Friday, February 01, 2013

"Medical marijuana grower gets 5 years in federal prison"

The title of this post is the headline of this article from Montana concerning a high-profile federal sentencing case (which I have not recently blogged about because I ended up, for complicated reasons, meddling in a little part of the sentencing process).  Here are the basics:

Medical marijuana grower Chris Williams was sentenced Friday to a mandatory five years on a federal gun charge, and time served on a marijuana charge. In sentencing Williams, U.S. District Court Judge Dana Christensen called him “a principled man, stubborn in his beliefs, [who] remains steadfast in his conviction that he has done nothing wrong.”

Williams was convicted in a September trial of four federal drug counts and four weapons counts in connection with his involvement in Montana Cannabis, a large medical marijuana grow operation with a greenhouse in Helena and operations around the state.  It was one of scores of medical marijuana businesses around Montana that sprang up after voters legalized the medical use of cannabis in 2004. But marijuana remains illegal under federal law, and agents raided many of those businesses in March 2011.  All the other people charged in connection with those raids made plea agreements with the government; Williams was the only one to insist upon a trial.

He could have faced mandatory minimum sentences totaling 85 years -- 80 of those on the firearms charges alone.  “It was my belief that an 85-year sentence in this case would have been unjust,” Christensen said Friday in reviewing the history of the case.  So he urged a settlement conference, presided over by U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy, in which the government agreed to drop all but one of the drug charges and one of the gun charges, in exchange for Williams’ promise not to appeal.

That obligated Christensen to sentence Williams only to five years on the gun charge (penalties would have increased for each addition weapons charge).  In addition to the five years on the charge of possession of a firearm during a drug-trafficking offense, Christensen sentenced Williams to the 130 days he’s already served, on the charge of possession with intent to distribute marijuana.  He also sentenced Williams to four years’ supervised probation on the drug charge, and five years on the gun charge, to run concurrently, and levied the standard $100 federal fee on each charge.

Many in the courtroom packed with Williams’ supporters -- and one pug service dog -- wept as the sentence was pronounced.  “He has done nothing wrong,” said Karie Boiter of Seattle, who described herself as a “full-time supporter of Chris Williams.”  She was among several medical marijuana advocates who traveled in a green school bus from California, picking up people along the way to Missoula, to attend Friday’s sentencing.  The group held a brief protest outside the federal courthouse Friday morning....

Williams was taken immediately into custody Friday.  Christensen recommended that he serve his time in the federal prison in Sheridan, Ore., so that he can be as close as possible to his 16-year-old son, a student at Montana State University.

Prior posts on Williams case and related prosecutions:

February 1, 2013 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Offense Characteristics, Pot Prohibition Issues, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (25) | TrackBack

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

US District Judge Gleeson assails drug guidelines in another potent opinon

A number of helpful readers made sure I did not miss the latest doozy of an opinion issued by US District Judge John Gleeson in United States v. Diaz, No. 11-CR-00821-2 (E.D.N.Y. Jan. 28, 2013) (available for download below).  The opinion is a must-read for various reasons — one reader described it to me as an "instant classic" — and these opening points hint at the opinion's coverage:

Last year in United States v. Dossie, I wrote about how the mandatory minimum sentences in drug trafficking cases distort the sentencing process and mandate unjust sentences. This case illustrates a separate but related defect in our federal sentencing regime....

Diaz will be sentenced in a few weeks, and when that happens I will carefully consider all the factors set forth in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a) except one — the length of imprisonment recommended by the United States Sentencing Commission’s Guidelines Manual. Though I will not ignore Diaz’s Guidelines range, I will place almost no weight on it because of my fundamental policy disagreement with the offense guideline that produces it. In fairness to the government, I write here to explain my belief that the offense guideline for heroin, cocaine, and crack offenses (“drug trafficking offenses”) is deeply and structurally flawed. As a result, it produces ranges that are excessively severe across a broad range of cases, including this one.

The flaw is simply stated: the Guidelines ranges for drug trafficking offenses are not based on empirical data, Commission expertise, or the actual culpability of defendants. If they were, they would be much less severe, and judges would respect them more. Instead, they are driven by drug type and quantity, which are poor proxies for culpability.

These passages from the body of the lengthy Diaz opinion reveal just some of its many flourishes:

If the Commission wants greater adherence to the Guidelines, as it should, it needs to get better at fixing broken offense guidelines.  The drug trafficking offense guideline was born broken.  Many judges will not respect it because as long as the sentences it produces are linked to the ADAA’s mandatory minimums, they will be too severe.  Indeed, as discussed further below, for almost two decades the nation’s judges have been telling the Commission to de-link the drug trafficking offense guideline from those harsh mandatory minimums and to reduce the sentencing ranges.  The Commission should listen and act.  It should use its resources, knowledge, and expertise to fashion fair sentencing ranges for drug trafficking offenses.  That process will take time.  In the meantime, because real people, families, and communities are harmed by the current ranges, it should immediately lower them by a third....

Let those who advocate for longer prison terms, and even a return to the dark days of mandatory Guidelines, go ahead and make their case.  The debate is good for the health of our federal criminal justice system.  But the suggestion that federal sentences should become more severe in the name of racial equality is preposterous.  That case has emphatically not been made, and the Commission’s repeated suggestion that it has insults the entire judiciary and demeans the Commission itself.  If it does nothing else, the Commission should take affirmative steps to remove the race issue, which it unwisely inserted into the discussion of federal sentencing policy, from the debate....

The Commission should use its resources, knowledge, and expertise to fashion fair sentencing ranges for drug trafficking offenses.  If it does, those ranges will be substantially lower than the ranges produced by the current offense guideline.  The deep, easily traceable structural flaw in the current drug trafficking offense guideline produces advisory ranges that are greater than necessary to comply with the purposes of sentencing.  We must never lose sight of the fact that real people are at the receiving end of these sentences.  Incarceration is often necessary, but the unnecessarily punitive extra months and years the drug trafficking offense guideline advises us to dish out matter: children grow up; loved ones drift away; employment opportunities fade; parents die.

Download United States v. Ysidro Diaz

January 29, 2013 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (34) | TrackBack

New Sentencing Project report on 2012 state statutory sentencing developments

I just received an e-mail promoting a notable new report just released by The Sentencing Project.  Here is the full text of the e-mail, signed by Marc Mauer, which includes a link to the report:

I am pleased to share with you a new report from The Sentencing Project, The State of Sentencing 2012: Developments in Policy and Practice, by Nicole D. Porter.  The report highlights reforms in 24 states that demonstrate a continued trend to reform sentencing policies and scale back the use of imprisonment without compromising public safety.  The report provides an overview of recent policy reforms in the areas of sentencing, probation and parole, collateral consequences, and juvenile justice.  Highlights include:

  • Mandatory minimums:  Seven states — Alabama, California, Missouri, Massachusetts, Kanas, Louisiana, and Pennsylvania — revised mandatory penalties for certain offenses,  including crack cocaine offenses and drug offense enhancements.
  • Death penalty: Connecticut abolished the death penalty, becoming the 17th state to do so.
  • Parole and probation reforms:  Seven states — Colorado, Delaware, Georgia, Hawaii, Louisiana, Missouri, and Pennsylvania — expanded the use of earned time for eligible prisoners and limited the use of incarceration for probation and parole violations.
  • Juvenile life without parole:  Three states — California, Louisiana, and Pennsylvania — authorized sentencing relief for certain individuals sentenced to juvenile life without parole.
I hope you find this publication useful in your work.  The full report, which includes a comprehensive chart on criminal justice reform legislation, details on sentencing, probation and parole, collateral consequences of conviction, juvenile justice and policy recommendations, can be found online here.  I’d encourage you to be in touch with Nicole D. Porter, Director of Advocacy, at nporter@sentencingproject.org to discuss how we can support your efforts in the area of state policy reform.

January 29, 2013 in Data on sentencing, Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Thursday, January 17, 2013

"Decoupling Federal Offense Guidelines from Statutory Limits on Sentencing"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new federal sentencing article by Professor Kevin Bennardo which is now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

When incorporating statutorily-mandated minimum and maximum sentences into offense guideline, the United States Sentencing Commission must strike a delicate balance between promulgating guidelines that are consistent with federal law and carrying out its characteristic institutional role of advising sentencing courts of proper punishment based on empirical data and national experience.

This article recommends that, in general, when a statutory limit on sentencing deviates from what the Commission deems to be fair punishment, the Commission should incorporate the statutory limit into the offense guideline to the least extent possible. Although this approach may lead to cliffs and plateaus in the Guidelines ranges and thereby diminish relative fairness between similarly-situated offenders, this approach maximizes the imposition of actually fair sentences (as viewed by the Commission) within the confines of the statutory scheme.

Controlled substance offenses, however, are an exception. In some instances, drug offenders are relieved from the application of an otherwise-applicable mandatory minimum sentence through the operation of the so-called “safety valve” or, in some circuits, because the government failed to plead the triggering drug quantity in the indictment or prove it beyond a reasonable doubt. To achieve actual fairness for these offenders, the Commission should apply a controlled substance offense guideline that takes no account of statutory limits on sentencing.

By amending offense guidelines that incorporate mandatory minimums to more closely reflect its own research and expertise, the Commission will better achieve offense guidelines that produce Guidelines ranges that the Commission views as actually fair.

January 17, 2013 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Judiciary Committee Chair Leahy expresses interest in mandatory minumum sentencing reform

At the end of this lengthy post at The BLT, I discovered some interesting and encouraging sentencing reform news coming from a speech given yesterday by Senator Patrick Leahy.  Here is the start and end of the post:

Senate Judiciary Committee will dedicate most of its time this spring to comprehensive immigration reform, including changes for technology companies and agricultural businesses, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the committee's chairman, said Wednesday.

"We have to find a way through the partisan gridlock to enact meaningful change on immigration laws, and that should include a path for citizenship," Leahy said at Georgetown University Law Center this morning. "I know I’m going to hear a lot of different views on this, but I hope that in the end we can honor those who came before us from distant lands in search of freedom and opportunity."...

The committee will also focus on promoting national standards and oversight for forensic labs and practitioners, as well as fiscal issues related to the high rate of imprisonment and mandatory minimum sentences, Leahy said.

The reliance on mandatory minimum sentences has been "a great mistake," Leahy said. "Let judges act as judges and make up their own mind what should be done. The idea we protect society by one size fits all…it just does not work in the real world."

Leahy also said there are too many young people, minorities, and people from the inner cities, who are serving time where others who do the same crime get lighter penalties.  He used the example of someone from the inner city buying $100 of cocaine could spend years in prison, while a Wall Street banker would only face reprimand, and maybe spend a week of public service on Park Avenue.

January 17, 2013 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Another perspective on Alleyne argument (predicting Harris's demise)

Experienced lawyer and federal sentencing guru Mark Allenbaugh (firm website here), who has already provided a terrific review of last week's meeting of the US Sentencing Commission for the blog here, now comes through with this lengthy guest-post concerning what he saw at yesterday's SCOTUS oral argument over the reach of the Apprendi:

In a rather spirited exchange between the Justices and counsel, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral argument today in Alleyne v. United States, 11-9335. (Alleyne is pronounced “AH-lane,” by the way).   The question presented was whether the Court should over-rule its decade old plurality decision in Harris v. United States, 536 U.S. 545 (2002), which held that Apprendi did not apply to facts triggering mandatory minimum penalties. In Alleyne, the defendant was convicted of violating 18 U.S.C. § 924(c), which requires a 5-year mandatory minimum sentence for possession of a firearm in connection with another felony, but a 7-year mandatory minimum if the firearm was brandished, 10 years if discharged.   Moreover, such mandatory minimum penalties are to be imposed consecutive to any guidelines sentence for the underlying felony.   A special verdict form was used in Alleyne as to whether the defendant merely possessed or brandished the firearm; the jury found only that a firearm was possessed.   However, at sentencing, the district judge found by a preponderance of the evidence that the defendant in fact brandished the firearm.  And while reluctant to be a “reverser” of the jury, imposed the 7-year mandatory minimum sentence.

Somewhat surprisingly, the Court started off with a rather rigorous investigation into stare decisis.   Justices Alito and Scalia explored what the principle was for ignoring stare decisis in this case, and pondered the effect of prior opinions of the Court on Harris. Justice Ginsburg helpfully asked whether the issue simply was the degree of persuasiveness a plurality decision has vis-à-vis a unanimous opinion.  Still Justice Alito struggled with developing a constitutional principle that would support overruling Harris. Nevertheless, it did not appear that stare decisis would be an impediment to reversing Harris.

Moving on to the core issue, the Justices struggled with what the holdings in Apprendi and McMillan (upon which Harris rested) meant in terms of increased penalty exposure.  If the ceiling (statutory maximum) is increased, all agreed that that clearly increases a defendant’s exposure. T he issue was whether that also applied to the floor (mandatory minimum).  Justice Scalia repeatedly returned to the fact that if only the floor changes, say from 5 years to 7 years, it does not change what a judge “could have” imposed, and therefore does not increase a defendant’s exposure.  So, for example, if the ranges are 5 to 10 years, a judge could just as easily impose a 7 year sentences the same as if the range were 7 to 10 years.  The government framed the issue as whether a defendant has a constitutional right to judicial leniency. i.e., to a lower sentence than the mandatory minimum.

Interestingly, while there was a focus on the statutory maximum, there was little discussion of a penalty “range,” which to this observer would have seemed to address much of the concern.  A range, of course, implies both a ceiling and a floor.  Apprendi did, after all, discuss exposure not only in terms of an increased statutory maximum penalty, but expressly held that “[I]t is unconstitutional for a legislature to remove from the jury the assessment of facts that increase the prescribed RANGE of penalties to which a criminal defendant is exposed.” (Emphasis added).  And as we all know, Booker, in holding the Federal Sentencing Guidelines unconstitutional, was concerned about “ranges” there as well.  So, if the argument had moved away from just the ceiling and to “range,” then it would have seemed to address some of the Court’s concerns.  Interestingly, Justice Breyer, who candidly admitted in Harris that he could not logically distinguish Apprendi from its application to mandatory minimum penalties, was silent throughout much of the debate.

Finally, there was some interesting discussions concerning statistics from Justices Kagan and Sotomayor.  Those Justices inquired as to the frequency of sentences imposed at the mandatory minimum in 924(c) cases.  Presumably if judges impose sentences at the mandatory minimum the majority of the time (and Petitioner’s counsel indicated that this is the case), such a finding presumably would tend to show that judges likely would impose a lower sentence if they could (and indeed, per the record below, that appeared to be the case in Alleyne).   However, the question was not framed quite right.  The penalties at 924(c) are imposed consecutive to any guideline sentence, so unless one knew what the underlying guideline sentence was, merely looking at the final sentence would not be instructive.  Further, and more importantly, the Commission does not provide any statistics on 924(c) that would be helpful to answering this question (although Ch. 9 of its recent report to Congress on Mandatory Minimum Penalties does provide some insight). Providing such statistics would be quite helpful, and the Commission’s database appears robust enough to provide reports on the same.

In the end, it appears to this observer that Harris will be overruled. Given that Harris will have little practical effect on sentencing practice because the government already includes in the indictment the facts that trigger a mandatory minimum, it is somewhat odd (to this observer) why the Court granted cert. in Alleyne.  Was it simply an academic exercise to clean-up Harris?  Perhaps, although it could be the start of a larger effort.  The Court recently asked the government to file a response to a petition of cert. in Stroud v. United States, 12-6877 addressing the controversial holding in Watts that courts may use acquitted and uncharged conduct at sentencing.

Recent prior posts on Alleyne case:

January 15, 2013 in Blakely in the Supreme Court, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Monday, January 14, 2013

An early report on Alleyne argument over Apprendi's reach

As previewed here, today was a big day for the Sixth Amendment before the Supreme Court.  Hard-core sentencing fans have to be interested in the Alleyne case concerning the right to a jury determination of facts that trigger the application of mandatory minimum sentencing terms.  Lyle Denniston has this SCOTUSblog recap of today's argument in Alleyne, which gets started this way:

After taking an obligatory look at whether the Supreme Court should feel bound by its past precedents, the Justices on Monday moved into an issue clearly of more interest to them: what do they need to do to protect the role of juries in laying the groundwork for criminal sentences? This inquiry turned into a combative discussion of just what the Court meant in 2000 in giving jurors a much-enhanced role when their verdicts trigger the fixing of sentences — the historic decision in Apprendi v. New Jersey.

The Justices who were opposed to expanding Apprendi argued that it dealt singularly with curbing judges who decide to impose a sentence beyond the top limit set by the legislature, while the Justices who seemed ready to push Apprendi a bit further contended that it should mean that increasing a convicted individual’s potential sentence should depend upon what the jury found, not the judge.  There did not seem to be a middle ground.  The two lawyers arguing the case were just as far apart.

As long-time readers should know, I keep trying to push a distinction between offense facts and offender facts as kind of a middle-ground position on Apprendi's reach, and that idea finds expression in an amicus brief I helped put together in Alleyne (discussed here).  Sadly, based on this early account of today's argument in Alleyne, it would appear that yet another group of inside-the-beltway folks are more interested in sticking to their polarizing positions than in coming up with middle-ground solutions to important problems.

I suspect I will have more to say about Alleyne after I get a chance to read the oral argument transcript, which is now available at this link.

Recent prior posts on Alleyne case:

January 14, 2013 in Blakely in the Supreme Court, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Friday, January 11, 2013

Great weekend reading for Sixth Amendment fans

My main plans for the coming weekend is to watch a lot of (well-paid) large men running around a small field inflicting brain damage on one another while millions cheer them on while drinking lots of alcohol (aka the NFL divisional playoffs).  But I may also have to spend a little time obsessing over the Sixth Amendment and its application to mandatory minimum sentencing fact-finding because Monday brings the Supreme Court oral argument in Alleyne v. United States (basics and briefing here via SCOTUSblog).

