surprise that a simple two-page letter from NAAUSA has not become a "Page One story."

I hope that Bill will use the comments here to explain just why he sees this letter as evidence of an "open revolt" and perhaps he can also name some of the "hundreds" of federal prosecutors who he may know to be a formal part of this "open revolt."  I also hope, if in fact there is now an on-going "open revolt against the Attorney General on a matter of prepossessing importance to federal sentencing" as Bill Otis asserts, that some current federal prosecutors (1) will openly state here or elsewhere that they signed off on this letter and did so as part of an effort to revolt against AG Holder, and (2) will openly discuss any other activities planned as part of this revolt.

I know Bill Otis feels very strongly that the current federal mandatory minimum sentencing provisions should not be reformed.  But, until reading Bill's post, I was not aware that "hundreds" of current federal prosecutors shared his perspective.  And, of course, yesterday 13 of 18 Senators on the Senate Judiciary Committee voted in favor of drug sentencing reform, and I now wonder if they were fully aware of what Bill calls an "open revolt against the Attorney General."  Finally, my own assessment of the prospects of the Smarter Sentencing Act becoming enacted law is sure to be impacted by the nature and dynamics of any on-going  "open revolt against the Attorney General" by hundreds of federal prosecutors.

A few recent related posts:

January 31, 2014 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (45) | TrackBack

Will Tea Party players (and new MMs) be able to get the Smarter Sentencing Act through the House?

I am quite pleased and excited to see that yesterday the Smarter Sentencing Act (SSA)received significant Republican support within in the Senate Judiciary Committee, with Senators Senators Mike Lee (R-Utah), Jeff Flake (R-Arizona), and Ted Cruz (R-Texas) voting in support of significant reforms to modern drug sentencing rules. Given that there are three other Tea Party Caucus Senators (Jerry Moran (R-Kansas), Rand Paul (R-Kentucky), and Tim Scott (R-South Carolina), I am relatively hopeful that establishment Republicans may not be able to prevent the SSA's passage in the full Senate.

Unfortunately for supporters of drug sentencing reform, establishment Republicans are in control in the House of Representatives, and I assume House Speaker John Beohner and/or other House leaders could quash the SSA if an whenever they might want. But what I do not know, either practically or politically, is whether establishment Republicans in the House want to kill the SSA and/or whether Tea Party players in the House are as eager to see this bill become law as some in the Senate were.

Adding to the practical and political intrigue is the intriguing fact that, as explained in this article, there are now some new mandatory minimums travelling with the SSA thanks to an amendment by the establishment Republicans on the Senate side:

The Senate Judiciary Committee approved the Smarter Sentencing Act of 2013 by a wide margin Thursday, taking a major step toward reducing mandatory drug-related sentences. Amendments attached to the bill, however, would also establish new mandatory sentences for sex crimes, domestic violence and terrorism.

The bill is sponsored by Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and has significant bipartisan support. Its primary aim is to allow greater sentencing flexibility and would reduce various drug-related mandatory minimums from five, 10 and 20 years to two, five and 10 years. It would also allow prisoners with crack cocaine convictions to have their punishments revisited in light of the 2010 law that lessened penalties for the drug.

In a frustrating blow to some reformers, committee members adopted three amendments from Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, that would add the new minimum sentences. Committee members voted 15-3 to establish a mandatory minimum sentence of five years for federal sexual abuse crimes and 15-3 to created a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence for interstate domestic violence resulting in death of the victim.

Though I have a general disaffinity for any new mandatory minimums, I am ultimately pleased by additions to the SSA that Senator Grassley added if they will aid passage of the bill. The drug mandatory reductions in the amended SSA would impact tens of thousands of federal cases every year, whereas the new mandatory minimums would likely impact only a few dozen.  I am hopeful that the added minimums might make it that much easier for establishment Republicans to vote for the SSA and for House leaders to bring the bill up for a vote.  (My gut instinct is that perhaps as many as 300 members of the full House would vote for the amended version of the SSA if it gets to a floor vote, but I remain worried it might never do so because of the establishment Republican forces eager to keep this part of the federal government big.) 

Some recent and older posts about the "new politics" of sentencing reform:

January 31, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Smarter Sentencing Act passes Senate Judiciary Committee by 13-5 vote

I just received a notable news release from Families Against Mandatory Minimums concerning a notable vote today by the US Senate Judiciary Committee.  Here are the basic via the FAMM report:

Today, the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee passed the first major reconsideration of federal mandatory minimum drug sentencing laws since the Nixon Administration. The Committee voted, 13-5, in support of S. 1410, the Smarter Sentencing Act, a bipartisan bill sponsored by Senators Mike Lee (R-UT) and Richard Durbin (D-IL).

The Smarter Sentencing Act:

  • Reduces mandatory minimum sentences for federal drug offenders by half
  • Narrowly increases the scope of an existing “safety valve” exception to federal drug offenses
  • Allows 8,800 federal prisoners imprisoned for crack cocaine crimes to return to court to seek fairer punishments in line with the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, a unanimously-passed measure to reduce the racially discriminatory disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenses
  • Requires the U.S. Department of Justice and other federal agencies to compile, and make publicly available on their websites, lists of all federal laws and regulations carrying criminal penalties. This part of the bill addresses growing bipartisan concerns about the issue of “over-criminalization” – that there are too many federal crimes and that people can and do unknowingly and unintentionally break laws and regulations and serve jail or prison time for violations that could be better addressed with fines.
  • Adds new mandatory minimum sentences for sexual abuse, domestic violence, and terrorism offenses

This new piece up at Huffington Post, headlined "Biggest Overhaul in Federal Drug Sentencing in Decades Clears Major Hurdle, Despite Opposition From Heartless Prosecutors," provides more information about who is for and who is against this important legislative development:

Today the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee passed bipartisan sentencing reform legislation that reduces the federal prison population, decreases racial disparities, saves taxpayer money, and reunites nonviolent drug law offenders with their families sooner. The reforms are supported by a strange bedfellows group of senators, including Senators Mike Lee (R-Utah), Rand Paul (R-Kentucky), Jeff Flake (R-Arizona), Ted Cruz (R-TX), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Carl Levin (D-MI) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI). The legislation is opposed by some U.S. prosecutors who continue to defend a harsh, racially unjust system that has led to a greater percentage of black men being locked up in the U.S. than in South Africa at the height of Apartheid.

The bill, the Smarter Sentencing Act, is the biggest overhaul in federal drug sentencing in decades. It would reduce federal mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses and expand the ability of judges to use their own discretion when sentencing defendants, so that judges can consider the unique facts of each case and each individual before them. It would also make the reform to the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity that Congress passed in 2010 retroactive, so that thousands of people sentenced under the old draconian and racially unjust disparity can leave prison early.

Even though U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder urged the committee to reform mandatory minimum sentencing yesterday, the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys took the somewhat rare step of opposing the Attorney General by releasing a letter in opposition to reform. "We do not join with those who regard our federal system of justice as 'broken' or in need of major reconstruction," the organization said. "Instead, we consider the current federal mandatory minimum sentence framework as well-constructed and well worth preserving."

January 30, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (27) | TrackBack

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Though Prez Obama ignores sentencing reform in State of the Union, AG Holder talks it up to Senate Judiciary Committee

I was disappointed, but not at all surprised, that during last night's State of the Union address, President Obama showed his distinct unwillingness to be a real leader in the arena of federal sentencing reform.  I had heard rumors that some mention of sentencing reform was possible in SOTU, but I surmise that Prez Obama cares too little about this issue to give it even a brief mention in an hour-long speech about his vision and priorities for the nation.  (In sharp contrast, as highlighted here, President George W. Bush made some quite progressive criminal justice reform comments in both his 2004 and 2005 State of the Union address.)

But while Prez Obama apparently is disinterested in these matters (or thinks they make for bad politics), his Attorney General seems to remain committed to move forward with needed federal sentencing reforms.  Specifically, consider these closing paragraphs in this prepared statement delivered today by AG Eric Holder to the US Senate Committee on the Judiciary:

[O]ur commitment to integrity and equal justice in every case, in every circumstance, and in every community ... is also reflected in the new “Smart on Crime” initiative I announced this past August — to strengthen our federal criminal justice system; to increase our emphasis on proven diversion, rehabilitation, and reentry programs; and to reduce unnecessary collateral consequences for those seeking to rejoin their communities. As part of the “Smart on Crime” approach, I mandated a significant change to the Justice Department’s charging policies to ensure that people accused of certain low-level federal drug crimes will face sentences appropriate to their individual conduct — and that stringent mandatory minimum sentences will be reserved for the most serious criminals.  Alongside other important reforms, this change will make our criminal justice system not only fairer, but also more efficient.  And it will complement proposals like the bipartisan Smarter Sentencing Act — introduced by Senators Dick Durbin and Mike Lee — which would give judges more discretion in determining appropriate sentences for people convicted of certain federal drug crimes.

I look forward to working with Chairman Leahy, distinguished members of this Committee, and other leaders who have shown a commitment to common-sense sentencing reform – like Senator Rand Paul — to help advance this and other legislation.  I thank you all, once again, for your continued support of the Department of Justice.  And I would be happy to answer any questions you may have.

A few recent related posts:

January 29, 2014 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Monday, January 27, 2014

SCOTUS unanimously rules in Burrage that causation requirement precludes drug defendant facing mandatory minimum for abuser's death

In its one criminal justice ruling this morning, the Supreme Court today via a unanimous vote in Burrage v. United States, No. 12-7515 (S. Ct. Jan. 27, 2014) (available here), rejected an effort by federal prosecutors to expand the reach and application of a mandatory minimum sentencing provision for a drug defendant. Here is the closing paragraph of the opinion of the Court authored by Justice Scalia:

We hold that, at least where use of the drug distributed by the defendant is not an independently sufficient cause of the victim’s death or serious bodily injury, a defendant cannot be liable under the penalty enhancement provision of 21 U. S. C. §841(b)(1)(C) unless such use is a but-forcause of the death or injury. The Eighth Circuit affirmed Burrage’s conviction based on a markedly different under­standing of the statute, see 687 F. 3d, at 1020–1024, and the Government concedes that there is no “evidence that Banka would have lived but for his heroin use,” Brief for United States 33. Burrage’s conviction with respect to count 2 of the superseding indictment is therefore re­versed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

January 27, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Will Prez Obama mention sentencing reform in the State of the Union address?

Presidents traditionally use the annual State of the Union address to outline a planned legislative agenda and to articulate a perspective on national priorities. Consequently, in light of all the recent talk from Attorney General Holder and members of Congress about the need for federal sentencing reform, I will be extremely interested to see what Prez Obama might say (or not say) about sentencing reform when speaking to Congress this Tuesday.

This notable new commentary by Juliet Sorensen at The Atlantic, which is headlined "Why Obama Should Back Drug-Sentencing Reform in the State of the Union," highlights that I am not the only one now thinking about POTUS, SOTU and sentencing.  Here are excerpts:

In the last week of 1963, my father, Ted Sorensen, met with President Lyndon Johnson late into the night at his Texas ranch to decide what provisions of President John F. Kennedy’s unfinished agenda to include in the upcoming State of the Union address.  Last on the list was a provision for expanded federal jurisdiction over illegal drugs, which provided not only for federal criminal-law enforcement but also for expanded rehabilitation and treatment programs.

As my father recounted in his memoir, Johnson angrily brushed aside the suggestion. “Drugs? I don’t want to have anything to do with them. Just lock them up and throw away the key!”  The meeting ended, and my father deleted that portion of the speech, which famously announced the War on Poverty — but kept the drug provision in Johnson’s legislative program. This led to controlled-substance and drug-addiction reform that passed with bipartisan support in Congress. Despite Johnson’s dismissal of my father’s proposal of treatment and rehabilitation, he extolled those ideas when he signed the Narcotic Addict Rehabilitation Act into law in November 1966, describing it as a “pioneering measure” that recognizes that “treating addicts as criminals neither curtails addiction nor prevents crime.”

