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

Monday, February 17, 2014

Federal judge urges passage of the Smarter Sentencing Act because of "Prisoners I Lose Sleep Over"

The title of this post is drawn from the headline given to this recent commentary piece in the Wall Street Journal authored by senior US District Judge Michael Ponsor. Here are excerpts:

The Senate Judiciary Committee approved the "Smarter Sentencing Act" by a bipartisan vote of 13-5 on Jan. 30, sending it to the Senate floor.  The legislation is excellent and its passage would mean a long overdue correction of a misguided sentencing regime that Americans — including federal judges like me — have struggled with for more than two decades.

I've been on the federal bench for 30 years, having served 10 years as a magistrate judge and 20 as a U.S. district judge.  My pride in our constitutional system runs bone deep: No system of law has ever existed that tries so hard to be truly fair.  I can take scant pride, however, in the dark epoch our criminal sentencing laws have passed through during my decades handling felony cases....

For years, I could recite the mandatory terms for crack in my sleep: five years for five grams, 10 years for 50 grams, 20 years for 50 grams with one prior conviction, life without parole for 50 grams with two priors — no discretion, no consideration of specific circumstances.  These mandatory terms (unless the defendant cooperated by implicating others) were the same for low-level couriers, called mules, as for high-echelon drug lords.

By passing the Fair Sentencing Act, Congress recognized that this system of mandatory sentences, in addition to being unjust, was to some extent racially skewed since black drug users tend to favor crack, while whites prefer much less harshly penalized powder cocaine. Yet defendants sentenced before the act was passed still languish today, serving out sentences that virtually all members of Congress now recognize as excessive.  And there is not a darn thing anyone can do about it. If you're the one doing the sentencing, this reality will keep you awake at night, believe me.

The Smarter Sentencing Act would reduce 20-year mandatory sentences to 10, 10-year sentences to five, and five-year sentences to two years.  Increased numbers of offenders with very modest criminal records would not face mandatory sentences at all.  If adopted, the law would also permit thousands of prisoners to seek reduction of their prison terms to bring them in line with the Fair Sentencing Act.  None of these changes would reduce the power of judges to slam the really bad actors. But they would permit judges to do what they are paid to do: use their judgment.

Our vast prison apparatus is too costly, but more important, it is unworthy of us as a free people.  This new statute is well named — now is the time for smarter sentencing.

Some recent related posts concerning Smarter Sentencing Act:

February 17, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Effective Heritage analysis of federal MMs and statutory reform proposals

Earlier this week, the Heritage Foundation published this effective and informative Legal Memorandum titled "Reconsidering Mandatory Minimum Sentences: The Arguments for and Against Potential Reforms." I plan to have the students in my Sentencing class read this memo, which was authored by Evan Bernick and Paul Larkin, because it provides a very timely review of the arguments surrounding the leading modern reform proposals. And here are the "key points" highlighted by the authors in conjunction with the memo:

The U.S. Senate is considering two bills that would revise the federal sentencing laws in the case of mandatory minimum sentences.

The Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013 expands the existing sentencing “safety valve” by allowing a judge to depart downward from any mandatory minimum “if the court finds that it is necessary to do so in order to avoid imposing” an unjust sentence.

The Smarter Sentencing Act of 2013 applies only to nonviolent drug crimes and would permit a district judge to issue sentences without regard to any mandatory minimum if the court finds that the defendant meets certain criminal history requirements and did not commit a disqualifying offense.

Although the Smarter Sentencing Act takes a smaller step than the Safety Valve Act toward the revision of the federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws, such a measured approach could enhance federal sentencing policy while avoiding a number of potential pitfalls.

February 12, 2014 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Saturday, February 08, 2014

"On drug sentencing, a growing number of Republicans are ready to shed the party’s law-and-order image in favor of reform"

Jeff FlakeThe title of this post is part of the headline of this notable new Slate piece.  Among other astute points, this piece highlights the generational differences between the members of the GOP who continue to embrace tough (and big) federal criminal justice approaches and other GOP members now embracing reform efforts. Here are excerpts:

“As Christians, we believe in forgiveness,” said [Senator Rand] Paul [in his keynote at the annual American Principles Project conference]. “I think the criminal justice system should have some element of forgiveness.”  There are, sure, human terrors who need to be locked up. “But there are also people who make youthful mistakes who I believe deserve a second chance. In my state, you never vote again if you’re convicted of a felony. But a felony could be growing marijuana plants in college. Friend of mine’s brother did 30 years ago. He has an MBA. But he can’t vote, can’t own a gun, and he’s a house-painter with an MBA, because he has to check a box saying he’s a convicted felon.”

Paul’s audience, consisting of social conservatives, congressional candidates, and radio hosts, listened or nodded along. “These are ideas not many Republicans have talked about before,” Paul said. “I think if we talk about these ideas, we take them to the minority community, often the African-American and sometimes the Hispanic community — 3 out of 4 people in prison are black and brown! But if you look at surveys on who uses drugs, whites and blacks and Hispanic use at about the same rate.  You don’t have as good an attorney if you don’t have money.  Some of the prosecution has tended to go where it’s easier to prosecute people.”

The crowd stayed with him. “I think these are things we should look at. I’m not talking about legalization. I’m talking about making the criminal justice system fair and giving people a second chance if they served their time,” Paul said.

That line earned a long burst of applause.  Paul was in no danger of losing this crowd. Conservatives were ready to talk about lighter sentences for some criminals and for the restoration of felons’ rights.  Just one week earlier, the Senate Judiciary Committee had approved the Smarter Sentencing Act, co-sponsored by Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin and Utah Sen. Mike Lee.  If signed by the president, it would slash the 30-year-old mandatory minimums for drug crimes.  Ten-year sentences would become five-year sentences.  Five-year sentences would shrink to two years.

Every Democrat had voted “aye” — as had three of the committee’s eight Republicans. The bill isn’t as far-reaching as Paul’s own Justice Safety Valve bill, but it’s moving, and there’s already companion legislation waiting in the House.  The most partisan Congress in anybody’s memory may actually come together to go easier on nonviolent drug offenders....  The U.S. Sentencing Commission, which is being heavily lobbied to change standards, now consists mostly of Obama appointees.  Even the conservative appointees like William H. Pryor Jr., whose judicial nomination was filibustered by Democrats for two years, are advocates for reform.

This is more than a trend. This is a reversal of a trend that helped create the modern Republican Party. After bottoming out in the 1964 election, Republicans surged back in 1966 and won the presidency in 1968.  They cracked the old Democratic coalition, in part because rising crime rates and visions of urban riots sent voters sprinting away from liberalism....

For three more decades, Republicans could win tight elections by capitalizing on the fear of crime.  Democrats met them where they could, to neutralize the issue, because to be called “soft on crime” was to be exiled with Michael Dukakis.  As recently as 2012, a pro-Mitt Romney super PAC could dunk on Rick Santorum by warning voters that the senator “voted to let convicted felons vote.”...

Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, one of the Judiciary Committee members who voted for the sentencing reform bill, acknowledged that the GOP had long been the “law and order” party.  “But we’ve also been the rational party,” he said. “We’ve been the party of fiscal discipline.  It’s tough to justify some of these incarcerations and the cost.  I understand the argument that it gives law enforcement another card to play, plea bargains — I understand that.  But we’ve gone too far.”

In the Judiciary Committee, the average age of the Republicans who voted for reform —Sens. Ted Cruz, Jeff Flake, and Mike Lee — was 45.  The average age of the Republicans who voted no — Sens. John Cornyn, Lindsey Graham, Chuck Grassley, Orrin Hatch, and Jeff Sessions — was 69.  The elder Republicans didn’t want to patronize the new class and didn’t doubt that, in Sessions’s words, “there are some areas where we could reduce the length of incarceration without adversely impacting crime rates.”  But they remembered the bad old days, and the young guys didn’t....

Idaho Rep. Raul Labrador, age 46, sponsored the House companion to the Durbin-Lee reform bill.  He was an immigration lawyer before he entered politics.  “I spent 15 years working in the criminal defense business and seeing people, nonviolent offenders, going to prison,” he explained.  “Then, when I was in the state legislature, I was seeing these budgets continue to grow.  In federal court, you can know a drug dealer, and just the fact that you knew he was about to make a deal, you’d be charged with the entire conspiracy. You’d have a person who was a low-level offender who really had no participation in the conspiracy, and he’d be charged with everything the top trafficker was charged with.  And I don’t think that’s right.  Our Founding Fathers wanted to make it difficult for people to be prosecuted.”

And here’s one of the paradoxes of the new Republican divide. The older class, hewing to law and order, points to the nightmares of the 1970s and 1980s. This isn’t a theoretical discussion. It’s about undoing minimums and social norms that have, sure, generated some awful stories but have played at least some role in plunging crime rates.  “I think the president made a big mistake when he spoke cavalierly about drug use,” said Sessions. “There’s a national effort that saw drug use by high school seniors go from over 50 percent to under 25 percent.  The more we talk about it, the more it goes on television, the more it goes on jokesters’ programs, you’re going to see young people use drugs more.”

The new Republicans, people like Paul, have their own anecdotes, about people their own age — about themselves. Then they skip past the law-and-order era, 200 years back, to the intent of the founders.  Here is a cause whose time should have come many, many years ago.

Some recent and older related posts:

February 8, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (61) | TrackBack

Thursday, February 06, 2014

Opposition by NAAUSA to Smarter Sentencing Act now garnering (too?) much attention

Late last week, Bill Otis over at Crime & Consequences complained in posts here and here about the lack of media coverage regarding the expressed opposition by the National Association of Assistant United States Attorneys (NAAUSA) to statutory sentencing reforms endorsed by Attorney General Eric Holder.  Based on this new reporting from The Huffington Post, headlined "Drug Warriors Reject Obama Administration's Call For Softer Sentences," it seems that NAAUSA's actions are now garnering considerable media attention.  Here is part of the HuffPost story with this new media reality highlighted:

A group of federal prosecutors is criticizing the Department of Justice’s support for legislation that would soften U.S. drug sentencing policies.

The National Association of Assistant United States Attorneys, an organization representing about 1,300 of the 5,600 federal prosecutors, sent a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder last week objecting to his endorsement of the Smarter Sentencing Act. The bipartisan Senate bill would lighten prison sentences for people convicted of nonviolent drug offenses.

The letter, signed by NAAUSA president and assistant U.S. attorney Robert Gay Guthrie, argues that the U.S. should resist calls to reform its mandatory minimum laws, which require judges to sentence certain drug defendants to lengthy prison terms, even if the judge considers those sentences excessive.

In the letter, Guthrie insists that the “merits of mandatory minimums are abundantly clear," insisting that they reach "only to the most serious of crimes" and "target the most serious criminals."...

Guthrie did not respond to an interview request, and a NAAUSA representative told HuffPost that the organization had been overwhelmed with media attention and wouldn't be able to respond until Friday at the earliest.

I fear I may be part of the media that is overwhelming NAAUSA with attention, as I made a request late last week through the NAAUSA website for more information about its survey of federal prosecutors concerning federal mandatory minimum sentencing provisions.  As of this writing, I have not heard back from NAAUSA, nor have I been able to find out any new information about the survey.

Interestingly, though, this HuffPost article seems to have gotten some special access to the results of the NAAUSA survey.  Specifically, the HuffPost piece reports on the NAAUSA survey with a number of details that I have not previously seen publicly reported (and about which I am a bit suspicious):

An online poll conducted by the group [NAAUSA] found that just 15 percent of the nearly 650 federal prosecutors surveyed supported the Smarter Sentencing Act, while more than 60 percent opposed it....

The group dove into the debate over mandatory minimums after conducting its online survey in early November.  According to that survey, more than 80 percent of assistant U.S. attorneys interviewed don’t believe the criminal justice system is "broken," as Holder suggested in a speech in 2013.  And more than three-quarters of those surveyed said they don’t believe that the justice system disproportionately punishes people of color.

I am a bit suspicious about this recounting of the NAAUSA survey results because I think the survey may have asked generally about mandatory minimum reforms being proposed in Congress and not only about the Smarter Sentencing Act.  The SSA, significantly, does not eliminate any mandatory minimums, it just cuts their lengthy in drug cases; other bills about which NAAUSA may have asked call for much more significant reform of all existing federal mandatory minimums.  I remain eager to actually see the actual survey and the result assembled by NAAUSA because I want to be sure that the specifics of the SSA, and not just mandatory minimum reforms in general, were a focal point of the responses now that the SSA appears to be the main sentencing reform bill getting traction in Congress.

A few recent related posts:

February 6, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (32) | TrackBack

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

First Circuit rejects feds request for remand for a sentencing jury make finding to trigger mandatory term

Both Sixth Amendment fans and sentencing fans are going to want to check out a fascinating decision by the First Circuit today in US v. Herrerra Pena, No. 12-2289 (1st Cir. Feb. 5, 2014) (available here). The start of the opinion makes clear why:

In federal prosecutions, under the requirements of Alleyne v. United States, 133 S. Ct. 2151, 2158 (2013), if the distribution of drugs is proven beyond a reasonable doubt to a jury to have resulted in a death, a defendant will face a 20-year mandatory minimum sentence. See 21 U.S.C. § 841(b).  But if the government does not meet that burden before conviction, a defendant will face a different mandatory minimum -- either 10 years, 5 years, or no minimum, depending on the drug type and quantity. See 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(A), (B), (C).  When, as here, there is Alleyne error resulting in the imposition of a mandatory minimum sentence based on judicial findings on a lesser standard of proof, the circuit courts usually have merely remanded for resentencing by the district courts.

The prosecution here asks us to depart from that usual practice.  We are asked, after an Alleyne error and following a conviction based on a straight guilty plea to drug dealing but not to "death resulting," to permit the prosecution on remand to empanel a sentencing jury to allow the government to now prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a death resulted from the defendant's drug dealing.  Because Alleyne was decided after sentencing and while the case was on appeal, the situation in this case will not frequently occur.  We hold that the government's proposed course of action is foreclosed on the facts of this case, is unfair, and would raise troubling constitutional questions that can be avoided by denying the government's request.

February 5, 2014 in Blakely in Appellate Courts, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

"Prosecutors Wrong to Oppose Sentencing Reform"

The title of this post is the headline of this new commentary appearing at Main Justice and authored by Jamie Fellner, who is a senior advisor to the US Program of Human Rights Watch and the author "An Offer You Can't Refuse: How US Federal Prosecutors Force Drug Defendants to Plead Guilty" (discussed here).   Here are excerpts:

Sentencing reform efforts are finally getting some traction after three decades mandatory minimum drug sentencing laws that crammed federal prisons with low-level drug offenders.  A bipartisan bill pending in the US Senate would reduce mandatory minimums for certain drug crimes and give judges some discretion to impose lighter sentences.  Attorney General Eric Holder has endorsed the legislation, saying it "could ultimately save our country billions of dollars in prison costs while keeping us safe."

Some federal prosecutors diagree.  The National Association of Assistant United States Attorneys (NAAUSA) has sent a letter to Holder saying mandatory minimums “reach only to the most serious of crimes.  They target the most serious criminals.  They provide us leverage to secure cooperation from defendants.  They help to establish uniformity and consistency in sentencing.  And foremost, they protect law-abiding citizens and help to hold crime in check.”

An impressive set of claims -- but mostly false.

Mandatory minimums reserved for the most serious criminals?  Hardly.  According to the United States Sentencing Commission, 93 percent of federal drug defendants come from the lower or middle tiers of the drug business; 40 percent were couriers or street level dealers....  As a former US Attorney told me, "The public simply does not realize how many low-level guys are in [federal] prison.... We lock up the lowest fruit in drug conspiracies."...

Nor is it true that mandatory minimums "establish consistency in sentencing."  Mandatory sentences were introduced in the 1980s and 90s amid complaints that judges in different districts were meting out wildly varying sentences for the same crimes.  But mandatory minimum sentencing laws simply shifted the source of disparities from judges to prosecutors.  In some federal districts, prosecutors always charge everything they can throw at the defendants and refuse to negotiate; in other districts, they're more willing to negotiate a lower sentence.  Because of differences in prosecutorial charging and plea bargaining practices, the average drug sentence ranges from a low of 25 months in some districts to a high of 128 months in others.

What mandatory minimums do -- and here we get to the heart of NAAUSA’s opposition --is provide prosecutors with "leverage" to extract guilty pleas and cooperation from defendants.  Leverage is a polite word for coercion.... 

Those who refuse the deal and go to trial get hammered.  The average sentence of drug offenders who don't plead is three times as long those who do.  And in many cases, the “trial penalty” -- the difference between the sentence a defendant would have received if she had pled versus the sentence imposed after trial -- is extraordinarily cruel.  To cite just one case, a Florida woman named Sandra Avery rejected a plea offer of a ten-year mandatory minimum for dealing small quantities of crack.  The prosecutors punished her with a mandatory sentencing enhancement that sent her to prison for the rest of her life....

But what if the threat of high mandatory minimum sentences were the only way prosecutors could get defendants to plead or to cooperate.  Would that be good reason to keep them?  We think not, since securing pleas -- or even encouraging cooperation – has never been considered a legitimate purpose of punishment. Punishment should fit the crime -- not a defendant’s willingness to plead or snitch. How is it justice to convert a refusal or inability to cooperate into a much higher sentence than a particular crime deserves?

The real issue is that prosecutors do not want judges to set sentences.  Mandatory minimum sentencing laws tie judges’ hands, leaving prosecutors with the enormous power to dictate minimum sentences through their charging decisions.  Confronted with that power, 97 percent of federal drug defendants today plead guilty.  Prosecutors are able to rack up convictions without the expense, risks and burdens of trial.

No one likes to relinquish power -- so it is not surprising that at least some prosecutors want to retain the advantages of mandatory minimum sentencing laws.  Cutting back on mandatory minimums would not, however open the floodgates to crime: judges are quite capable of ensuring serious criminals get serious sentences.  But sentencing law reform would make it harder for prosecutors to coerce defendants into pleading guilty. It would deprive prosecutors of a plea bargaining cudgel they never should have been given in the first place.

A few recent related posts:

February 4, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (12) | TrackBack

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