Moreover, as Rory Little spotlights in this new SCOTUSblog post, there is also another distinct type of Sixth Amendment case on tap for the Justices on Monday.  Here is how Rory's preview gets started:

Monday is apparently “Sixth Amendment Day” at the Court.  Most eyes will be on the first case to be argued (Alleyne v. United States), in which the Court will consider whether there an Apprendi right to jury trial for mandatory minimum sentencing facts.  But don’t ignore the second case, Boyer v. Louisiana, which presents a Speedy Trial question that seems increasingly important in a world of rising appointed-counsel costs funded by decreasing government budgets.

When a criminal trial is delayed because there are no funds to pay for the indigent defendant’s counsel, does that delay count against “the state” in a Speedy Trial analysis?  We’ll see whether the Justices can stay focused on this discrete question presented – which would be an important one to answer around the nation — or whether they will take the bait (offered by both sides albeit in opposite directions) to decide whether the right to speedy trial was actually violated on the (always) unique facts of this case?  The normal course would be to answer only the question presented, and then remand for “further proceedings not inconsistent” with the Court’s opinion.  While “bad facts” on both sides in this case might tug for a broader ruling, it seems more likely that the Justices will avoid a decision on the ultimate merits – which still leaves a difficult debate on the narrower question.

In addition to the parties' briefs in both cases, there are two amicus briefs filed in Boyer and six amicus briefs filed in Alleyne.  If the NFL playoff games fail to hold my attention, I likely will pull some of these briefs up on my e-reader; I would greatly appreciate any informed (or even uninformed) recommendations as to which of all these briefs make for the best reads. 

Of course, I am partial to the Alleyne brief I help put together for the New York Council of Defense Lawyers (discussed here), in part because it presents an approach to the Sixth Amendment that does not appear in other briefs.  I suspect that, especially in all the Alleyne case, a lot of similar ground may get covered in all the usual discussion of Sixth Amendment jurisprudence; I am thus especially interested to figure out whether and how any fresh ideas about the Apprendi line of cases have been presented to the Justices in all the briefing.

Recent prior posts on Alleyne case:

January 11, 2013 in Blakely in the Supreme Court, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Monday, January 07, 2013

California medical marijuana provider gets 10-year mandatory-minimum federal prison term

As reported in this local story, headlined "Medical marijuana: Aaron Sandusky sentenced to 10 years in federal prison," a high-profile case from federal court in California has resulted in a significant prison term today as a result of federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws.  Here are the basics:

Aaron Sandusky has been sentenced to 10 years in federal prison.  The former G3 Holistic Inc. medical marijuana dispensary president was sentenced today in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles for operating medical marijuana dispensaries in Upland, Colton and Moreno Valley.

"In this case, as the defendant was warned, the court's hands are tied," U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson said. "Whether you agree with the defendant's position or not."

Sandusky was found guilty in October of conspiracy to manufacture marijuana plants, to possess with intent to distribute marijuana plants, and to maintain a drug-involved premises; and one count of possession with intent to distribute marijuana plants, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.... 

"I want to apologize to those with me and their families who have been victimized by the federal government who has not recognized the voters of this state," Sandusky said in court.

State voters approved Proposition 215 in 1996, allowing medical marijuana in the state, while state Senate Bill 420, which details the amount of marijuana a person can possess for medical purposes, prevents cities and counties from banning marijuana dispensaries. But federal law says marijuana -- medical or otherwise -- is illegal. "I want to apologize to the families who are suffering and who have to go through this," Sandusky said.  "There are no winners here.  Not the state, not the federal government, not the patients who need medical marijuana."...

Sandusky turns 43 on Tuesday.  "It's not going to be a real happy birthday," G3 Holistic patient Christopher Kenner said.  "I hate to think this is the last time I'll see him."

Federal authorities in June arrested Sandusky and additional operators of the Inland Empire chain of marijuana stores and others associated with a warehouse, where marijuana was cultivated for the stores, on federal drug trafficking charges.  A six-count indictment returned by a federal grand jury charged three owners and operators of G3 Holistic stores. The indictment also charged three people who allegedly worked at a large grow operation in an Ontario warehouse that supplied marijuana to the three G3 stores.

I presume that Aaron Sandusky has preserved all of his potential appellate issues concerning his trial and sentencing and that he will pursue an appeal in the Ninth Circuit. Consequently, I doubt today's federal sentencing is the last chapter in his federal prosecution story.

January 7, 2013 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Pot Prohibition Issues, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

"Plead Guilty or Go to Prison for Life"

The title of this post is the headline of this new commentary concerning the Chris Williams' case and authored by Jacob Sollum over at Reason.com.  The sub-headline is "The stark choice given a medical marijuana grower highlights the injustice of mandatory minimums," and here are excerpts:

Chris Williams, a Montana medical marijuana grower, faces at least five years in federal prison when he is sentenced on February 1. The penalty seems unduly severe, especially because his business openly supplied marijuana to patients who were allowed to use it under state law.

Yet five years is a cakewalk compared to the sentence Williams originally faced, which would have kept the 38-year-old father behind bars for the rest of his life. The difference is due to an extremely unusual post-conviction agreement that highlights the enormous power prosecutors wield as a result of mandatory minimum sentences so grotesquely unjust that in this case even they had to admit it....

For a while it seemed that Williams, who rejected a plea deal because he did not think he had done anything wrong and because he wanted to challenge federal interference with Montana's medical marijuana law, also was destined to die in prison. Since marijuana is prohibited for all purposes under federal law, he was not allowed even to discuss the nature of his business in front of the jury, so his conviction on the four drug charges he faced, two of which carried five-year mandatory minimums, was more or less inevitable.

Stretching Williams' sentence from mindlessly harsh to mind-bogglingly draconian, each of those marijuana counts was tied to a charge of possessing a firearm during a drug trafficking offense, based on guns at the Helena grow operation that Williams supervised and at Flor's home in Miles City, which doubled as a dispensary. Federal law prescribes a five-year mandatory minimum for the first such offense and 25 years for each subsequent offense, with the sentences to run consecutively.

Consequently, when Williams was convicted on all eight counts, he faced a mandatory minimum sentence of 80 years for the gun charges alone, even though he never handled the firearms cited in his indictment, let alone hurt anyone with them. This result, which federal prosecutors easily could have avoided by bringing different charges, was so absurdly disproportionate that U.S. Attorney Michael Cotter offered Williams a deal.

Drop your appeal, Cotter said, and we'll drop enough charges so that you might serve "as little as 10 years." No dice, said Williams, still determined to challenge the Obama administration's assault on medical marijuana providers. But when Cotter came back with a better offer, involving a five-year mandatory minimum, Williams took it, having recognized the toll his legal struggle was taking on his 16-year-old son, a freshman at Montana State University.

"I think everyone in the federal system realizes that these mandatory minimum sentences are unjust," Williams tells me during a call from the Missoula County Detention Facility. But for prosecutors they serve an important function: "They were basically leveraging this really extreme sentence against something that was so light because they wanted to force me into taking a plea deal." Nine out of 10 federal criminal cases end in guilty pleas.

The efficient transformation of defendants into prisoners cannot be the standard by which we assess our criminal justice system. If the possibility of sending someone like Chris Williams to prison for the rest of his life is so obviously unfair, why does the law allow it, let alone mandate it?

I am glad to see the Williams' case continuing to get attention and criticism, but this commentary overlooks what strikes me as one of the worst parts of the deal with federal devil that Williams was forced to accept: in the deal, Williams waived all of his appeal rights to challenge his convictions so that he would not be able to continue with his lawful and courageous challenge to the federal laws with which he was prosecuted.

Prior posts on Williams case and related prosecutions:

January 2, 2013 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Examples of "over-punishment", Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Pot Prohibition Issues, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (20) | TrackBack

Monday, December 31, 2012

Will 2013 finally bring the demise of Harris via the Alleyne case?

I have been too busy with family et al. this holiday season to find the time to complete either a 2012 sentencing year-in-review post or a set of 2013 sentencing law and policy predictions.  But, on this last day of 2012, I can helpfully preview what is surely among the top sentencing stories to watch in the next year (especially for Apprendi fans): the Supreme Court's consideration of the Alleyne case, in which the Justices are to consider whether to reverse the mandatory minimum exception to the Apprendi Sixth Amendment doctrine.

This preview comes principally via a new BNA article by David Debold and Matthew Benjamin, which I have been permitted to post here.  The piece is titled "Is Harris a Mandatory Minimums Ruling Whose Time Has Run Out?", and it starts this way:

On Jan. 14, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear argument in Alleyne v. United States, the latest case to explore the contours of the Sixth Amendment’s jury-trial guarantee at the sentencing phase. Since 2000, when the Supreme Court issued its landmark opinion in Apprendi v. New Jersey, the rule has been that, "other than the fact of a prior conviction, any fact that increases the penalty for a crime beyond the prescribed statutory maximum must be submitted to a jury and proved beyond a reasonable doubt."

On numerous occasions over the past dozen years, the court has applied this rule to invalidate sentencing schemes that allowed judges to find facts that would expose a defendant to a more severe sentencing outcome.  Just last term, in Southern Union Co. v. United States, the court held for the first time that Apprendi applies to the imposition of criminal fines....

Alleyne raises a variation on the Apprendi theme. Unlike cases such as Southern Union, where the court applied the Sixth Amendment to the finding of facts capable of raising the sentencing ceiling, Alleyne will address whether a jury must find facts that raise the floor—otherwise known as mandatory minimums.  This is familiar territory for the Supreme Court. Just a couple of years after Apprendi, the court held in Harris v. United States that the Sixth Amendment does not require that a jury determine the facts that raise the bottom of a statutory sentencing range.  Thus, under Harris, a judge may constitutionally find facts that trigger a mandatory minimum sentence within the existing statutory range, and the judge may find such facts by a preponderance of the evidence, with no need for the government to allege them in an indictment.

The vitality of the holding in Harris has always been tenuous, at best.  The crucial fifth vote came from Justice Stephen G. Breyer, who candidly admitted in his concurrence that he could not "easily distinguish Apprendi v. New Jersey from this case in terms of logic." Instead, he voted with the plurality only because he could "not yet accept [Apprendi’s] rule."  Many petitioners — recognizing that no more than four justices could agree on a principled basis for the Harris holding — have hoped to learn how Breyer would rule if ever forced to admit that Apprendi is here to stay.  But repeated requests for the court to revisit Harris have consistently failed — until the recent grant of certiorari in Alleyne. Alleyne thus presents the court with a long-anticipated opportunity to overrule Harris.

Download Debold-Benjamin BNA piece on Alleyne

Recent prior posts on Alleyne case:

December 31, 2012 in Blakely in the Supreme Court, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Talk in Georgia of reform of mandatory minimum sentencing provisions

As reported in this local article, headlined "Mandatory minimum sentences face scrutiny: Some prefer to give judges more leeway in some cases," there is now serious talk of serious reform in Georgia of mandatory minimum sentencing provisions. The article starts this way:

Mandatory minimum sentences may get a hard look from state legislators in the upcoming session, and at least some Hall County leaders think that’s a good idea.  “I’m not a legal scholar or professional in the legal world,” state Rep.-elect Lee Hawkins said.  “But just looking at it from a common sense side, I question the need for mandatory minimum sentencing when we have more than capable judges who can listen to a case and make a decision based on the facts.”

The sentencing guidelines established by state law have come under increasing scrutiny as an expensive prison population continues to affect Georgia’s budget.

A criminal justice council created by Gov. Nathan Deal recommended in a 2011 report that judges be given more discretion in some cases.  The council recommended in its most recent 2012 report that the legislature consider implementing a “mandatory minimum safety valve,” which would allow judges more discretion in cases of nonviolent crimes, particularly those drug-related, or those in which criminals have cooperated with police.

For judges, the issue can be a matter of compassion. Former Superior Court Judge John Girardeau said in his experience, problems with mandatory minimums were infrequent but raised concerns.  “It doesn’t happen frequently, but there’s been enough instances where I’ve had to impose a sentence required by law that I thought under the circumstances was an unjust sentence, and that was troubling,” he said.

Hall County District Attorney Lee Darragh, though, said minimum sentencing is beneficial for prosecutors and victims.  “Mandatory minimum sentences are an invaluable tool to prosecutors in this state in ensuring justice for victims of the most serious crimes on the books,” Darragh said.

Many of the laws that created mandatory minimums began in a wave of “tough on crime” feelings in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Girardeau said.  “Back when these laws were enacted, I think there was a perception that some judges were too lenient on some crimes,” he said.

However, democracy is the remedy, Girardeau said.   “Given that our judges are elected, if judges with any consistency impose what the local community feels is being a too lenient a sentence, the judge stands for election every four years,” Girardeau said.  “People can speak at the ballot box.”

December 30, 2012 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Split Ninth Circuit en banc ruling rejects effort to qualify for safety-valve via state sentence modification

As reported in this post from back in July 2011, an interesting split Ninth Circuit panel decision in US v. Yepez concluded that federal courts must respect the modification of a state sentence at a subsequent federal sentencing.  The Ninth Circuit subsequently decided to review this matter en banc, and the en banc court today comes down the other way now in US v. Yepez, No. 09-50271 (9th Cir. Dec. 20, 2012) (available here).  Here is a summary of the ruling in Yepez as prepared by court staff:

Affirming one defendant’s federal drug sentence and vacating another, the en banc court held that a state court’s order terminating a defendant’s probation for a state offense “nunc pro tunc” as of the day before the defendant committed his federal crime cannot alter the fact that the defendant had the status of probationer when he committed his federal crime.

The en banc court concluded that the defendants therefore remained ineligible for safety valve relief under 18 U.S.C. § 3553(f) from the mandatory minimum sentence because they were properly assessed two criminal history points pursuant to U.S.S.G. § 4A1.1(d) for committing the federal crime “while under any criminal justice sentence, including probation.”

Dissenting, Judge Wardlaw (joined by Judges Pregerson, Reinhardt, Thomas, and W. Fletcher) wrote that because neither Congress, the safety valve provision, nor the Sentencing Guidelines address this question, fundamental principles of justice, federalism, and comity, as well as the rule of lenity and the parsimony principle of 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a), permit district courts to exercise their broad sentencing discretion when calculating criminal history scores for purposes of safety valve relief, and then to exercise that same discretion in determining the appropriate sentence length.

The per curiam majority opinion in Yepez runs only about six pages, while the spirited dissent runs more than 30 pages and provides a running start (complete with cites to Justice Scalia's new book) for a potential cert petition for the defendants.

Prior related posts:

December 20, 2012 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Novel post-trial federal "sentencing settlement" for Montana medical marijuana provider

As reported in this local article, headlined "In plea deal, most of marijuana caregiver's convictions to be dropped," there has been a notable (and disturbing?) development in a notable (and disturbing?) federal criminal case involving a Montana medical marijuana provider.  Here are the details:

In a highly unusual move, federal prosecutors have agreed to drop six of eight marijuana convictions for Christopher Williams in exchange for his agreeing to waive his right to appeal.  In addition, the government has agreed to ask U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen to dismiss the $1,728,000 criminal forfeiture awarded to the government by a jury earlier this year.

The agreement was outlined under a settlement filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court.  In the document, signed by Williams, U.S. Assistant Attorney Joe Thaggard, and federal public defender Michael Donahoe, they note that this agreement “constitutes the final and best offer to resolve this matter.”

Williams, a medical marijuana caregiver, was convicted by a 12-member jury in September after a four-day trial.  He was facing a minimum mandatory sentence of between 85 and 92 years, due in part to four counts that involved possessing a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime.  Sentences for those counts, by law, had to run consecutively.

Immediately after his conviction, Thaggard had offered to drop some of the charges, but they still involved a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence.  Williams rejected the offer, saying he was willing to spend the rest of his life in prison to fight what he believed were violations of his constitutional rights.

Under the newest deal, the federal government dropped convictions for conspiracy to manufacture and possess with the intent to distribute marijuana; manufacture of marijuana; possession with intent to distribute marijuana; and three counts of possessing a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime.  His convictions for one count of possessing a firearm in connection with drug trafficking and one count of possession with intent to distribute marijuana will stand.

He faces a maximum term of five years for the distribution of marijuana charge and a mandatory minimum of five years — and a maximum of life — for the firearm-related charge.

Kari Boiter, a friend of Williams, reported late Tuesday that she had talked to him via a phone call.  He was incarcerated at the time at the Missoula County Detention Facility. Boiter says Williams told her it wasn’t easy for him to give up his constitutional fight, but as he navigated the complex federal penal system, it became clear that punishment was the only thing that was guaranteed.

“With the rest of my life literally hanging in the balance, I simply could not withstand the pressure any longer,” Williams said in a statement released by Boiter.  “If Judge Christensen shows mercy and limits my sentence to the five year mandatory minimum, I could be present at my 16-year-old son’s college graduation.  This would most likely be impossible had I rejected the latest compromise.”

Williams was a partner in Montana Cannabis, which operated distribution centers in Helena, Billings, Miles City and Missoula, and had a large marijuana greenhouse west of Helena on Highway 12.  The four partners — Williams, Chris Lindsey, Thomas Daubert and Richard Flor — said they tried to set the “gold standard” for medical marijuana businesses after voters overwhelmingly passed legislation in 2004 permitting caregivers to distribute marijuana to people with physical ailments.

But under a federal crackdown in March 2011, Montana Cannabis was one of about 25 medical marijuana businesses that were raided, since marijuana is still considered a Schedule 1 narcotic under federal laws. Williams is the only person in Montana to take his case all the way to trial.

Daubert, Lindsey and Flor all pleaded guilty to various marijuana possession and distribution charges. Daubert received a sentence of five years on probation; Lindsey is expected to be sentenced Jan. 4 and prosecutors have agreed to seek a sentence similar to Daubert’s based upon Lindsey’s health problems and limited involvement in Montana Cannabis. Flor, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison, died from health-related complications while incarcerated....

It’s unknown whether Williams’ sentencing hearing, slated for Jan. 4 in Missoula, will still take place on that date.

As a matter of equitable substantive sentencing justice, I am very pleased to learn that Chris Williams is no longer facing a federal mandatory sentence of essentially LWOP for distrubuting marijuana in compliance with Montana law. But as a matter of constitutional law and federal criminal procedure, I find this new novel "sentencing settlement" disturbing from various perspectives. Let me explain:

Start with the government actors: though federal prosecutors have broad charging and bargaining discretion, what gives them authority to drop 75% of presumptively lawful convictions after a presumptive lawful jury trial?  Unless and until prosecutors articulate a constitutional or legal reason for dropping thse convictions, this decision appears to be a form of "prosecution nullification" that strikes me even more lawless than "jury nullification."  Prosecutors frequently contest and complain about the power of juries to nullify a prosecutor's criminal charges based on equitable rather than legal claims; here is appears that federal prosecutors are deciding to nullify a jury's criminal convictions based on equitable rather than legal claims.  

Even more worrisome, federal prosecutors in this case are going to nullify 75% of presumptively lawful convictions after a presumptive lawful jury trial in order to secure a deal to avoid any appellate scrutiny of the (also suspect?) convictions to be preserved.  If federal prosecutors believe there is a sound legal or equitable basis for dropping some of these convictions, why not just drop them without demanding anything in return from the defendant rather than requiring him to give up his statutory rights to appeal his other convictions and sentence?  Prosecutors here are not merely nullifying many jury convictions, but they are doing so only after essentially blackmailing the defendant to give up his rights to contest his other convictions on appeal.

Turning to the defense side:  though I completely understand why Chris Williams (especially after a few months in federal lock-up) decided to give up right to an uncertain appeal in order to avoid the prospect of a certain mandatory LWOP federal sentence, I am not sure how his attorneys can feel fully comfortable representing this deal as a knowing and voluntary settlement.  Based on the comments from the defendant quoted above, it seems plain to me that Chris Williams was essentially coerced by the threat of an extreme (and I think unconstitutional) sentence into giving up his appeal rights.  The jury convictions and the extreme mandatory sentencing terms here functioned in this case as a kind of legal sword of Damocles hanging over the defendant's head; Williams appears to have decided to accept this "sentencing settlement" waiving appeal rights only because prosecutors kept swinging this sword past his neck.

Especially because I want Chris Williams to be able to go to his 16-year-old son’s college graduation, I do not want to prevent him from getting the obvious benefit of this deal.  But because I also want Chris Williams to be able to pursue on appeal all his constitutional claims on all his convictions and sentence, I hope the judge in this case accepts this novel "sentencing settlement" while striking the waiver of appeal rights as, in this setting, void as against public policy.

December 19, 2012 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Pot Prohibition Issues, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (20) | TrackBack

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Is Alleyne a stare decisis sleeper about "super-duper precedents"?

Last month the Supreme Court granted cert in Allen Ryan Alleyne v. United States, in which the questions presented is simply "Whether this Court's decision in Harris v. United States, 536 U.S. 545 (2002), should be overruled."  Because Harris is, of course, one of the holes in Apprendi jurisprudence, hard-core sentencing fans and Sixth Amendment gurus are jazzed about what the Alleyne case might mean for the division of responsibilities of judge and jury in criminal justice decision-making.

However, the notion of whether Harris "should be overruled" has me thinking Alleyne could be a sleeper case concerning the doctrine of stare decisis in constitutional law and practice.  Significantly, Harris did not create the constitutional rule that legislatures could allow sentencing judges to find facts by a preponderance of evidence to trigger the application of mandatory minimum prison terms.  Harris merely reaffirmed this constitutional doctrine in 2002; it was established back in 1986 in McMillan v. Pennsylvania (and the McMillan opinion suggested its holding was just a reaffirmation of constitutional rules first set out in the 1949 case of Williams v. New York).  In other words, Harris is not just a regular precedent: like Roe v. Wade and other controversial rulings often challenged and often reaffirmed, the constitutional doctrines allowing judges to find facts to trigger mandatory minimums arguably qualify as a "super-precedent." 

As some may recall (and as highlighted in this Essay by Professor Michael Gerhardt titled "Super Precedent") the idea of super-precedents has been sometimes espoused by defenders of Roe.  Indeed, with Roe clearly in mind, then-Senate Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter asked then-SCOTUS-nominee John Roberts during his confirmation hearings whether he agreed there were "super-duper precedents" in constitutional law.  Though I do not fancy myself enough of a constitutional theorist to know whether super-precedents do or should exist, I do know that Alleyne tees up consideration of this idea perhaps as well as any case in recent memory.

November 27, 2012 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

NYCDL amicus brief in Alleyne with an offense/offender kicker

As long time readers know, in first trying to make sense of Blakely, I was drawn to distinguishing between offense conduct and offender characteristics in the application of Apprendi's "bright-line rule."  I first developed this idea in my Conceptualizing Blakely article, advanced it in a Stanford Law Review article, and unpacked it further (with Stephanos Bibas) in Making Sentencing Sensible.  As explained in Conceptualizing Blakely, I believe an offense/offender distinction helps give conceptual content to the prior conviction exception, better links the Apprendi rule to the express text of the Constitution, and resonates with the distinctive institutional competencies of juries and judges.

Consequently, when the Supreme Court decided it would take another trip to Apprendi-land by granting cert in Alleyne to consider the continued validity of the Harris mandatory minimum limit on the the Apprendi rule (basics here and here), I was interested in pitching the Justices yet again on the idea of incorporating an offense/offender distinction into some part of this jurisprudence.  Wonderfully, a terrific group of New York lawyers reached out to me about helping the New York Council of Defense Lawyers on an Alleyne amicus brief, and they were willing to add an offense/offender "kicker" to NYCDL's arguments for overruling Harris.  The NYCDL brief in which I lended a hand was filed yesterday and can be downloaded below.  Here are two key paragraphs from the summary of argument:

As this Court has applied Apprendi’s holding over the last decade, several Justices have expressed con-cerns about the rule’s potential impact on trials and sentencing.  As NYCDL’s experience in New York federal and state courts shows, any such effects will be minimal.  New York’s federal courts, for example, have operated for seven years under a paradigm for drug offenses that substantially parallels the structure all courts would face should this Court overturn Harris.  Practitioners there have been able to apply Apprendi’s rule to drug offenses with relative ease: from the indictment to the jury instructions or to the plea allocution, New York prosecutors and defense lawyers are able to address any facts that expose defendants not just to increased maximums, but also to increased minimums.  Similarly, criminal defense attorneys in New York state courts regularly confront situations where a jury is required to find facts that trigger a mandatory minimum sentence, without apparent difficulty or inefficiency.  These experiences buttress Petitioner’s argument that “there are no practical impediments to overruling Harris.”  Pet. Br. 42.

Moreover, any of the enduring practical concerns identified by certain Justices can be addressed by adopting an approach to overruling Harris that distinguishes between facts that are specific to the offense and facts that are specific to the offender.  The Constitution’s text requires that all facts relating to the alleged “crimes” at issue must be stated in the indictment and presented to the jury, which the Due Process clause requires to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.  To avoid a requirement that aggravating facts concerning an offender’s past be presented to the jury if such offender-specific characteristics implicate a mandatory minimum, the Court should draw a line for Constitutional purposes that allows judicial determinations of offender-specific facts that are relevant to sentencing, so long as such facts do not alter the range of applicable sentences.  Such a rule comports with the particular competencies of the jury and judge: The jury’s traditional role is to answer questions about the criminal conduct alleged in an indictment, while the judge has historically been expected to assess broader offender-based considerations such as an offender’s criminal history, amenability to rehabilitation, and correctional treatment.  Where, as here, a sentencing judge acts as “the reverser of juries” in finding offense-related facts only by a preponderance of the evidence, the sentence is unconstitutional.  The decision below should be reversed.

Download NYCDL Amicus Brief in Alleyne

November 27, 2012 in Almendarez-Torres and the prior conviction exception, Blakely in the Supreme Court, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Friday, November 16, 2012

Michigan appeals court decides Miller is not retroactive to final juve murder cases

As reported in this local article, which is headlined "Appeals Court: No resentencing for Michigan juvenile lifers, but state law is 'unconstitutional'," an intermediate appellate court has now issued a lengthy ruling on Miller's import and impact in the state up north. Here are the basics from the press report:

The Michigan Court of Appeals today denied a resentencing request for Raymond Carp, 21, who is serving a mandatory term of life in prison without the possibility of parole for a first-degree murder conviction when he was 16....

The ruling invalidated strict sentencing laws in Michigan and other states that treat violent offenders as adults, giving hope to hundreds of inmates serving life terms without hope of parole for crimes they committed as kids.

But the three-judge appeals court panel that heard arguments in the Carp case said today that the Supreme Court decision does not apply retroactively to offenders who already have exhausted the direct appeals process. The high court decision "is procedural and not substantive in nature and does not compromise a watershed ruling," they wrote in a 41-page published opinion.

Michigan is home to more than 350 juvenile lifers, one of the highest totals in the nation, and today's ruling may be appealed to the state Supreme Court.

The appeals court made a point to instruct judges in pending cases that Michigan's current law denying parole is "unconstitutional" when applied to juveniles and urged legislators to revise state statutes to comply with the Supreme Court ruling.

The full opinion in Michigan v. Carp, No. 307758 (Mich. Ct. App. Nov. 15, 2012), is available at this link; it runs 41-pages with nearly 200 footnotes.  Here are the unanimous opinion's final paragraphs:

The United States Supreme Court has, through a series of recent decisions culminating in Miller, indicated that juveniles are subject to different treatment than adults for purposes of sentencing under the Eighth Amendment.  Specifically, we hold that in Michigan a sentencing court must consider, at the time of sentencing, characteristics associated with youth as identified in Miller when determining whether to sentence a juvenile convicted of a homicide offense to life in prison with or without the eligibility for parole.  While Miller does not serve to “foreclose a sentencer’s ability to make that judgment in homicide cases, we require it to take into account how children are different, and how those differences counsel against irrevocably sentencing them to a lifetime in prison.”

While Miller is applicable to those cases currently pending or on direct review, we find that in accordance with Teague and Michigan law that it (1) is not to be applied retroactively to cases on collateral review, such as Carp’s, because the decision is procedural and not substantive in nature and (2) does not comprise a watershed ruling. We urge our Legislature to address with all possible expediency the issues encompassed by and resulting from Miller and that necessitate the revision of our current statutory sentencing scheme for juveniles.

In the interim, as guidance for our trial courts for those cases currently in process or on remand following direct appellate review, we find that MCL 791.234(6)(a) is unconstitutional as currently written and applied to juvenile homicide offenders. When sentencing a juvenile, defined now as an individual below 18 years of age, for a homicide offense, the sentencing court must, at the time of sentencing, evaluate and review those characteristics of youth and the circumstances of the offense as delineated in Miller and this opinion in determining whether following the imposition of a life sentence the juvenile is to be deemed eligible or not eligible for parole.  We further hold that the Parole Board must respect the sentencing court’s decision by also providing a meaningful determination and review when parole eligibility arises.

November 16, 2012 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Jackson and Miller Eighth Amendment cases, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

California voters appear to be approving three-strikes reform, rejecting death penalty repeal

As of the writing of this post, Election Day has been over for three hours in my time zone and is just about to end in California.  According to the result on this official California webpage with right now just over half of all precincts reporting, Proposition 34 calling for the repeal of California's death penalty is losing the popular vote by 46% to 54% and Proposition 36 calling for the reform of California's severe three-strikes sentencing law is winning the popular vote by 68% to 32%.

Assuming that the precinct which have reported are faily representative, it looks as though the voters in California are going to keep the death penalty on the books and are going to curtail the harshest aspects of the state's recidivism sentencing law.  Though I had predicted these basic outcomes (informed by the generally on-point polling data from the last few weeks on these issues), I am a bit surprised that the death penalty repeal vote is so close and that the three-strikes reform vote is so one-sided.

Ain't democracy grand!

November 7, 2012 in Campaign 2012 and sentencing issues , Death Penalty Reforms, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (13) | TrackBack

Monday, November 05, 2012

Examining how Pennsylvania has responded legislatively to Miller

580719_190This local story out of Pennsylvania, headlined "New law gives Lancaster County judges discretion in sentencing juvenile killers," provides effective coverage on Pennsylvania's new sentencing laws for juvenile killers in response to the Supreme Court's Eighth Amendment ruling in Miller this past June.  Here are excerpts:

A newly-passed law could lead to lighter sentences for juvenile killers in Lancaster County and statewide, according to local experts.

Gov. Tom Corbett recently signed Senate Bill 850, making life behind bars no longer a mandatory sentence for juveniles convicted of first- or second-degree murder. In fact, a juvenile convicted of second-degree murder, under the law, can't be sentenced to life without parole.  The changes in sentencing statutes apply to those convicted after June 24....

In pending and future cases under the new law, judges still have the option of ordering a life-without-parole sentence to anyone convicted of 1st-degree murder, regardless of their age.  However, the new law give judges much discretion, and flexibility, in sentencing. "Like it or not, that is the role we entrust to judges," Lancaster County Judge Dennis Reinaker said.  "Nobody is going to agree with every decision we make.  As judges, we have different ideas about things.  And that's as it should be."...

Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center, an advocacy group for juvenile offenders, says Senate Bill 850 "misses the mark."  The group, a reputable source in the legal community, claims in an opinion piece that the new provisions "not only leave life without parole as an option for juveniles convicted of first-degree murder, but also impose severe mandatory minimum sentences as the only alternative option."

The bill applies many proposals from the state's District Attorneys Association. Lancaster County District Attorney Craig Stedman said those proposals involved some compromise. "We fought hard to preserve higher mandatory minimums and the life-without-parole option for first-degree murderers," he said on Thursday.  "And in exchange agreed to take the life-without-parole option off the table for second-degree murderers."...

Those convicted of first-degree murder, meaning an act that is pre-meditated with intention to kill, can still receive life-without-parole terms.  A person under age 15 convicted of first-degree murder faces a mandatory 25-year term; a person between 15 and 17 faces a mandatory 35-year term.  "It is critical for the protection of the public that Pennsylvania preserved the option to make sure that the worst of the worst have no possibility of ever being released to kill again," Stedman said.

Mandatory sentences are slightly less in second-degree cases, as locals say they should be. Second-degree murder is a killing that happens during the course of another felony, most commonly burglary or robbery.  The mandatory minimum sentence for a juvenile 15 to 17 convicted of second-degree murder shrinks to 30 years.  Convicted second-degree killers under age 15 face a mandatory minimum of 20 years....

Many lawyers that appeal second-degree cases here argue their client was merely a "lookout," and less culpable than the person who did the actual killing. "That's entirely different than someone who specifically intended to target someone," Lancaster County Judge David Ashworth said. "When I sentence anybody, I consider culpability."

Additional recent local coverage of this new juve sentencing law in the Keystone State can be found in the Reading Eagle via "Sentencing guidelines for juveniles revised" and in the Wilkes Barre Times-Leader via "Juvenile bill makes changes."

November 5, 2012 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Federal district judge refuses to apply arson mandatory minimum (on constitutional grounds?)

This local article from Oregon reports on what appears to be a significant sentencing decision by a federal district judge concerning the application of a mandatory minimum provision.  Here are the details:

Rejecting mandatory minimum five-year sentences as “grossly disproportionate” to the crimes, a federal judge in Eugene on Tuesday sentenced an Eastern Oregon rancher to three months in prison and his adult son to one year and a day for deliberately setting fires on federal land.

A federal jury in June convicted the Harney County pair after a two-week trial in Pendleton. Jurors convicted Dwight Hammond Jr., 70, on a single count of arson for “intentionally and maliciously” setting the 2001 Hardie-Hammond Fire in the Steens Mountain federal management and protection area.  They convicted Steven Dwight Hammond, 43, of the same crime and of a second arson count for similarly setting the 2006 Krumbo Butte Fire.  It burned in the same area and in the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.  The jury acquitted both men on arson charges in two 2006 fires.

U.S. Judge Michael Hogan agreed with the Hammonds’ defense lawyers that setting fire to juniper trees and sagebrush in the wilderness was not the type of crime that Congress had in mind when it set mandatory sentences of five to 20 years for anyone who “maliciously damages or destroys, or attempts to damage or destroy by means of fire” any federal property. The mandate was part of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996.

Prosecutors alleged that the father-son owners of Hammond Ranches Inc. set a series of fires on U.S. Bureau of Land Management land where the Hammonds had grazing rights. Prosecutors said the fires were set to reduce the growth of juniper trees and sagebrush, and to accelerate the growth of rangeland grasses for the Hammonds’ cattle....

In a sentencing memo, the defense lawyers noted that both men have served on the French Glen School Board, Community Club and Site Council, and were “instrumental” in founding and financing the French Glen Education Foundation, which funds extracurricular activities for area students.  The Hammonds also regularly host an annual science and careers fair for seven rural schools, contribute money and food to the Harney County 4-H and FFA clubs, and donate meat to the Harney County Senior Center, the memo said.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Frank Papagni acknowledged that the Hammonds, “both of them, have done many wonderful things for the community.”  But he urged Hogan to follow the law, noting that Steven Hammond’s nephew — Dwight Hammond’s grandson — testified that he “thought he was going to get burned up” when flames moved toward him as the then-13-year-old followed his uncle’s orders to light brush with matches.

The arsons also endangered the lives of BLM firefighters and hunters camping near one of the blazes, the government alleged.  “Congress decided that this particular offense should carry a mandatory, statutory minimum term of five years,” Papagni wrote in the government’s sentencing memo.  “The evidence of defendants’ guilt was substantial. The jury’s verdict of guilt for this particular offense mandates imposition of the required statutory minimum term, as the statute constrains this court’s discretion.”

Hogan disagreed, imposing the lesser terms. He also sentenced both Hammonds to three years of postprison supervision and required them to surrender their firearms. The judge also allowed the men to stagger their sentences in order to keep operating their ranch. He ordered Dwight Hammond to report to prison in January, with Steven Hammond to begin his sentence upon his father’s release.

As the title of this post indicates, it seems from the first sentence of this report that Judge Hogan concluded it would be unconstitutional based on the Eighth Amendment to apply a five-year mandatory minimum under the circumstances.  (Side notethis companion article reports that this sentencing took place on Judge Hogan's last day on the bench.) 

It will be interesting to follow if federal prosecutors seek to appeal this sentence to the Ninth Circuit.  I predict that the feds will fear a "bad panel" and thus a "bad ruling" from the Ninth Circuit and thus will decide not to appeal.

October 31, 2012 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (35) | TrackBack

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Tenth Circuit continues to struggle through ACCA's ever-elusive residual clause

A helpful reader alerted me to a series of recent notable Tenth Circuit decisions regarding application of the Armed Career Criminal Act and sent along this detailed summary for posting (which probably only hard-core ACCA fans will enjoy, but they should enjoy it lots):

Federal practitioners know that the meaning of the ACCA/4B1.2(a)(2)’s residual clause is one of the most frequently occurring yet confusing issues in federal sentencing law. And the confusion does not seem to be subsiding. Perhaps best illustrating this are three cases issued by the Tenth Circuit within just a two-week time span.

First came US v. Sandoval, No. 11-1303 (10th Cir. Oct. 9, 2012) (available here). The issue there was whether a prior conviction for “heat-of-passion” assault should be classified as a violent felony under the ACCA’s residual clause.  The heat-of-passion offense read:  "If assault in the second degree is committed under circumstances where the act causing the injury is performed, not after deliberation, upon a sudden heat of passion, caused by a serious and highly provoking act of the intended victim, affecting the person causing the injury sufficiently to excite an irresistible passion in a reasonable person."

The Sandoval court held that such a crime is an ACCA violent felony. But, in doing so, the opinion contained some telling language. The opinion began by explaining: “This is another of those cases, now becoming legion[FN1] where we must decide if a prior conviction constitutes a violent felony under the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA).” Footnote 1 then explained how courts continue to face this issue and yet “[t]he law is not well-settled.”  A few pages later, the opinion lamented how Sykes, the Supreme Court’s latest excursion into residual-clause land, is “not a model of clarity."  Footnote 8 then went on for four paragraphs about the confusion.

Sandoval raises a number of very interesting questions.  Among them:

1) What is the meaning of Begay post-Sykes?

2) Is a heat-of-passion offense akin to the type of mens rea crime at issue in Begay, or is Sykes the more analogous case?

3) Is a Begay analysis ever needed when the offense at issue is not one of strict liability, negligence, or recklessness?

4) If so, is a heat-of-passion offense “similar in kind” to the ACCA example crimes, none of which involve either the victim’s provocation or an irresistible passion of a reasonable person?

5) Is Begay's "in kind" analysis solely limited to an inquiry about being "purposeful, violent and aggressive," or can an offense be different from the example crimes "in kind" in a different way?

The first question is the big one, and questions two through five seem to inextricably follow from the first. Despite this confusion, the Tenth Circuit held that a heat-of-passion offense — where A) the victim provokes the offense, B) the offender is acting pursuant to an irresistible passion in a reasonable person, and C) there is no deliberation — is similar to the ACCA enumerated crimes. With so many important questions involved, this may be the perfect post-Sykes case to clarify the US Supreme Court’s residual clause precedents.

Nine days later, the Tenth Circuit returned to the uncertainty surrounding the residual clause in US v. Duran, No. 11-1308 (10th Cir. Oct. 18, 2012) (available here).  There, the Circuit held that aggravated assault by recklessly causing bodily injury does not satisfy the residual clause (this time under USSG § 4B1.2(a)(2)). Even though the prior offense required causing bodily injury to the victim, the Circuit reasoned that Begay prevents reckless conduct from satisfying the residual clause.  This certainly appears to be the correct outcome; Sykes itself implies that reckless crimes are outside of the residual clause.  Nevertheless, the Tenth Circuit panel still questioned its earlier precedent on that issue, and wondered aloud “if Begay is still good law.” See footnote 1.

Finally, four days after that, the Tenth Circuit again found itself in residual-clause land with US v. Maldonado, No. 11-2168 (10th Cir. Oct. 22, 2012) (available here). This time, the Tenth Circuit held that California’s first-degree burglary statute, although not constituting the generic, enumerated offense of burglary, did satisfy the ACCA’s residual clause.  The court reached this result by applying “a two-part test, asking first whether the offense poses a serious potential risk of physical injury to another and second, whether the offense is ‘roughly similar’ in kind and degree of risk as the enumerated crimes in the ACCA.” The Circuit stressed again — as it did in Sandoval and Duran — that part two of the test is “subject to some debate,” noting how the Supreme Court is “splintered” on part-two.  See footnote 6.  The Maldonado panel also felt it important to remind us of Sandoval’s commentary on this confusion. See footnote 7.

The Tenth Circuit is not alone in tiring of the “legion” of cases it must decide on the ever-elusive meaning of the residual clause.  And its frustration over this uncertain area of the law is warranted.  Tellingly, the three opinions are each authored by a different judge, and they constitute seven of the nine active Tenth Circuit judges and one Senior Judge. Ultimately, the Supreme Court should heed the Tenth Circuit’s frustration and clarify this “splintered” issue sooner rather than later.  (Or, for that matter, declare the clause void for its vagueness.)  The issue is too important and commonly occurring to continue leaving the lower courts without much-needed guidance.

October 30, 2012 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Friday, October 26, 2012

"How Mandatory Minimums Forced Me to Send More Than 1,000 Nonviolent Drug Offenders to Federal Prison"

The title of this post is the headline of this new commentary authored by US District Judge Mark Bennett and published in The Nation. Here are is how it gets going:

Growing up in blue collar Circle Pines, Minnesota, in the 1950s, raised by parents from the “Greatest Generation,” I dreamed only of becoming a civil rights lawyer. My passion for justice was hard-wired into my DNA.  Never could I have imagined that by the end of my 50s, after nineteen years as one of 678 federal district court judges in the nation, I would have sent 1,092 of my fellow citizens to federal prison for mandatory minimum sentences ranging from sixty months to life without the possibility of release.  The majority of these women, men and young adults are nonviolent drug addicts.  Methamphetamine is their drug of choice.  Crack cocaine is a distant second.  Drug kingpins? Oh yes, I’ve sentenced them, too.  But I can count them on one hand. While I’m extremely proud of my father’s service in World War II, I am greatly conflicted about my role in the “war on drugs.”

You might think the Northern District of Iowa — a bucolic area home to just one city with a population above 100,000 — is a sleepy place with few federal crimes.  You would be wrong. Of the ninety-four district courts across the United States, we have the sixth-heaviest criminal caseload per judge.  Here in the heartland, I sentence more drug offenders in a single year than the average federal district court judge in New York City, Washington, Chicago, Minneapolis and San Francisco — combined.  While drug cases nationally make up 29 percent of federal judges’ criminal dockets, according to the US Sentencing Commission, they make up more than 56 percent of mine.  More startling, while meth cases make up 18 percent of a judge’s drug docket nationally, they account for 78 percent of mine.  Add crack cocaine and together they account for 87 percent.

Crack defendants are almost always poor African-Americans.  Meth defendants are generally lower-income whites.  More than 80 percent of the 4,546 meth defendants sentenced in federal courts in 2010 received a mandatory minimum sentence.  These small-time addicts are apprehended not through high-tech wiretaps or sophisticated undercover stings but by common traffic stops for things like nonfunctioning taillights.  Or they’re caught in a search of the logs at a local Walmart to see who is buying unusually large amounts of nonprescription cold medicine.  They are the low-hanging fruit of the drug war.  Other than their crippling meth addiction, they are very much like the folks I grew up with.  Virtually all are charged with federal drug trafficking conspiracies — which sounds ominous but is based on something as simple as two people agreeing to purchase pseudoephedrine and cook it into meth.  They don’t even have to succeed.

I recently sentenced a group of more than twenty defendants on meth trafficking conspiracy charges.  All of them pled guilty.  Eighteen were “pill smurfers,” as federal prosecutors put it, meaning their role amounted to regularly buying and delivering cold medicine to meth cookers in exchange for very small, low-grade quantities to feed their severe addictions.  Most were unemployed or underemployed.  Several were single mothers.  They did not sell or directly distribute meth; there were no hoards of cash, guns or countersurveillance equipment.  Yet all of them faced mandatory minimum sentences of sixty or 120 months.  One meth-addicted mother faced a 240-month sentence because a prior meth conviction in county court doubled her mandatory minimum.  She will likely serve all twenty years; in the federal system, there is no parole, and one serves an entire sentence minus a maximum of a 15 percent reduction rewarded for “good time.”

Several years ago, I started visiting inmates I had sentenced in prison.  It is deeply inspiring to see the positive changes most have made.  Some definitely needed the wake-up call of a prison cell, but very few need more than two or three years behind bars. These men and women need intensive drug treatment, and most of the inmates I visit are working hard to turn their lives around.  They are shocked — and glad — to see me, and it’s important to them that people outside prison care about their progress.  For far too many, I am their only visitor.

If lengthy mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug addicts actually worked, one might be able to rationalize them. But there is no evidence that they do.  I have seen how they leave hundreds of thousands of young children parentless and thousands of aging, infirm and dying parents childless.  They destroy families and mightily fuel the cycle of poverty and addiction.  In fact, I have been at this so long, I am now sentencing the grown children of people I long ago sent to prison.

October 26, 2012 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (20) | TrackBack

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Is SCOTUS gearing up to reconsider Harris and the Sixth Amendment's application to mandatory minimums?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by an exciting paragraph deep within John Elwood's exciting new SCOTUSblog post excitingly titled "Relist (and Hold) Watch." Here it is:

Unsurprisingly, the first real order list after the Long Conference left us with a boatload of relists.  Eleven, in fact.  Apprendi purists, ready the confetti:  Two of the relists, Alleyne v. United States, 11-9335, and Dotson v. United States, 11-9873 (which we first discussed in May), ask the Court to overrule Harris v. United States (2002).  You might recall that, in Harris, a plurality headed by Justice Kennedy plus Justice Breyer’s concurrence in the judgment held that facts that increased the mandatory minimum sentence need not be decided by the jury.  Two members of the Harris majority (Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justice O’Connor) are gone, as are two of the dissenters (Justices Stevens and Souter).  It would be a pretty big deal if the New ‘n’ Improved Court revisited Harris.  But I will try to curb my enthusiasm in case the Court is pulling its Lucy-and-the-football trick again, like it did both during OT2010 and last Term when it relisted cases seeking to revisit another sentencing rule in tension with Apprendi, Almendarez-Torres v. United States (holding that the fact of a prior conviction could be found by a judge rather than submitted to a jury) – only to deny those petitions without comment.

I have so much to say on this topic, but I need to first get my confetti ready and also put on my black-striped Charlie Brown yellow shirt.

October 3, 2012 in Blakely in the Supreme Court, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Friday, September 28, 2012

Second Circuit reiterates that mandatory minimum statutes trump parsimony instruction of 3553(a)

The Second Circuit has a brief sentencing opinion this morning in US v. Carter, No. 11-3605 (2d Cir. Sept. 28, 2012) (available here), which would have been huge news had it come out the other way. As resolved, the decision still seemed blog-worthy and here is how it begins:

This case reminds us of the tension in federal criminal law between two competing but overlapping systems for imposing a sentence.  In most cases, a sentencing court computes the relevant range under the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines, now advisory under the teaching of United States v. Booker, 543 U.S. 220 (2005), before making its own determination of an appropriate punishment after considering the general sentencing factors in § 3553(a), including the “parsimony” provision that a sentence must not be “greater than necessary” to serve appropriate sentencing objectives. 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a).  For certain criminal offenses, however, Congress has created a “mandatory minimum” term of imprisonment — a blunt directive that may require judges to give sentences that they consider unduly punitive.  See Dorsey v. United States, 132 S. Ct. 2321, 2326–29 (2012) (describing the development of and relationship between these two sentencing regimes).

The question presented in this appeal is whether a statutory mandatory minimum provision binds a federal sentencing court when the relevant statute does not specify that it overrides the “parsimony” provision in § 3553(a).  For the reasons stated below, we hold that a statutory mandatory minimum binds a sentencing court by explicitly providing a sentencing floor.  The relevant statute need not specify that it overrides the “parsimony” provision or other general sentencing considerations in § 3553(a).  Therefore, we affirm the judgment of the District Court.

September 28, 2012 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Latest California poll data showing DP repeal losing so far, while three-strike reform is winning big

Crime & Consequences has lots of good coverage here and here of the latest poll numbers from California concerning the initiative going before the voters to repeal the death penalty in the state.  Short story is that the polling numbers suggests those favoring abolition have a up hill battle over the next two months to convince voters to vote for repeal.

Not reported by C&C, but via the data linked in this report, are the remarkable poll numbers showing overwhelming support for reforming California's severe Three-Strikes mandatory sentencing law (this is Proposition 36). According to the data, there is more than 80% support for three-strikes reform, and of those who indicate a strong or somewhat solid opinion, more than 50% support reform and less than 10% are against reform. 

September 13, 2012 in Death Penalty Reforms, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Monday, August 27, 2012

Second Circuit limits predicates triggerring 15-year child porn mandatory minimums

The Second Circuit has released today a lengthy and significant ruling concerning the application of mandatory minimum terms for those convicted of child pornography offenses. The panel opinion in US v. Beardsley, No. 11-2206 (2d Cir. Aug. 27, 2012) (available here) begins this way:

Defendant-appellant Wayne Beardsley appeals from a judgment of conviction entered in the Northern District of New York (Glenn T. Suddaby, Judge) following his plea of guilty to knowingly receiving and possessing child pornography, in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 2252A(a)(2)(A) and 2252A(a)(5)(B).  The district court sentenced Beardsley to fifteen years in prison, the mandatory minimum sentence established by 18 U.S.C. § 2252A(b)(1), which applies to defendants convicted of certain federal child pornography offenses who have a prior conviction “under the laws of any State relating to aggravated sexual abuse, sexual abuse, or abusive sexual conduct involving a minor or ward.”  On appeal, Beardsley argues that the district court erred in employing the “modified categorical approach” to analyze the facts underlying his prior state conviction for endangering the welfare of a child, and that under the proper standard -- the “categorical approach” -- his prior state conviction does not qualify as a § 2252A(b)(1) predicate offense.  We agree, and therefore vacate his sentence and remand to the district court for resentencing.

August 27, 2012 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Effective review of three-strikes initiative battle taking place in California

The Sacramento Bee has this lengthy new article providing an effective overview of the 2012 election season debate over an effort to reform California's three strikes law. The piece is headlined "'Three-strikes' battle returns to fall ballot in California," and here are excerpts:

Proposition 36 gives the state's electorate another opportunity to weigh in on California's 18-year-old "three-strikes" law, the toughest career-criminal sentencing statute in the nation.  Twice in as many decades, voters have sided in favor of a three-strikes law that allows judges to impose a life prison term for offenders who commit a third felony -- no matter how minor -- if they have two previous serious or violent criminal convictions on their records.

Proposition 36 proponents want to change the law to restrict the 25-years-to-life sentences, with some exceptions, to criminals whose third felony was serious or violent; nothing less than a residential burglary would qualify as a strike.

The measure would enable an estimated 3,000 of the 8,873 prisoners serving 25-years-to-life terms in the state as of June 30 to apply for resentencing hearings.  If their motions for new terms are granted, a good number of those 3,000 prisoners could go free.  The Legislative Analyst's Office estimates passage of Proposition 36 could save the state anywhere from $70 million to $90 million a year in reduced prison costs.

The initiative has had huge cash infusions from two sources.  Billionaire financier George Soros, the international hedge fund manager who has contributed millions over the years to change drug laws and other statutes he believes are too harsh, kicked in $500,000, according to the secretary of state's records. David W. Mills, a Stanford law professor and private investment manager, matched and raised the contribution.  Mills, a co-chair of the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund, put in $878,000.  The money Soros and Mills contributed paid for the $1.4 million signature-gathering effort that qualified Proposition 36 for the Nov. 6 ballot.

In an interview, Mills, 65, said his involvement in California's three-strikes law stems from his long-term interest in civil rights.  It is Mills' view that the sentencing measure's "dramatic effect on poor people and African Americans" makes it one of the leading civil rights issues of the day. "The notion I can live in a state in a country where we would send somebody to jail for 25-to-life for stealing a loaf of bread, a pair of gloves, a piece of pizza, for a gram of cocaine, or whatever, to me is incomprehensible," he said.

Opponents of the measure include the California Police Chiefs Association.  Sacramento Police Chief Rick Braziel signed the ballot rebuttal argument against Proposition 36 in his capacity as president of the California Peace Officers Association, arguing that thousands of criminals would be released from prison.  Top victims' rights organizations, such as Crime Victims United of California, also have lined up to fight the measure....

Mike Reynolds, the Fresno photographer whose daughter was murdered by a repeat offender, has served as guardian of the three-strikes law since its 1994 birth.  In an interview, Reynolds noted steep declines in the California crime rate in the 18 years that the law has been in effect.  He wonders why anyone would want to change it, and is angry at the thought of 3,000 career criminals getting out of prison.

"One hundred percent of them would have at least two prior serious or violent convictions," Reynolds said.  "Make no mistake.  We're talking about the bad boys.  These are the guys who are responsible for the worst of our crimes, the most active by definition.  And you want to put them back on the streets and not expect them to come back with new convictions?"

Another Proposition 36 opponent, Sacramento County District Attorney Jan Scully, sneers at the suggestion that the three-strikes change would save taxpayers' money by releasing people from prison.  "This assumes they're not going to commit any more crimes," Scully said. "Trust me, they are.  Then we'll have to prosecute them again, so they'll be taking up just as many resources as before, except they'll have new victims in their path."

August 22, 2012 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Friday, August 03, 2012

En banc DC Circuit splits over mens rea required for 30-year gun mandatory minimum

The Blog of Legal Times has this new post about this notable en banc ruling handed down by the DC Circuit. Because all the opinions in the ruling run over 100 pages, I will rely here on The BLT's post provide a summary of the two leading opinions:

Bryan Burwell maintains he didn't know the gun he was holding during a bank robbery was capable of automatic fire. The gun, an AK-47, cost him an extra 30 years in prison.

A divided federal appeals court in Washington ruled today that prosecutors were not required to prove at trial that Burwell knew the firearm was a machine gun.  The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, sitting in a rare session as a full court, upheld the 30-year mandatory prison term for possession of a machine gun.  The court ruled 5 to 3 in favor of the U.S. Justice Department.

Judge Janice Rogers Brown, writing for the majority, said there's nothing unfair in the statute. Burwell, the court said, knew he was committing a violent crime when he robbed two banks.  It's not unusual, Brown wrote, to punish defendants for unintended consequences of unlawful acts.  "The higher penalties attached to the use of the most dangerous kinds of firearms reflect Congress's desire to create a deterrent commensurate with the increased danger posed by these weapons," Brown said.

A jury in Washington's federal trial court convicted Burwell in 2005 for his role in a robbery conspiracy that Brown said employed "old school tactics," including pistol-whipping and subduing bystanders.  Burwell was sentenced to about 11 years for the robbery scheme. On top of that, the trial judge tacked on an additional 30 years for possession of a machine gun.

The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the Federal Public Defender's Office supported Burwell in the appeal, saying that prosecutors should have been required to prove Burwell's knowledge that he was brandishing a machine gun during a robbery spree in Washington in 2004....

Writing in dissent, Judge Brett Kavanaugh posed a hypothetical situation in which, under the majority decision, an altar boy can be found guilty both of theft and drug possession for stealing a collection plate that held cash and a bag of cocaine sewn into the lining. "The presumption of mens rea embodies deeply rooted principles of law and justice that the Supreme Court has emphasized time and again," Kavanaugh wrote in the dissent, joined by Judge David Tatel.  "The presumption of mens rea is no mere technicality, but rather implicates 'fundamental and far-reaching' issues, as this case well illustrates."

Kavanaugh wrote in his 51-page dissent — nearly twice as long as the majority opinion — that "the debate over mens rea is not some philosophical or academic exercise.  It has major real-world consequences for criminal defendants.  And it takes on added significance in an era of often lengthy mandatory minimum sentences."

August 3, 2012 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Eleventh Circuit clarifies which defendants can benefit from new crack guidelines

The Eleventh Circuit issued a little, but still important, sentencing opinion in US v. Liberse, No. 12-10243 (11th Cir. July 30, 2012) (available here) to clarify just which defendants can now benefit from the new reduced crack guidelines. Here is how the opinion starts:

This is the third decision we have issued in the past month concerning the application of Amendments 750 and 759 to the sentencing guidelines and the scope of a district court’s authority to reduce a defendant’s sentence under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2).  In the first two decisions, we held that those amendments did not authorize a court to reduce a sentence under § 3582(c)(2) if the defendant’s guidelines range remained the statutory mandatory minimum after the amendments or if the guidelines range was otherwise not affected by the amendments.  See United States v. Glover, — F.3d —, No. 12-10580, 2012 WL 2814303, at *3–4 (11th Cir. July 11, 2012) (statutory mandatory minimum); United States v. Lawson, — F.3d —, No. 11-15912, 2012 WL 2866265, at *2–3 (11th Cir. July 13, 2012) (otherwise unchanged guidelines range).  Our decisions in Glover and Lawson establish that “a court cannot use an amendment to reduce a sentence in a particular case unless that amendment actually lowers the guidelines range in that case.” Glover, 2012 WL 2814303, at *3.

This appeal raises a different issue because the pro se appellant’s original guidelines range of 121 to 151 months was above, and thus not affected by, the applicable statutory mandatory minimum of 120 months.  As a result, Amendments 750 and 759 would reduce his guidelines range.  For those reasons, § 3582(c)(2) gives the district court authority to reduce the sentence in its discretion.  Because the court believed it lacked that authority, we vacate its order denying the motion for resentencing and remand for the court to determine whether to exercise its discretion to reduce the sentence.

July 31, 2012 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, New USSC crack guidelines and report, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Friday, July 27, 2012

Fascinating deal cut in federal habeas action brought by California pot dispensary owner

A helpful reader alerted me to this Sacramento Bee story from earlier this week, headlined "Plea cuts prison term for medical pot seller Bryan Epis," which reports on a remarkable resolution to a remarkable federal criminal justice matter in California. Here are the highlights:

Bryan James Epis, the first person associated with a California cannabis dispensary to duke it out at trial with federal prosecutors over medical marijuana, has had 2 1/2 years whacked off his mandatory 10-year prison term.

Epis, who has been locked in a pitched battle with law enforcement over his cultivation and use of marijuana for almost 20 years, is an inmate at the Terminal Island Federal Correctional Institution in Southern California.  He now should be released in early 2014 instead of September 2016, and will be supervised by probation officers for 10 more years.

The 45-year-old Epis established a cannabis club in Chico, one of the first in the state after passage in 1996 of a California ballot initiative permitting medicinal use of marijuana with a doctor's recommendation.  At the conclusion of a highly publicized trial a decade ago in Sacramento federal court, he was found guilty of conspiring to produce 1,000 or more plants at his home within 1,000 feet of Chico High School.  The crime carries a mandatory minimum 10 years behind bars.  He was free for much of the intervening time pending efforts to overturn the conviction.

The rare agreement, which was approved Tuesday by U.S. District Judge Garland E. Burrell Jr., is surprising on multiple levels:

• Federal prosecutors signed off on it, yet they have zero tolerance for defendants who do what they say Epis did -- grow pot out of a greedy hunger for huge profits.

• The government had argued for years that Epis deserved no reduction because he was less than forthcoming at a debriefing by prosecutors and agents.

• The original sentence is statutorily mandated and had been upheld on appeal.

• The trial prosecutor, Samuel Wong, is known as one of the toughest in the business on pot growers, yet he agreed to the reduction....

A common thread that has run throughout the case, starting with the trial, is Epis' claim that Wong relied heavily on false and misleading evidence, and arguments regarding a spreadsheet seized during a search of his home that the prosecutor knew had nothing to do with the charges in the indictment.  Wong heatedly denies the accusation, arguing an appeals panel rejected the claim.

In April, Hollows scheduled an evidentiary hearing on the issue for June 13. At a pre-hearing conference on June 4, Epis attorney John Balazs and Wong informed Hollows they had reached an agreement....

U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner said Tuesday a recent U.S. Supreme Court opinion may have made Epis' challenge more viable.   "As set forth in the settlement agreement, Bryan Epis claimed that his trial attorneys rendered ineffective assistance to him with respect to their advice concerning the United States' pretrial plea offer," Wagner said in a prepared statement. "As also detailed in the agreement, his trial attorneys did not refute that claim, and under recent Supreme Court precedent, Epis therefore might have been entitled to some relief."...

Epis, who has a law degree, said Monday that, "given the risks involved in further litigation and the low track record of success in habeas cases in general, I accepted the government's offer despite all its conditions."

One of the conditions Wong insisted on was that Epis give up his constitutional right to speak out in favor of medical marijuana and across-the-board legalization through the end of his supervised release. Epis stands as a symbol among marijuana advocates of the sacrifices they feel have been made in the face of an intractable federal stance on the drug.

"Although we had strong claims, I understand and concur in Bryan's decision to accept the government's offer … in order to get back to his family as soon as possible," Balazs said Monday.  "At the same time, it seems un-American for the government to insist … that Bryan give up his First Amendment right to advocate for the reform of our country's marijuana laws."

The helpful reader who alerted me to this story was Epis attorney John Balazs, who has also told me that Bryan Epis has given him permission to share info and comments about his case and that he may provide some additional "blog copy" about this fascinating case in the near future.

July 27, 2012 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Pot Prohibition Issues, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (13) | TrackBack

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Massachusetts Gov asked to sign mixed sentencing reform bill

As reported in this local article, headlined "While called ‘balanced,’ sentencing bill lacks provisions sought by Gov. Patrick," the governor of Massachusetts now has on his desk a dynamic state sentencing reform bill.   Here are the details:

Advocates on all sides of the crime and sentencing debate continue to speak out about the habitual offender and sentencing reform bill on Gov. Deval Patrick’s desk, urging him to sign it, veto it or send it back to the Legislature with amendments.

In a WBZ-AM radio interview Monday night, Les Gosule, an activist who has pressed for a habitual offender law for about a decade following the rape and murder of his daughter Melissa, said parties disgruntled over issues left unaddressed by the legislation can pursue those initiatives anew in the next session beginning in January.  “I want the pen,” Gosule said, urging Patrick to put his signature on the bill.

Patrick has until Sunday to act on the legislation and proponents and opponents of the bill are mindful that formal legislative sessions end for the year at midnight next Tuesday. Patrick can sign the bill, veto it, or send it back with amendments.  An eleventh hour amendment from Patrick would force lawmakers to either deal immediately with the amendment or risk seeing their work on the bill go for naught....

While the bill last week cleared the House 139-14 and the Senate 31-7, its supporters and opponents since then have raised concerns about it, with some arguing it lacks crime-fighting tools sought by law enforcement and others arguing that it takes discretionary power in sentencing away from judges and would lead to prison overcrowding.

Among other provisions, the bill reduces mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders and eliminates parole eligibility for certain violent offenders upon their third conviction.

While supporters say the bill represents the “balanced” approach Patrick called for, the legislation appears to lack key policies Patrick highlighted in his State of the State speech in January, giving extra weight to the idea that the bill might be returned with amendments....

The lack of judicial discretion in the bill’s habitual offender initiative drew criticism outside the capital Tuesday. “Who has discretionary power? The prosecutor,” said Rev. George Walters-Sleyon, who was joined by other Boston clergy and Boston City Councilor Charles Yancey in front of the Shaw Memorial on Boston Common Tuesday morning.  He said black people and Latinos comprise less than 17 percent of the state’s population but more than 55 percent of those serving time behind bars....

Criticism has also been levied from state prosecutors.  Six of the state’s 11 district attorneys signed onto a letter Friday criticizing the bill for leaving out provisions that would strengthen gun laws, and for including “no supervision” of drug traffickers released into the community.

July 25, 2012 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Saturday, July 21, 2012

"The Mandatory Meaning of Miller"

The title of this post is the title of this new piece by Professor William W. Berry III. Here is the abstract:

In June 2012, the United States Supreme Court held in Miller v. Alabama that the Eighth Amendment’s ban on 'cruel and unusual' punishment prohibited the imposition of mandatory life-without-parole sentences on juveniles.  This case continued the Supreme Court’s slow but steady expansion of the scope of the Eighth Amendment over the past decade.

In light of the Court’s decision in Miller to preclude mandatory sentences of life without parole for juveniles, this article explores the possibility of further expansion of the Eighth Amendment to proscribe other kinds of mandatory sentences. Applying the approach of the Court in Woodson and Miller to other contexts provides, at the very least, a basis to remedy some of the injustices created by mandatory sentences.

This article, then, argues that the “mandatory” meaning of Miller is that the Eighth Amendment requires consideration of mitigating evidence by courts in all cases involving “death-in-custody” sentences. In light of this mandatory” meaning, the article then considers several important normative consequences.

Specifically, application of this 'mandatory' meaning would result in the Eighth Amendment barring imposition of a 'death-in-custody' sentence in capital cases where life with parole is not a sentencing option, cases involving a mandatory sentence of life without parole, and cases where the term of the sentence approaches the life expectancy of the offender. As explained below, the key principle here is that the Eighth Amendment requires courts to examine mitigating evidence in any case where the duration mandated legislative sentence exceeds the life expectancy of the offender.

Part I of this article explains the meaning of 'mandatory' as developed by Miller. In Part II, the article describes the normative consequences of adopting the 'mandatory' meaning of Miller -- when 'mandatory' matters -- in applying the Eighth Amendment to 'death-in-custody' cases. In Part III, the article then makes the case -- why 'mandatory' matters -- for adopting this approach in Eighth Amendment cases.

July 21, 2012 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Jackson and Miller Eighth Amendment cases, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Saturday, July 07, 2012

Documenting the extremes of stacked federal gun mandatory sentences

This recent Reuters article, headlined "Florida man sees 'cruel' face of U.S. justice," details an extreme (but not all that uncommon) federal sentencing story resulting from stacked mandatory gun minimums. Here is how it starts:

Quartavious Davis is still shocked by what happened to him in federal court two months ago.  "My first offense, and they gave me all this time," said Davis, a pudgy African American with dreadlocks who spoke with Reuters at the Federal Detention Center in Miami.  "Might just as well say I'm dead."

Davis was convicted of participating in a string of armed robberies in the Miami area in 2010.  His accomplices testified against him, saying he carried a gun during their crimes and discharged it at a dog that chased them after one of their burglaries.  But Davis was not convicted of hurting anyone physically, including the dog.

Davis would occupy no place at all in the annals of crime if not for his sentence.  Now 20 years old, he was sentenced to 1,941 months -- almost 162 years -- in prison without the possibility of parole.

On the day of Davis's interview with Reuters, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that life sentences without parole for defendants under the age of 18 constituted "cruel and unusual punishment" even in cases of murder.  Unfortunately for Davis, he was 18 at the time of his crimes.

Nonetheless, Davis's attorney will argue that Davis's sentence to die in prison also constitutes "cruel and unusual punishment" on the grounds that Davis is a "first offender," having never before been charged with a crime.

"Just as the Supreme Court recently held that the Constitution bars taking away all discretion from judges in sentencing juveniles to life imprisonment for committing murder," said the attorney, Jacqueline Shapiro, "so also is it cruel and extreme to allow unfettered prosecutorial discretion to force a sentencing judge to impose a life sentence on a teenage first offender convicted of lesser charges."

Davis's unusually long sentence results from a controversial practice known as "stacking," in which each count of an indictment is counted as a separate crime, thus transforming a first-time defendant into a "habitual criminal" subject to multiple sentences and mandatory sentencing guidelines.

"Any law that provides for a mandatory term of imprisonment for a 19-year-old first offender that exceeds a century has got to be unconstitutional," said Michael Zelman, the court-appointed attorney who represented Davis at his trial.  Zelman resigned from Davis's case after filing a notice of appeal.  If Davis's new lawyer, Shapiro, has her way, the Supreme Court may ultimately decide the issue.  The case will be appealed first to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta.

Until then, Davis's story will be a prominent case in point for both sides in an increasingly heated debate, pitting those who would protect society from the prospective dangers posed by serial criminals against those who see the United States -- whose overcrowded prisons house fully one-quarter of all the prisoners in the world, most of them black -- as a bastion of injustice.

July 7, 2012 in Gun policy and sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (38) | TrackBack

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Judge down under laments mandatory 20 years (with parole) for brutal contract killer

The debates on this blog over the Supreme Court's recent work in Miller finding unconstitutional a mandatory LWOP sentence for a juvenile killer (see comments to posts here and here) have been robust and at times (over)heated.  With the Miller case and controversy fresh in mind, I found this new local story from Australia quite interesting and comparatively telling.  The story is headlined "Judge slams mandatory sentencing laws as 'unjust'," and here are excerpts:

A Supreme Court judge has criticised the Northern Territory sentencing regime as "unjust and unfair".  Justice Dean Mildren made the comment after sentencing Darren Jason Halfpenny to 20 years in jail for the contract killing of a man in Katherine.

Justice Mildren said he was required to impose a minimum 20 year prison term because of the mandatory sentencing regime in the Territory.   "It is unjust and unfair, and contrary to the public interest, that prisoners who plead guilty ... and are remorseful ... are left in a situation where their earlier release is left in the hands of the executive (government)," he said.

Russell Golflam of the Criminal Lawyers Association of the Northern Territory agrees. "Mandatory sentencing is, in principle, obnoxious," he said.  Mr Golflam says judges should be given the power to do the job that they're paid to do; impose appropriate penalties according to the circumstances of the case.  "Parliament and governments should not take that job away from judges," he said. He is calling for the Sentencing Act to be amended.

Justice Mildren recommended that Halfpenny be released on parole after 14 years because he will testify against his co-accused in the murder....

During the trial, the court heard Darren Halfpenny and two friends, Christopher Malyschko and Zac Grieve, donned shower caps and gloves before entering the Katherine house where Ray Niceforo lived.  The court was told Mr Niceforo, 41, was struck in the head with a blunt object seven times, then had a rope tied around his neck.

His body was wrapped in a tarpaulin and put into a van before being dumped in bushland. The body was found the following day and an autopsy found Mr Niceforo died from a blunt force head injury or asphyxiation.

Halfpenny was questioned by police a few days later and confessed.  He later agreed to testify against his co-accused, Malyschko and Grieve, who have been charged with murder.

The court was told the three men carried out the killing for a payment of $5,000 each. Crown prosecutor Jack Karzevski, QC, said the contract killing was commissioned by Bronwyn Buttery, the ex-partner of Mr Niceforo, who has also been charged with murder.

So, let's do a little compare/contrast concerning judicial sentencing attitudes in the land down under and in the land of the free: 

--- in Australia, a sentencing judge is bemoaning as "unjust and unfair" a legislative requirement to impose a 20-year prison term with parole on an adult who intentionally committed a brutal contract murder.  This kind of homicide in the US would clearly qualify as first-degree murder in just about every US state and in most would make the defendant eligible for the death penalty.  The defendant's decision to plead guilty and cooperate would likely prompt most US prosecutors to take the death penalty off the table but likely still would make a (perhaps mandatory) LWOP sentence still possible (even probably) for the premeditated and henious crime.

--- in the United States, four Justices of our Supreme Court in Miller have bemoaned the majority's ruling that the US Constitutional prohibits a legislative requirement to impos a life prison term without parole on a 14-year-old who unexpectedly had a role in the another's lethal shooting of a store clerk during an intentional robbery.  This kind of homicide in Australia, I suspect based on this somewhat dated report on homicide sentencing patterns, would likely result in the offender getting a prison sentence of just over 10 years with the possibility of parole a few years soon.

For a host of reasons, I am strongly disinclined to assert that Australia's sentencing approach to murder offenses is to preferred to the US system, and that kind of claim is not the point of this post.  Rather, my goal here is just to highlight (especially on July 4th, the day we most celebrate America as the land of the free and the home of the brave) the reality that a judge in Australia is quick to lament having to impose a 20-year prison term with parole on a brutal adult contract killer, while in Miller we see four Justices being quick to lament our Constitution being interpretted to giving a 14-year-old convicted of felony murder just the chance to seek a sentence less than life prison term without parole.

July 4, 2012 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Jackson and Miller Eighth Amendment cases, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Sentencing around the world, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (25) | TrackBack

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Los Angeles DA's long history with California three-strikes reform efforts

This great new piece at The Crime Report, which is headlined "Three Strikes: the California Challenge," details the unique role of the DA of Los Angeles in efforts to reform the state's broad three-strikes law. Here are excepts:

On June 20, The Three Strikes Reform Act officially qualified for the upcoming California ballot. Come November, voters will have the chance to amend the 1994 law that has condemned approximately 3,600 inmates to a 25-to-life sentence for nonviolent, non-serious crimes.

The law was intended to take serious repeat offenders who pick up a third felony charge off the streets for good — the idea being to protect the public from career super-criminals who would likely offend again if allowed to go free.

But more than a third of all Three Strikes lifers in the state system fit the definition of “non-violent” or “non-serious” — some of whom have infamously been put away for life for crimes as trivial as stealing a slice of pepperoni pizza.  California taxpayers spend more than $100 million annually to house these inmates. When the nonviolent lifers get older and start to need more medical care, the tab goes much higher.

The last time voters had the chance to vote to reform the law — the harshest 3-strikes statute in the nation — was in 2004 with Prop 66.  That initiative was on its way to sailing through the ballot process, until a last-minute offensive from Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley, along with then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and others, turned the tide against the initiative in the waning hours of the campaign.

Ironically, despite his role in the death of Prop 66, no California politician is more closely associated with Three Strikes reform than Steve Cooley.  Certainly no one in public office has a more complicated relationship with the statute.

In a conversation with WitnessLA, Cooley maintains that he won his first Los Angeles District Attorney race in 2000, largely thanks to his support of relaxed Three Strikes sentencing guidelines. “It was the defining issue in the race,” he says.

Within two weeks of taking office, Cooley stayed good to his campaign promise, crafting a policy that allowed his attorneys to use discretion in pursuing 25-to-life sentences for non-violent third strikers — the first DA in the state to do so. “It was a very modest reform,” he says. “It was not sweeping.”

According to Cooley, the two most important ethical considerations when it comes to sentencing are evenhanded application and proportionality. “Two-bit forgery and drug possession could be the predicate for 25 to life—the same sentence we often reserve for murderers,” he explains. “People will only respect the laws when they feel punishment is handed out fairly and proportionally. We’ve had a great deal of success with this policy in LA.”

But when Cooley had the chance to back sweeping statewide reform of Three Strikes in 2004 — via Prop 66 — he balked. In May of 2004, polls showed that voters favored Prop 66 by a margin of 76 percent to 14 percent. And then came the 11th hour Cooley, Schwarzenegger and company scare campaign.  Practically overnight, the polls did a 180. Prop 66 went down in flames, by a 53-47 percent margin.

“I don’t think Cooley being against the bill was a deciding factor,” says journalist and author Joe Domanick, whose book Cruel Justice is considered the authoritative work on the history of Three Strikes laws in California.  “The entire law enforcement establishment was against the bill.”...

Cooley is unapologetic about the role he may have played in Prop 66’s demise. “From a public safety standpoint, 66 was scary,” he says. “Once I crunched the numbers and saw how many people would be released and how quickly, I was strongly, openly, publicly against it. In Los Angeles County alone, 12,000-14,000 would have been released within a year.”...

Two years after Prop 66’s demise, the Republican DA teamed with Democrat State Senator Gloria Romero to craft a more modest Three Strikes reform measure — S.B. 1642 — based on the relaxed Three Strikes guidelines he’d developed in the LA DA’s office. “Three Strikes is a powerful tool for prosecutors if used properly,” Cooley explains.  “Prop 66 was a wake-up call: ‘OK, these folks have some arguments that appeal to the public.  Let’s take those arguments away.’ In order to avoid a future Prop 66, we had to make people feel good about how Three Strikes was being applied.”

S.B. 1642, however, died in committee. “The only reason it failed is because five Democrats didn’t vote for it,” Cooley says. “They made a political decision based on their own political careers. It absolutely would have passed otherwise.

The bill’s defeat marked the end of Cooley’s public activism on the issue of Three Strikes. But his positions have followed him throughout his political career....  “During the Attorney General race, both of my Republican opponents made my Three Strikes views an issue. I won the primary by a landslide. My adversary tried the same tact in 2000 and I won by something like 28 points.”

Although an ameliorating law has yet to make it to the books, Three Strikes reform is exceedingly popular in California. A June 2011 Field Poll revealed that nearly 75 percent of California voters favor reform. Field director Mark DiCamillo says his organization won’t take a poll on the initiative itself until the Secretary of State certifies the ballot language sometime next month....

When WitnessLA spoke to him last week, [Cooley] played coy about his support for the current initiative. “I have not taken an official public position yet,” he says. “I do like the concept. I’ve read a number of analyses [of the proposed measure] but I need time to study. I plan on taking a public position soon.”

Cooley readily concedes that the current initiative is based on the policies he implemented in Los Angeles in 2000. He also admits that some of his main deputies were an active part of the conversation when the initiative was being drafted. “People in my office were involved,” he says. “I think this particular product is better than what was proposed in 2006. It’s workable. And I think it will prevent Three Strikes from being attacked by another 66-type effort.

July 3, 2012 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Criticism of Justice Alito's one-size-fits-all dissent in Miller

As regular readers know and as previously explained here, in a series of posts I am taking on a claim at the heart of each dissenting opinion to the Supreme Court's new Eighth Amendment SCOTUS Miller ruling (opinion here, basics here).  In the first post here, I questioned number-crunching in the Roberts/textualism dissent.  In this second post here, I questioned claims about LWOP as a method of punishment in the Thomas/originalism dissent. 

Coming soon will be my final post in ths series in which I examine a key claim in Justice Alito's dissent.  But, before I that post is finished, I see that Wendy Kaminar has this potent criticism in The Atlantic of Justice Alito's work in Miller which carries this sub-headlined: "Conservatives are supposed to embrace individualism. So why did the Court's conservative wing defend a one-size-fits-all approach to juvenile justice?"  Here are snippets from the piece:

Individualized justice is supposed to be a conservative ideal. Liberals are supposed to embrace collectivism, while conservatives promote individualism and oppose regulatory schemes, like affirmative action, which treat people categorically as fungible members of groups. A collective or categorical approach to law is, from this perspective, an assault on liberty and the integrity of the individual -- except when it's not....

Justice Alito objected strongly to this individualized approach to sentencing. The "category of murderers" under 18 consists mostly of older teenagers who engage in "brutal thrill-killing," Alito declared in dissent. The offenders in the cases before the Court in Miller were "very young"; they were "anamolies," for whom it was "hard not to feel sympathy," he acknowledged. But if some members of the juvenile murderer category are atypical and inappropriate candidates for LWOP, that, Alito suggested, is their misfortune. In his view, 8th Amendment strictures against cruel and unusual punishment do not bar states from imposing excessively harsh sentences on a few juveniles who may not deserve them in order to facilitate their imposition on many teenagers who do.

"No one should be confused by the particulars of the two cases before us," Alito admonished, in a remarkable rejection of individualized justice when it arguably matters most, in the imposition of criminal sentences. Should Alito ever be arrested, I imagine he'll expect and demand to be treated as an individual -- not as a Catholic, or an Italian-American of a certain age, or a member of a conservative Supreme Court bloc, who might be sentenced for the sins of Justice Scalia (whatever they may be). I suspect he'll want to be treated as Samuel Alito, a particular person alleged to have committed a particular crime. Should he ever be arrested, Justice Alito will probably want police, prosecutors, jurors and judges to pay close attention to his particulars, which I doubt he'll condemn as "confusing."

Particularized, individualized justice is precisely what mandatory sentences deny. The Court has declined to strike them down under the 8th Amendment in cases involving adults, although they often dictate excessively, disproportionately harsh sentences, and their role in filling our prisons with non-violent drug offenders is a decades old scandal. Long promoted as a means of eliminated discretion in sentencing, mandatory minimums merely transfer discretion from judges to prosecutors. They ensure that prosecutors decide how defendants will be sentenced when they choose the crimes with which defendants will be charged.  In juvenile cases, prosecutors may sometimes choose lengthy, mandatory sentences when they choose to transfer juveniles to adult court.

Now, under Miller, prosecutors may still transfer juvenile homicide suspects, who may still face LWOP for "brutal thrill-killings."  But their sentences will no longer be determined by generally unaccountable prosecutors or by the crimes of other juveniles in their "category." This is not an obscure principle, difficult to comprehend.  Juvenile offenders are individuals too, not interchangeable members of a class.

Amen!

Some related Miller posts:

June 30, 2012 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Thursday, June 28, 2012

What is the real national sentencing "mood" in our new era of budget-cut reforms?

The question in the title of this post is prompted in part by what seems to be a somewhat muted political reaction to the Supreme Court's Eighth Amendment decision in Miller, and in part by this effective new article at The Crime Report.  The piece is headlined "Rethinking ‘Tough on Crime’," and it has a particular focus on this November's ballot initiative in California to reform that state's broad three-strikes law.  Here are excerpts:

[S]everal thousand prisoners ... could be eligible to petition for early release if California voters this November pass a proposed initiative to reform the state’s three-strikes law, the toughest in the country.  The proposed law would reserve 25-to-life sentences mostly to those who commit serious or violent crimes on their third offense.  It would also allow some current inmates, who committed a third strike that was not violent or serious, to petition for early release.

California is not alone.  States across the country are revisiting three-strikes laws and other tough mandatory minimum sentencing laws, particularly for low-level drug crimes.  Of the 24 states that passed three-strikes laws in the early 1990s, at least 16 have since modified them to give judges more discretion in sentencing or narrow the types of crimes that count as a “strike,” according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL).  At least 14 states in recent years also either eliminated mandatory minimum sentencing for low-level drug offenders, or gave judges more discretion to consider alternatives to incarceration, according to the NCSL.

The U.S. Sentencing Commission in October 2011 also recommended changes to federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws, saying that some penalties “apply too broadly, are set too high,” and are applied inconsistently across the country.

“Compared to the ‘80s and ‘90s when the push was to adopt more mandatory sentencing policies, the tide is beginning to move in the other direction,” said Marc Mauer, the director of The Sentencing Project.  “We’re seeing a better climate for sentencing and corrections reform.”

The changes are part of a broader rethinking of many of the “tough on crime” sentencing policies that dominated the country for decades.  Driven largely by the flagging economy, states have embraced a variety of reforms to rein in the cost of high prison populations, including diverting low-level drug offenders into treatment; reforming the parole system; and granting early release to certain inmates....

Though criminal justice reform was once thought of as a purely liberal issue, many of the most dramatic changes have come in traditionally conservative states, such as Texas, South Carolina, and Georgia, which have passed comprehensive reform packages.

Louisiana, which has the highest incarceration rate in the country, recently gave prosecutors and judges sentencing discretion for some crimes that normally carry mandatory minimum penalties and will allow early release for some non-violent offenders sentenced to life without parole.  Prominent conservatives, such as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Attorney General Edwin Meese, have also spoken out in favor of reform, including eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent offenses.

Rather than a wholesale rejection of long prison terms, though, many of the mandatory minimum and repeat offender sentencing changes are refining laws to reserve the harshest punishment for violent or repeat criminals....

Not every state is moving towards sentencing reform.  In Florida, which has a three-strikes law and a mandatory sentencing scheme for gun crimes, Gov. Rick Scott earlier this year vetoed a bill that would have diverted some nonviolent drug offenders into treatment.  The legislature in Massachusetts is also considering enacting a new three-strikes law.

And, other than reevaluating mandatory sentences for drug crimes, most states still favor long prison terms, said Barry Krisberg, Director of Research and Policy at the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy at the University of California, Berkeley School of Law. “No one wants to fundamentally change sentencing laws, so we’re not,” he said. “We’re just working around them.”

June 28, 2012 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

"Cracking the Disparities: The Ongoing Battle for Fairness in Crack Sentencing"

The title of this post is the headline of this effective new commentary by Nkechi Taifa at the Huffington Post. The piece highlights that the passage of the FSA and the subsequent ruling for defendants in Dorsey hardly makes all well in the federal sentencing world, and it urges President Obama to get in the game.  Here are excerpts:

Last week's Supreme Court ruling in Dorsey v. United States represents another victory in the ongoing battle for fairness in cocaine sentencing. The Court correctly ruled that the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act (FSA), which increased fairness in cocaine penalties, was not limited to newly committed crimes but applied also to offenses committed prior to passage of the Act where the defendant had not yet been sentenced....

The ruling comes in the wake of advances that have successfully chipped away disparities between crack and powder cocaine sentencing.  First, Congress passed the FSA, reducing the egregious 100-to-1 sentencing ratio to a more reasonable, albeit still insufficient, 18-to-1.  Second, the U.S. Sentencing Commission amended its guideline ranges to be consistent with the new Act.  Third, the Commission unanimously agreed to make these changes retroactive....

None of these necessary improvements, however, benefit those whose offenses and harsh, discriminatory mandatory minimum sentences occurred prior to the Fair Sentencing Act's passage. Ironically, these are the very cases that originally inspired reform.

The process for relief for this remaining category of cases can be swiftly initiated with the stroke of the executive pen, moving the nation closer to concluding a shameful chapter in the chronicles of federal drug sentencing policy.  There is wide support for fairness and consistency in cocaine sentencing, and utilizing presidential clemency power is the most practical option to ensure immediate reform.  Commutation of the sentences of the identifiable class of people currently incarcerated for crack cocaine offenses under the old sentencing regime -- that all three branches of government agree is unjust, inconsistent, unfair, and biased -- is timely and can be readily accomplished.

Professor Mark Osler and former prosecutor Matthew Fass in a recent article [here from the Federal Sentencing Reporter], highlighted Gerald Ford's 1974 strategic use of the presidential pardon power to impanel an ad hoc executive clemency board to oversee the petitions of 21,000 people convicted of draft-related offenses during the Vietnam War. Within a year, President Ford granted 90 percent of the petitions.  On balance, the approach by Ford to establish a pardon board allowed for individualized review of each clemency application, with options including approval, community service, or denial....

Similarly, adoption of an individualized review process for pre-FSA cases would not be burdensome or a "get out of jail free card."  Cases could simply be recalculated according to the new 18-to-1 ratio, under already existing parameters established by the Sentencing Commission that result in gradual releases in appropriate cases over the course of several decades.  The president would be free to use his constitutional pardon power unrestricted by the 18-to-1 ratio should he so choose.

Moreover, the creation of a transparent process by which to review and remedy these discredited sentences would correct an injustice that has resulted in egregiously severe and racially discriminatory sentences for a quarter of a century.  And establishment of a clemency board independent of the Office of the Pardon Attorney and the Department of Justice could shield the review process from scandals of past administrations and current allegations of discriminatory treatment of clemency applications unveiled by the investigative journalism website Pro Publica....

Despite improvements by Congress, the Sentencing Commission, the Department of Justice and the Supreme Court, the fight for fairness and justice in crack cocaine sentencing is not over.  The president could bring closure to this injustice through his constitutional executive power of clemency, creating a review board to reevaluate old crack cocaine sentences so they are consistent with the new law.

Regular readers should not be surprised to hear that I think this is a great idea, nor should they be surprised to see this great idea get completely ignored by the powers-that-be in the White House (at least until after this November's election).

June 27, 2012 in Clemency and Pardons, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Monday, June 04, 2012

Another week of SCOTUS waiting for sentencing fans

I had thought there was a reasonable possibility that the Supreme Court sometime this week might hand down one of the big sentencing cases still pending: Southern Union (Apprendi's application to fines); Jackson and Miller (mandatory LWOP for young juve murderers); Dorsey and Hill (the FSA's application to pipeline cases).  But, as detailed via this post at How Appealing, the Justices did not issue opinions in any of these cases this morning.  They Justices did grant cert and hand down one opinion on police practice issues, and Lyle Denniston reports here at SCOTUSblog that probably the most notable criminal justice decision was a cert denied in two high-profile federal convictions flowing from campaign donations in Alabama. 

According to the folks at SCOTUSblog, it appear that the Court will not hand down opinions again until next Monday.  So, it's another week of waiting for these sentencing rulings.  Fortunately, absent some dramatic or unexpected development (such as a order for reagument), I think we can reasonably expect to see opinions in all of these cases within the next three weeks.

Anyone yet eager to make predictions on the timing, outcomes, vote counts or opinion writers in these big sentencing cases.  At this moments I am inclined to guess we will get Southern Union next week, the juve LWOP cases the week of June 18, and the FSA pipeline cases the week of June 25.  In addition, I think the defendants are likely to previal in these cases by votes of 7-2, 5-4, and 6-3, with Justices Thomas, Kennedy and Sotomayor as principal opinion writers. 

But who really knows with this Court these days!?!?

June 4, 2012 in Blakely in the Supreme Court, Jackson and Miller Eighth Amendment cases, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Sunday, June 03, 2012

NY Times editorial supports jury findings for mandatory minimums

A few weeks ago, I noted and promoted in this post the remarkable opinion by US District Judge William Young in US v. Gurley, No. 10-10310 (D. Mass. May 17, 2012). I am consequently pleased to see that this past weekend the New York Times had this editorial about the case, headlined "A Jury Draws a Line." Here are excerpts:

Rodney Gurley faced a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years in federal prison for possession of 28 or more grams of crack cocaine with an intent to distribute it because he had previously been convicted of a felony.

The police found 32 grams in the apartment where he was arrested, but a federal jury in Boston found that the amount of crack “properly attributable” to Mr. Gurley did not exceed 28 grams. Relying on the jury for guidance, Federal District Judge William Young sensibly imposed a sentence of 30 months.  That riled the Justice Department, which insisted it was entitled to have the judge, not the jury, decide factors in sentencing and that Mr. Gurley should have gotten the 10-year minimum.  The government has appealed the sentence to the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit....

Since federal mandatory minimum sentences were enacted in 1986 and prosecutors began to “run our federal criminal justice system,” as the judge said, much of the debate has focused on the reduction of judges’ power in sentencing.  The Booker case and others have restored some of it, but there remain excessive mandatory minimums, which Congress should rescind.

But Judge Young, like other judges and scholars, has campaigned to restore the jury’s constitutional role in sentencing to ensure that criminal laws are applied fairly.  The federal sentencing guidelines and mandatory minimums have substantially diminished that role.  In this case, Judge Young properly used it in imposing a sentence based on the jury’s finding about a critical fact.

June 3, 2012 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Monday, May 28, 2012

"A Tough Judge’s Proposal for Fairer Sentencing"

The title of this post is the headline of this new Sidebar column by Adam Liptak now available via the New York Times. The piece does a terrific job reporting upon and providing context concerning US District Judge John Gleeson's fascinating Dossie opinion from earlier this year (which I blogged about here and here). The piece also makes (too) brief mention of US District Judge William Young's similarly themed (and similarly fascinating) opinion in Gurley from earlier this month (discussed here). Here are excerpts from the Liptak piece:

Judge John Gleeson hears cases where he used to prosecute them, in the federal courthouse in Brooklyn. There, in 1992, he led the team of prosecutors that put the Mafia boss John J. Gotti in prison for life. Judge Gleeson is not shy about meting out tough sentences.  “Most people, including me,” he wrote in a 2010 decision, “agree that the kingpins, masterminds and midlevel managers of drug trafficking enterprises deserve severe punishment.”

But he has lately been saying that his old employer, the Department of Justice, has stopped living up to its name when it comes to some small-time criminals.  Almost 20 years to the day after delivering his closing argument in the Gotti trial, Judge Gleeson considered the fate of Jamel Dossie, whom he called “a young, small-time, street-level drug dealer’s assistant.”

Mr. Dossie was an intermediary in four hand-to-hand crack sales, for which he made a total of about $140.  Two of the sales exceeded, barely, the 28-gram threshold that allows prosecutors to call for a mandatory five-year sentence.  “Just as baseball is a game of inches,” Judge Gleeson wrote, “our drug-offense mandatory minimum provisions create a deadly serious game of grams.”

It is a curious game, one in which a participant rather than the supposed umpire can have the last word, Judge William G. Young of Federal District Court in Boston wrote in a ruling in another case a couple of weeks ago.  “Prosecutors run our federal justice system today,” Judge Young wrote.  “Judges play a subordinate role — necessary yes, but subordinate nonetheless.  Defense counsel take what they can get.”

The prosecutors’ decision to invoke the law calling for a mandatory sentence in Mr. Dossie’s case meant that Judge Gleeson had no choice but to send Mr. Dossie away for five years. Had his hands not been tied, Judge Gleeson wrote, “there is no way I would have sentenced” Mr. Dossie to so long a sentence.  “We had a ‘sentencing proceeding’ that involved no written submissions, no oral advocacy and no judging,” he wrote. “The proceeding had all the solemnity of a driver’s license renewal and took a small fraction of the time.”

The Dossiecase illustrates what some judges say is a common problem: Prosecutors’ insistence on mandatory minimum sentences for minor players in the drug trade has warped the criminal justice system and robbed judges of sentencing authority.... As for Mr. Dossie, the judge wrote, “no one could reasonably characterize him as a leader or manager of anything, let alone of a drug business.”

Judge Gleeson called on Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. to implement a new policy at the Department of Justice. “D.O.J. should seek mandatory minimum sentences,” the judge wrote, “only in the cases for which Congress intended them: in cases against leaders and managers of drug enterprises, not the low-level offenders like Dossie who constitute the bulk of the federal drug docket.”

About 74 percent of defendants charged with crimes involving crack cocaine faced a mandatory minimum sentence in the year that ended in September, according to statistics compiled by the United States Sentencing Commission.  But only 5 percent of them led or managed a drug business.

A Justice Department spokeswoman said the administration supported the judicious use of mandatory minimum sentencing laws for some serious crimes.  In a 2010 report, Lanny A. Breuer, an assistant attorney general, said mandatory minimum sentences “remove dangerous offenders from society, ensure just punishment and are an essential tool in gaining cooperation from members of violent street gangs and drug distribution networks.”

Paul G. Cassell, a former federal judge who is now a law professor at the University of Utah, said Judge Gleeson’s proposal to have the Justice Department limit its use of mandatory minimum sentences in drug cases to defendants who played a leadership role was “a brilliant package.”  It was, he said, administrable, fair and “doable in this political environment” because it requires no action from Congress.

Jamel Dossie, meanwhile, is serving what Judge Gleeson called an onerous and disproportionate sentence.  “The only reason for the five-year sentence imposed on Dossie,” Judge Gleeson wrote, “is that the law invoked by the prosecutor required it. It was not a just sentence.”

Some recent related posts:

May 28, 2012 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Friday, May 25, 2012

Mandatory minimums require federal drug defendant's sentence of life + five more years in prison

This local story out of Iowa, headlined "Waterloo man given life plus 5 years in prison for drug charges," provides an amusing example of the crazy kinds of sentences that can be required by federal mandatory minimum sentencing provisions.  Here are the details:

A eastern Iowa man convicted in a drug distribution ring received a life sentence, plus five years. A U.S. District Court judge sentenced 38-year-old Lawrence Johnson of Waterloo after a jury found him guilty of conspiracy to distribute heroin, distribution of heroin, possession with intent to distribute heroin, possession of a firearm during a drug crime, and being a felon in possession of a firearm.

Assistant U.S. Attorney, Peter Deegan, says the sentence is unusual, but is based on the sentencing guidelines for the crimes. “Because Lawrence Johnson had multiple prior felony drug convictions, he was subject to a mandatory life sentence on the drug conspiracy count. In addition, he was convicted of possession of a firearm in furtherance of drug trafficking offense, which also requires a consecutive sentence of five years. So he was ultimately sentence to a mandatory life sentence, plus an additional five years in prison,” Deegan explains.

Deegan says the heroin distribution ring involving Johnson was widespread. “Including Detroit, Memphis, Chicago and then Cedar Rapids and Waterloo. He would bring about 10 to 20 grams of heroin per trip from Chicago to Iowa, and then it was cut — so that for instance the tens grams would become 30 grams — and he was distributing it into quantities that would be broken down into two-gram bags,” Deegan says.

Deegan says Johnson was facing a very long time in prison even if he hadn’t been sentenced to life plus five years. “Because he was what we call a career offender under the United States sentencing guidelines, he was subject to a recommended range of 360 months or 30 years to life anyway,” Deegan says.

May 25, 2012 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (13) | TrackBack

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Extreme sentence in warning shot case drawing more criticisms of mandatory minimums

I am pleased to see that the extreme mandatory minimum sentence given to Marissa Alexander in Florida is continuing to generate controversy and criticism in the MSM.  This AP article, headlined "Critics hit mandatory-minimum law after woman gets 20 years in prison for firing warning shot," highlights some of the buzz:

Marissa Alexander had never been arrested before she fired a bullet at a wall one day in 2010 to scare off her husband when she felt he was threatening her.  Nobody got hurt, but this month a northeast Florida judge was bound by state law to sentence her to 20 years in prison.... Because she fired a gun while committing a felony, Florida’s mandatory-minimum gun law dictated the 20-year sentence.

Her case in Jacksonville has drawn a fresh round of criticism aimed at mandatory-minimum sentencing laws.  The local NAACP chapter and the district’s African-American congresswoman say blacks more often are incarcerated for long periods because of overzealous prosecutors and judges bound by the wrong-headed statute.  Alexander is black.

It also has added fuel to the controversy over Florida’s “stand your ground” law, which the judge would not allow Alexander to invoke.  State Attorney Angela Corey, who also is overseeing the prosecution of shooter George Zimmerman in the Trayvon Martin case, stands by the handling of Alexander’s case.  Corey says she believes Alexander aimed the gun at the man and his two sons, and the bullet she fired could have ricocheted and hit any of them.

At the May 11 sentencing, Alexander’s relatives begged Circuit Judge James Daniel for leniency but he said the decision was “out of my hands.” “The Legislature has not given me the discretion to do what the family and many others have asked me to do,” he said.

The state’s “10-20-life” law was implemented in 1999 and credited with helping to lower the violent crime rate.  Anyone who shows a gun in the commission of certain felonies gets an automatic 10 years in prison.  Fire the gun, and it’s an automatic 20 years.  Shoot and wound someone, and it’s 25 years to life.

Critics say Alexander’s case underscores the unfair sentences that can result when laws strip judges of discretion.  About two-thirds of the states have mandatory-minimum sentencing laws, mostly for drug crimes, according to a website for the Families Against Mandatory Minimums advocacy group. “We’re not saying she’s not guilty of a crime, we’re not saying that she doesn’t deserve some sort of sanction by the court,” said Greg Newburn, Florida director for the group.  Rather, he said, the judge should have the authority to decide an appropriate sanction after hearing all the unique circumstances of the case....

Victor Crist was a Republican state legislator who crafted the “10-20-life” bill enacted in 1999 in Gov. Jeb Bush’s first term.  He said Alexander’s sentence — if she truly did fire a warning shot and wasn’t trying to kill her husband — is not what lawmakers wanted.  “We were trying to get at the thug who was robbing a liquor store who had a gun in his possession or pulled out the gun and threatened someone or shot someone during the commission of the crime,” said Crist, who served in the state House and Senate for 18 years before being elected Hillsborough County commissioner....

“The irony of the 10-20-life law is the people who actually think they’re innocent of the crime, they roll the dice and take their chances, and they get the really harsh prison sentences,” Newburn said. “Whereas the people who think they are actually guilty of the crime take the plea deal and get out (of prison) well before.  So it certainly isn’t working the way it is intended.”...

Newburn says Alexander’s case is not an isolated incident, and that people ensnared by mandatory-minimum laws cross racial barriers.  In central Florida, a white man named Orville Lee Wollard is nearly two years into a 20-year sentence for firing his gun inside his house to scare his daughter’s boyfriend.  Prosecutors contended that Wollard was shooting at the young man and missed.

He rejected a plea deal that offered probation but no prison time.  Like Alexander, he took his chances at trial and was convicted of aggravated assault with a firearm.  Circuit Judge Donald Jacobsen said he was “duty bound” by the 10-20-life law to impose the harsh sentence. “I would say that, if it wasn’t for the minimum mandatory aspect of this, I would use my discretion and impose some separate sentence, having taken into consideration the circumstances of this event,” Jacobsen said.

Recent related posts:

May 20, 2012 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Two notable forthcoming FAMM events

I am happy to spotlight two notable events put together by Families Against Mandatory Minimums described to me via an e-mail:

The first event is at the National Press Club in Washington DC on Thursday, May 24, from 10-11am: a panel will discuss Dafna Linzer’s shocking Washington Post article on the failures of the Office of the Pardon Attorney (OPA) regarding Clarence Aaron’s commutation request.  The panel will include Dafna, former OPA staffer Sam Morison,  Debi Campbell (a former prisoner who did not receive a commutation), and Linda Aaron, Clarence’s mother.  FAMM is calling on Congress to investigate OPA.

The second event happens on-line on Friday, May 18 (tomorrow): with a focus on Florida laws and the 20-year mandatory minimum Marissa Alexander received for defending herself against her abusive husband, FAMM us trying a “Facebook forum.” FAMM's Florida project director, Greg Newburn, will be taking live Q&A on the topic. This event is a bit of an experiment, and FAMM is hoping for a good turnout (via this link).

May 17, 2012 in Clemency and Pardons, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Another obvious mandatory sentencing injustice in Florida "warning shot" case

As reported in this CNN story, headlined "Florida woman sentenced to 20 years in controversial warning shot case," another high-profile shooting case in Florida has produced a different kind of criminal justice controversy.  Here are the details:

Saying he had no discretion under state law, a judge sentenced a Jacksonville, Florida, woman to 20 years in prison Friday for firing a warning shot in an effort to scare off her abusive husband.

Marissa Alexander unsuccessfully tried to use Florida's controversial "stand your ground" law to derail the prosecution, but a jury in March convicted her of aggravated assault after just 12 minutes of deliberation.

The case, which was prosecuted by the same state attorney who is handling the Trayvon Martin case, has gained the attention of civil rights leaders who say the African-American woman was persecuted because of her race.

After the sentencing, Rep. Corrine Brown confronted State Attorney Angela Corey in the hallway, accusing her of being overzealous, according to video from CNN affiliate WJXT. "There is no justification for 20 years," Brown told Corey during an exchange frequently interrupted by onlookers.  "All the community was asking for was mercy and justice," she said.

Corey said she had offered Alexander a plea bargain that would have resulted in a three-year prison sentence, but Alexander chose to take the case to a jury trial, where a conviction would carry a mandatory sentence under a Florida law known as "10-20-life." The law mandates increased penalties for some felonies, including aggravated assault, in which a gun is carried or used.

Corey said the case deserved to be prosecuted because Alexander fired in the direction of a room where two children were standing. Alexander said she was attempting to flee her husband, Rico Gray, on August 1, 2010, when she picked up a handgun and fired a shot into a wall.  She said her husband had read cell phone text messages that she had written to her ex-husband, got angry and tried to strangle her.

She said she escaped and ran to the garage, intending to drive away.  But, she said, she forgot her keys, so she picked up her gun and went back into the house. She said her husband threatened to kill her, so she fired one shot. "I believe when he threatened to kill me, that's what he was absolutely going to do," she said.  "That's what he intended to do. Had I not discharged my weapon at that point, I would not be here."...

A jury convicted Alexander in March and Judge James Daniel denied her request for a new trial in April.  Daniel handed down the sentence Friday after an emotional sentencing hearing during which Alexander's parents, 11-year-old daughter and pastor spoke on her behalf.

Several people had to be escorted from the courtroom after breaking out singing and chanting about a perceived lack of justice in the case, but Daniel made a point to say that he had no choice under state law. "Under the state's 10-20-life law, a conviction for aggravated assault where a firearm has been discharged carries a minimum and maximum sentence of 20 years without regarding to any extenuating or mitigating circumstances that may be present, such as those in this case," Daniel said.

Brown, the Jacksonville congresswoman, told reporters after the sentencing that the case was a product of "institutional racism."

"She was overcharged by the prosecutor.  Period," Brown said.  "She never should have been charged."  Brown has been more complimentary about Corey's work in the Trayvon Martin case, where her office filed second degree murder charges against neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman in the February 26 death of the unarmed African-American teen-ager.

It is sad, very disappointing and ultimately quite harmful that Rep. Corrine Brown is apparently so eager to assert that the injustice in this case reflects "institutional racism" and misuse of prosecutorial discretion.  It seems far more appropriate to complain that the injustice in this case reflects structural flaws in Florida's sentencing laws and mistakes by the state legislature to fail to provide a safety-valve from the application of broad mandatory sentencing provisions.

As the CNN story reveals, the prosecutor apparently had the ability and authority to prevent application of Florida's "10-20-life" sentencing law if Marissa Alexander had been wiling to forgo her constitutional right to trial to have the judicial system consider her self-defense claims.  But after Alexander decided to exercise her trial rights, then her conviction apparently deprived a judge or any other authority the ability and authority to sentence her to anything less than 20 years in prison.  Without knowing more about the case, I am not sure if the three-year term offered in the plea or even a lesser sentence would have been appropriate, but it seem obvious to me that a 20-year term is grossly excessive for Alexander's offense conduct.

Bemoaning this case as a reflection of "institutional racism" brings far more heat than light to this dark (but not uncommon) example of mandatory sentencing injustice.  A focus instead on the problems with letting only prosecutors and not judges decide if a case merits an exception to strict sentencing rules could help this case engender needed structural reforms rather than more racial polarization.  Helpfully, the folks at FAMM are effectively using this case to bring attention to these critical sentencing matters, but I fear that the eagerness of Rep. Corrine Brown to play the race card will eclipse FAMM's efforts to use this kind of case to foster sober and needed sentencing reforms.

Though I am not certain of the sentencing commutation authority of Florida's Governor, this case seems to cry out for executive clemency.  Though involving a very offense environments, I am reminded of the high-profile "border agent" case from a few years ago in which two federal border agents got saddled with a sentences of more than a decade after failed self-defenses claims due mandatory federal gun sentencing provisions.  On his last day in office, as detailed here, President George W. Bush justifably commuted the sentences of these border agents.  I hope Florida's Governor has both the power and the wisdom to use the same means to undue an obvious sentencing injustice in this case.

May 12, 2012 in Clemency and Pardons, Examples of "over-punishment", Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (34) | TrackBack

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Former federal prosecutor urges "Mandatory minimums for kingpins only"

This recent National Law Journal commentary by Jim Walden, a former federal prosecutor in EDNY, voices support for US District Judge John Gleeson's recent recommendation in US v. Dossie, No. 11-CR-237 (EDNY Mar. 30, 2012) (discussed here), that federal prosecutors show much more restraint in their use of federal drug statutes that carry mandatory minimum sentencing terms.  Here are excerpts:

I support the war on drugs. Indeed, I can fairly be called a hawk. I spent most of my nearly nine-year career as a federal prosecutor attacking (largely white and Asian) drug-trafficking organizations and putting their members behind bars for long stretches. For every wide-eyed, liberal, young lawyer I meet who naïvely criticizes the wisdom and resources this "war" has entailed, I issue the same challenge: Read the daily papers and keep track of drug-related murders, assaults, robberies, break-ins and general violence for six months — and then explain to me why drug enforcement should not be one of our top enforcement priorities.

Cracking down on the street-level organizations, and stopping the collateral damage they inflict, is a laudable goal, an essential one.  Doing so at the expense of fairness and equity is not, and street-level traffickers should not face the same consequences Congress intended for kingpins.

No one would describe Judge John Gleeson of the Eastern District of New York as "soft" on drug crime, and some might describe him as fairly "hawkish" himself. His prestigious career as a federal prosecutor, spanning almost two decades, bears this out.... In a recent case, U.S. v. Dossie, Gleeson called on U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. to reform DOJ's inconsistent and irrational use of mandatory-minimum sentences in drug cases, reserving them for drug kingpins, as Congress intended.  In clear and terse prose, Gleeson described a system that works to "strip criminal defendants of the due-process rights we consider fundamental to our justice system."

The specific case concerned — of course — a young, black, street-level dealer, who turned to drug distribution to support his habit. This did not stop DOJ from seeking to enforce a harsh mandatory-minimum sentence.  Gleeson's conclusion is clear: "This case illustrates how mandatory minimum sentences in drug cases distort the sentencing process and mandate unjust sentences."  He respectfully urged the attorney general to reform DOJ's policy, reserving the use of mandatory-minimum penalties for the managers and leaders of drug enterprises whom Congress intended to target.

Eric Holder should listen to John Gleeson.

May 9, 2012 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Monday, April 30, 2012

Do capital repeal and three-strikes reform initiatives help or hurt each other in California?

As noted in this prior post, it became official last week that Californians will get a chance to vote this fall on a ballot initiative to repeal the state's death penalty.  In addition, as reported in this effective press story from late last week headlined "Three Strikes Law initiative likely to qualify for Nov. ballot," it also now appears that voters at the same time will have a chance to reform the state's (in)famously harsh three-strikes sentencing law. Here are the basics on that front:

An initiative written by Stanford University professors to scale back California's tough Three Strikes Law has garnered more than 830,000 signatures of support, virtually ensuring the measure will make the November ballot and triggering the state's latest struggle over how harshly criminals should be treated.

California is the only one of the 26 states with three strikes laws to allow prosecutors to charge any felony as a third strike -- and then to lock up the offenders for 25 years to life. The proposed initiative would reserve that penalty for the baddest of the bad, including murderers, rapists and child molesters.

Supporters turned in more than 830,000 signatures to state election officials Thursday -- 504,760 more than needed. They also announced the endorsement of Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley -- a Republican -- marking a crucial step toward a bipartisan coalition.

"The Three Strikes Reform Act is right for California," Cooley said. "It will ensure the punishment fits the crime. Dangerous recidivist criminals will remain behind bars for life, and our overflowing prisons will not be clogged with inmates who pose no risk to public safety."

Under the existing Three Strikes sentencing scheme, offenders who have committed such relatively minor third strikes as stealing a pair of socks, attempting to break into a soup kitchen to get something to eat and forging a check for $146 at Nordstrom have been sentenced to life in prison.

Cooley's support is particularly notable because he has taken a conservative position on two other criminal-justice controversies in California. He opposes a November ballot measure that would scrap the death penalty and has sharply criticized the Legislature's massive "realignment" program, which started in October to relieve prison overcrowding, for effectively reducing the amount of time low-level offenders spend behind bars.

But Mike Reynolds, a Fresno man who helped draft the Three Strikes Law after his daughter was slain in 1992 by two repeat offenders, said prosecutors like Cooley should have more discretion over how to charge anyone with two strikes on their record who commits another felony, no matter how minor. "It's easy if you live in Palo Alto, where Stanford is and where it's safe, to be for this," Reynolds said. "The only question voters need to answer is which of these offenders with at least two serious or violent convictions on their record would you like to have living next door to you? And if you wouldn't want them next door to you, why would you put them next to any California family?"...

The new measure would allow only certain hard-core criminals to be put away for life for any felony offense, including shoplifting, while restricting the third strike to a serious or violent felony for everyone else.  It also does not include changing the rules for second-strikers, which currently call for sentences to be doubled in many cases, even if the second offense is not serious or violent.  Although an effort to alter the law in 2004 required third-strikers whose last offense was nonviolent and nonserious to be resentenced, the new initiative would allow only third-strikers to ask the courts to resentence them.

District attorneys in the Bay Area are expected to support the initiative, though several were noncommittal about it Thursday.  A spokeswoman for Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O'Malley said she doesn't take a position on pending initiatives. Steve Wagstaffe, San Mateo's top prosecutor, said he would "not be bothered if it won" because it already is extremely rare for his office to seek life sentences for people who commit nonviolent or nonserious offenses, with the exception of sex crimes.

Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen said he'll make a final decision after a meeting in June of the California District Attorneys Association.  "I believe the Three Strikes Law should be reformed," Rosen said through a spokesman.  "The Stanford initiative contains some good ideas."...

Advocates predict the savings will prove persuasive, particularly with critical swing voters, though they also plan to frame the campaign in terms of public safety and fairness.  A previous measure in 2004 failed by about 3 percentage points after a last-minute media blitz by then-Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and former Gov. Pete Wilson. Brown has declined to comment on the current effort.

Opposition to the new measure is expected to come largely from the Central Valley and parts of Southern California.  The previous measure, Proposition 66, sought to limit felonies that trigger a third strike to violent or serious crimes in every case.

This latest effort to reform California's three-strikes law via inititative is fascinating and worth watching closely in its own right.   But the fact that this reform effort will appear on the ballot (and likely get less attention both nationwide and within California) at the same time as an inititative to repeal yhe state's death penalty adds an extra important (and distorting?) element to the public discourse. 

I can readily imagine some (many? most?) criminal justice reform advocates urging a "yes" vote on both the death penalty repeal and the three-strike reform initiatives. For example, this recent editorial from the San Francisco Examiner, headlined "Time to end the death penalty, reform three-strikes law," wastes little time getting on record support for both initiatives. 

But, as the report above highlights, there is reason to expect some (many? most?) California prosecutors will be fine with the three-strikes reform initiative but will oppose repeal of the death penalty.  In addition, I would not be surprised if some hard-core death penalty abolitionists will express no more than luke-warm support for three-strikes reform if (when?) any polling data suggest that voters may be likely to vote for only one and not both of these sentencing reform proposals.

For a whole bunch of reasons, I do not think these distinct California reform initiative should necessarily stand or fall together.  And yet, I will not be surprised if they do, and I also cannot figure out if this reality makes me extra excited or extra concerned about crime and punishment debates in California over the next sixth months. 

April 30, 2012 in Death Penalty Reforms, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Very different case provides a very different (sentencing) perspective on Florida gun laws

This new CNN article, headlined "Stand your ground law under scrutiny in domestic violence case," provides a very different view of Florida's criminal justice system and gun laws than comes via the Matin-Zimmerman case. Here are excerpts from the piece:

Marissa Alexander, a 31-year-old mother of three, pleaded for her freedom as an inmate in the Duval County Jail in Jacksonville, Florida. "This is my life I'm fighting for," she said while wiping away tears. She added, "If you do everything to get on the right side of the law, and it is a law that does not apply to you, where do you go from there?"

Alexander is referring to Florida's so-called stand your ground law, a law that has come under scrutiny since the killing of Trayvon Martin. Unlike the Martin case, which involved one stranger killing another, Alexander's case involved her gun and her abusive husband.

On August 1, 2010, she said her husband, Rico Gray, read text messages on her phone that she had written to her ex-husband. She said Gray became enraged and accused her of being unfaithful. "That's when he strangled me. He put his hands around my neck," Alexander said.

She managed to escape his grip but instead of running out the front door of their home, she ran into the garage, she said, to get into her truck and drive away. Alexander said that in the confusion of the fight, she forgot to get her keys and the garage door wouldn't open, so she made a fateful decision. "I knew I had to protect myself," she said, adding, "I could not fight him. He was 100 pounds more than me. I grabbed my weapon at that point."

She went back inside the house and when Gray saw her pistol at her side, she said he threatened to kill her, so she raised the gun and fired one shot. "I believe when he threatened to kill me, that's what he was absolutely going to do. That's what he intended to do. Had I not discharged my weapon at that point, I would not be here."

Alexander, however, said she did not aim the gun at her husband.  She said she fired into the air intending to scare him away and Gray quickly left the house with his two children. No one was hurt in the incident, but Alexander sits in jail facing a 20-year sentence on three charges of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon....

Alexander's attorney filed a motion for dismissal under the stand your ground law but at that proceeding her husband changed his story.  Gray said he lied during his deposition after conspiring with his wife in an effort to protect her.  At the hearing, he denied threatening to kill his wife, adding, "I begged and pleaded for my life when she had the gun." The motion was denied by the judge.

Alexander was offered a plea deal..., but she opted to go to trial. A jury found Alexander guilty in 12 minutes. She is baffled why invoking the stand your ground law wasn't successful in her case. "Other defendants have used it. What's so different about my situation that it doesn't apply to me?" she asked.

The local NAACP believes race may have played a role."There's a double standard with stand your ground," said Isaiah Rumlin, president of the Jacksonville Chapter of the NAACP. "The law is applied differently between African-Americans and whites who are involved in these types of cases," he added. Rumlin cited two shooting cases in Florida with white shooters: One was had a successful stand your ground defense and the other has yet to be charged with a crime....

Through a spokeswoman, State Attorney Angela Corey declined to comment on the case until after the sentencing. Alexander's attorney, Kevin M. Cobbin, is fighting for a new trial and that hearing is tentatively scheduled for next week. If that motion is denied, Alexander will receive a mandatory 20-year sentence with no possibility of parole.

In part because this case is garnering new media attention, the folks at Families Against Mandatory Minimums have released this notable new press release to spotlight the broader sentencing concern these kinds of cases implicate.  Here is how the press release begins:

FAMM President Julie Stewart today called on Florida lawmakers to repeal the state’s “10-20-Life” automatic prison sentence for assault with a deadly weapon without intent to kill. The call comes as Marissa Alexander, a 31-year-old mother of three, prepares to be sentenced for a 2010 incident in which she fired a gun into the ceiling of her house to persuade her abusive husband to leave.

“A lot of attention has been paid to Florida’s ‘Stand Your Ground’ law and far too little to the state’s extreme, one-size-fits-all sentencing laws,” Ms. Stewart said.  “Less than three years ago, Orville Lee Wollard, a lawful gun owner, fired a warning shot in his home to chase off a young man who had been abusing his teenage daughter.  After Wollard rejected a plea deal and a jury rejected Wollard’s self-defense claim, a Florida judge was forced by the state’s mandatory minimum sentencing law for assault to send Wollard to prison for 20 years.  Mr. Wollard’s judge stated that he thought the sentence was excessive, but said his hands were tied.

“In the coming weeks, Marissa Alexander, who was also found guilty of assault with a deadly weapon, will likely be sentenced to the same 20-year mandatory minimum prison term. While reasonable people can disagree on whether Mr. Wollard or Ms. Alexander deserve any prison time for their conduct, no one can honestly believe that these were the types of cases the legislature had in mind when it passed the 10-20-Life automatic gun sentence,” Stewart said.

April 24, 2012 in Gun policy and sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Why I think defendants should win "fight about competing background rules" in Hill and Dorsey

Despite lots of travels and other commitments, I have had time now to review and reflect on the SCOTUS oral arguments earlier this week in the Fair Sentencing Act pipeline cases Hill and Dorsey (basics here, transcript here).  Though many parts of the argument merit discussion, here I will focus upon Miguel Estrada's crisp and spot-on statement that these cases ultimately are a "fight about competing background rules."  Specifically, I will explain why I think, as a matter of both doctrine and policy, FSA defendants ought to win the fight in this particular setting where all the FSA does is lower the trigger quantities of crack for applicable mandatory minimum prison terms.

Here I must start by channeling my inner Blackstone to note that the common-law abatement doctrine meant that even if and when a criminal statute was amended to increase penalties, the "background rule" was that defendants could not even be prosecutedfor criminal behaviors that took place prior to this statutory change.  So, for anyone drawn to common-law rules, and especially for those who believe in the statutory interpretation canon that statutes in derogation of the common law should be narrowly construed, the defendants have the common-law background in their favor.

Of course, Congress in 1871 passed the "Savings Statute" which reverses this common-law background rule with a new background rule providing that the "repeal of any statute shall not have the effect to release or extinguish any penalty, forfeiture, or liability incurred under such statute, unless the repealing Act shall so expressly provide, and such statute shall be treated as still remaining in force for the purpose of sustaining any proper action or prosecution for the enforcement of such penalty, forfeiture, or liability."  This statute sets out what might be called the Savings background rule and it is the rule that Estrada as the SCOTUS-appointed amicus argues should mean the defendants lose in Hill and Dorsey.

Notably, this Savings background rule has some indisputable import in these cases: absent this background rule, the common-law abatement doctrine would mean the defendants in Hill and Dorsey could not even be prosecuted for their crack offenses!  But nobody has argued that these defendants should now get this common-law windfall and be free of "any penalty, forfeiture, or liability" for their pre-FSA conduct.  Rather the dispute in these cases is whether they should be subject at a post-FSA sentencing to the pre-FSA mandatory minimum triggering levels for certain long prison terms for minor crack offenses.  And, as SCOTUS interpretation of the Savings background rule states, we are to look to the express text and the necessary implications of the new statute to figure out what laws apply to crack defendants being sentenced now.

Here is where the defendants can and have stressed another background rule, namely the Sentencing Reform Act's key provision, 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a)(4)(ii), which calls for sentencing courts to apply the guidelines sentencing law "in effect on the date the defendant is sentenced."  This statutory provision is, functionally, an express reversal by Congress of the Savings background rule for sentencing purposes under modern guideline reforms. 

Congress in the FSA failed to include a specific provision referencing either the Savings background rule or the SRA law-in-effect-at-date-of-sentencing background rule.  But the SRA background rule would seem to be closer in both time and relevance to the FSA's new sentencing provisions AND all major crack offenders are necessarily getting the benefit of the SRA background rule (i.e., they are getting sentenced based on the reduced 18:1 crack sentencing provisions) because the guidelines and not the old (or new) mandatory minimums frame/define the sentences they realistically face.  It seems very weird to think Congress wanted the Savings background rule to sting lesser crack offenders, while the SRA background rule would benefit only more serious offenders.

In addition, the SRA has another important background rule, namely that sentencing judges are always required in every case to impose sentences "sufficient, but not greater than necessary" to achieve the purposes of punishment in the SRA.  This additional "background rule" ensures defendants should not get any  "sentencing windfall" from application of the new provisions of the FSA, but rather these provisions will merely allow judges to no longer be compelled (by now repealed mandatory minimums) to impose sentences for low-level crack offenders that they think are "greater than necesary" (a view Congress and the President has embraced as evidenced by the FSA's passage).

Further still, I think statutory construction canons like the rule of lenity and constitutional doubt provide still further "background rules" for an interpretation of the FSA to favor the defendants here.  Indeed, the very fact that SCOTUS had to appoint an amicus to make an argument for the Savings background rule and nobody else (including no member of Congress) has urged that background rule to prevail further contributes to my (admittedly biased) view that the defendants should win this "fight about competing background rules" in Hill and Dorsey.

A few recent posts on these SCOTUS cases:

April 19, 2012 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, New crack statute and the FSA's impact | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

"Taxpayers should demand cost-effective crime policies"

The title of this post is the headline of this commentary published yesterday at The Hill's Congress Blog. It was authored by Julie Stewart, the president and founder of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, and here are excerpts:

Last year, Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist, the Cato Institute’s director of criminal justice, Tim Lynch, and former Republican congressman and Bush administration DEA chief, Asa Hutchinson, joined me for a briefing to discuss the dozens of ways Congress and the administration could cut millions from wasteful anti-crime programs without jeopardizing public safety.  Some cost-cutting reforms, like allowing elderly and ill patients (who pose no threat to society) to leave prison early and serve out their punishment in alternate ways, are obvious and overdue.

Others, like eliminating wasteful mandatory minimum sentencing laws, are being approved by cash-strapped states across the country.  Governors and state lawmakers do not love their children any less, but they realize that locking up nonviolent criminals for decades is not a cost-effective way to keep their communities safe.  New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R-NJ) recently announced an ambitious plan to require treatment in lieu of prison for all first-time drug offenders in the Garden State.  Christie’s pitch?  Since treatment is a fraction of the cost of prison, his new policy will save money and lives.

Contrast this common-sense approach with federal law, where a mother like Sabrina Giles is sentenced to 12 years in prison for allowing her abusive boyfriend to run his meth dealing business out of her New Mexico house.  Ms. Giles, who had never even been arrested before, was gainfully employed and providing for her young daughter, despite struggling with substance abuse.  What she needed was drug treatment, but what she got was more than a decade in federal prison.  Her daughter was forced to grow up without the mother she loved and is now a teenager.

This isn’t tough on crime -- it’s just stupid.

Fortunately, some in Washington, D.C. are ready for reform.  Two years ago, anti-tax hero Norquist and former American Conservative Union president David Keene testified before the House Crime Subcommittee in opposition to federal mandatory minimum sentences.  Said Norquist, “The benefits, if any, of mandatory minimum sentences do not justify…[the] burden to taxpayers.”  The subcommittee’s ranking member, Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) has long supported reform.  More recently, Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) announced his strong opposition to mandatory minimums.  Paul’s position makes sense given his Tea Party roots and that coalition’s aversion to excessive federal spending.

Most encouraging, the American public gets it.  When asked by Pew if they agree with the statement, “Some of the money that we are spending on locking up low-risk, nonviolent inmates should be shifted to strengthening community corrections programs like probation and parole,” a remarkable 85 percent of voters agreed.

It’s time to stop wasting money on anti-crime programs and policies that don’t keep us safe, but make our tax bills higher.

April 18, 2012 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack