Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Great coverage of crack crimes and punishments via Al Jazeera America

I am pleased (and a bit overwhelmed) by this huge new series of stories, infographics, pictures, personal stories concerning crack crimes and punishment put together by Al Jazeera America.  Here are links to just some parts of the series:

Waiting on a fix: Legal legacy of the crack epidemic: In the 1980s, the US went to war on crack. Thirty years on, judiciary is still hooked on unfair and unequal sentencing

Documenting the ravages of the 1980s crack epidemic: Renowned documentary photographer Eugene Richards recorded the brutal realities facing communities affected by crack

'Life without parole is a walking death': Andre Badley, imprisoned in 1997 for dealing crack, could spend his life behind bars while bigger dealers go free.

A rush to judgment: In 1986, lawmakers wrote new mandatory crack cocaine penalties in a few short days, using the advice of a perjurer.

March 25, 2014 in Data on sentencing, Drug Offense Sentencing, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, New USSC crack guidelines and report, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Monday, February 17, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some recent related posts concerning Smarter Sentencing Act:

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

Friday, January 31, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, January 06, 2014

Lamenting the "ghosts ... still serving time under [crack] sentences that would not have been imposed under the new law"

Linda Greenhouse has this notable new op-ed in the New York Times headlined "Crack Cocaine Limbo." Here are excerpts:

President Obama earned a rare moment of bipartisan acclaim last month when he commuted the sentences of eight long-serving federal prisoners. Their crack cocaine offenses had resulted in the harsh penalties mandated by a sentencing formula that Congress repudiated when it passed the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010. The old formula, under which possession of a quantity of crack earned the same sentence as possession of 100 times that quantity of powdered cocaine, was “now recognized as unjust,” the president said.

But there were ghosts at last month’s party: thousands of federal inmates still serving time under sentences that would not have been imposed under the new law. Most are black. As is widely recognized, crack has been the cocaine of choice for African-American users and dealers even as white offenders choose powder. The racially disparate impact of the old law, which dates from the crack-cocaine panic of the mid-1980s with its now-discredited theory that crack was many times more dangerous, made reform a civil rights priority.

These prisoners remain in drug-sentencing limbo. When Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the crack-to-powder sentencing ratio from 1:100 to 1:18, it was silent on retroactivity. The Supreme Court granted limited relief two years ago, ruling that those who committed their crimes before the law took effect in August 2010 but who were not sentenced until later could retroactively get the new law’s benefit....

Senators Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, and Mike Lee, Republican of Utah, introduced a bill last summer to authorize judges to grant relief to pre-2010 prisoners on a case-by-case basis. But the Smarter Sentencing Act, as its sponsors call it, has yet to move toward a vote....

Society made a judgment, expressed in a bipartisan political consensus, that disparities of this kind were irrational and racially inequitable. Passage of the Fair Sentencing Act was preceded by years of debate, including pleas by federal judges who hated what the law made them do. Gradually, insight emerged. Keeping a known and finite group of people locked in a system acknowledged to be irrational is irrationality itself.

January 6, 2014 in Clemency and Pardons, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Clemency christmas miracle?: Prez Obama communiting 8 pre-FSA crack sentences and granting 13 pardons

ALittleChristmasMiracleAs reported in this new article from the New York Times, "President Obama, expanding his push to curtail severe penalties for drug offenses, is expected on Thursday to commute the sentences of eight federal inmates who were convicted of crack cocaine offenses. Each inmate has been imprisoned for at least 15 years, and six were sentenced to life in prison."  Here is more about this interesting and exciting news:

It would be the first time retroactive relief was provided to a group of inmates who most likely would have received significantly shorter terms if they had been sentenced under current drug laws, sentencing rules and charging policies. Most of the eight would be released in 120 days.

In a statement prepared for release when the commutations are announced, Mr. Obama said that each of the eight men and women had been sentenced under what is now recognized as an “unfair system,” including under a 100-to-1 sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenses that was significantly reduced by the Fair Sentencing Act of 2011.

“If they had been sentenced under the current law, many of them would have already served their time and paid their debt to society,” Mr. Obama said. “Instead, because of a disparity in the law that is now recognized as unjust, they remain in prison, separated from their families and their communities, at a cost of millions of taxpayer dollars each year.”

The recipients include several high-profile inmates who have received news media attention as examples of the effects of earlier tough-on-crime drug sentencing policies, in which the quantities of crack involved sometimes resulted in severe punishments. Many of them were young at the time of their offense and were not accused of violence.

Clarence Aaron of Mobile, Ala., for example, was sentenced to three life terms in prison for his role in a 1993 drug deal, when he was 22. Mr. Aaron’s case has been taken up by congressional critics of draconian sentencing and by civil rights groups, and has received significant media attention. Last year, the Justice Department’s inspector general issued a report criticizing the department’s pardon office for mishandling his clemency petition.

Margaret Love, a former Justice Department pardon lawyer who represents Mr. Aaron, said she received a call informing her of the decision on Thursday morning and called her client, who along with his family was “very grateful.”

“He was absolutely overcome,” she said. “Actually, I was, too. He was in tears. This has been a long haul for him, 20 years. He just was speechless, and it’s very exciting.”

Mr. Obama, who has made relatively little use of his constitutional clemency powers to forgive offenses or reduce sentences, is also expected to pardon 13 people who completed their sentences long ago. Those cases involved mostly minor offenses that resulted in little or no prison time, in line with previous pardons he has issued.

But the eight commutations opened a major new front in the administration’s criminal justice policy intended to curb soaring taxpayer spending on prisons and to help correct what the administration has portrayed as unfairness in the justice system. Recipients also include Reynolds Wintersmith, of Rockford, Ill., who was sentenced in 1994 to life in prison for dealing crack when he was 17, and Stephanie George of Pensacola, Fla., who received a life sentence in 1997, when she was 27, for hiding a boyfriend’s stash of crack in a box in her house. In both cases, the sentencing judges criticized the mandatory sentences they were required to impose by federal law at the time, calling them unjust.

In December 2012, The New York Times published an article about Ms. George’s case and the larger rethinking of the social and economic costs of long prison terms for nonviolent offenders. Mr. Obama mentioned the article in an interview with Time magazine later that day and said he was considering asking officials about ways to do things “smarter.”

Around that time, a senior White House official said, Mr. Obama directed Kathryn Ruemmler, his White House counsel, to ask the Justice Department to examine pending clemency petitions to assess whether there were any in which current inmates serving long sentences would have benefited from subsequent changes to sentencing laws and policy. The deputy attorney general, James M. Cole, returned the eight cases with positive recommendations from the department about six weeks ago, the official said....

Legislation pending in Congress, including a bill co-sponsored by Senators Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, and Mike Lee, Republican of Utah, would make the Fair Sentencing Act retroactive for some offenders, and it would build into the system a process for inmates to apply to a judge for case-by-case review of whether a reduced sentence would be appropriate. The Obama administration supports that bill, the White House said, as a more orderly and regular way to ensure individualized analysis in addressing the broader inmate population.

According to the group Families Against Mandatory Minimums, about 8,800 federal inmates sentenced for crack offenses before the Fair Sentencing Act would be eligible to apply for a reduced sentence were the bill to become law. “Commuting the sentences of these eight Americans is an important step toward restoring fundamental ideals of justice and fairness,” Mr. Obama said. “But it must not be the last. In the new year, lawmakers should act on the kinds of bipartisan sentencing reform measures already working their way through Congress. Together, we must ensure that our taxpayer dollars are spent wisely, and that our justice system keeps its basic promise of equal treatment for all.”

I am quite pleased Prez Obama is finally, finally, finally using his constitutional clemency powers in a truly consequential and meaningful way, and I am especially pleased that there are now eight more defendants (and families) who get some relief from the unfair 100-1 pre-FSA crack sentences that nobody ever seeks to defend substantively. However, the numbers reported above highlight that for every new bit of post-FSA fairness achieved by these commutations, a thousand other defendants (and families) must continue to live with the consequences of a reform that has been interpreted only to prevent future injustices and not fix past ones.

More broadly, though I do not want to turn a praiseworthy act by Prez Obama into an excuse for more criticism, there is a cynical voice in my head that is not only eager to fault the limited reach of this new round of clemency, but also its timing. Perhaps intentionally, these grants could (and perhaps should) be marginalized as just a holiday tradition, not as a bold statement of executive priorities. Even more worrisomely, as there is on-going talk of statutory sentencing reforms in Congress, these grants might provide some basis for opponents of broader reforms to contend that truly troublesome cases can and should be just handled and remedied by the executive branch.

Better summing up my cynicism is a response to this news from Professor Mark Osler: "Good news... But just one lifeboat off the titanic. With no structural change, the ship is still sinking."

December 19, 2013 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (13) | TrackBack

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Doesn't the Sixth Circuit Blewett majority opinion contradict SCOTUS precedent that the Eighth Amendment evolves?

Though lacking time to fully consume all the opinions in today's lengthy Sixth Circuit en banc ruling in Blewett (basics here), I did this morning find time to read the discussions of Eighth Amendment issues because they are relatively brief and cursory.  And, as the the title of this post reveals, I  believe that the majority's treatment of the Eighth Amendment is wrong and contradicts clear Supreme Court precedent concerning the evolving nature of the Constitution's prohibition of cruel and unusual punishments.

Here are the key passages from the majority's (far too brief) discussion of Eighth Amendment issues that have me all worked up (with cites left out but emphasis in the original):

Even if the Fair Sentencing Act applies only to individuals sentenced after its effective date and even if § 3582(c)(2) does not convert the Act into a retroactive change to these mandatory minimums, the Blewetts claim that the Constitution’s equal-protection and cruel-and-unusual-punishment principles give them relief.  Long before the passage of the Fair Sentencing Act, our court and others repeatedly rejected similar constitutional challenges to the crack and powder cocaine sentencing disparities....

Congress’s mitigation of the crack and powder disparities does not weaken these precedents; it strengthens them.  Besides, the Blewetts cite no cases that call these conclusions into question....

Turning to another part of the Constitution, the Blewetts and Judge Merritt (with support from Judge Moore’s opinion) contend that the Eighth Amendment prohibits the continued imprisonment of a defendant sentenced under the old mandatory minimum laws.  Yet they cannot contend that their 10-year sentences were cruel and unusual when imposed.  After all, the Supreme Court has upheld a mandatory minimum of life without parole for possession of 672 grams of cocaine without intent to distributeHarmelin v. Michigan, 501 U.S. 957 (1991).  The Blewetts’ crimes are less serious in one respect (they possessed less cocaine), but more serious in two others (they possessed with intent to distribute and they had prior felony drug convictions).  Harmelin precludes the conclusion that the Blewetts’ much shorter mandatory minimum sentences were cruel and unusual.

The Blewetts persist that their sentences became cruel and unusual when Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act.  But the Eighth Amendment is not a ratchet that makes a harsher system of penalties unconstitutional the moment a more lenient one is (prospectively) adopted, a theory that would have the perverse effect of discouraging lawmakers from ever lowering criminal sentences.  Withholding the benefits of a change from previously sentenced defendants at a any rate is not “unusual”; it is the general practice in federal sentencing, as Dorsey and § 109 confirm.

With all due respect to the Sixth Circuit and the author of this opinion (whom I know well and respect greatly), these passages seem deeply misguided in light of the evolving nature of the Eighth Amendment and the importance of objective factors in assessing the Amendment's evolution that have been repeatedly stressed by the Supreme Court.

To begin, it is just flat out wrong that Congress's decision to repeal the Blewetts sentences makes stronger prior rejections of their Eighth Amendment claims. The Supreme Court's Eighth Amendment ruling in Atkins stressed that legislative decisions by states to repeal the death penalty for mentally retarded defendants showed that society's view had evolved so that in 2002 it was unconstitutional to execute the mentally retarded even though the Court had held in 1989 in Penry that the Eighth Amendment did not preclude such executions. In other words, there is clear Supreme Court precedent demonstrating legislative repeal(s) of a punishment makes a defendant's Eighth Amendment claims stronger, not weaker.

In addition, the question here (as it was in Atkins and all other Eighth Amendment cases) is not just "when" a sentence might have become unconstitutional, but rather whether an extreme punishment is cruel and unusual now. Thus, it is misguided to assert that the Blewetts claim "that their sentences became cruel and unusual when Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act" back in 2010.  Rather, the issue needing to be resolved under the Eighth Amendment is whether now, in December 2013, after Congress passed the FSA in 2010 repealing the sentences being served by the Blewetts, AND after the US Sentencing Commission made lower guidelines retroactively available to tens of thousands of more serious crack offenders (and Congress approved that decision), AND after thousands of judges have lowered the sentences of thousands of more serious crack offenders by an average of more than two years, AND after the US Attorney General has given major speeches and issued new policies assailing the application of mandatory minimums in these kinds of cases, whether it is now cruel and unusual that only less serious crack offenders like the Blewetts do not even get a chance to ask a judge to have their sentences lowered.

My view on these issues is, of course, deeply biased by my involvement in this case in which I authored a brief for NACDL explaining why I think the Blewetts' sentences are unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment.  The reason I come to this view is because I take very seriously the Supreme Court's frequent and repeated admonition that Eighth Amendment's prohibition of cruel and unusual punishments evolves.  I fully understand those who disagree with this jurisprudential approach to the Eighth Amendment and who advocate that the Supreme Court no longer analyze and apply the Amendment this way.  But, as an inferior court, the Sixth Circuit has to follow even parts of SCOTUS precedent it does not like.  In this case, however, it seems the Sixth Circuit was content just to ignore that precedent rather than consider it honestly and seriously.

December 3, 2013 in Drug Offense Sentencing, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (20) | TrackBack

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 24, 2013

"'Cocaine congressman' received the right sentence"

The title of this post is the headline of this new commentary by Clarence Page appearing in the Chicago Tribune. Here are excerpts:

"Cocaine Congressman" Trey Radel, as headline writers have rebranded him, voted to allow states to drug test all food stamp recipients. Congress, it turns out, should have drug-tested Radel....

Radel became the first sitting congressman in 31 years, according to The Associated Press, to plead guilty to a misdemeanor drug-possession charge.

FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration agents swooped in to arrest him after he bought 3.5 grams of cocaine for $250 in a late October sting operation in Washington's fashionable DuPont Circle neighborhood. Charging documents described Radel as having a frequent-buyer reputation in the neighborhood. After Radel pleaded guilty in District of Columbia Superior Court, he was sentenced to a year of probation and will undergo substance abuse treatment in Florida.

House Republicans did not rush to escort Radel out the door, even though he reportedly waited three weeks before telling them about his bust. Speaker John Boehner said before Radel's sentencing that the matter should be left up to the courts, Radel, his family and his constituents.

Indeed, it would hardly be the first time that a politician continued to serve and potentially be re-elected after a misdemeanor conviction. Voters can be very forgiving of lawbreaking politicians.

"Today, I checked myself into a facility to seek treatment and counseling," Radel said in a statement last week. "It is my hope, through this process, I will come out a better man." I wish him luck. Unlike his more outraged critics, I don't think Radel should have been sent to jail. Quite the opposite, I think his case offers a good example of why a lot of nonviolent, first-arrest drug offenders shouldn't be in jail.

Contrast his case, for example, with another high-profile District of Columbia case, the arrest of then-Mayor Marion Barry for taking a hit of crack cocaine during an FBI hotel room sting in 1990. He was sentenced to six months in a federal prison. His sentence could have been worse if the video had not provided so much evidence to back the mayor's argument that he was a victim of FBI entrapment.

The fact that Barry is black and Radel is white doesn't mean that racism played a role in either case. But the differences in their sentences illustrate a persistent problem: Despite recent reforms, a racial disparity persists between the minimum sentences for crimes involving crack and powder cocaine. The Fair Sentencing Act that Congress passed in August of 2010 reduced the 100-to-1 disparity between crack and powder cocaine that was created during the anti-crack uproar of the 1980s. But it still remains way too huge at about 18-to-1. Fairness should never end at the color line.

Radel is fortunate to have been sentenced in D.C., where enlightened attitudes led to a special "drug court" in 1993 that is designed to funnel low-level addicts into rehab instead of long-term jail time. With prison costs skyrocketing — even after overall crime rates declined in the mid-1990s — even states with reputations for tough justice are turning to alternatives to prison for nonviolent drug offenders. Drug addiction should be handled as a disease, not a crime. Trey Radel knows.

Recent related post:

November 24, 2013 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Drug Offense Sentencing, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Fascination and frustration with "finality fixation" in en banc Sixth Circuit Blewett arguments

As mentioned in this recent post, I have so far resisted writing up my thoughts concerning last week's remarkable Sixth Circuit en banc Blewett oral argument on crack sentencing modifications.  I have done so in part because I wanted to be able to devote a block of time to the task, and in part because via the Sixth Circuit website folks can (and should) listen for themselves to the audio recording of the hour-long argument via this link.

Now that I have had more time to think about last week's oral argument and the broader issues in Blewett, I continue to find myself (as the title of this post suggests) fascinated and frustrated by what I will call a "finality fixation" in the context of sentencing issues.   A variation of this fixation made me a bit batty in the FSA pipeline debate that culminated in the Supreme Court's Dorsey ruling, and it also comes to play in the on-going dispute over whether the Supreme Court's Miller ruling will apply retroactively to final juve murder sentences.  I am likely fixated on this notion of a "finality fixation"  because I am currently working on a symposium article on this topic.  Still, the tenor of much of the Blewett oral argument, and other arenas where concerns about sentencing finality seem often now to trump interests in sentencing fitness and fairness, have a way of driving me to fits of fascination and frustration.

At the risk of repeating parts of the brief on Eighth Amendment issues which I helped file on behalf of the NACDL (and which is discussed and linked via this prior post), let me try here to explain what still makes me a bit nutty about cases like Blewett.  

Point 1:  Each and every federal criminal justice policy-maker in the three branches of the federal government — Congress, the Prez and his Justice Department, and the US Sentencing Commission — have all expressly and formally declared that all 100-1 ratio pre-FSA crack prison sentences were unfair, excessive and ineffectual, AND Congress enacted the "Fair Sentencing Act" to lower all federal crack sentences by raising the trigger quantity for mandatory minimum prison terms and by mandated that the US Sentencing Commission significantly lower all crack guideline prison ranges.

Point 2: When it reformed modern sentencing rules and eliminated parole release, Congress created a express statutory sentencing modification mechanism — in 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2) — through which offenders still in prison who were "sentenced to a term of imprisonment based on a sentencing range that has subsequently been lowered by the Sentencing Commission [can move for a court to] reduce the term of imprisonment," AND thousands of the most serious crack offenders sentenced before the FSA have had their prison sentences reduced through this stautory mechanism.  (This latest USSC report indicates not only that 7,300+ pre-FSA crack offenders have had their prison terms reduced by an average of 29 months, but also that thousands of these crack offenders got reduced sentences despite having extensives criminal histories and/or having used a weapon in their offense and/or having a leadership role in the offense.  See Table 6 of USSC report.)

Point 3: Congress, the Prez and his Justice Department, and the US Sentencing Commission have all ordered, authorized and/or not objected to thousands of more serious pre-FSA crack offenders being eligble for (and regularly receiving) reduced prison terms via the statutory sentencing modification mechanism of 3582(c)(2).  The Blewetts and other less serious pre-FSA crack offenders whose sentences were impacted by the 100-1 mandatory minimum terms and who are still in federal prison serving (now-repealed) pre-FSA crack sentences that every federal criminal justice policy-maker in each branch of the federal government have expressly and formally declared unfair, excessive and ineffectual are now simply arguing that they, too, should be eligible to use the same statutory sentence modification mechanism that thousands of the most serious crack offenders have already benefitted from. 

Point 4: Nobody has, to my knowledge, even tried to offer a substantive defense or penological justification as to why the Blewetts and only those less serious pre-FSA crack offenders should not even be eligible for the statutory sentencing modification mechanism of 3582(c)(2) and thus must serve the full duration of (now-repealed) pre-FSA crack sentences.  Indeed, it seem to me at least that it is not just unjust, but irrational and cruel and unusual, to require only the least serious pre-FSA crack offenders to serve out prison terms that every federal criminal justice policy-maker in each branch of the federal government have expressly and formally declared unfair, excessive and ineffectual, especially given that thousands of the most serious pre-FSA crack offenders can and have already benefitted from the statutory sentencing modification mechanism of 3582(c)(2).  (Critically, Congress has never stated nor even suggested, either expressly or implicitly, that it wanted the Blewetts and only those less serious pre-FSA crack offenders to be catergorically ineligible for sentence modification.  Indeed, I think the fair implication of the express provisions of the FSA is that all pre-FSA crack offenders should at least have a chance for sentence modification pursuant to 3582(c)(2).)

In light of all these points, in my view the only plausible rationale for denying the Blewetts and other less serious pre-FSA crack offenders a chance for sentence modification is the oft-stated, but rarely thought-through, idea of "finality."  And though I think finality is an important policy concern when defendants are attacking long-final convictions, I do not think this concept of finality historically has or now should be given great weight when a defendant is only seeking to modestly modify a sentence.  Further, when a federal defendant is seeking only a modest prison sentence modification under an express statutory provision created by Congress, the comity and separation of powers concerns that might also give finality interests extra heft are not present. 

Thus my contention that only a "finality fixation" fully accounts for why so many judges seem resistant to the various legal arguments that the Blewetts and other less serious crack offenders are making in these FSA cases.  As I see it, given the text and purposes of the FSA and the text and purposes of 3852(c)(2), the eagerness of judges to deny relief to the Blewetts and other less serious crack offenders reflects a fixation on the notion that, even in this remarkable and unique setting, concerns about sentencing finality should still consistently and conclusively trump the need to achieving sentencing fitness and fairness.  And that reality fascinates and frustrates me.

Am I silly, dear readers, to be so fascinated and frustrated by all this?  I am hoping, especially from those eager to see the Blewett panel decision undone (which I now fear a majority of the Sixth Circuit is planning to do), for responses in the comments that might help me better see what my analysis above is missing and/or why I should not be so nutty about these "finality fixation" matters.

Related posts on Blewett:

October 15, 2013 in Examples of "over-punishment", Implementing retroactively new USSC crack guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Audio of Sixth Circuit en banc Blewett oral argument available (and drinking game suggestion)

I have been busy and distracted by a variety of work (and non-work) activities ever since attending the remarkable Sixth Circuit en banc Blewett oral argument concerning crack sentencing modifications, and I have not wanted to write up my thoughts on the argument until I had a big block of time to devote to the task.   Ergo, I expect I will be posting commentary on the oral argument in this space sometime toward the end of this weekend.

In the meantime, thanks to the tech-friendly Sixth Circuit website, everyone can listen to an audio recording of Wednesday afternoon's hour-long argument via this link. I encourage everyone interested in these issues to take time to listen to the recording.  (And, if one is eager to make the listening experience even more exciting, I would recommend using the audio as a drinking game during which a listener must take a big drink every time someone says "Professor Berman."  The brief I helped file on behalf of the NACDL, which is discussed and linked via this prior post, was subject to discussion during the argument even though there was, disappointingly, very little focused consideration of the Eighth Amendment jurisprudence I stressed in that brief.)

October 12, 2013 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Saturday, August 24, 2013

AG Holder's speech at "Dream March" stresses fairness and "equal justice" (... as federal crack prisoners keep waiting)

Gty_martin_luther_king_obama_tk_130116_wgI just got an e-mail providing this link to the text of Attorney General Eric Holder's prepared remarks which he delivered today in Washington DC as part of the "National Action to Realize the Dream March." Here are some excerpts that caught my eye (with my emphasis added):

It is an honor to be here — among so many friends, distinguished civil rights leaders, Members of Congress, and fellow citizens who have fought, rallied, and organized — from the streets of this nation, to the halls of our Capitol — to advance the cause of justice.

Fifty years ago, Dr. King shared his dream with the world and described his vision for a society that offered, and delivered, the promise of equal justice under law.   He assured his fellow citizens that this goal was within reach — so long as they kept faith with one another, and maintained the courage and commitment to work toward it.  And he urged them to do just that.  By calling for no more — and no less — than equal justice.  By standing up for the civil rights to which everyone is entitled.  And by speaking out — in the face of hatred and violence, in defiance of those who sought to turn them back with fire hoses, bullets, and bombs — for the dignity of a promise kept; the honor of a right redeemed; and the pursuit of a sacred truth that’s been woven through our history since this country’s earliest days: that all are created equal....

But today's observance is about far more than reflecting on our past.  Today’s March is also about committing to shape the future we will share — a future that preserves the progress, and builds on the achievements, that have led us to this moment.  Today, we look to the work that remains unfinished, and make note of our nation's shortcomings, not because we wish to dwell on imperfection — but because, as those who came before us, we love this great country.  We want this nation to be all that it was designed to be — and all that it can become. We recognize that we are forever bound to one another and that we stand united by the work that lies ahead — and by the journey that still stretches before us.

This morning, we affirm that this struggle must, and will, go on in the cause of our nation’s quest for justice — until every eligible American has the chance to exercise his or her right to vote, unencumbered by discriminatory or unneeded procedures, rules, or practices.  It must go on until our criminal justice system can ensure that all are treated equally and fairly in the eyes of the law.  And it must go on until every action we take reflects our values and that which is best about us.  It must go on until those now living, and generations yet to be born, can be assured the rights and opportunities that have been too long denied to too many.

The America envisioned at this site 50 years ago — the “beloved community” — has not yet been realized.  But half a century after the March, and 150 years after Emancipation, it is finally within our grasp.  Together — through determined effort; through a willingness to confront corrosive forces tied to special interests rather than the common good; and through devotion to our founding documents — I know that, in the 21st century, we will see an America that is more perfect and more fair....

To AG Holder's credit, back in April 2009, his Justice Department went to Capitol Hill to tell Congress that the current Administration then believed (and still believes?) that a commitment to fairness and equal justice required completely eliminating the differential treatment of crack and powder cocaine in federal sentencing law.  But since that time, the Obama Administration has suggested it is content with Congress's decision to merely reduce — from 100-1 to 18-1 — the differential treatment of drug quantities for crack and powder.  Moreover, this Administration has made no real effort to help those sentenced before the passage of the Fair Sentencing Act to get any fair or equal benefits from the new law's reduced crack sentencing terms.

Indeed, from its initial advocacy to limit "pipeline" cases from getting the benefit of the FSA's reduced mandatory minimums, to its continued disinclination to seek to help folks still serving excessively long sentences based on the pre-FSA 100-1 crack laws, the Holder Justice Department's actions suggest they do not really think a commitment to fairness and equal justice calls for doing much of anything to help crack offenders sentenced before August 2013. 

Please understand that I know full well the range of forcefully legal arguments and political considerations which can be made to justify preventing thousands of federal prisoners still serving excessively long crack sentences from getting any benefits from the FSA.  But I also know full well that if Dr. King were alive today, he surely would be advocating forcefully for this Administration to live up to its commitment to fairness and equal justice and to do something to help those federal prisoners still languishing in prison based on the unfair and unequal sentences required by the pre-FSA crack laws.

Indeed, with current federal prisoners in mind, I think we still are awaiting the day that Dr. King dreamed of and spoke about when he ended his speech in this way:

[I dream of] the day when all of God's children will be able to sing with a new meaning, "My country, 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim's pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring."

And if America is to be a great nation this must become true.  So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire.  Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania!

Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado!  Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California!

But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia!  Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee!

Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.

And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, "Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"

I suppose we all need to just keep dreaming, while still stressing the "fierce urgency of now."

August 24, 2013 in New crack statute and the FSA's impact, New USSC crack guidelines and report, Offense Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (32) | TrackBack

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Revised Post (revised yet again) upon request

Regular readers know all about the controversy and pending en-banc litigation engendered by a decision rendered three months ago by a split Sixth Circuit panel in US v. Blewett, No. 12-5226 (6th Cir. May 17, 2013) (available here).....

ADDITIONAL ORIGINAL MATERIALS IN REST OF THIS POST REMOVED upon reasonable requests by lots of reasonable folks for reasonable reasons, in my judgment....

August 20, 2013 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Monday, August 19, 2013

"Crack Cocaine, Congressional Inaction, and Equal Protection"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper on SSRN authored by Paul Larkin Jr. and which appears to be critical of the Sixth Circuit's (now vacated) panel decision in US v. Blewett. Here is the abstract:

For decades, scholars and courts have debated whether the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 discriminates against African Americans by imposing far stiffer punishments for trafficking in crack cocaine than in its powdered form.  The academy has generally concluded that the federal crack cocaine sentencing laws are racially discriminatory, while the federal courts have almost uniformly rejected the same argument. Three years ago Congress, via the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, addressed the issue by reducing, without eliminating, the sentencing disparity. Recently, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in United States v. Blewett, 719 F.3d 482 (6th Cir. 2013), concluded that the 2010 statute would be unconstitutional if it were not applied retroactively. The Blewett case forces this debate back into the political arena.

The Sixth Circuit misapplied equal protection law.  Rather than ask whether Congress refused to apply the Fair Sentencing Act retroactively for a discriminatory purpose, the court concluded that Congress’s decision to adopt a prospective-only statute was tantamount to readoption of Jim Crow.  Settled law, however, requires proof of discriminatory intent.  Moreover, Congress’s refusal to adopt retroactive legislation cannot violate the Due Process Clause.  The clause applies only to positive law, so Congress cannot violate the clause by not enacting legislation.  Finally, the Sixth Circuit failed to consider the effect of strict enforcement of the drug laws on the innocent residents of communities where crack trafficking occurs.  It may be unwise to continue to imprison crack offenders for the full length of their prison terms imposed under the strict provisions of a now-amended law, but a mistaken decision is not invariably an unconstitutional one.

Related posts on Blewett:

August 19, 2013 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Friday, August 02, 2013

"Sentencing Reform Starts to Pay Off"

The title of this post is the headline of this (too short) new New York Times editorial. Here is the text:

In 2010, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the vast disparity in the way the federal courts punish crack versus powder cocaine offenses. Instead of treating 100 grams of cocaine the same as 1 gram of crack for sentencing purposes, the law cut the ratio to 18 to 1. Initially, the law applied only to future offenders, but, a year later, the United States Sentencing Commission voted to apply it retroactively. Republicans raged, charging that crime would go up and that prisoners would overwhelm the courts with frivolous demands for sentence reductions. Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa said the commission was pursuing “a liberal agenda at all costs.”

This week, we began to learn that there are no costs, only benefits. According to a preliminary report released by the commission, more than 7,300 federal prisoners have had their sentences shortened under the law. The average reduction is 29 months, meaning that over all, offenders are serving roughly 16,000 years fewer than they otherwise would have. And since the federal government spends about $30,000 per year to house an inmate, this reduction alone is worth nearly half-a-billion dollars — big money for a Bureau of Prisons with a $7 billion budget. In addition, the commission found no significant difference in recidivism rates between those prisoners who were released early and those who served their full sentences.

Federal judges nationwide have long expressed vigorous disagreement with both the sentencing disparity and the mandatory minimum sentences they are forced to impose, both of which have been drivers of our bloated federal prison system. But two bipartisan bills in Congress now propose a cheaper and more humane approach. It would include reducing mandatory minimums, giving judges more flexibility to sentence below those minimums, and making more inmates eligible for reductions to their sentences under the new ratio.

But 18 to 1 is still out of whack. The ratio was always based on faulty science and misguided assumptions, and it still disproportionately punishes blacks, who make up more than 80 percent of those prosecuted for federal crack offenses. The commission and the Obama administration have called for a 1-to-1 ratio. The question is not whether we can afford to do it, but whether we can afford not to.

As my many blog posts highlight, there is a lot more which can and needs to be said concerning all the topics that this editorial touches upon. But I am very pleased to see that the Times is noticing the impact of recent federal sentencing reforms and call for more.

August 2, 2013 in New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

New USSC data on implimentation and impact of retroactive crack guidelines after FSA

I just noticed on the US Sentencing Commission's website this new data report carrying the title "Preliminary Crack Retroactivity Data Report; Fair Sentencing Act."  This report, dated July 2013, appears to be the latest accounting of who has (and has not) received the benefit of retroactive application of the 2011 amendments to the federal sentencing guidelines for crack offenses which implemented the new 18-1 crack/powder ratio that Congress created via the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010.

Based on the information reflected in Tables 1 amd 8 of this data report, it appears that just over 7300 defendants received, on average, a 29-month reduction in their crack sentences thanks to the new FSA-inspired crack guidelines being made retroactive.  Significantly, this average reduction merely lowered the average crack sentence from roughly 12.5 years to just over 10 years for the group receiving sentence reductions; this means that even the new-average-lowered sentence for crack offenses were still significantly higher that the average sentences imposed for any other federal drug crimes.

For those eager to gauge the potential economic impact of FSA retroactivity, it appears that the retroactive guidelines as implemented has now saved almost 16,000 cumulative years of federal imprisonment, with a consequent savings to federal taxpayers of approximately a half-billion dollars (based on a conservative estimate of a taxpayer cost of roughly $30,000 per prisoner for each year of federal incarceration).  And for those concerned about racial sentencing dynamics, Table 5 of this data reports that more than 85% of those benefiting from reduced crack sentences have been black prisoners, demonstrating once again the historically racialized reality of federal crack prosecutions.

As I have said in prior posts, if those defendants who received reduced sentences find ways to become productive (and tax-paying) citizens, the benefits to society will profoundly transcend the saved incarceration costs. And it those defendants do not learn the error of their law-breaking ways, I both expect and hope they will really get the sentencing book thrown at them if ever up for sentencing again.

July 30, 2013 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, New USSC crack guidelines and report, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Monday, July 29, 2013

New Slate pitch for Prez to use clemency powers to address crack sentencing disparities

Thanks to the suggestions, and insights and energy of Harlan Protass, a criminal-defense lawyer in New York and an adjunct professor at the Cardozo School of Law, some ideas expressed in this recent post concerning the President Obama's words and (lack of) actions now find expression in this new Slate commentary.  Here is how the piece, co-written by me and Harlan, starts and finishes:

President Barack Obama, commenting last week on George Zimmerman’s acquittal in Trayvon Martin’s death, remarked on “a history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws — everything from the death penalty to enforcement of our drug laws.”  A few months earlier, Attorney General Eric Holder similarly lamented new government data suggesting that even today “black male offenders” are sentenced to federal prison terms “nearly 20 percent longer than those imposed on white males convicted of similar crimes.”  These statements reveal that our nation’s first African-American president and first African-American attorney general are aware of serious racial discrimination in the administration of our nation’s criminal laws.  The question is what they plan to do about it?

Neither the president, nor his attorney general, has followed-up or suggested a fix for the problem.  Yet with one signature, Obama could make a remarkable difference: He could use his constitutional powers to commute the sentences of thousands of disproportionately black inmates serving excessive prison terms for crack cocaine offenses.  Put bluntly, rather than dropping occasional comments about high-profile criminal-justice incidents with racial overtones, both the president and the attorney general should make a focused and sustained effort to redress longstanding criminal justice disparities....

Back in 2009, Holder famously described us as a “nation of cowards” in dealing with race issues.  And while both Holder and the president seem to have the courage to speak about high-profile cases, they have yet to show the fortitude and focus needed to turn high-profile controversies into constructive opportunities.  If President Obama is genuinely committed to addressing racial disparities in the enforcement of our criminal laws, he can grant clemency today, and then make a sustained commitment to addressing these issues throughout his second term.  If he fails to do so, he can, justifiably, be called our nation’s “Coward-in-Chief” where race is concerned.

July 29, 2013 in Clemency and Pardons, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (33) | TrackBack

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Full Sixth Circuit grants en banc review in Blewett

A mere days after the Sixth Circuit panel in the Blewett case (which concerns possible retroactive relief for some crack defendants) decided not to alter its original opinion (details here), the full Sixth Circuit today entered this order:

ORDER filed granting petition for en banc rehearing filed by [AUSA] Ms. Candace G. Hill, to reinstate appeals. The previous decision and judgment of this court is vacated, the mandate is stayed. The Clerk has directed the parties to file supplemental briefs. Final briefing will be concluded on August 29, 2013. These cases will be argued before the en banc court on October 9, 2013, 1:30 P.M., EST.

This is not a big surprise, and I think it likely means that the full Sixth Circuit is not too keen on the equal protection arguments used by the Blewett panel.  I fear that the full Sixth Circuti might not also be too keen on the Eighth Amendment arguments I put forward in this case late last month (details here), but that is not likely to deter me from filing additional papers concerning my Eighth Amendment ideas come August. I also may ask the Sixth Circuit for argument time (through I am not especially confident that anything which transpires at oral argument in this kind of case is going to move the opinions of many of the judges).

 Related posts on Blewett:

July 11, 2013 in New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

After supplemental Blewett briefing, Sixth Circuit panel stands pat

As regular readers likely recall, almost two month ago a split Sixth Circuit panel in US v. Blewett, No. 12-5226 (6th Cir. May 17, 2013) (available here), used equal protection principles to justify giving the new crack statutory sentencings levels of the Fair Sentencing Act retroactive effect.  And last month, as reported in this post, the Sixth Circuit responded to the Government's en banc petition with a letter to the parties express seeking additional briefing "addressing whether the Blewetts’ punishment in this case based on a 100-to-1 ratio of crack to powder cocaine is constitutionally disproportionate in violation of the Eighth Amendment’s Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause. "  I reported on the amicus brief covering Eighth Amendment issues that I wrote and filed on behalf of NACDL via this post, and I have been overdue in uploading these supplemental filings sent in by the parties:

Thanks to the fact that I am now in the case via my amicus efforts, I received via the automatic notification system this report on activity in the case this week:

Activity has occurred in the following cases: 12-5226 [USA v. Cornelius Blewett], judge order filed

ORDER filed. The judges of the panel adhere to their respective original opinions. The panel directs that the responses of the parties and the amicus brief of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers be made part of the record in this case. Gilbert S. Merritt, Boyce F. Martin , Jr., and Ronald Lee Gilman, Circuit Judges.

This order is not especially surprising, but it is still noteworthy. And it now puts the onus on other judges of the Sixth Circuit to take up this case en banc within the next month, as the Sixth Circuit rules provides that "[a]ny active judge or any member of the panel whose decision is the subject of the rehearing may request a poll within 14 days from the date of circulation of the petition and the panel's comments. If a poll is requested, 14 days are allowed for voting." In other words, within the next 28 days, we should know for sure if the full Sixth Circuit will rehear the Blewett case or if instead the feds will have to ask SCOTUS to review the consequential work of the Blewett panel. Related posts on Blewett:

July 9, 2013 in New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Friday, June 28, 2013

My Sixth Circuit amicus brief effort now filed explaining my Eighth Amendment FSA views in Blewett

As regular readers likely recall, a little over a month ago a split Sixth Circuit panel in US v. Blewett, No. 12-5226 (6th Cir. May 17, 2013) (available here), used equal protection principles to justify giving the new crack statutory sentencings levels of the Fair Sentencing Act retroactive effect.  In my first post about the Blewett ruling, I noted that I was unsure that a "Fifth Amendment equal protection theory provides a strong constitutional foundation" for Blewett, but I also suggested, "in the wake of the passage of the Fair Sentencing Act and the USSC's implementation of its new 18-1 crack guidelines retroactively, that a proper application of the Eighth Amendment could and should provided a reasoned and reasonable basis to give full retroactive effect to all the provisions of the FSA." 

A couple of weeks ago, as reported in this post, the Sixth Circuit responded to the Government's en banc petition with a letter to the parties express seeking additional briefing "addressing whether the Blewetts’ punishment in this case based on a 100-to-1 ratio of crack to powder cocaine is constitutionally disproportionate in violation of the Eighth Amendment’s Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause. "  Ever interested in sharing my perspectives in full glossy detail, I have spent the last few days finalizing an amicus brief on behalf of NACDL explaining my Eighth Amendment thinking and that brief was filed with the Sixth Circuit (and with the consent of the parties) this afternoon.

For those following the Blewett case or interested in FSA retroactivity arguments, I recommend reading my 15-page filing in full (and I have provided the full document for downloading below).  Here are a few passages that capture some of the themes to be found in the brief:

Through passage of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 (FSA), Congress significantly reduced the sentences mandated and recommended for all crack offenses (1) by raising by over 500% the quantity of crack triggering five- and ten-year minimum sentences, and (2) by ordering the U.S. Sentencing Commission to reduce all crack guideline sentences through emergency amendments to be promulgated “as soon as practicable.”  See Sections 2 & 8 of FSA.  As the Supreme Court has explained, this landmark legislation reflected Congress’ formal response to “the Commission and others in the law enforcement community strongly criticiz[ing] Congress’ decision to set” crack sentences so high relative to powder cocaine sentences and Congress having “specifically found in the Fair Sentencing Act that [each pre-FSA crack] sentence was unfairly long.”  Dorsey v. United States, 132 S. Ct. 2321, 2328, 2333 (2012).  In other words, passage of the FSA is a clear, bold and unmistakable legislative statement by our nation’s representatives that pre-FSA crack sentences were unnecessarily severe, unfair and excessively long.

While the text of the FSA provides the clearest objective evidence of the national consensus against the extreme pre-FSA crack sentencing provisions, federal practices, reflected in the work of other branches both before and after the FSA’s passage, confirm that the now-repealed 100-1 crack/powder cocaine sentencing scheme has long been rejected by all significant federal sentencing decision-makers....

It is not merely notable, but of great constitutional import, that virtually every federal criminal justice actor has in virtually every possible way acted in the last half-decade to demonstrate and vindicate the consensus view that pre-FSA crack sentences were excessively long.  Significantly, in recent Eighth Amendment cases such as Miller and Graham and Kennedy and Roper and Atkins, the Supreme Court found unconstitutional extreme sentences that were still being vigorously defended by the jurisdictions which imposed them.  Here, in sharp contrast, not only have the pre-FSA crack sentences imposed on the Blewetts been repealed by Congress, it is near impossible to find a single modern federal criminal justice decision-maker who will voice any substantive defense of the pre-FSA 100-1 crack sentencing structure.

Download Blewett Amicus NACDL

Related posts on Blewett:

June 28, 2013 in Drug Offense Sentencing, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, New USSC crack guidelines and report, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (13) | TrackBack

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

"Equal justice: An appeals court wisely rules on drug sentencing"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new editorial appearing in today's Pittsburgh Post-Gazette discussing and praising last month's Sixth Circuit ruling in Blewett (basics here).   Here are excerpts:

In the nation's long, costly and practically futile war on drugs, severe sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine stand out as an egregious and misguided policy that was stoked by near-hysteria.

Convinced that crack cocaine was 100 times more dangerous than powder cocaine, lawmakers in 1986 enacted a notorious 100-to-1 sentencing scheme that levied the same prison sentence for possessing 5 grams of crack as it did for 500 grams of powder.

A 2010 law, the Fair Sentencing Act, restored some sanity to federal sentencing laws by narrowing considerably the disparities in sentencing between crack and powder. Unfortunately, the law did not spell out whether the new standards applied retroactively to people who were sentenced before it was enacted.

This month, however, a federal appeals court in Cincinnati ruled correctly that those sentenced for crack cocaine violations before the 2010 law was enacted can be resentenced under the new law. The cleanest and best solution would be for Congress to amend the Fair Sentencing Act to make it fully retroactive.

Until then, the ruling by the appeals court opens the door for thousands of inmates to ask federal judges to shorten their prison sentences. It expands a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year that applied the Fair Sentencing Act to people who committed crack cocaine crimes shortly before more lenient penalties took effect in 2010.

It's time to undo fully these unjust and irrational sentences, which treated powder cocaine users -- who were typically white and often affluent -- far more leniently than the mostly black and poor users of crack cocaine.

Related posts on Blewett:

June 25, 2013 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (21) | TrackBack