Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Pennsylvania Supreme Court declares $75K mandatory fine constitutionally excessive for $200 theft

Images (2)Thanks to How Appealing, I just saw this fascinating new unanimous ruling by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania in Pennsylvania v. Eisenberg, No. (Pa. Aug. 19, 2014) (available here). Here is how the lengthy opinion gets started:

The controlling issue in this unusual direct appeal from a conviction arising under the Gaming Act is whether imposition of a mandatory minimum fine of $75,000 for a conviction of a first-degree misdemeanor theft of $200 violates the prohibition of Article I, Section 13 of the Pennsylvania Constitution against excessive fines.  For the reasons set forth below, we conclude that, under the circumstances, the fine imposed indeed is unconstitutionally excessive. Accordingly, we vacate that portion of the judgment of sentence involving the mandatory fine and we remand to the trial court to determine, in its discretion, the appropriate fine to be imposed commensurate with appellant’s offense.

The full ruling is worth a full read by anyone interested in constitutional review of sentences, especially because the ruling turns in part on the fact that the punishment here involved a statutory mandatory term.  Here is an excerpt from the heart of the opinion's analysis:

In our view, the fine here, when measured against the conduct triggering the punishment, and the lack of discretion afforded the trial court, is constitutionally excessive. Simply put, appellant, who had no prior record, stole $200 from his employer, which happened to be a casino.  There was no violence involved; there was apparently no grand scheme involved to defraud either the casino or its patrons.  Employee thefts are unfortunately common; as noted, appellant’s conduct, if charged under the Crimes Code, exposed him to a maximum possible fine of $10,000. Instead, because appellant’s theft occurred at a casino, the trial court had no discretion, under the Gaming Act, but to impose a minimum fine of $75,000 – an amount that was 375 times the amount of the theft....

The Commonwealth argues that the mandatory fine is not constitutionally excessive because a fine serves both to punish and to deter, and in the Legislature’s judgment, the amount here was necessary to accomplish both in light of the public perception of the gaming industry and the significant amount of money exchanged in casinos.  We acknowledge that all fines serve the twin purposes of punishment and deterrence.  At the same time, however, we note that the extension of the mandatory fine to this offense was adopted in 2010, and it was accompanied by no separate legislative statement of purpose. The only statement of purpose is that attending the initial Gaming Act legislation, i.e., the general statement of purpose to protect the public through regulation of the gaming industry.  The Commonwealth cites nothing in the later legislation, its legislative history, or logic to explain the sheer amount of this fine for this particular added offense, and the reason for making the offense subject to a mandatory fine....

[T]he Commonwealth’s reliance on cases in which courts have upheld substantial criminal administrative penalties in light of the Legislature’s dual objectives of punishment and deterrence, is misplaced. In those cases, the fines were tailored, scaled, and in the strictest sense, calculated to their offenses.  It is undoubtedly within the Legislature’s discretion to categorize theft from a casino differently than other theft crimes in Pennsylvania, and, in turn, to fashion different penalties.  However, the prohibition against excessive fines under Article I, Section 13 requires that the Legislature not lose sight of the fact that fines must be reasonably proportionate to the crimes which occasion them.  We hold that, as imposed here, the mandatory fine clearly, palpably and plainly violates the Pennsylvania Constitution.

August 20, 2014 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Texas Gov Rick Perry facing two felony charges carrying significant mandatory minimum prison terms

I know very little about Texas criminal laws and procedures, and I know even less about the political and legal in-fighting that appears to have resulted in yesterday's remarkable indictment of Texas Gov Rick Perry on two state felony charges.  But I know enough about mandatory minimum sentencing provisions to know Gov Perry might be looking a significant prison time if he is convicted on either of these charges.  This lengthy Dallas Morning News article, headlined "Gov. Rick Perry indicted on charges of abuse of power, coercion," provides some of the political and legal backstory (as well as a link to a copy of the two-page indictment): 

Republican Rick Perry, becoming the first Texas governor indicted in almost a century, must spend the final five months of his historically long tenure fighting against felony charges and for his political future. A Travis County grand jury on Friday charged Perry with two felony counts, abuse of official capacity and coercion of a public servant, after he vetoed funding for a county office that investigates public corruption.

Special prosecutor Michael McCrum of San Antonio said he felt confident in the case against Perry and was “ready to go forward.” Perry made no statement, but his general counsel, Mary Anne Wiley, said he was exercising his rights and power as governor. She predicted he would beat the charges. “The veto in question was made in accordance with the veto authority afforded to every governor under the Texas Constitution. We will continue to aggressively defend the governor’s lawful and constitutional action, and believe we will ultimately prevail,” she said.

The charges set off a political earthquake in the capital city.  Democrats said the indictment underscores Perry’s insider dealing and he should step down.  Republicans called it a partisan ploy to derail him, especially aimed at his second presidential run that had been gathering momentum.

The case stems from Perry's erasing $7.5 million in state funding last year for the Travis County Public Integrity Unit. He did so after District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg, a Democrat, rejected his calls to resign after her drunken driving conviction.

Perry could appear as early as next week to face arraignment on the charges. Abuse of official capacity is a first-degree felony with punishment ranging from five to 99 years in prison, and coercion of a public servant is a third-degree felony with a penalty of two to 10 years.

In announcing the indictment, McCrum said he recognized the importance of the issues at stake. “I took into account the fact that we’re talking about the governor of a state and the governor of the state of Texas, which we all love,” he said. “Obviously, that carries a level of importance. But when it gets down to it, the law is the law.”...

The allegations of criminal wrongdoing were first filed by Craig McDonald, director of the nonprofit campaign watchdog group Texans for Public Justice. McDonald has maintained that using veto threats to try to make another elected official leave was gross abuse of office. “The grand jury decided that Perry’s bullying crossed the line into lawbreaking,” he said Friday. “Any governor under felony indictment ought to consider stepping aside.”

State Republican Party chairman Steve Munisteri decried the prosecution as politically motivated. “Most people scratch their heads and wonder why we’re spending taxpayer dollars to try to put somebody in jail for saying that they didn’t feel it was appropriate to fund a unit where the person in charge was acting in a despicable way,” Munisteri said....

A judge from conservative Williamson County, a suburban area north of Austin, appointed McCrum to look into the case. The current grand jury has been studying the charges since April.  McCrum worked for 10 years as a federal prosecutor, starting during President George H.W. Bush’s administration. He’s now in private practice, specializing in white-collar crimes....

McCrum, a former federal prosecutor, said he interviewed up to 40 people as part of his investigation, reviewed hundreds of documents and read dozens of applicable law cases. He dismissed the notion that politics played any part. “That did not go into my consideration whatsoever,” he said.  Asked why he never called Perry before the grand jury, McCrum said, “That’s prosecutorial discretion that I had.”

Of course, what makes this story so very notable from a criminal justice perspective is the extraordinary power and discretion that the special prosecutor had in developing these charges and the extraordinary impact that mere an indictment seems likely to have on Gov Perry professional and personal life.

Regular readers know that former commentor Bill Otis and I often went back-and-forth in the comments concerning my concerns about (and his support for) federal prosecutors have very broad, unchecked, hidden and essentially unreviewable charging and bargaining powers. For this reason, I was especially interested to see that Bill now already has these two new posts up over at Crime and Consequences assailing the charging decision by the (former federal) prosecutor in the Perry case: The World's Most Absurd Indictment and Politics & Prosecution, a Toxic Brew.  I am hopeful (though not really optimistic) that the Perry indictment might help Bill better appreciate why I have such deep concerns about prosecutorial discretion as exercised by federal prosecutors (especially when their powers are functionally increased by severe mandatory minimum sentencing provisions).

August 16, 2014 in Celebrity sentencings, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (30) | TrackBack

Thursday, August 14, 2014

US Sentencing Commission finalizes its policy priorities for coming year

As detailed in this official press release, the "United States Sentencing Commission today unanimously approved its list of priorities for the coming year, including consideration of federal sentences for economic crimes and continued work on addressing concerns with mandatory minimum penalties." Here is more from the release:

The Commission once again set as its top priority continuing to work with Congress to implement the recommendations in its 2011 report on federal mandatory minimum penalties, which included recommendations that Congress reduce the severity and scope of some mandatory minimum penalties and consider expanding the “safety valve” statute which exempts certain low-level non-violent offenders from mandatory minimum penalties....

The Commission also set out its intention to consider potential changes to the guidelines resulting from its multi-year review of federal sentences for economic crimes. “For the past several years, we have been reviewing data and listening to key stakeholders to try to determine whether changes are needed in the way fraud offenses are sentenced in the federal system, particularly in fraud on the market cases,” Saris said.  “We look forward to hearing more this year from judges, experts, victims, and other stakeholders on these issues and deciding whether there are ways the economic crime guidelines could work better.”

The Commission will continue to work on multi-year projects to study recidivism comprehensively, including an examination of the use of risk assessment tools in the criminal justice system.  The Commission will also consider whether any amendments to the guidelines or statutory changes are appropriate to facilitate consistent and appropriate use of key sentencing terms including “crime of violence” and “drug trafficking offense.”

The Commission is undertaking new efforts this year to study whether changes are needed in the guidelines applicable to immigration offenses and whether structural changes to make the guidelines simpler are appropriate, as well as reviewing the availability of alternatives to incarceration, among other issues.

The official list of USSC priorities is available at this link, and I found these items especially noteworthy (in addition to the ones noted above):

(4) Implementation of the directive to the Commission in section 10 of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, Pub. L. 111–220 (enacted August 3, 2010) (requiring the Commission, not later than 5 years after enactment, to “study and submit to Congress a report regarding the 3 impact of the changes in Federal sentencing law under this Act and the amendments made by this Act”)....

(10) Beginning a multi-year effort to simplify the operation of the guidelines, including an examination of (A) the overall structure of the guidelines post-Booker, (B) cross references in the Guidelines Manual, (C) the use of relevant conduct in offenses involving multiple participants, (D) the use of acquitted conduct in applying the guidelines, and (E) the use of departures.

August 14, 2014 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Significant AG Holder comments asserting severe rigid sentences are not needed to induce cooperation

Attorney General Eric Holder's significant speech at the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers' Annual Meeting made headlines mostly due to his expression of concern about the use of risk assessment instruments in initial sentencing determinations (as previously discussed here).  I will discuss AG Holder's nuanced comments on this front in some future posts.  

Before discussing the use of risk assessment instruments in initial sentencing determinations, I first want to recommend that everyone read all of AG Holder's NACDL speech, which is available here, because it includes a number of notable passages addressing a number of notable sentencing topics.  Of particular note, these paragraphs seek to debunk the oft-heard statements that reform of mandatory minimum sentencing provisions could prevent prosecutors from securing needed cooperation from defendants:

[T]he Smart on Crime initiative has led us to revise the Justice Department’s charging policies with regard to mandatory minimum sentences for certain federal, drug-related crimes — so that sentences will be determined based on the facts, the law, and the conduct at issue in each individual case.  This means that the toughest penalties will now be reserved for the most serious criminals.  Over the last few months — with the Department’s urging — the U.S. Sentencing Commission has taken additional steps to codify this approach, amending federal sentencing guidelines for low-level drug trafficking crimes to reduce the average sentence by nearly 18 percent.  Going forward, these new guidelines will impact almost 70 percent of people who are convicted of these offenses. And last month, the Commission voted to allow judges to apply these revised guidelines retroactively in cases where reductions are warranted.

Now, some have suggested that these modest changes might somehow undermine the ability of law enforcement and prosecutors to induce cooperation from defendants in federal drug cases.  But the reality is that nothing could be further from the truth.

Like anyone who served as a prosecutor in the days before sentencing guidelines existed and mandatory minimums took effect, I know from experience that defendant cooperation depends on the certainty of swift and fair punishment, not on the disproportionate length of a mandatory minimum sentence.  As veteran prosecutors and defense attorneys surely recall — and as our U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Wisconsin, John Vaudreuil, has often reminded his colleagues — sentencing guidelines essentially systematized the kinds of negotiations that routinely took place in cases where defendants cooperated with the government in exchange for reduced sentences.  With or without the threat of a mandatory minimum, it remains in the interest of these defendants to cooperate.  It remains in the mutual interest of defense attorneys and prosecutors to engage in these discussions. And any suggestion that defendant cooperation is somehow dependent on mandatory minimums is plainly inconsistent with the facts and with history.

Far from impeding the work of federal prosecutors, these sentencing reforms that I have mandated represent the ultimate expression of confidence in their judgment and discretion.  That’s why I’ve called on Congress to expand upon and further institutionalize the changes we’ve put in place — so we can better promote public safety, deterrence, and rehabilitation while saving billions of dollars and reducing our overreliance on incarceration.

August 3, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Friday, August 01, 2014

Spotlighting that nearly all GOP Prez hopefuls are talking up sentencing reform

I have previously questioned the assertion that significant federal sentencing reform is inevitable, and the failure of the current Congress to make serious progress on the Smarter Sentencing Act or other notable pending federal sentencing reform proposals has reinforced my generally pessimistic perspective.  But this effective new article from the Washington Examiner, headlined "2016 contenders are lining up behind sentencing reform --- except this one Tea Partier," provides further reason to be optimistic that federal sentencing reform momentum will continue to pick up steam in the months ahead.  Here are highlights:

Sen. Marco Rubio hasn’t hammered out a firm position on mandatory minimum sentencing laws yet.  A year ago, that would have been perfectly normal for a Republican senator and rumored presidential contender.  But over the last months, most of the potential Republican nominees have voiced support for policy changes that historically might have gotten them the toxic “soft on crime” label.  These days, though, backing prison reform lets Republicans simultaneously resurrect compassionate conservatism and reach out to voters who wouldn’t typically find much to love from the GOP.

Rep. Paul Ryan is one of the latest potential presidential candidates to tout mandatory minimum sentencing reform as part of a conservative strategy to reduce poverty.... [H]e has debuted a new anti-poverty agenda that includes support for the Smarter Sentencing Act, a bill with a Senate version co-sponsored by Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Tea Party favorite Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and a House version from Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., and Raul Labrador, R-Idaho.  That bill would shorten some of the mandatory minimum sentence lengths and also would expand the “safety valve” that keeps some non-violent drug offenders from facing mandatory sentences.

“It would give judges more discretion with low-risk, non-violent offenders,” Ryan said in a speech at conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute.  “All we’re saying is, they don’t have to give the maximum sentence every time.  There’s no reason to lock someone up any longer than necessary.”

Ryan is the latest in a string of potential presidential contenders to get on board with prison reform.  But it’s likely the state of criminal justice reform would look different without Texas Gov. Rick Perry. In 2007, the Texas legislature adopted a budget designed to reduce the number of people incarcerated and spend more money on treatment. Since then, the state has closed three adult and six juvenile prisons, crime rates have reached levels as low as in the 1960s, and recidivism rates have dipped.

Perry has used his national platform to tout this reform — at a Conservative Political Action Conference (panel with Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist, for instance, he said real conservatives should look to shut down prisons and save money — and other states have adopted reforms following the Lone Star State model.

Sen. Rand Paul, another 2016 favorite, has been one of prison reform’s most vocal boosters.  In an April 2013 speech at Howard University — a speech that got mixed reviews — he drew plaudits for criticizing mandatory minimum sentencing laws.  “Our federal mandatory minimum sentences are simply heavy-handed and arbitrary,” he said, per CNS News. “They can affect anyone at any time, though they disproportionately affect those without the means to fight them. We should stand and loudly proclaim enough’s enough.”

That speech took prison reform one step closer to becoming a national conservative issue, rather than just the purview of state-level think tank wonks and back-room chats among social conservative leaders.

And, of course, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie addressed the issue in his second inaugural, connecting support for prison reform to his pro-life convictions.

None of this support means that legislation like the Smarter Sentencing Act has good odds in this Congress.  Brian Phillips, a spokesman for Lee, said that since House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s astounding primary loss, House Republicans have become more gun-shy about any sort of politically complicated reform measures.  And gives that bill a 39 percent chance of being enacted.

But that doesn’t mean conservative appetite for prison reform will abate.  Molly Gill, government affairs counsel for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said interest in the issue is growing. “ It can’t go away,” she said. “If Congress doesn’t fix it now, it’s still going to be a problem next year. It’s going to be a problem at the Department [of Justice], it’s going to be a problem in appropriations committees, it’s going to be a problem for the Commerce, Justice and Finance subcommittees when they’re doing appropriations bills — because there is no more money coming, and we’re just going to keep stuffing people into overcrowded prisons.”...

For now, most of the Senate Republicans publicly eyeing 2016 bids have co-sponsored Lee and Durbin’s Smarter Sentencing Act — except Rubio, who said his office is examining it. “I haven’t looked at the details of it yet and taken a formal position,” he said. “We study those things carefully.”

Some recent and older related posts:

August 1, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Monday, July 28, 2014

US District Judge Gleeson prods prosecutors to undo stacked gun counts and then praises effort to do justice

VACATEweb-master675Regular readers are likely familiar with the remarkable series of opinions issued by US District Judge John Gleeson in which he has forcefully expressed deep concerns with how federal prosecutors sometimes exercise their charging and bargaining powers in the application of mandatory minimum sentencing provisions. But, as reported in this New York Times piece, headlined "Citing Fairness, U.S. Judge Acts to Undo a Sentence He Was Forced to Impose," Judge Gleeson's latest opinion discusses how federal prosecutors ultimately aided his efforts to undo an extreme mandatory minimum sentence. Here are the basics:

Francois Holloway has spent nearly two decades of a 57-year sentence in a federal prison, for serious crimes that no one disputes he committed. There were armed carjackings, and his participation in an illegal chop shop, where stolen cars would be dismantled and sold for parts. But the fairness of the mandatory sentence has been a matter of dispute, not only for Mr. Holloway, but also for a surprising and most effective advocate: the trial judge, John Gleeson.

As Mr. Holloway filed one motion after another trying to get his sentence and his case re-evaluated, Judge Gleeson, of Federal District Court in Brooklyn, began to speak out against those mandatory sentences that he believed were unduly harsh. Mr. Holloway’s 57-year term was more than twice the average sentence in the district for murder in 1996, the year he was sentenced.

More recently, Judge Gleeson began his own campaign on Mr. Holloway’s behalf, writing to Loretta E. Lynch, who is the United States attorney for the Eastern District of New York, to request that she vacate two of Mr. Holloway’s convictions. The payoff from Judge Gleeson’s efforts will be apparent on Tuesday in a highly unusual hearing, when the judge is expected to resentence Mr. Holloway, who is 57, to time served.

“Prosecutors also use their power to remedy injustices,” Judge Gleeson wrote in a memorandum released on Monday. “Even people who are indisputably guilty of violent crimes deserve justice, and now Holloway will get it.”...

Mr. Holloway was charged in 1995 with three counts of carjacking and using a gun during a violent crime (even though it was an accomplice, and not Mr. Holloway, who carried the gun), along with participating in the chop shop. The government offered him a plea deal of about 11 years. He turned it down after his lawyer assured him he could win at trial. Mr. Holloway did not win.

For the first conviction on the gun count, the law required Mr. Holloway to receive five years. But for the second and third convictions, the law required 20 years for each one, served consecutively, a requirement known as “stacking,” which some judges and lawyers argue sounds like a recidivism provision, although it can be applied for crimes, like Mr. Holloway’s, committed hours apart that are part of the same trial.

None of Mr. Holloway’s co-defendants, who all pleaded guilty, received more than six years. At Mr. Holloway’s sentencing in 1996, Judge Gleeson said that “by stripping me of discretion,” the stacked gun charges “require the imposition of a sentence that is, in essence, a life sentence.” (The remainder of the 57 years was the 12 years required for the three carjackings.)...

At a hearing on the Holloway case this month, an assistant United States attorney, Sam Nitze, said that “this is both a unique case and a unique defendant,” citing his “extraordinary” disciplinary record and his work in prison. Also, he said, three of Mr. Holloway’s carjacking victims have said that the 20 years that Mr. Holloway had served in prison was “an awfully long time, and people deserve another chance.” Mr. Nitze agreed to vacate the two convictions, while emphasizing that this should not be taken as indicative of Ms. Lynch’s view on the stacking provision in other cases.

In his opinion issued last week, Judge Gleeson said that Mr. Holloway’s sentence illustrated a “trial penalty,” where those willing to risk trial could be hit with mandatory minimum sentences “that would be laughable if only there weren’t real people on the receiving end of them.”

Judge Gleeson's full 11-page opinion in Holloway v. US, No. 01-CV-1017 (E.D.N.Y. July 28, 2014)(available for download below), is a must-read for lots of reasons. The opinion is not be easily summarized, but this part of its conclusion provide a flavor of what comes before:

It is easy to be a tough prosecutor. Prosecutors are almost never criticized for being aggressive, or for fighting hard to obtain the maximum sentence, or for saying “there’s nothing we can do” about an excessive sentence after all avenues of judicial relief have been exhausted. Doing justice can be much harder. It takes time and involves work, including careful consideration of the circumstances of particular crimes, defendants, and victims – and often the relevant events occurred in the distant past. It requires a willingness to make hard decisions, including some that will be criticized.

This case is a perfect example. Holloway was convicted of three armed robberies. He deserved serious punishment. The judgment of conviction in his case was affirmed on direct review by the Supreme Court, and his collateral attack on that judgment failed long ago. His sentence was far more severe than necessary to reflect the seriousness of his crimes and to adequately protect the community from him, but no one would criticize the United States Attorney if she allowed it to stand by doing nothing.  By contrast, the decision she has made required considerable work. Assistant United States Attorney Nitze had to retrieve and examine a very old case file. He had to track down and interview the victims of Holloway’s crimes, which were committed 20 years ago. His office no doubt considered the racial disparity in the use of § 924(c), and especially in the “stacking” of § 924(c) counts.  He requested and obtained an adjournment so his office could have the time necessary to make an extremely important decision....

This is a significant case, and not just for Francois Holloway. It demonstrates the difference between a Department of Prosecutions and a Department of Justice. It shows how the Department of Justice, as the government’s representative in every federal criminal case, has the power to walk into courtrooms and ask judges to remedy injustices....

A prosecutor who says nothing can be done about an unjust sentence because all appeals and collateral challenges have been exhausted is actually choosing to do nothing about the unjust sentence. Some will make a different choice, as Ms. Lynch did here.

Numerous lawyers have been joining pro bono movements to prepare clemency petitions for federal prisoners, and indeed the Department of Justice has encouraged the bar to locate and try to help deserving inmates. Those lawyers will find many inmates even more deserving of belated justice than Holloway.  Some will satisfy the criteria for Department of Justice support, while others will not.  In any event, there’s no good reason why all of them must end up in the clemency bottleneck.  Some inmates will ask United States Attorneys for the kind of justice made possible in this case, that is, justice administered not by the President but by a judge, on the consent of the Department of Justice, in the same courtroom in which the inmate was sentenced.  Whatever the outcome of those requests, I respectfully suggest that they should get the same careful consideration that Ms. Lynch and her assistants gave to Francois Holloway.

Download Holloway Memo FILED 7-28-14

July 28, 2014 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (14) | TrackBack

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Rep. Ryan's new anti-poverty proposal calls for federal sentencing and prison reforms

Paul-ryanAs reported in this official press release, House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan today "released a new discussion draft, 'Expanding Opportunity in America,' [which] proposes a new pilot project to strengthen the safety net and discusses a number of reforms to the EITC, education, criminal justice, and regressive regulation."  Notably, an extended section of this impressive document (Chapter 4, which runs nearly 10 of the draft's 70+ pages) is focused on criminal justice reforms.  Here are segments from this portion of the draft:

About 2.2 million people are currently behind bars — a more than 340 percent increase since 1980.  As a result, we spend about $80 billion on corrections at all levels of government — an inflation-adjusted increase of over 350 percent in that same period.  This growing cost burden on society is a cause for concern.  But perhaps what’s most troubling is the effect on individuals and families....

[Federal sentencing reform] seeks to tap this overlooked potential and ameliorate the collateral impact on children and families.  Although most offenders are in state prisons or local jails, successful reforms at the federal level could encourage states and local governments to follow their example.  This discussion draft explores a number of reforms on multiple fronts — how we sentence individuals to prison, how offenders are treated inside prison, and how society helps them to reintegrate afterwards.

Public safety is priority No. 1, so these reforms would apply to only non-violent and low-risk offenders.  The punishment should fit the crime, but in many cases the punishment of incarceration extends beyond prison time.  Once people have paid their debt to society, they should be able to move on. In that spirit, this proposal suggests three possible reforms:

• Grant judges more flexibility within mandatory-minimum guidelines when sentencing non-violent drug offenders.

• Implement a risk- and needs-assessment system in federal prisons while expanding enrollment in rehabilitative programming to reduce recidivism. Allow non-violent and low-risk inmates to use enrollment to earn time off their prison stay towards prerelease custody.

• Partner with reforms at the state and local level....

Unlike state inmates, only 6 percent of federal inmates are violent offenders, while another 15 percent are guilty of weapons offenses.  In fact, most federal prisoners—nearly 51 percent — are serving time for a drug-related offense, and data from the U.S. Sentencing Commission shows that most of these federal drug offenders are in the lowest criminal-history category.   But under current law, a single gram of crack cocaine could be all that separates a convict from a less-than-five-year sentence and a 40-year sentence. Rigid and excessive mandatory sentences for low-level drug offenders, like these, may add to an already over-crowded prison system without appreciably enhancing public safety.

There are also economic and social consequences to unreasonably long sentences. Not only do they put undue burdens on families, but they may actually make people more likely to return to crime.  As Justice Fellowship notes, “Rather than encouraging criminals to become peaceful, productive citizens, prison culture often has the opposite effect, operating as a graduate school for crime.”  The federal government should follow the lead of several states and consider how sentencing guidelines, including alternative forms of detention, can both prevent crime and steer non-violent, low-risk drug offenders away from the addictions and networks that make them more likely to reoffend....

Although crime rates have fallen since the 1980s, the unintended consequence of these mandatory minimums is that some low-risk, non-violent offenders serve unreasonably long sentences....

A major challenge of criminal-justice reform is lowering the high rates of recidivism. High rates of recidivism are not only costly to the taxpayer and dangerous for society; they present a missed opportunity to bring more individuals into society as productive and contributing members....

[Proposed] reforms seek to put a greater focus upon rehabilitation and reintegration. Although the federal government’s reach is limited, these reforms would give judges the discretion they need to prevent nonviolent offenders from serving unreasonably long sentences; they would align inmates’ incentives to help reduce recidivism; and they would partner with states and community groups to expand their life-affirming work.

July 24, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Friday, July 18, 2014

Split Iowa Supreme Court declares all mandatory juve sentencing terms violate state constitution

Thanks to a helpful reader, I learned this afternoon that the Iowa Supreme Court today declared unconstitutional pursuant to the Iowa Constitution the imposition of any and all mandatory terms of imprisonment on juvenile offenders.  The majority ruling in Iowa v. Lyle, No. 11–1339 (Iowa July 18, 2014)  

In this appeal, a prison inmate who committed the crime of robbery in the second degree as a juvenile and was prosecuted as an adult challenges the constitutionality of a sentencing statute that required the imposition of a mandatory seven-year minimum sentence of imprisonment.  The inmate was in high school at the time of the crime, which involved a brief altercation outside the high school with another student that ended when the inmate took a small plastic bag containing marijuana from the student.  He claims the sentencing statute constitutes cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the State and Federal Constitutions when applied to all juveniles prosecuted as adults because the mandatory sentence failed to permit the court to consider any circumstances based on his attributes of youth or the circumstances of his conduct in mitigation of punishment.  For the reasons expressed below, we hold a statute mandating a sentence of incarceration in a prison for juvenile offenders with no opportunity for parole until a minimum period of time has been served is unconstitutional under article I, section 17 of the Iowa Constitution. Accordingly, we vacate the sentence and remand the case to the district court for resentencing. Importantly, we do not hold that juvenile offenders cannot be sentenced to imprisonment for their criminal acts.  We do not hold juvenile offenders cannot be sentenced to a minimum term of imprisonment.  We only hold juvenile offenders cannot be mandatorily sentenced under a mandatory minimum sentencing scheme.

The majority opinion supporting this ruling runs nearly 50 pages and, unsurprisingly, has a lot to say about the US Supreme Court's recent Eighth Amendment work in Graham and Miller. In addition, two forceful dissents follow the majority's opinion in Lyle, and here is the heart of one of the dissenting opinions:

By holding Lyle’s seven-year mandatory minimum sentence for his violent felony is cruel and unusual punishment and unconstitutional under article I, section 17 of the Iowa Constitution, rather than under the Eighth Amendment, the majority evades review by the United States Supreme Court.  As Justice Zager observes, no other appellate court in the country has gone this far. Our court stands alone in taking away the power of our elected legislators to require even a seven-year mandatory sentence for a violent felony committed by a seventeen-year-old.  Will the majority stop here?  Under the majority’s reasoning, if the teen brain is still evolving, what about nineteen-year olds?  If the brain is still maturing into the mid-20s, why not prohibit mandatory minimum sentences for any offender under age 26?  As judges, we do not have a monopoly on wisdom.  Our legislators raise teenagers too.  Courts traditionally give broad deference to legislative sentencing policy judgments. See State v. Oliver, 812 N.W.2d 636, 650 (Iowa 2012) (“We give the legislature deference because ‘[l]egislative judgments are generally regarded as the most reliable objective indicators of community standards for purposes of determining whether a punishment is cruel and unusual.’ ” (quoting Bruegger, 773 N.W.2d at 873)). Why not defer today?

July 18, 2014 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Sunday, July 13, 2014

USSC Chair reiterates Commission's sentencing reform message to House Judiciary Committee

This past Friday, US Sentencing Commission Chair, Chief Judge Patti Saris, testified at this hearing of Over-Criminalization Task Force of the Committee on the Judiciary of the US House of Representatives.  Her lengthy written testimony is available at this link, and here is a summary paragraph from the Chair's discussion of recommended mandatory minimum reforms:

Based on [our] analysis, the Commission continues to recommend unanimously that Congress consider a number of statutory changes. The Commission recommends that Congress reduce the current statutory mandatory minimum penalties for drug trafficking. We further recommend that the provisions of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which Congress passed to reduce the disparity in treatment of crack and powder cocaine, be made retroactive. Finally, we recommend that Congress consider expanding the so-called “safety valve,” allowing sentences below mandatory minimum penalties for non-violent low-level drug offenders, to offenders with slightly greater criminal histories than currently permitted.

Republican and Democratic members of this Task Force and others in Congress have proposed legislation to reform certain mandatory minimum penalty provisions. The Commission strongly supports these efforts to reform this important area of the law.

Notably, as this official press release highlights, Judge Irene Keeley, chair of the Judicial Conference Criminal Law Committee, echoed similar messages in he testimony to the House Task Force:

A representative of the Judicial Conference today told a House Judiciary Task Force that policy initiatives curbing over-federalization of criminal law, reforming mandatory minimum sentences and amending the Sentencing Guidelines have the support of the Judicial Conference, but that the Judiciary currently lacks the resources to shoulder resulting increased workload.

“Policy-makers must not create a new public safety crisis in our communities by simply transferring the risks and costs from the prisons to the caseloads of already strained probation officers and the full dockets of the courts,” said Judge Irene Keeley, chair of the Judicial Conference Criminal Law Committee. “Lasting and meaningful solutions can be attained only if the branches work together to ensure that the correct cases are brought into the federal system, just sentences are imposed, and offenders are appropriately placed in prison or under supervision in the community.”

July 13, 2014 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

"States Push For Prison Sentence Overhaul; Prosecutors Push Back"

The title of this post is the headline of this new NPR story highlighting who is at the forefront of efforts to thwart sentencing reforms these days.  Here are excerpts:

Some red states like Louisiana and Texas have emerged as leaders in a new movement: to divert offenders from prisons and into drug treatment, work release and other incarceration alternatives. By most counts, Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the country. In recent years, sentencing reformers in the capital, Baton Rouge, have loosened some mandatory minimum sentences and have made parole slightly easier for offenders to get.

But as reformers in Louisiana push for change, they're also running into stiffening resistance — especially from local prosecutors. It's all happening as the number of Americans behind bars has started to decline. There are multiple reasons for that, including crime rates that have been dropping since the 1990s, as well as the impact of the Supreme Court's 2011 requirement that tough-on-crime California reduce its prison population.

And there's another factor: a growing bipartisan consensus for sentencing reform. Local politicians are getting political cover for those efforts from conservative groups like Right on Crime. "It is a growing consensus on the right that this is the direction we want to be going," says Kevin Kane, of the libertarian-leaning Pelican Institute for Public Policy in Louisiana. "Most people will point to, 'Well, it's saving money, and that's all conservatives care about.' But I think it goes beyond that."

Kane says libertarians are interested in limiting the government's power to lock people away, while the religious right likes the idea of giving people a shot at redemption — especially when it comes to nonviolent drug offenders.

Still, not everyone is embracing these ideas. In some places, there's been considerable pushback — especially when the idea of eliminating prison time for drug offenders arises....

Liz Mangham, a lobbyist, has represented the conservative sentencing reformers in Baton Rouge. While they've made progress, she says they appeared to cross a red line this spring with a bill to step down Louisiana's stiff penalties for possession of marijuana. Under current law, possession is a felony on the second offense. A third may get you as much as 20 years in prison. Mangham recalls the scene when the bill came up for a crucial hearing.

"The Judiciary Committee room was full. The anteroom across the hall, which is twice the size, was full, and the halls were full ... of [district attorneys] and sheriffs coming down to oppose the bill," she says. The bill died on the spot. In Louisiana and other parts of the South, district attorneys and sheriffs — who Mangham calls "the courthouse crowd" — have a lot of political clout at the state level. She says it's understandable why most sheriffs opposed the bill, because they house state prisoners in parish jails and every prisoner represents a payment from the state.

"So when you're making money to warehouse prisoners, why on earth would you be in favor of sentencing reform?" Mangham says.

But the district attorneys' opposition is more complex — and interesting. And it's emblematic of a growing conflict that's taking place nationally between sentencing reformers and prosecutors.

The vast majority of criminal cases in America are resolved through plea bargains. Defendants plead guilty out of fear of getting a worse sentence if they don't. Plea bargains jumped above 90 percent in the 1980s and '90s, in part because a wave of harsh new sentences for drug offenses strengthened prosecutors' hands when bargaining with defendants.

"For a DA to have the ability to dangle over someone's head 10, 20 years in jail, that provides them with tremendous leverage to pretty much get whatever they want," says Louisiana State Sen. J.P. Morrell, a Democrat from New Orleans and former public defender.

Morrell was one of the sponsors of the marijuana sentencing reform bill that failed in Baton Rouge. He says one of the benefits of that reform would have been a reduction in the power of prosecutors to, as Louisiana courthouse slang puts it, "bitch" a defendant. A reference to Louisiana's habitual offender law, it refers to a DA threatening to use past convictions — often for marijuana possession — to multiply the length of a defendant's potential sentence.

But what Morrell sees as a problem, prosecutors regard as a necessary tool. That's because many states are now considering similar reductions to mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, and Congress is considering a similar move for federal drug charges. Prosecutors insist they use the threat of harsh sentences responsibly but say it's a tool they can't do without. Last fall, at a hearing in the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, the then-executive director of the National District Attorneys Association, Scott Burns, warned against rolling back drug sentences.

"Why now? With crime at record lows, why are we looking at sweeping changes?" Burns said. He endorsed "smart on crime" reforms such as drug courts, but he cautioned against depriving prosecutors of "one of our most effective sticks."

John de Rosier, the district attorney of Calcasieu Parish, La., says "we have people all the time that we know have been involved in robberies, rapes and murders. We haven't been able to prove our cases, but we're in court with them for second-offense possession of marijuana. What do you think we're going to do?"

That's commonly referred to as "prosecutorial discretion," and it's an argument that alarms sentencing reformers like Morrell. "That level of discretion ought to be terrifying to people," Morrell says. "If you cannot convict someone of a murder, of a robbery, whatever, the fact that you have a disproportionate backup charge to convict them anyway kind of defeats the purpose of due process."

July 9, 2014 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Even as its prospects dim, Smarter Sentencing Act is impacting federal sentencing proceedings

The lack of serious congressional action on the Smarter Sentencing Act now nearly six months after the SSA passed through the Senate Judiciary Committee with bipartisan support (basic here) has led me to conclude that the prospect of the SSA's enactment into law this year is now quite dim. Nevertheless, as highlighted by this local story from Maine, the SSA is still impacting the work of federal sentencing courts. The article is headlined "Monroe marijuana farm patriarch sentence postponed for Smarter Sentencing Act passage," and here are the basics:

A federal judge postponed the sentencing of a Waldo County man found guilty in November of operating a large-scale, indoor marijuana farm with his family to allow for the possible passage of the Smarter Sentencing Act, which could decrease his sentence. James F. Ford, 58, of Monroe was convicted by a jury in November of one count each of conspiracy to manufacture 100 or more marijuana plants, manufacturing 100 or more marijuana plants, maintaining a drug-involved place and being a felon in possession of a firearm.

The Smarter Sentencing Act, introduced by U.S. Sens. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Richard Durbin, D-Illinois, is a bill making its way through the Senate that would reduce mandatory minimum sentences for some nonviolent drug offenders and allow those incarcerated to apply for sentence reductions, among other changes to mandatory federal sentencing laws.

“The Smarter Sentencing Act may have a drastic effect on Mr. Ford’s sentence,” states the motion filed by defense attorney Hunter Tzovarras of Bangor. ”In the interest of fairness and justice, it is respectfully requested the court use its discretion and continue the sentencing until November 2014.”...

Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew McCormack objected to the defense motion, saying the bill might not provide the desired reductions and there is a possibility the delay could mean the government could lose the right to seize the Fords’ home, where the marijuana growing took place. “It is pure conjecture at this time as to the final form, if any, the Smarter Sentencing Act will take,” McCormack said in his opposing motion. “Even if the Act does eventually pass, it is almost certain to be in a form different than the current bill."...

U.S. District Judge John Woodcock Jr. agreed with Tzovarras and postponed Ford’s sentencing until Nov. 21, 2014. Ford, who was convicted of growing marijuana in Massachusetts, moved the family pot-growing operation from Massachusetts to Monroe after he completed a sentence of probation in the Bay State, McCormack told the jury in his closing argument in Ford’s trial.

Due to the Massachusetts conviction, Ford faces a mandatory minimum of 10 years and maximum of life in prison and a fine of up to $8 million on the conspiracy charge under the current federal sentencing guidelines....

Members of the Ford family were arrested in November 2011 when the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency raided the family’s Swan Lake Avenue garage, and found hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of marijuana. During the raid, police seized more than 300 marijuana plants in various stages of growth, 10 pounds of processed marijuana and two semiautomatic assault weapons. Tzovarras, in his Monday motion, states the Smarter Sentencing Act, if passed, would reduce mandatory minimum sentences for manufacturing, distribution, dispensing, possession and importing or exporting specific controlled substances. “If the court determines a mandatory minimum penalty applies to Mr. Ford, that mandatory [minimum] penalty would be reduced by half, from 10 to 5 years,” the defense attorney states.

July 8, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Monday, June 23, 2014

Another account of how ACCA interpretation aggravation endures, this time in Maryland

Sentencing fanatics know full well the multi-dimensional jurisprudential mess that is application of the Armed Career Criminal Act in federal courts, and this lengthy Baltimore Sun article details how crabby these ACCA problems have become in Maryland. (Hat tip: How Appealing.)  The piece is headlined "Sentences challenged for Maryland prisoners deemed to have violent pasts: Supreme Court ruling triggers wide-ranging review in dozens of cases," and here are excerpts:

A little-noticed and highly technical Supreme Court decision is opening the way for dozens of federal inmates from Maryland to seek reduced sentences — even though trial judges found they had violent criminal pasts.  For some, the high court decision has already meant that sentences of 15 years and more have been cut substantially.  One inmate, for example, saw his sentence reduced from 15 years to about six years; he was released in February....

Prosecutors, including Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein, said lengthy sentences are necessary to rid the streets of violent offenders who continue to carry guns or commit other crimes.  "Defendants who indisputably committed violent crimes will get a break as result of this opinion," he said.

But advocates for the inmates say such sentences, which take certain previous convictions into account, are used indiscriminately and undermine the judiciary's role in crafting fair punishments.  "The petitions I've filed are going to undo the unjust incarceration of lots of people who should never have gotten these mandatory sentences," said Paresh S. Patel, an appeals attorney at the federal public defender's office. The office has filed challenges on behalf of 55 inmates and plans to pursue 13 more.

The petitions follow a 2013 Supreme Court decision that tweaked the way federal judges evaluate a defendant's criminal history when setting sentences in certain cases. Subsequent lower court decisions opened the way to the wave of challenges in Maryland....

A Reagan-era federal law called the Armed Career Criminal Act turns the 10-year maximum penalty for a felon ... possessing a gun or ammunition into a 15-year minimum for anyone previously convicted of three or more "violent felonies" or "serious drug offenses."  But determining which state laws should be included in those categories has continually vexed the courts.  

The Supreme Court case dealt with California's burglary statute, which covers everything from shoplifting to a violent break-in.  Federal judges had previously looked at the details of some prior convictions to determine whether an offender should be considered violent.... But the Supreme Court said that approach by judges is unreliable.  "The meaning of those documents will often be uncertain," Justice Elena Kagan wrote for the majority. "And the statements of fact in them may be downright wrong."

Instead, Kagan wrote, sentencing judges should only consider whether the barest elements of the crime — those that prosecutors must prove beyond a reasonable doubt — make the offense necessarily violent.  According to the high court, California's burglary law did not qualify.  Neither did Maryland's second-degree assault statute, which covers everything from unwanted touching to a violent beating, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled later.

In the aftermath of that ruling, at least one inmate convicted in Maryland, Ronald Hamby, has already been released....  He was convicted on a federal gun charge in 2007 and, because he had three prior second-degree assaults on his record, received a 15-year sentence.

Judge William D. Quarles Jr. said at Hamby's sentencing that he regretted the term he had to impose.  He added, "Mr. Hamby, sentencing is never a pleasure for a judge, and there are some things that make it considerably less pleasant, such as sending a 26-year-old person away for 15 years."

Attorney Joseph L. Evans, who defended Hamby at trial, said in a recent interview that his client was not the kind of person the law was intended to target.  Evans said the assaults "weren't stranger-on-stranger incidents. It wasn't like some sort of gang activity, or drug-related activity.  It was youngish guys acting out in stupid ways that violated the law." After the Supreme Court ruling, Hamby challenged his 15-year sentence and was resentenced to the time he had already served in prison plus two weeks.  He was released from federal custody in February.

Patel said the federal public defender's office is seeking to revise sentences in gun cases as well as others in which defendants were marked as career offenders.

While all the cases in dispute differ, Rosenstein said his office faces a difficult time upholding the long prison terms it originally secured.  He called new interpretations of sentencing laws "one-way ratchets in favor of the defendants."  Had prosecutors known the sentences were vulnerable, Rosenstein said, they might have used a different strategy — pursuing a different combination of charges, for example — to obtain a similar outcome.

Mary Price, general counsel of the advocacy group Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said that is one of the benefits of the Supreme Court ruling.  Rather than letting prosecutors depend on the mandatory sentences, the new approach will require them to work a bit harder to convince judges to hand out long prison terms, keeping the bench as a check on the system, she said. "Mandatory minimums provide prosecutors control over what the sentence is," Price said. "That whole setup has a problem with it."

June 23, 2014 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Sunday, June 22, 2014

New York Times editorial laments stalled federal sentencing reform

Today's New York Times has this lengthy editorial, headlined "Sentencing Reform Runs Aground," expressing justified concerning that bipartisan support for federal sentencing reform has not yet been enough to secure legislative action. Here are excerpts:

Criminal justice reform is one of the rare issues on which there has been bipartisan support in Congress and significant progress toward a legislative solution. Until recently, anyway.

Two bills, each with Republican and Democratic sponsors, were expected to come up for a vote by this summer — one that would reduce lengthy sentences for many low-level drug offenders and another that would give low-risk inmates credit toward early release if they participate in job-training and drug treatment programs. But progress on both bills has stalled, and congressional leaders who were once confident about their chances this year are now looking toward 2015, at the earliest.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of federal inmates — many of whom have already served years of unjustly long drug sentences — continue to sit in overstuffed prisons, wasting both their lives and taxpayer dollars at no demonstrable benefit to public safety....

So why the delay? One major factor has been resistance from members of the old guard, who refuse to let go of their tough-on-crime mind-set. In May, three senior Republican senators — Charles Grassley of Iowa, John Cornyn of Texas and Jeff Sessions of Alabama — came out against the sentencing reductions, arguing that mandatory minimums are only used for the highest-level drug traffickers. This assertion is contradicted by data from the United States Sentencing Commission, which found that 40 percent of federal drug defendants were couriers or low-level dealers.

Another factor was the Obama administration’s April announcement that it would consider clemency for hundreds, if not thousands, of inmates currently serving time under older, harsher drug laws. Republicans complained that this — along with other executive actions on criminal justice by Mr. Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. — took the wind out of reform’s sails.

But with the exception of some old-line prosecutors and resistant lawmakers, everyone still agrees on the need for extensive reform. The other branches of the federal government have begun to do their part: Federal judges across the country have spoken out against the mindlessness of mandatory minimums. The sentencing commission voted in April to reduce many drug sentencing guidelines. And the Justice Department under Mr. Holder has taken multiple steps to combat the harsh and often racially discriminatory effects of those laws.

The public is on board too. According to a recent Pew survey, 67 percent say the government should focus more on treating drug users than on prosecuting them.

Some members of Congress get it. On the right, the charge for reform has been led by Rand Paul of Kentucky, Mike Lee of Utah, Ted Cruz of Texas and Jeff Flake of Arizona. Yet the prospect of reform has become more precarious, even as the need for it has become more urgent.

Judicial pronouncements and executive orders only go so far. It is long past time for Congress to do its job and change these outdated, ineffective and unjust laws.

June 22, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Sunday, June 15, 2014

"Lawmakers should be parsimonious — not sanctimonious — on drug sentencing"

The title of this post is the headline of this new commentary at The Hill authored by Jamie Fellner.  Here are excerpts:

Hopes are high that the U.S. Congress will do the right thing this year and reform notoriously harsh federal drug sentencing laws that have crammed U.S. prisons with small-time offenders.

The bipartisan Smarter Sentencing Act, approved by the Senate judiciary committee and now awaiting debate in the full Senate, would reduce federal mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug offenders, increase the number who can avoid them altogether, and permit prisoners serving time under outdated crack-cocaine sentencing laws to seek lower sentences. Passage would begin to reverse a decades-long trend that's seen "too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long and for no good law enforcement reason," as Attorney General Eric Holder put it earlier this year.

Although legislators may not realize it, reduction of unduly severe sentences for drug offenders will help bring federal sentencing back in line with the long-overlooked principle of "parsimony." In the criminal justice context, parsimony dictates that sentences should be no greater than necessary to serve the legitimate goals of punishment, namely, retribution for past crimes, deterrence of future ones, and rehabilitation of the offender.

Congress once recognized the importance of parsimony. In the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, it instructed federal judges to impose sentences that were “sufficient, but not greater than necessary” to advance the purposes of punishment. But starting in 1986, against a backdrop of social and economic turmoil, racial tension, and the advent of crack cocaine, Congress enacted mandatory minimum drug sentencing laws with stunning disregard for whether they would yield needlessly harsh sentences -- which they invariably did for the low-level offenders who made up the bulk of those receiving them....

Opponents of the Smarter Sentencing Act, including some current and retired federal prosecutors, insist — without evidence – that the mandatory drug sentences are necessary to protect public safety. They also claim — and here the evidence is on their side — that the threat of high mandatory sentences helps convince defendants to plead guilty and cooperate with the government in exchange for lesser punishments. Because judges have no choice but to impose the mandatory minimums triggered by the charges prosecutors file, prosecutors can make good on the threat of higher sentences for those defendants who insist on going to trial: their sentences are on average three times longer than for those who plead. Not surprisingly, ninety-seven percent of drug defendants choose to plead guilty. Opponents of drug law reform seem to forget — or don't care — that the purposes of punishment do not include bludgeoning defendants into pleading.

Each year, hopes for federal drug sentencing reform are dashed by legislative inertia and a few powerful legislators who cling to outdated “tough on crime” notions. Perhaps this year will be different. A growing number of lawmakers, Republicans and Democrats, realize that lengthy mandatory minimum drug sentences are ineffective, wasteful, and expensive. And though few may use the term parsimony, many have come to understand that unnecessarily harsh sentences make a mockery of justice.

June 15, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Ohio legislature wisely considering move to make ignition locks mandatory for DUI offenders

Though I often advocate against lengthy federal mandatory minimum prison terms, I am not categorically opposed to legislative sentencing mandates when there is good reason to believe that the particulars of the mandate will likely save lives and have a limited impact on human liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  Consequently, I was very pleased to see this story in my local paper today, headlined "All drunken drivers may be subject to safeguard," discussing a proposal in Ohio to make ignition locks mandatory for all drunk driving offenders.  Here are the details:

Ohio lawmakers are considering requiring first-time drunken-driving offenders to have an ignition breathalyzer installed on their cars to confirm their sobriety during a six-month penalty period. The law now allows judges to order the ignition interlocks, but the House bill would make their use mandatory. Offenders convicted twice within six years must use the devices.

The bill sponsor, Rep. Terry Johnson, R-McDermott, cites federal figures that ignition-interlock devices reduce DUI re-arrest rates by 67 percent. About 25,000 first-time offenders are convicted each year in Ohio. The devices would replace a system in which first-time DUI offenders are not allowed to drive for 15 days and then can obtain limited driving privileges to travel to work, school and medical appointments.

“There is nothing to ensure compliance and nothing to ensure sobriety unless they happen to get caught again,” Johnson said. “This allows the offender to continue working and to minimize disruption to his life while ensuring public safety to the extent we are reasonably able to do so.”

A change in the bill last week also would require those charged with DUI but convicted of lesser offenses, such as physical control of a vehicle while intoxicated, to install the machines in their cars....

Only about 5,000 Ohioans, including repeat DUI offenders, are required each year to use ignition interlocks, said Doug Scoles, executive director of Ohio MADD. Twenty states now require their use by first-time offenders. “Requiring the use of ignition interlocks for all convicted drunk drivers will help prevent repeat offenses and, in so doing, save lives,” Scoles said.

The State Highway Patrol reports 341 people died in drunken-driving crashes last year. Seventy-seven people have been killed so far this year, 38 fewer that at the same time in 2012.

The bill is dubbed “Annie’s Law” in memory of Chillicothe lawyer Annie Rooney, who was killed last year by a drunken driver now serving eight years in prison. Her family has campaigned for passage of the bill. Lara Baker-Morrish, chief prosecutor for the city of Columbus, calls the legislation “a very good idea.”

“It does curb the behavior we’re trying to get at, and it has been proven to save lives,” she said. Courts would have to find ways to monitor the increase in ignition-interlock reports on drivers and find funding to ensure devices are made available to those who can’t afford installation and monitoring, she said.

I hope my old pal Bill Otis is heartened to hear of my support for a legislative sentencing mandate. I also hope those who advocate forcefully for rigid forms of gun control and for drug control recognize that that drunk drivers often pose a greater threat to innocent lives and the pursuit of happiness than even drunk gun owners or heroin dealers and that clever technologies, rather than crude prohibitions, may be the most politically wise and practically workable means to reduce these threats.

June 14, 2014 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Technocorrections, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Thursday, June 05, 2014

Will Canada's courts continue to strike down mandatory minimums as unconstitutional?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this interesting recent commentary in a Canadian paper sent my way by a helpful reader.  The piece by Lisa Kerr is headlined, "Mandatory minimums for drug crimes have no future in Canada: As the B.C. Court of Appeal prepares to hear the first major challenge to mandatory minimums, there’s reason to think the policy will be rightly short-lived."  Here are excerpts:

This week, the B.C. Court of Appeal hears the first major challenge to the latest symptom of a punitive plague: mandatory incarceration for a drug crime. The defendant, 25-year-old Joseph Lloyd, lives in the downtown eastside of Vancouver, where he struggles with addiction and regularly interacts with the court system. In the past, local judges could use their expertise to craft an individualized punishment for people like Lloyd. Community supervision, drug programming, or specific amounts of jail time could target his specific circumstances.

New legislation compels judges to impose a minimum one-year prison term on all individuals who meet a handful of criteria. Judges can no longer consider whether it is in the public interest to incarcerate someone like Lloyd, or for how long. They can no longer consider whether a person will lose housing or employment. While one year in a chaotic jail is unlikely to help a struggling individual to recover stability, that is a judge’s only option unless the law is struck down.

In the United States, the removal of discretion from sentencing judges is the central cause of its famously high rate of incarceration. There are nine million prisoners in the world. Over two million of them are in the U.S....

The arrival of mandatory sentences does not herald the “Americanization” of Canadian crime policy. The deep principles of our criminal justice system cannot be dismantled overnight. Our prosecutors are not a bloodthirsty lot — they are largely anonymous and professional public servants. Unlike many of their American counterparts, Canadian prosecutors are not subject to elections and public scrutiny. They are better positioned to pursue a broad notion of the public interest, rather than just long prison sentences.

Canadian judges are also likely to resist interference by politicians who are detached from the daily reality of human misery faced in criminal courts. And they have the tools to do so. While Canada and the U.S. have identical language in the constitutional prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishment,” the prohibition has been interpreted very differently in the courts.

In 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a life sentence for a third offence of stealing golf clubs. In 1987, the Canadian Supreme Court struck down the only previous attempt at automatic incarceration for drug crime: a seven-year term for drug trafficking. So far, mandatory sentences for non-violent drug offences are unconstitutional in this country.

Canadian institutions are likely to resist this untimely American policy transplant. There is no collapse of faith in our courts, there is no crime wave, and there is no Southern Strategy. Joseph Lloyd should encounter a court system that is free to encounter him.

June 5, 2014 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Sentences Reconsidered, Sentencing around the world, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Over 1000 faith leaders sign letter in support of Smarter Sentencing Act

As highlighted by this article, over "1,100 clergy and faith leaders urged Congress to pass legislation reducing federal mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses in a June 3 letter to party leaders in the House and Senate."  Here is more about the prominent voices joining the chorus advocating for federal sentencing reform:

A total of 1,129 signers asked Senate Majority Leader Harry Reed (D-Nev.), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to support the Smarter Sentencing Act, a bipartisan measure that passed the Senate Judiciary Committee in January. The faith leaders said tough sentencing laws passed in the 1980s “war on drugs” disproportionately affect minorities....

“For too long, Congress has ignored the consequences of the harsh sentencing policies it approved during the 1980s and the disproportionate harm it has caused people of color and those convicted of low-level offenses,” the letter said. “The Smarter Sentencing Act is a step towards addressing racial injustice as well as reducing mass incarceration that characterizes our current justice system.”

Roy Medley, general secretary of American Baptist Churches USA, was a lead signer for the letter coordinated by the Faith in Action Criminal Justice Reform Working Group, a coalition of 43 faith organizations chaired by the United Methodist General Board of Church & Society.

June 4, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Friday, May 30, 2014

US House hearing on "Penalties" as part of Over-Criminalizaiton Task Force

Taking place as I write this post is a notable hearing (which I am watching live via this link) of the Over-Criminalizaiton Task Force of the Judiciary Committee on the topic of "Penalties." Here is the witness list, with links to their written statements: 

A quick scan of the submitted testimony linked above reveals that regular readers of this blog will not find all that much which is new from the witness. But the submitted statements still provide a very effective review of all the essential elements of the modern debate over federal mandatory minimum sentencing provisions.

UPDATE:  TheHouse hearing adjourned just before 11am, after most of the usual suspects had the opportunity to stake out their usual positions.  I doubt this hearing moved the needle in any significant way, though I still found notable and telling that the US House Representatives arguing against the modern drug war and sentencing status quo generally seemed much more passionate and animated than those eager to support the status quo.

May 30, 2014 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Detailing the Keystone State's enduring Alleyne problems

This local AP story from Pennsylvania, headlined "Supreme Court ruling snarls sentencing minimums," provides another review of the headaches that state courts are facing with its sentencing scheme in the aftermath of the US Supreme Court's Sixth Amendment ruling in Alleyne last year. Here are some excerpts:

A U.S. Supreme Court decision last year has prompted dozens of appeals in criminal cases across Pennsylvania and left judges scratching their heads on how to apply state laws on mandatory minimum sentences. The confusion has prompted meetings among judges, forced some judges to try out new jury instructions and even led some jurists to conclude that whole sections of state law are unconstitutional.

Legal experts say what happens next will be driven largely by cases already on appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. “No appellate court in Pennsylvania has gotten around to definitively deciding the question, and everybody, it seems, is waiting for someone else to decide it,” said St. Vincent College law professor Bruce Antkowiak, a former federal prosecutor and defense attorney.

The stumbling block is Alleyne v. United States, a high court decision stemming from a Virginia federal court case that found that juries, not judges, should decide whether a defendant committed crimes that trigger a mandatory minimum sentence. But Pennsylvania law says a jury decides a person’s guilt or innocence of the underlying crime, such as drug possession or robbery. A judge then uses a lower standard of proof to decide whether the mandatory sentencing “triggers” were proved — such as being in a school zone when drug dealing or brandishing a gun during the robbery.

Judges in at least one jurisdiction, Blair County in central Pennsylvania, recently decided to stop imposing mandatory minimum sentences altogether until the General Assembly rewrites the statutes. The judges made the decision after hearing arguments from prosecutors and a defense attorney for two men facing five-year mandatory minimums — one accused of dealing drugs in a school zone; the other charged with having a weapon while in possession of marijuana....

Since the Alleyne ruling, some Pennsylvania judges have begun asking juries to determine whether certain mandatory minimum triggers have been proved, even though state law doesn’t allow that. Other judges have ruled that Alleyne makes Pennsylvania criminal statutes containing mandatory minimum sentencing provisions unconstitutional in their entirety.

In eastern Pennsylvania, Lycoming County District Attorney Eric Linhardt said judges there first allowed juries to decide mandatory minimum sentences before reversing course and ruling the statutes illegal. “Ten cases are presently on appeal, and many others will soon follow,” Linhardt said, adding the impasse could affect 100 pending drug cases in his office.

Recent related post:

May 25, 2014 in Blakely in the States, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Saturday, May 24, 2014

"Sentencing Debate Reveals Divide Among Republicans"

The title of this post is the headline of a recent article by John Gramlich via CQ News (which, I fear, is trapped behind a pay-wall). Here are excerpts:

A Senate proposal to cut mandatory minimum drug sentences in half has exposed a rift between senior, establishment Republicans who stress their law-and-order credentials and junior, more libertarian-minded members of the party who want to shrink the federal role in incarceration.

Sponsored by Sens. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., and Mike Lee, R-Utah, the bill (S 1410) is seen as a candidate for floor action following the Memorial Day recess after being approved by the Judiciary Committee, 13-5, in January. But the measure’s prospects are uncertain, with differences among Republicans becoming increasingly apparent. The bill’s six GOP cosponsors include five first-term senators: Lee, Jeff Flake of Arizona, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Ted Cruz of Texas and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin.

Several of those lawmakers have strong tea party support and view the proposal through a libertarian lens. They cast it as a way to cut taxpayer spending on prisons while preserving individual liberties by doing away with tough penalties for low-level, nonviolent drug offenders.

By contrast, the bill’s chief Republican opponents are a trio of establishment Republicans who have long pointed to their “tough on crime” bona fides. They are Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas, a former state attorney general and judge; Jeff Sessions of Alabama, a former federal prosecutor, and Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the Judiciary Committee’s ranking member and arguably the Senate’s staunchest defender of mandatory minimum penalties....

Beyond the philosophical disagreement, there also appears to be a generational split among Republicans when it comes to sentencing, said William G. Otis, a law professor at Georgetown University and former special counsel to President George H.W. Bush. The average age of the Republicans who voted for the bill in committee earlier this year was 45, as Slate magazine noted in February. The average age of the Republicans who opposed it was 69.

Otis, who opposes the bill, said older Republican senators may be basing their views of the legislation on their personal recollections of the national crime wave that led to tougher criminal sentencing laws.  “For those of us that age, we remember what it was like, because we grew up in the ‘60s and ‘70s and the experience of the crime wave of those two decades is vivid,” Otis said.  “My generation remembers that.  Rand Paul’s generation, Jeff Flake’s generation and Mike Lee’s generation does not.”...

Paul, who is perhaps the Senate’s most prominent Republican supporter of shortening criminal sentences, so far has been unable to persuade Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to back the plan....

Laurie A. Rhodebeck, a political science professor at the University of Louisville, said the two senators likely have different constituencies in mind. She noted that Paul may have higher political ambitions and has sought to broaden the appeal of the Republican Party by reaching out to minorities, who often face long criminal sentences for drug crimes. “The way I see the big picture is that Rand Paul seems to be speaking to a national audience right now, rather than a Kentucky audience,” Rhodebeck said. “I assume that’s in keeping with his possible interest in running for the GOP nomination in 2016.”...

To be sure, Democrats may not be united within their own ranks on the bill. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., both have expressed reservations about it, even though they agreed to advance the measure to the full Senate. GOP support for the proposal, meanwhile, is not limited only to first-term senators who are identified with the tea party. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., is the sixth GOP cosponsor of the bill and has served in the Senate since 2005.

But the Republican split could be a consequential factor in whether the proposal reaches the floor in an election year in which control of the Senate is at stake. Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has indicated he would like to bring up the proposal, but Durbin has suggested that there may be complications in rounding up the votes for passage. A divide among outside conservative advocates may be among the complications.

At a forum this week of conservatives in favor of overhauling the nation’s criminal justice policies, prominent figures including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., and former National Rifle Association President David Keene made the case for a less punitive approach....

But a group of prominent former federal prosecutors, including two former Republican attorneys general, wrote to Reid and McConnell earlier this month to urge them not to bring the sentencing bill to the floor. Like Grassley and the other Senate Republicans, they warned it would threaten public safety.

I would put a slightly different spin than Bill Otis on the notable fact that the "average age of the Republicans who voted for the [SSA] in committee earlier this year was 45 [while the] average age of the Republicans who opposed it was 69." I would say that supporters of the bill understand that new political and legal realities may call for changing laws passed decades ago, whereas opponents of the bill see little need to update these sentencing laws for modern times.

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

May 24, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Friday, May 16, 2014

Form, function and finality of sentences through history: the Modern Era

As explained here, I am "celebrating" the official publication of my new article titled "Re-Balancing Fitness, Fairness, and Finality for Sentences" (which is available in full via this SSRN link) through a series of posts exploring sentence finality doctrines and practice.  And, as set forth in this prior post, a central theme of my piece is that different conceptual, policy, and practical considerations are implicated when a defendant seeks only review and reconsideration of his final sentence and does not challenge his underlying conviction.  

As noted in prior posts, my theme is developed descriptively in the first part of my article as I showcase (perhaps too briefly) how the forms and functions of different punishment systems throughout US history provide different frameworks for the legal and practical relationship between conviction finality and sentence finality.  In this post, I will reprint my article's final historical observations about sentence finality during the "Modern Era" stretching from the the 1970s through today.  At the start of this period, U.S. sentencing philosophies, policies, and practices changed dramatically.  Legislatures through this period have embraced determinate sentencing laws that require prison sentences for most offenses and require very lengthy prison terms for nearly all serious offenses and repeat offenders.  These modern sentencing realities, in turn, has considerably changed the nature and stakes of issues surrounding sentence finality:

[Modern incarceration] statistics suggest there may now be more individuals condemned to die in America’s prisons based on their current “final” sentences than the total prison population in the 1960s when courts and scholars began earnestly discussing the importance of finality for criminal judgments.  As explained before, the then-prevailing practices of indeterminate sentencing and parole entailed that the vast majority of 300,000 persons incarcerated in 1970 could take comfort in the then-prevailing reality that the duration of and justification for their ongoing prison terms would be regularly reviewed and reconsidered by corrections officials.  Today, in sharp contrast, the majority of the 2.25 million incarcerated individuals in the United States cope with the now-prevailing reality that their prison sentences are fixed and final and not subject to any regularized means of review or reconsideration for any purposes.

In sum, the transformation of the sentencing enterprise and embrace of mandatory sentencing schemes throughout the United States over the past four decades has been remarkable and remarkably consequential for the considerable number of offenders sentenced to significant terms of imprisonment.  The highly discretionary indeterminate sentencing systems that had been dominant for a century have been replaced by an array of sentencing structures that govern and control sentencing decisionmaking.  Most pertinent to the topic of this Essay, prison sentences that had for more than a century been defined by a lack of finality are now fixed and final in the vast majority of all serious criminal cases at the moment they are announced by a sentencing judge.  Consequently, two centuries of U.S. criminal justice experience in which sentence finality was not a distinct concern has given way, due to dramatic changes in sentencing laws, policies, and practices, to a modern era of mass and massive terms of incarceration that makes the treatment of final sentences arguably the most important issue for hundreds of thousands of current prisoners and for the tens of thousands more defendants being sentenced to lengthy prison terms each year throughout the United States.  Sentence finality, in short, has gone from being a non-issue to being arguably one of the most important issues in modern American criminal justice systems.

Prior posts in this series:

May 16, 2014 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Recommended reading, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Thursday, May 15, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Download Senators letter to Colleagues on SSA

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

Monday, May 12, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, May 03, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 01, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, April 26, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

President Bartlet urges Congress to pass the Smarter Sentencing Act

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

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

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

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

Monday, April 14, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some prior posts about federal prosecutorial perspectives on sentencing reform:

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

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

"Law Enforcement Lobby Quietly Tries To Kill Sentencing Reform"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Forecasting the uncertain present and future of federal legislative sentencing reform

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

"Efficiency shouldn’t trump effectiveness in drug sentencing"

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

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

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

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

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

Some prior posts about federal prosecutorial perspectives on sentencing reform:

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

Friday, March 14, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

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

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

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

Download Brief of Appellant in US v. Young

Download Young Amicus FILED

Download Appellee's Briefin US v. Young

Download Reply Brief of Appellant in Young

Related prior posts:

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

Monday, March 03, 2014

"Holder and Republicans Unite to Soften Sentencing Laws"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, February 28, 2014

More fascinating "Quick Facts" from the US Sentencing Commission

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, February 20, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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