President Obama now has a golden opportunity in his own State of the Union to confront the U.S. government’s continued struggle to effectively legislate drugs.  In a January 8 statement, Obama endorsed the very same priorities articulated in LBJ’s War on Poverty and catalogued exactly 50 years ago in Johnson’s own State of the Union address.  This indicates that he will also focus on income inequality — 21st century lingo for entrenched poverty — in his speech on January 28.  While a renewed commitment to tackling persistent poverty is laudable, Obama should also seize the moment to further another, related legislative aim of the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations: reduced sentencing for drug-law violators who are nonviolent offenders....

Members of the bench and bar have come to recognize that mandatory minimums don’t always keep society safe or effectively punish every defendant.  A bill in the Senate, co-sponsored by Senators Dick Durbin, a Democrat, and Mike Lee, a Republican, would capitalize on shifting opinions in Congress and the general public.  The Smarter Sentencing Act (SSA) would reduce the mandatory-minimum penalties for many drug offenses and give federal judges more leeway to sentence nonviolent offenders with limited criminal histories below the high mandatory-minimum sentences.  It would also reduce disparities between crack- and powder-cocaine offenders by making the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which reduced the gap between the amount of crack and powder cocaine needed to trigger certain penalties, retroactive.  Support for the SSA from law enforcement, victims’ organizations, prosecutors, and judges has poured in, including a letter signed by more than 100 former judges and prosecutors, including me....

The Obama Administration has indicated it supports mandatory-minimum-sentencing reform.  Tellingly, the president last month commuted the sentences of eight nonviolent drug offenders who would most likely have received significantly shorter terms if they had been sentenced under current drug laws, sentencing rules, and charging policies.  Attorney General Eric Holder stated last August that legislation such as the SSA will “ultimately save our country billions of dollars while keeping us safe.”  In an interview published in this week’s issue of The New Yorker, Obama acknowledged the disparate impact of drug laws on minorities, noting that “African-American kids and Latino kids are more likely to be poor and less likely to have the resources and the support” — in their families, in their schools, and in their communities — to avoid lengthy prison sentences for marijuana crimes, even as he acknowledged the “profound” social costs of drug trafficking.

A declaration of support for the SSA in his State of the Union Address — broadcast live and heard not only by Congress but approximately 50 million people around the world — would go far to create momentum and support for the bill and its goal of curbing unnecessarily harsh sentencing. In so doing, the president would put America back on the road paved by Kennedy and Johnson. My father, and the presidents he served, would be pleased.

January 26, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

"Congress should scrap drug sentencing 'enhancements'"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new commentary by Jamie Fellner published earlier this week in The Hill. (Ms. Fellner is senior advisor to the U.S. Program of Human Rights Watch and author of this recent HRW report, An Offer You Can’t Refuse: How Federal Prosecutors Force Drug Defendants to Plead Guilty .) Here is how the commentary starts and ends:

When President Obama recently commuted the extraordinarily severe sentences of eight men and women convicted on federal crack cocaine charges, he rightly noted they had all been sentenced under an "unjust" law that mandated vastly harsher prison terms for crack than for powder cocaine offenses.

But the injustice in these cases wasn't limited to that disparity – nor even to fact that all were charged with offenses carrying harsh mandatory minimum sentences keyed solely to the type and amount of drug involved in their crime and not their role in the offense.

Prosecutors in half the cases used a 1986 sentencing provision that enables them to pursue sentences "enhanced" far beyond the mandatory minimum if the defendant has prior convictions. For defendants with one prior, their sentence can be doubled. If a defendant facing a ten-year minimum sentence has two prior drug convictions, the prosecutors can transform his sentence into life. The decision to use “enhancements” is in the prosecutor’s sole discretion and the courts have no choice but to impose the egregiously harsh enhanced sentences.

Take Stephanie Yvette George, one of the eight. She was convicted in 1997 because, as the judge said, she was the “bag holder and money holder” for crack-dealing boyfriends. She had been looking at a ten-year mandatory minimum sentence on crack conspiracy charges – already too severe a punishment for a bit player in the drug business. But prosecutors chose to increase her sentence to life because she had two earlier convictions for selling a total of $160 worth of crack – offenses for which she served nine months in a work-release program. Because there is no parole in the federal system, her life sentence was a sentence to die behind bars.

As George’s case illustrates, even a small-time drug offender with some petty prior convictions can be sentenced to life if a prosecutor decides to trigger the sentencing enhancement. Because mandatory sentences take no account of an offender's role in a crime, ten years is the minimum most street level dealers, bit players, and even couriers face unless they can secure a lower sentence through a plea agreement. Moreover, the prior convictions that turn ten years into a life sentence could have happened long ago, the defendant may never have been sentenced to prison (e.g. the sentence was for probation), and the crimes could have been as minor as simple possession of marijuana for personal use.

Some prosecutors use the enhancement provision in every case in which it's applicable. Most, however, use the threat of enhancements to strong-arm defendants into pleading guilty -- a threat they make good on if the defendant refuses. As one former prosecutor told me, "We would only invoke [the enhancement]…to penalize a defendant for the audacity of going to trial."...

In August 2013, Attorney General Eric Holder instructed federal prosecutors to avoid seeking sentencing enhancements in drug cases unless the circumstances warranted such severe sanctions. But he provided such broad criteria for determining whether such circumstances exist that, as Judge John Gleeson of the Eastern District of New York has pointed out, any capable prosecutor who wants to seek the enhancement can justify doing so.

The attorney general should prohibit prosecutors from threatening or seeking greatly increased sentences simply because defendants refuse to plead. But as long as the drug sentencing enhancement provision remains on the books, prosecutors are likely to use it. Congress should abolish the provision as part of a broader reform to the regime of mandatory minimum sentencing laws that have sent tens of thousands to prison with sentences that are neither just nor fair.

Related recent post:

January 15, 2014 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Unwrapping the Eleventh Circuit's final 2013 holiday present to prisoners challenging sentencing errors

Late last year, a helpful reader alerted me to an important (and very lengthy) new Eleventh Circuit panel decision in Bryant v. Warden, FCC Coleman, No. 12-11212 (11th Cir. Dec. 24, 2013) (available here). I have waited to blog about it until now because (1) I did not want this important Christmas Eve decision to be overlooked during the holiday weeks, and (2) federal public defender Amy Baron-Evans said I could use her new summary of the 110-page ruling to highlight why Bryant is the first must-read of 2014.  Here is the heart of Amy's summary of Bryant:

Eleventh Circuit Holds Savings Clause Opens the Door to a 2241 Petition Raising an Error Resulting in a Sentence Exceeding the Statutory Maximum

In Bryant v. Warden, __ F.3d __, 2013 WL 6768086 (11th Cir. Dec. 24, 2013), the Eleventh Circuit reversed the district court’s dismissal of Bryant’s 28 USC § 2241 habeas petition brought pursuant to the savings clause, 28 USC 2255(e), which permits a prisoner to file a 28 USC § 2241 petition when a § 2255 motion is “inadequate or ineffective to test the legality of his detention.”

This is an important decision for successive petitions raising claims under DesCamps or any other claim that the sentence exceeds the lawful statutory maximum. If you file a successive petition under 28 USC § 2255, and it is dismissed because it doesn’t meet the successor standard under § 2255(h), a § 2255 motion is “inadequate or ineffective to test the legality of [the prisoner’s] detention” under § 2255(e), and you can file a habeas petition under § 2241.

Leland Kynes of Holland & Knight was appointed to represent Bryant.

Savings Clause

Bryant proved that his prior § 2255 motion was “inadequate or ineffective to test the legality of his detention” and so his 2241 petition could now proceed under § 2255(e) because: (1) throughout his sentencing, direct appeal, and first § 2255 proceeding, binding circuit precedent held that a Florida concealed-firearm offense was a “violent felony” and squarely foreclosed his 924(e) claim that he was erroneously sentenced above the 10–year statutory maximum in 924(a); (2) subsequent to Bryant’s first § 2255, the Supreme Court’s decision in Begay, as interpreted by the circuit, “busted” circuit precedent holding that the Florida concealed-firearm offense was a “violent felony”; (3) Begay’s new rule applies retroactively on collateral review; (4) as a result, Bryant’s 235–month guideline sentence exceeds the 10–year statutory maximum authorized by § 924(a); (5) the savings clause in § 2255(e) reaches his claim of illegal detention above the statutory maximum.

The government raised no objection to Bryant’s attempt to proceed under the savings clause, so the court appointed amicus counsel to argue that it does not apply even when the sentence exceeds the statutory maximum. The court rejected amicus counsel’s arguments.

Procedural Default

The Eleventh also held that procedural default (by not raising the issue on direct appeal or in his first § 2255) did not bar the claim. While futility does not constitute cause to excuse procedural default, the procedural default rule is not jurisdictional but is an affirmative defense that the government can waive, and the government waived it. In addition, the savings clause under § 2255(e) applies regardless of whether the prisoner “has failed to apply” for § 2255 relief or the sentencing court “has denied him” § 2255 relief. Whether the savings clause may open the door to a § 2241 petition is jurisdictional, and so the court had to decide it.

Government’s Position

As noted, the government waived procedural default and any objection to Bryant proceeding under the savings clause.  The docket notes that the government has conceded the savings clause issue in other cases, and I’m told the government has not raised procedural default in other cases in other districts.  So this appears to be coming from the Solicitor General’s office, and its position is apparently that ACCA cases are different because a sentence above the statutory maximum is per se illegal.

The government did argue that a 1988 burglary conviction could be substituted for the concealed weapons conviction as the third ACCA predicate.  The court of appeals rejected that argument because the government did not object at sentencing to the district court’s finding that there were only three predicates or suggest at sentencing that the burglary conviction could be a predicate.

Other Circuits

The court of appeals describes a “deep and mature circuit split” on the reach of the savings clause at pages 24-26 of its decision. This part of the decision is not entirely clear and you should check your circuit caselaw.  Other circuits may adopt the Eleventh Circuit's approach, and if not, file a cert petition.

January 8, 2014 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Saturday, January 04, 2014

Will bipartisan momentum get Congress to enact some real and really consequential sentencing reform?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this lengthy new AP piece, headlined "Momentum behind sentencing changes grows as supporters in Congress seek changes this year."  Here are excerpts:

An unusual alliance of tea party enthusiasts and liberal leaders in Congress is pursuing major changes in the country's mandatory sentencing laws. What's motivating them are growing concerns about both the fairness of the sentences and the expense of running federal prisons.

The congressional push comes as President Barack Obama and his Cabinet draw attention to the issue of mandatory sentences, particularly for nonviolent drug offenders. Supporters say mandatory minimum sentences are outdated, lump all offenders into one category and rob judges of the ability to use their own discretion. They also cite the high costs of the policies. The Justice Department spends some $6.4 billion, about one-quarter of its budget, on prisons each year, and that number is growing steadily....

Tough-on-crime drug policies once united Republicans and Democrats who didn't want to appear weak on crime. Now reversing or revising many of those policies is having the same effect.

The Fair Sentencing Act, passed in 2010, drew bipartisan support for cutting penalties on crack cocaine offenses. The bill reduced a disparity between crack-related sentences and sentences for other drugs, though it only addressed new cases, not old ones.  [Senator Dick] Durbin, one of that bill's chief sponsors, has written a much broader bill with [Senator Mike] Lee, called the Smarter Sentencing Act. It would expand a provision that gives judges discretion for a limited number of nonviolent drug offenders. The new law would allow judges the same latitude for a larger group of drug offenders facing mandatory sentences.

It's one of four bills dealing with sentencing that the Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to take up early in the year. The committee chairman, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said he wants one consensus bill to clear the committee.

Leahy is a co-sponsor on the Durbin-Lee bill but has also introduced legislation with Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., that would expand the safety valve even more, to all federal cases with mandatory sentences if certain conditions are met.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, introduced legislation late in December that is based on changes in Texas' state prison system.  A separate bill, sponsored by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., and Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, allows inmates to earn credit for completing programs designed to reduce recidivism.

Leahy's committee delayed writing a sentencing bill several times in 2013.  But supporters noted that the last sentencing legislation took months to negotiate and said that the committee has delayed work until early 2014 in large part because behind-the-scenes talks are proving fruitful.  Durbin said he and Lee had been lobbying their fellow committee members — Durbin talking to skeptical Democrats, Lee to Republicans.  In the House, Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, a tea party conservative, and Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., are co-sponsors of a companion to Durbin and Lee's bill.

A number of outside groups have expressed support for the Durbin-Lee bill, too, and they run the ideological spectrum, including the conservative Heritage Action, the American Bar Association, the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union. 

January 4, 2014 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Saturday, December 28, 2013

George Will laments "mandatory minimums as sledgehammers"

This past week, Washington Post columnist George Will made heavy use of recent opinions by Judge John Gleeson to join the chorus of commentators lamenting federal mandatory minimum sentencing statutes.  Here are the closing paragraphs from this commentary, headlined "The sledgehammer justice of mandatory minimum sentences":

Kenneth Harvey was 24 in 1989 when he committed a crack cocaine offense. He had two prior offenses that qualified as felony drug convictions even though they were not deemed serious enough for imprisonment. They, however, enabled the government to make an 851 filing. He will die in prison. Harvey is 48.

Thousands of prisoners are serving life without parole for nonviolent crimes. Gleeson, who is neither naive nor sentimental (as a prosecutor, he sent mobster John Gotti to die in a supermax prison), knows that most defendants who plead guilty are guilty. He is, however, dismayed at the use of the threat of mandatory minimums as “sledgehammers” to extort guilty pleas, effectively vitiating the right to a trial. Ninety-seven percent of federal convictions are without trials, sparing the government the burden of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Mere probable cause, and the meager presentation required for a grand jury indictment, suffices. “Judging is removed,” Gleeson says, “prosecutors become sentencers.” And when threats of draconian sentences compel guilty pleas, “some innocent people will plead guilty.”

Barack Obama, Attorney General Eric Holder and Sens. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) are questioning the regime of mandatory minimum sentences, including recidivism enhancements, that began with the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986. Meanwhile, the human and financial costs of mass incarceration mount.

December 28, 2013 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Senators Paul and Booker celebrate Festivus with sentencing and drug war reform tweeting

Festivus-tweets-4As highlighted in this article, "Sen. Rand Paul's (R-Ky.) 'airing of grievances' on Twitter Monday morning actually led to an important side discussion between him and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) about drug policy — one that could preview a renewed push on reforms next year." Here is more:

It started when Paul, during his homage to "Seinfeld," joked that one of his grievances was with the Twitter-savvy Booker: "One more Festivus grievance about bipartisanship. @CoryBooker doesn't RT me enough."

Booker responded, in kind: "U, me & 'feats of strength:' Senate floor, name the time MT"

Then things got a little more serious: "@CoryBooker how about mandatory minimum sentencing reform instead?"

And then Booker threw in a caveat of his own: "Yes, If u throw in reforming Fed Hemp & Marijuana laws u've got a deal! RT"

Paul reminded him of his stance on reforming marijuana laws: "@CoryBooker I am the Senate author of Hemp bill!"

Booker ended it by declaring an end to the "War on Drugs" in 2014: "I know. U told me last week. Here is to a 2014 where we take on the failed war on drugs RT"

I am pleased that the two Senators who have talked the most about federal sentencing reform have extended the discussion to the Twitterverse. But, as I have said before and will keep saying again, reform talk is cheap and only meaningful if and when advocates can turn this talk into action.

Some recent and older related posts:

December 25, 2013 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

"Take Action: National Call-In Day for Sentencing Reform TODAY"

The title of this post is the heading of an e-mail I received this morning from The Sentencing Project.  Here is the body of the e-mail request for action:

After decades of "get tough" rhetoric, Republicans and Democrats in Congress are finally coming together to say “enough.”

This week, the U.S. Senate is scheduled to take up legislation to address our unjust and racially discriminatory sentencing laws. One of the bills expected to be considered at this week's Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, the Smarter Sentencing Act (S. 1410), takes two significant steps forward.  First, it reduces overly harsh penalties for drug offenses and allows judges greater flexibility in sentencing. Second, it extends the more equitable crack cocaine provisions of the Fair Sentencing Act retroactively to individuals serving prison terms under the now discredited 100-to-1 quantity disparity -- a disparity that has had a devastating impact on African American communities.

We need your help. On Wednesday, Dec. 11, civil rights and criminal justice advocates, faith-based groups, and others are joining together to tell their Senators to support sentencing reform.

To join this effort, please call the Senate switchboard TODAY at 202-224-3121 and ask to be connected to each of the Senators from your state. When you are connected, urge your Senator to address unjust sentences and racial disparities in the criminal justice system by supporting the Smarter Sentencing Act, S. 1410.

By modernizing drug sentencing polices and giving federal judges more discretion in sentencing, we can take smart and targeted steps to reduce skyrocketing prison populations and reduce racial disparities in sentencing.

I have tended to be cynical and pessimistic about the import and impact of these kinds of call-in days, but folks who know a lot better than me have reported that they can be quite valuable and consequential.

December 11, 2013 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Remarkable new HRW report details massive "trial penalty" due to mandatory minimums in federal system

2013-US-plea-graphicAs highlighted in this press release discussing a new important report, in federal courts "drug offenders convicted after trial receive sentences on average three times as long as those who accept a plea bargain, according to new statistics developed by Human Rights Watch."  Here is more from the press release about the report and its findings:

The 126-page report, “An Offer You Can’t Refuse: How US Federal Prosecutors Force Drug Defendants to Plead Guilty,” details how prosecutors throughout the United States extract guilty pleas from federal drug defendants by charging or threatening to charge them with offenses carrying harsh mandatory sentences and by seeking additional mandatory increases to those sentences.  Prosecutors offer defendants a much lower sentence in exchange for pleading guilty.  Since drug defendants rarely prevail at trial, it is not surprising that 97 percent of them decide to plead guilty.

“Prosecutors give drug defendants a so-called choice -- in the most egregious cases, the choice can be to plead guilty to 10 years, or risk life without parole by going to trial,” said Jamie Fellnew, senior advisor to the US Program at Human Rights Watch and author of the report.  “Prosecutors make offers few drug defendants can refuse.  This is coercion pure and simple.”...

In one of hundreds of cases Human Rights Watch reviewed, Sandra Avery, a small-time drug dealer, rejected a plea of 10 years for possessing 50 grams of crack cocaine with intent to deliver. The prosecutor triggered a sentencing enhancement based on her prior convictions for simple drug possession, and she was sentenced to life without parole.

In addition to case reviews, the report is also based on numerous interviews with federal prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges.  It also includes new statistics developed by Human Rights Watch that provide the most recent and detailed measure of what the report calls the “trial penalty” -- the difference in sentences for drug defendants who pled guilty compared with those for defendants convicted after trial.  The trial penalty is, essentially, the price prosecutors make defendants pay for exercising their right to trial. “Going to trial is a right, not a crime,” Fellner said. “But defendants are punished with longer sentences for exercising that right.”

Prosecutors are able to impose the trial penalty because judges have been reduced to virtual bystanders in cases involving mandatory sentences.  When prosecutors choose to pursue mandatory penalties and the defendant is convicted, judges must impose the sentences.  They cannot exercise their traditional role of tailoring sentences to each defendant’s conduct and culpability and of making sentences no longer than necessary to serve the purposes of punishment....

The new statistics Human Rights Watch developed for the report, based on raw federal sentencing data for 2012, include the following:

• The average sentence for federal drug offenders who pled guilty was five years, four months; for those convicted after trial the average sentence was sixteen years.

• For drug defendants convicted of offenses carrying mandatory minimum sentences, those who pled guilty had an average sentence of 82.5 months compared with 215 months for those convicted after trial, a difference of 11 years.

• Among drug defendants with prior felony convictions, the odds of receiving a sentencing enhancement based on those convictions was 8.4 times greater for those who went to trial than for those who pled guilty.

• Among drug defendants with a gun involved in their offense, the odds of receiving the statutory gun sentencing enhancement were 2.5 times greater for those who went to trial than for those who pled guilty.

December 5, 2013 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (49) | TrackBack

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

"The wrong people decide who goes to prison"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new CNN commentary authored by US DIstrict Judge Mark Bennett and Prof. Mark Osler.  Here are some of the on-the-mark views coming today from these Marks:

Nearly 30 years ago, Congress embarked on a remarkable and ultimately tragic transformation of criminal law.  Through the establishment of mandatory sentences and sentencing guidelines, discretion in sentencing was shifted from judges to prosecutors. After the changes, prosecutors largely controlled sentencing because things like mandatory sentences and guideline ranges were determined by decisions they made.

This change ignored the fact that federal judges are chosen from the ranks of experienced members of the bar precisely because their long legal careers have shown the ability to exercise discretion.  It also ignored the contrasting truth that many federal prosecutors are young lawyers in their 20s and 30s who have little experience making decisions as weighty as determining who will be imprisoned and for how long.

The primary reason for the changes was well-intended, though: Members of Congress wanted more uniformity in sentencing. That is, they wanted a term of imprisonment to derive from the crime and the history of the criminal rather than the personality of the person wielding discretion.

After nearly 30 years, we know how Congress' experiment turned out, and the results are not good.  Federal judges have been relatively lenient on low-level drug offenders when they have the discretion to go that way.  Turning discretion over to prosecutors via mandatory sentences and guidelines not only resulted in a remarkable surge in incarceration, it does not seem to solve the problem of disparities....

Let's look at just one way that prosecutors exercise this discretion: the enhancement of narcotics sentences under 21 U.S.C. 851, or proceedings to establish prior convictions. These enhancements, at a minimum, double a drug defendant's mandatory minimum sentence and may raise the maximum possible sentence....   [O]ur analysis of the way these enhancements have been used reveals a deeply disturbing dirty little secret of federal sentencing: the stunningly arbitrary application of these enhancements by prosecutors within the Department of Justice.

The numbers tell the story. Our home states are fairly typical in their wild disparities: A federal defendant in Iowa is more than 1,056% likely to receive a 851 enhancement than one in Minnesota. Nor are these Midwestern neighbors an anomaly. In the Northern District of Florida, prosecutors apply the enhancement 87% of the time, but in the bordering Middle District of Georgia, they are used in just 2% of relevant cases.

There is also breathtaking disparity within federal district within the same state (PDF). For example, in Florida, prosecutors in the Northern District apply the enhancement 87% of the time, but in the Southern District, it is used only 14% of the time.  In the Eastern District of Tennessee, offenders are 3,994% more likely to receive an enhancement than in the Western District of Tennessee.  In the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, a defendant is 2,257% more likely to receive the enhancement than in the Middle District of Pennsylvania. The disparities are startling.

In August, Attorney General Eric Holder announced steps to establish more discipline within the Department of Justice in how this discretion is used.  It is a promising step but only that: a step. It is unclear how firm the attorney general is willing to be in tracking and constraining the use of this kind of discretion by prosecutors in different areas.

The larger lesson, and the more important one, is that after nearly 30 years, we still have gross and tragic disparities in federal sentencing, with the added burden of too many people put in prison, caused by mandatory sentencing and harsh sentencing guidelines. Tentative steps at reform will not be enough.  It is time for a radical rethinking of the project as a whole and a recognition that this grand experiment in shifting discretion to prosecutors has failed.

December 4, 2013 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

In lengthy split opinions, en banc Sixth Circuit rejects all efforts to give any relief to pre-FSA crack defendants still serving mandatory minimums

The Sixth Circuit this morning has handed down a lengthy set of opinion in the closely-watched Blewett litigation. All the opinions, which can be accessed here, run a full 79 pages.  It appears the vote to reject providing any relief to pre-FSA defendants still serving now-repealed mandatory minimums was 10-7, and here is the complicated accounting of the votes and opinions:

SUTTON, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which BATCHELDER, C. J., BOGGS, GILMAN, GIBBONS, COOK, McKEAGUE, GRIFFIN and KETHLEGE, JJ., joined, and MOORE, J., join ed in the result. MOORE, J. (pp. 21–33), delivered a separate opinion concurring in the judgment. MERRITT, J. (pp. 34–37), delivered a separate dissenting opinion, in which DONALD J., joined. COLE, J. (pp. 38–43), delivered a separate dissenting opinion. CLAY, J. (pp. 44–58), delivered a separate dissenting opinion, in which DONALD, J., joined. ROGERS, J. (pp. 59–67), delivered a separate dissenting opinion, in which WHITE and STRANCH, JJ., joined, MERRITT, J., joined in part, and COLE, J., joined except for the last paragraph. WHITE, J. (pp. 68–79), delivered a separate dissenting opinion.

I am not at all surpsised by the line-up here, which notably seems to go down party lines save for Clinton appointees Judges Gilam and Moore with the Republican-appointee-heavy marjority, and Bush appointees Judges Rogers and White voting with the Democratic-heavy dissenting minority.  Here is how the opinion of the Sixth Circuit majority ends:

At the end of the day, this is a case about who, not what — about who has authority to lower the Blewetts’ sentences, not what should be done with that authority. In holding that the courts lack authority to give the Blewetts a sentence reduction, we do not mean to discount the policy arguments for granting that reduction.  Although the various opinions in this case draw different conclusions about the law, they all agree that Congress should think seriously about making the new minimums retroactive.  Indeed, the Fair Sentencing Act, prospective though it is, dignifies much of what the Blewetts are saying as a matter of legislative reform and may well be a powerful ground for seeking relief from Congress. Yet the language of the relevant statutes (the Fair Sentencing Act, § 109 and § 3582(c)(2)) and the language of the relevant decisions (Dorsey, Davis and Harmelin) leave us no room to grant that relief here. Any request for a sentence reduction must be addressed to a higher tribunal (the Supreme Court) or to a different forum altogether (the Congress and the President).

Especially because I have a very busy teaching week, I am unlikely to find the time to read and assess these opinions in full for a little while.  Moreover, because I have a much more robust view of the limits of the Eighth Amendment than most members of the federal judiciary, I suspect I will not be moved by how the majority disposed of this matter with reference to Harmelin and other cases which do not involve the sui generis reality of sustaining lengthy federal prison terms that have been resoundly and repeatedly rejected and disavowed by all other branches of the federal government and by all the states in the Union as well. 

December 3, 2013 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Calling out DOJ for talking the talk, but not walking the walk, on mandatory minimums

Andrew Cohen has this lengthy and effective new piece via The Atlantic highlighting a case in the SCOTUS cert pool that highlights the ways federal prosecutors are able to use mandatory minimums to force judges to impose lengthy prison terms for drug offenders. The piece's headline and sub-head highlight its themes: "Attorney General Mean What He Says About Sentencing Reform?: Eric Holder has spent a great deal of time and energy lately advocating for reforms to mandatory minimum sentences. So why is the federal government trying to stiff Clarvee Gomez in court?".  And here is how piece starts and concludes:

When the justices of the United States Supreme Court confer Friday morning to consider new cases they will have the opportunity to accept for review a dispute that tests not just the meaning of their own recent Sixth Amendment precedent but the viability of a major new policy initiative implemented this summer by the Justice Department to bring more fairness to federal sentencing while reducing the terrible costs of prison overcrowding.

In Gomez v. United States, a Massachusetts case, the justices have been asked to determine whether they meant what they wrote about juries and drug sentences in Alleyne v. United States, decided just this past June, and at the same time whether Attorney General Eric Holder meant what he said, in August, when he promised to curb the ways in which his federal prosecutors abuse "mandatory minimum" sentences in drug cases to obtain guilty pleas (or higher sentences).

The justices should accept this case for review. And the Court should affirm the just principle that a man cannot constitutionally be sentenced based upon charges that are not brought or upon facts a jury does not even hear. But even if the justices aren't willing to muster up that level of indignation, they ought to at least take the opportunity to call out federal prosecutors for saying one thing in front of the microphones and another in court papers....

The government's positions in this case — both the tactics employed by Gomez's prosecutors and the arguments made now by federal attorneys — are utterly inconsistent with the much-publicized policies the Attorney General himself promulgated this summer....

Even after the Court's mandate in Alleyne, even after the Attorney General's pointed memorandum, even after all the public speeches about sentencing reform, federal attorneys still are trying to argue that the result in the Gomez case is both fair and constitutional. It is neither and the Supreme Court ought to say so — or at least expose the incoherence and hypocrisy of the government's position. If true sentencing reform is going to come it's going to come one case at a time — and this is as good a case as any to start.

December 3, 2013 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Friday, November 29, 2013

Louisiana Supreme Court at crosshairs of strong gun rights and tough drug laws

Cross-hairAs reported in this effective local article, headlined "Court considering second major gun law: La. drug-gun statute latest to face review," the top court in the Pelican State has a lot of interesting legal issues to sort out in the wake of state voters having last year approved by a gun-rights constitutional amendment backed by the National Rifle Association.  Here are the particulars:

Amid the growing confusion over whether Louisiana’s litany of gun crimes violates its residents’ turbocharged right to bear arms, the state Supreme Court has decided it will try to settle one of the most consequential questions: Does it remain constitutional to charge a person with a high-grade felony for having a gun at the same time as illegal drugs, no matter what kind of drugs or how much?

Rico Webb, a 22-year-old caught in a car with one marijuana cigar and a gun, points to a state constitutional amendment passed last year, applauded by conservatives and the National Rifle Association, that for the first time in American history declared gun ownership a fundamental right in Louisiana, subject to the same level of judicial scrutiny as free speech and voter equality.

The amendment provoked an avalanche of legal challenges to the state’s major gun-crime laws. At least three judges have declared various criminal statutes unconstitutional. The Louisiana Supreme Court is tasked with sorting out the mess.

The high court already is considering the statute that forbids certain felons from possessing firearms. It heard oral arguments last month, and its decision is pending.  In the meantime, the court agreed on Friday to take up Webb’s challenge to the law that punishes the possession of guns and drugs with five to 10 years in prison without the possibility of parole....

The constitutional amendment sailed through the Legislature last year and received overwhelming support from voters at the ballot box. Its proponents, both inside and outside the Legislature, defended the measure as a guarantee of freedom if federal gun protections were to somehow fall.

But critics described it as an unnecessary law that solved no problem.  Louisiana already had among the most liberal gun laws in the nation. All the amendment has accomplished, they say, is widespread constitutional chaos that could endanger public safety and waste hundreds of courthouse hours on the taxpayers’ dime.

The measure was pitched by conservative legislators as a state equivalent to the Second Amendment.  But in practice, it goes far past the protections offered by the U.S. Constitution.  The amendment erased language in the law that allowed the Legislature to prohibit carrying a concealed weapon and specified that, for the first time anywhere in the nation, gun laws would be subject to a “strict scrutiny” test, the highest level of judicial review.

“What the Legislature did is it took discretion away from itself,” said Raymond Diamond, a LSU law professor and Second Amendment scholar.  “This pro-gun Legislature voted to bind itself, and future Legislatures that might not be so pro-gun, from undertaking gun control. It has similarly binded local communities in ways that right now we really don’t understand.”  He has described the amendment as “a can of worms.”

It pushed the Louisiana Supreme Court to become the first in America to analyze criminal gun statutes using a strict scrutiny test.  That test presumes that every person has the right to be armed. Any law that seeks to infringe that right must pass a grueling legal test that kills more than two-third of the laws that come up against it.  The state must show that the law serves a compelling government interest, and that it is so narrowly defined that there is no less restrictive way of achieving that interest.

The arguments against the current statutes are similar, in that they equally dole out “heavy-handed penalties” to vast groups of people.  The drug statute treats people caught with small amounts of marijuana the same as those with large amounts of more serious drugs.  The felon-with-a-gun statute equates burglars with murderers. It includes a list of 150 felony offenses, characterized as drug or violence crimes, and says that anyone convicted of any of them is barred from possessing a firearm for 10 years after being released from prison.

The state supports that law by arguing that those with a demonstrated capacity to break the law are more dangerous when armed. Its position on the drugs-and-gun statute is the same: Drugs beget violence and guns make volatile situations deadly.

But Webb’s attorney, New Orleans public defender Colin Reingold, argues that the state cannot prove, under a strict-scrutiny test, that a single marijuana blunt makes him more dangerous when armed than anyone else, particularly since the possession of alcohol and guns is not equally restricted.  “The true danger of a firearm comes not from the manner in which its owner keeps or bears it, but rather from how the citizen uses the weapon,” Reingold wrote in his appeal to the Supreme Court.

Webb, who has no criminal record, was arrested on Sept. 10, 2012, when police pulled over his girlfriend for having a broken taillight.  He confessed to police that he had the blunt in his backpack and said the gun on the floorboard was his, too.  The gun was legal and the marijuana alone would have amounted to a misdemeanor, prosecuted in Municipal Court and typically punished with a fine and probation.  But combined, the gun and pot became a felony with a minimum sentence of five years and a maximum of 10 years, without the possibility of parole.

Webb appealed his charge to the Louisiana Supreme Court, which announced on Friday it would hear the case.  Over the years, the courts will have to sort out which of the 80 other gun crimes on Louisiana law books remain constitutional under the new amendment.

The state has become an experiment. “This is an exciting time because there is some risk that some of the laws will be declared unconstitutional,” Diamond said.  “Everybody’s very interested to see what the court’s going to do with it.”

Various prior Second Amendment and gun policy posts:

November 29, 2013 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Gun policy and sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Second Amendment issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Friday, November 22, 2013

Two notable Sixth Circuit rejections of notable sentencing appeals by notable defendants

While I was distracted by teaching responsibilities, the Sixth Circuit yesterday handed down two notable (and lengthy) opinions rejecting two distinct defendants' intriguing claims concerning two distinct sentencing outcomes.  The first paragraphs of each opinion highlights why both cases are worthy of full reads:

US v. Volkman, No. 12-3212 (6th Cir. Nov. 21, 2013) (available here):

When a doctor first enters the practice of medicine, he or she swears to abide by a prime directive of the profession: “First, do no harm.”  Paul Volkman breached this sacrosanct tenet when he prescribed narcotics to addicts and individuals with physical, mental, and psychological frailties.  A federal jury looked at Volkman’s actions and found him guilty of breaking several laws, chief among them the law prohibiting the unlawful distribution of controlled substances.  After receiving the jury’s verdict, the district court sentenced Volkman to four consecutive terms of life imprisonment, to be served concurrently with a number of less-lengthy terms.

Volkman now appeals, contending that several errors arose throughout the course of his trial and sentencing.  We disagree, and we AFFIRM Volkman’s convictions and sentence.

US v. Marshall, No. 12-3805 (6th Cir. Nov. 21, 2013) (available here):

Dylan Marshall pled guilty to receiving child pornography over a period of 5 years, from the time he was 15 un til he was 20.  The district court varied downward from the guideline range and sentenced him to 5 years in prison — the mandatory minimum sentence for the offense — expressing its concerns with the perceived harshness of that sentence as it did so.  Marshall has a rare physiological condition called Human Growth Hormone Deficiency, which he believes entitles him to the Eighth Amendment protections accorded to juveniles. But despite his condition, Marshall was an adult at the time of the offense. We therefore affirm his sentence.

November 22, 2013 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack