Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Seventh Circuit panel seemingly unmoved by feds appeal of probation sentence given to Beanie Babies billionaire

As detailed in this new Chicago Tribune article, "Prosecutors in Warner tax evasion case grilled by appeals court judges," federal prosecutors apparently did not get a warm reception at oral argument in the Seventh Circuit as they pressed their claims that a probation sentence given to a high-profile tax cheat was unreasonable. Here are the basics:

Federal prosecutors appealing the probation sentence of Beanie Babies founder Ty Warner faced a three-judge panel Wednesday to make the case for why the Westmont billionaire should get prison time for evading taxes.

Warner pleaded guilty last year to one count of tax evasion for failing to report more than $24 million in income and skirting $5.5 million in federal taxes on millions of dollars he hid for more than a decade at two Swiss banks.  Prosecutors had been pushing for a sentence of at least one year in prison, partly to deter others from committing the same crime. Sentencing guidelines had called for a prison sentence of up to 57 months.  His defense lawyers had argued that many tax evaders were allowed to join an amnesty program and that, even among those criminally charged and convicted, more than half who had been sentenced received probation.

Ilana Rovner, a U.S. appeals court judge for the seventh circuit, said Wednesday that she had a problem reconciling why the government was seeking to throw out Warner’s sentence when many tax evaders get probation or might not be prosecuted at all.  Also, the amount of tax he evaded was a fraction of what he has paid in taxes, she noted. Warner has already paid a civil penalty for not reporting the offshore accounts and restitution for what he owed in back taxes and interest....

Rovner also noted that prosecutors seem to be ignoring the “considerable discretion” of the district judge, Charles Kocoras, has in imposing a sentence.  He is a “veteran” judge who “obviously agonized” over the decision, she said.

Judge Michael Kanne noted that Warner’s guilty plea “saved the government some money” and that the appeals court “shouldn’t be the sentencing court.”

Judge Joel Flaum wondered why, if Warner’s conduct was so egregious, he was charged with only one count of tax evasion and why the government was seeking at minimum at least a year in prison.  Rovner chimed in, addressing Petersen: “You agreed to this.”

Judge Kanne noted that one count of tax evasion and a minimum prison sentence of a year “doesn’t sound like deterrence to me.”  Petersen responded that probation is a far more lenient sentence than the minimum of one year the government was seeking.

Anyone eager to hear the oral argument in full can access it via this mp3 link from the Seventh Circuit's website.  Notably, former US Solicitor General Paul Clement argued on behalf of the defendant (and I cannot help but wonder if he got some special Beanie Babies from the defendant in addition to the usual fees for his efforts).

Prior related posts:

September 17, 2014 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Texas poised to execute a second female murderer in one year

As reported in this local AP piece, headlined "Court Declines To Stop North Texas Woman’s Execution," it appears as though Texas is not facing any impediments to completing a notable execution on Wednesday.  Here are the basics:

When paramedics responding to a 911 call arrived at a North Texas apartment, they found on the bathroom floor a dead boy clad only in bandages and a disposable diaper. He appeared to be 3 to 5 years old. Further investigation determined Davontae Williams actually was 9.

His emaciated body weighed only 36 pounds, about half of what a boy his age should weigh. Evidence showed he had been restrained repeatedly at his wrists and ankles. A pediatrician later would testify that he had more than 250 distinct injuries, including burns from cigarettes or cigars and scars from ligatures, and that a lack of food made him stop growing.

On Wednesday, Lisa Ann Coleman, the live-in girlfriend of Davontae’s mother, is set to be executed for the child’s July 2004 death in Arlington. Coleman’s trial lawyers said his death was an accident, that the boy had mental health issues, was difficult to handle and she and Marcella Williams, his mother, didn’t know how to deal with him in a positive manner.

Coleman, 38, would be the ninth Texas inmate to receive a lethal injection this year. She would be the sixth woman put to death in the nation’s busiest capital punishment state since executions resumed in Texas in 1982 and the second this year.

Nationally, she would be only the 15th woman executed since the Supreme Court in 1976 allowed the death penalty to resume. During that same time, nearly 1,400 men have been executed.

After a Tarrant County jury in 2006 convicted Coleman and gave her a death sentence, Marcella Williams, facing similar charges, took a plea deal and accepted a life prison term. Now 33, she not eligible for parole until 2044.

Attorneys for Coleman argued in appeals that prosecutors improperly defined Davontae’s restraints and confinement in a closet as kidnapping to find an aggravating factor so Coleman could be eligible for the death penalty. They also argued that jurors who convicted her of capital murder did so because her trial lawyers were deficient. “It has never been Lisa Coleman’s position that she should not be punished for what she did,” attorney John Stickels said in an appeal the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which was rejected Tuesday....

Photos of Davontae shown to jurors were “horrendous” and illustrated his suffering, trial defense attorney Fred Cummings acknowledged, but he believed a life sentence also would have been appropriate for Coleman. “It just doesn’t seem that the system was fairly applied here,” Cummings said last week.

Evidence showed child welfare officials repeatedly investigated Marcella Williams but would lose track of her because she kept moving to evade them, fearing they would take away her son and two younger daughters.

The Death Penalty Information Center has this effective webpage that assembles information about the handful of women who have been executed in the modern death penalty era.  That page reveals that it has been more than a decade since two female murderers were executed in the same calendar year.  It also shows that Texas will still lag behind one other state for the most executions of women in a single year: in 2001, Oklahoma completed executions of three women.

September 16, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Monday, September 08, 2014

Former SAC trader Mathew Martoma gets lengthy (but way-below guideline) federal prison term of nine years for insider trading

As reported in this new USA Today piece, headlined "Ex-SAC Capital trader gets 9-year sentence," a high-profile white-collar sentencing has resulted in a below-guideline (but still lengthy) prison term for an insider trader. Here are some of the interesting details from today's interesting sentencing in New York federal court:

Former SAC Capital portfolio manager Mathew Martoma was sentenced to a nine-year prison term Monday for his central role in what federal prosecutors called the most profitable insider-trading scheme in U.S. history.  Martoma, a former financial lieutenant to billionaire hedge fund founder Steven Cohen, sat silently, declining to speak before U.S. District Judge Paul Gardephe imposed the sentence during a Manhattan federal court hearing.

The judge also ordered the 40-year-old father of three to forfeit nearly $9.4 million — more than his current net worth — and surrender for imprisonment on Nov. 10.  His attorneys are expected to file an appeal of his Feb. 6 conviction.

Federal jurors found Martoma guilty of conspiracy and two counts of securities fraud after a month-long trial during which the defendant declined to testify.  The case centered on charges that Martoma illegally obtained disappointing results of clinical tests on an experimental Alzheimer's disease drug in 2008 by cultivating relationships with two doctors who were privy to details of the testing outcome.  Martoma then set in motion a $700 million sell-off of SAC Capital stock holdings in shares of Elan and Wyeth, the pharmaceutical firms that developed the drug.  The transactions generated approximately $276 million in profits and avoided losses, along with a nearly $9.4 million 2008 bonus for Martoma.

The sentence imposed by Gardephe was lower than the 188-months-to-235-months range specified in federal sentencing guidelines.  It exceeded the eight-year prison term recommended by probation officials and met prosecutors' request for a sentence higher than that recommendation.

The sentence came after defense attorney Richard Strassberg argued for leniency.... He urged Gardephe to weigh Martoma's devotion to his family and history of helping others. The defense lawyer also filed more than 100 support letters from Martoma's relatives and friends — some of whom were in the courtroom for Monday's sentencing.

The defense team also argued that Martoma was the sole source of financial support for his wife, Rosemary, and the couple's three young children.  "Mathew, as a person, is much more than the charge of insider-trading that has brought us all to this courtroom today," said Strassberg.  He argued that a "just" sentence would consider Martoma's history of charitable acts and helping others.

But federal prosecutor Arlo Devlin-Brown said "It is hard to think of a more significant and brazen instance of insider trading than the case before this court.  The sentence in this case, we submit, must reflect the seriousness of this significant breach."

Gardephe, however, said he had weighed all of the submissions from both sides and studied sentences in other insider trading convictions in New York's Southern federal district.  The judge credited Martoma's charity and other acts of generosity but he said the evidence showed that Martoma went for "one big score" that would provide lifetime security.  "His plan worked, but now he has to deal with the fallout."

Gardephe also referred to Martoma's expulsion from Harvard Law School for falsifying a grades transcript, as well as his subsequent admission to Stanford University's business school without disclosing the expulsion.  Saying "there is a darker side" to Martoma's character, Gardephe added, "I do believe there is a connection" to the insider trading episode.  "The common thread is an unwillingness to accept anything but the top grade ... and the highest bonus."

September 8, 2014 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Intriguing concurring sentiments about federal child porn downloading cases from Judges Noonan and Reinhardt

Late last week, two judges on the Ninth Circuit made noteworthy an otherwise forgettable decision in US v. Hardrick, No. 13-50195 (9th CIr. Sept. 4, 2014) (available here), through their concurring opinions in a run-of-the-mill affirmance of federal conviction of a child pornography downloader.  Here is the text of Judge Noonan's Hardrick concurring addition:

I write to underline the need for further action to discourage a crime whose actual extent is unknown but whose commission is increasingly prosecuted as a serious federal offense. As pointed out in a thoughtful communication by Alexandra Gelber, Assistant Deputy Chief, Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section of the Criminal Division of the Department of Justice: Those convicted of the crimes of possessing, receiving, or distributing child pornography typically have no criminal record but “include professors, teachers, coaches, fathers, lawyers, doctors, foster parents, adoption agency owners, and more.”  See Alexandra Gelber, Response to “A Reluctant Rebellion” 7 (July 1, 2009), http://www.justice.gov/criminal/ceos/downloads/ReluctantRebellionResponse.pdf. Obviously, lack of criminal history is not a defense.  It is equally obvious that this kind of defendant is normally law-abiding and, unless suffering from some psychological impairment — the probability Judge Reinhardt effectively develops — could be expected to obey the law in this area if aware of its provisions and especially if aware of its sanctions. Why should the government not advertise the law and its penalty?  Better to stop a crime’s commission than mop the consequences.

Judge Reinhardt's comment are a bit more extended, and here are excerpts:

Like Judge Noonan, I concur in the unanimous opinion of the court. Also, like Judge Noonan, I am disturbed about the practical impact of the child pornography laws upon otherwise law-abiding individuals.  I do not agree, however, that advertising the legal consequences is a solution to the problem.  Rather, it is my view that “psychological impairment” is in most, if not all, cases the cause of the criminal conduct.  Whether psychiatric treatment rather than incarceration would be the proper response by state authorities is a matter that I would hope would be given more serious consideration than it has until now.  Surely sentences of five to twenty years for a first offense of viewing child pornography are not the solution.  See 18 U.S.C. § 2252(b)(1).  Nor are mandatory sentences of fifteen to forty years for a second.  See id.....

I do not profess to know the solution to the problem of how to cure the illness that causes otherwise law-abiding people to engage in the viewing of child pornography.  I know only that lengthy sentences such as the one in this case, ten years (and below the guidelines at that) for a first offense, cannot be the answer.

There is nothing new in what I say here, but it is a problem that I believe deserves more attention than we have given it thus far.  Many lives of otherwise decent people have been ruined by psychological problems they are not presently capable of controlling. Incarcerating them will not end the horror of child pornography or the injury it inflicts on innocent children.  All it accomplishes is to create another class of people with ruined lives — victims of serious mental illness who society should instead attempt to treat in a constructive and humane manner.

September 8, 2014 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Pregame preview of another high-profile insider-trading sentencing in NYC

This new BloombergBusinessweek article, headlined "Mathew Martoma, Convicted SAC Trader, Gets Sentenced Today," provides these basics about a not-so-basic, white-collar sentencing scheduled in federal court today:

Around 9 pm on November 8, 2011, a pair of FBI agents pulled up outside of Mathew Martoma’s home in Boca Raton, a 6,200 square-foot mansion tucked behind a circular driveway and lavish palm trees.  They were there to talk to Martoma about insider trading at SAC Capital, his former employer and one of the world’s largest hedge funds.

The SEC, the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Manhattan were five years into a far-reaching investigation of illegal trading among hedge funds across the country, and just three weeks before, Raj Rajaratnam, the co-founder of the $7 billion fund the Galleon Group, had been sentenced to a record 11-year prison term for insider trading.

The government was fairly confident that Martoma would lead them to an even bigger prize: one of the richest men in the world and the founder of SAC, Steven A. Cohen.  From that point on, nothing proceeded quite as the government expected. Instead, Martoma is scheduled to be sentenced today in what prosecutors describe as “the most lucrative insider trading scheme ever charged.”

After an investigation, an arrest and a high-profile five-week trial in January, Martoma was convicted of insider trading in two drug stocks, Elan and Wyeth, and earning profits and avoiding losses of $275 million while working as a portfolio manager at SAC. The government alleged that he spoke with Cohen right after learning about important drug trial results, and that Cohen traded the two stocks as well. Martoma’s was the eighth conviction of a former or current SAC employee of insider trading....

From the FBI’s perspective, Martoma was an ideal candidate for cooperation. He has three young children and a beautiful, devoted wife, all of whom he would be separated from during a long prison term. He was also fired from SAC after failing to replicate his success in Elan and Wyeth and, the government believed, there was powerful evidence against him. He had no reason to be loyal to his former boss and he had a lot to lose. Still, Martoma baffled everyone by refusing to flip, insisting he was innocent and bringing the government’s determined march toward Cohen to an abrupt stop. Without a witness, any developing case against the hedge fund founder fell apart. Now it is Martoma who faces a sentence of up to 20 years, although it’s likely to be closer to 8.

Cohen was never charged with insider trading, and his life goes on relatively unchanged. Prosecutors indicted SAC in January, 2013, calling the company a “magnet for market cheaters.” The firm agreed to plead guilty and pay a $1.2 billion fine (not including $600 million already pledged to the SEC over Martoma’s trades). A civil case brought by the SEC charging Cohen with failing to supervise his employees has not been resolved. Cohen shut down his hedge fund and transformed his firm into a family office, Point72 Asset Management, which invests his personal fortune.

September 8, 2014 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Sunday, September 07, 2014

"Race and Punishment: Racial Perceptions of Crime and Support for Punitive Policies"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new report from The Sentencing Project.  Here is how The Sentencing Project summarizes its content on this overview webpage:

This report examines how racial perceptions of crime are a key cause of the severity of punishment in the United States. Race and Punishment: Racial Perceptions of Crime and Support for Punitive Policies, authored by Nazgol Ghandnoosh, Ph.D., research analyst at The Sentencing Project, synthesizes two decades of research revealing that white Americans’ strong associations of crime with blacks and Latinos are related to their support for punitive policies that disproportionately impact people of color.

Coming on the heels of the tragic events in Ferguson, Missouri, the report demonstrates that the consequences of white Americans’ strong associations of crime with blacks and Latinos extend far beyond policing.

Key findings of the report include: 

  • White Americans overestimate the proportion of crime committed by people of color, and associate people of color with criminality.  For example, white respondents in a 2010 survey overestimated the actual share of burglaries, illegal drug sales, and juvenile crime committed by African Americans by 20-30%. 

  • Studies have shown that whites who associate crime with blacks and Latinos are more likely to support punitive policies – including capital punishment and mandatory minimum sentencing – than whites with weaker racial associations of crime. 

  • These patterns help to explain why whites are more punitive than blacks and Latinos even though they are less likely to be victims of crime. In 2013, a majority of whites supported the death penalty for someone convicted of murder, while half of Hispanics and a majority of blacks opposed this punishment.

  • Racial perceptions of crime not only influence public opinion about criminal justice policies, they also directly influence the work of criminal justice practitioners and policymakers who operate with their own often-unintentional biases.

The report recommends proven interventions for the media, policymakers, and criminal justice professionals to reduce racial perceptions of crime and mitigate their effects on the justice system.  These include addressing disparities in crime reporting, reducing the severity and disparate impact of criminal sentencing, and tackling racial bias in the formal policies and discretionary decisions of criminal justice practitioners.

September 7, 2014 in Offender Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

"Rethink sentencing and parole to solve aging, costly prison population"

The title of this post is the headline of this new editorial from a local South Carolina paper.  Yet, even though focused on some Palmetto State particulars, many of the points and themes in the editorial have broad applicability in many US jurisdictions.  Here are excerpts:

The term "life in prison" is easy enough to understand when it is handed down as a sentence in a courtroom.  But after the courtroom drama subsides, Corrections Department officials must face the realities of feeding, housing and caring for criminals who will spend decades in prison.

For many, the sentences are a just and fair punishment.  Often, they are also necessary to keep the public safe.  But some who will spend their lives behind bars must do so because of overly severe mandatory sentencing laws.

Regardless, any prisoner costs the state and its taxpayers a lot of money.  Prisons should serve to deter would-be criminals and separate society from its most dangerous members. Problems — and extra costs — arise when they must also serve as mental health facilities and nursing homes.

According to a recent report by The State newspaper, the number of South Carolina inmates over the age of 55 has more than doubled over the last 10 years. And that number is expected to increase without reforms to the way the state handles its sentencing and parole laws.

Many aging prisoners were sentenced long before a 2010 legislative reform reduced sentences for some non-violent crimes while strengthening punishments for violent offenders. That bill was so effective that it has reduced the prison population in the state by more than 10 percent overall and slashed the number of incarcerated non-violent offenders in the years since its passage.

South Carolina has also implemented programs, including a "smart probation" system, that have helped cut the rate of recidivism dramatically, as The Post and Courier reported on Sunday.   Even so, the state's cost per inmate continues to rise, and part of that increase is due to the expense of caring for aging prisoners with additional medical needs and accompanying logistical concerns....

The South Carolina Sentencing Reform Commission prepares an annual review of the state corrections system with a particular focus on the impact of the 2010 legislation.  That data show that sentencing reform has, by and large, been a success story. But more work remains.  South Carolina should continue its reform of sentencing laws while focusing on rehabilitation for offenders who pose a minimal threat if given probation rather than prison.

The Legislature should also consider expanding parole options for aging inmates who have served substantial portions of their sentences, have serious chronic medical conditions or are unlikely to pose a threat should they be released under supervision.  Every prisoner who can safely be released on parole represents thousands of dollars of savings for taxpayers....

Any decision must consider both what is cost effective and acceptable for public safety. If some older prisoners who have effectively paid their debt to society can be allowed to re-enter society safely and at a savings to taxpayers, then there is little reason to keep them locked away.

September 2, 2014 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Monday, September 01, 2014

Gendered perspective on Ohio's challenges with opioids and prison growth

As reported in this recent Toledo Blade editorial, headlined "Women in prison: A big increase in female inmates should prompt changes in how Ohio’s courts deal with addiction," Ohio has struggled of late with an increase in its prison population.  And this reality has prompted at least one prominent paper to urge reforms focused on a particular demographic:

A stunning rise in the number of women entering Ohio prisons should encourage elected officials to seek better ways of managing the state’s $1.5-billion-a-year prison system.

Driven largely by a growing number of drug-addicted offenders from rural counties, Ohio prisons now hold nearly 4,200 women. From 2012 to 2013, the number of women coming to state prisons increased by 11 percent, from 2,580 to 2,854, said JoEllen Smith, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.

Ohio’s opioid and heroin epidemic is largely to blame for the increase, as more low-level female drug offenders are sent to prison. “That population is very much nonviolent and drug-addicted, often with male co-defendants leading the case,” state prisons Director Gary Mohr said recently.

At the Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville, which holds more than 2,600 prisoners, the top three offenses for women entering the prison are drug possession, theft, and trafficking, said public information officer Elizabeth Wright. Moreover, the statewide share of women prisoners coming from rural counties — those with fewer than 100,000 residents — has nearly doubled in the past decade. Altogether, Ohio’s 28 prisons hold more than 50,000 inmates....

Mr. Mohr has prudently called for diverting more low-level drug offenders from prison to community-based treatment programs. To do that, Ohio will need more adult drug courts. Most counties, including Lucas County, still don’t have a drug court. The state also needs more community programs to serve as effective alternatives to incarceration.

Ohio’s prosecutors and judges also must get better educated on addiction. Too many of them still don’t understand that chemical addiction is a compulsive disease, not a moral choice. “A big part of the problem is that a number of people, including judges and prosecutors, see addiction as a state in which people have more control than they actually have,” Orman Hall, the director of Gov. John Kasich’s Opiate Action Team, told The Blade’s editorial page. “Opioid and heroin addiction is a compulsive disorder. In the early stages, people have very little ability not to relapse.”

Finally, prisons must expand the amount of effective drug treatment they provide, even as Ohio courts continue to send them people who would be better served in community programs. The growing number of women entering prison in Ohio is more than a demographic shift. It’s a grim reminder that the state’s criminal justice system is failing to deal effectively, and humanely, with its heroin and opioid epidemic.

September 1, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Sunday, August 31, 2014

"Rational Criminal Addictions"

The title of this post is the title of this intriguing paper now available on SSRN and authored by Manuel Utset. Here is the abstract:

This article argues that repeated criminal misconduct, at least in some areas, has the characteristics of a habit or addiction.  Curiosity or a transient attraction can lead an offender to commit her first crime.  This first infraction will give her a sense of how much she enjoyed it, and whether she has the talent, and stomach, to continue down a path of repeated misconduct.  If the feedback is sufficiently positive, the offender may commit a second crime, and possibly a third.

At some point, the offender will find herself with the opportunity to commit yet another crime, and realize that the immediate disutility of stopping, of going back into a life as a law-abiding citizen, is too great: she may find that the immediate disutility of foregoing a criminal opportunity is too high.  Once the habit takes hold, the offender may continue to commit crimes, even if doing so leads her to suffer large aggregate negative internalities. An offender is thus “addicted to criminal misconduct” if her previous history of misconduct increases the marginal utility of committing a crime in the current period by a sufficient amount; that is, if the immediate disutility from stopping has reached a cut-off point, such that she violates the law notwithstanding the fact that but-for the addiction she would have obeyed the law.

The addicted criminal trades off the heightened immediate disutility from obeying the law against the reduction in total utility due to the negative internalities — including expected sanctions.  After setting forth the rational criminal addiction theory, the article develops a number of legal implications that follow from the theory.

August 31, 2014 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Friday, August 29, 2014

Based on additional 3553(a) justifications, Eighth Circuit affirms "profound downward variance to a sentence of probation" in multi-million dollar fraud

Especially in the years right after after Booker, the Eighth Circuit garnered a (seemingly well-deserved) reputation as one of the circuits most likely to reverse below-guideline sentences as too lenient.  But after a number of those reversals were thereafter reversed by the Supreme Court in cases like Gall and Pepper, it seemed the Eighth Circuit became somewhat more willing to uphold below-guideline sentences, and today in US v. Cole, No. 11-1232 (8th Cir. Aug. 29, 2014) (available here), a unanimous panel has upheld a probation sentence in a high-loss, white-collar case that in the past I would expect to see reversed based on the government's appeal.

The Cole decision from the Eighth Circuit is relatively short, and it is today's must-read for any and all white-collar practitioners.   Here are snippets that help highlight why:

A jury found Abby Rae Cole guilty of conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud, tax evasion, and conspiracy to commit tax fraud.  The district court sentenced Cole to three years probation, a downward variance from the advisory Guidelines range of 135 to 168 months imprisonment.  The government appealed the sentence as substantively unreasonable, and Cole cross-appealed her convictions.  We affirmed the convictions but declined to reach the issue of whether the sentence is substantively unreasonable, finding procedural error in the lack of an adequate explanation by the district court for the sentence and the substantial downward variance.  We remanded the case to afford the district court a chance to supply an adequate explanation....

In our previous opinion, we noted that before reaching the substantive reasonableness of a sentence “‘[w]e must first ensure that the district court committed no significant procedural error,’” such as “failing to adequately explain the chosen sentence—including an explanation for any deviation from the Guidelines range.” Id. (quoting United States v. Feemster, 572 F.3d 455, 461 (8th Cir. 2009) (en banc)). We noted that Cole and her co-conspirators’ convictions were based on the theft of approximately $33 million from Best Buy over a four-year period and the evasion of over $3 million in taxes, Cole’s sentencing Guidelines range was 135 to 168 months imprisonment, and Cole’s co-conspirators, her husband and a Best Buy employee, received sentences of 180 and 90 months respectively. Despite these facts, the district court provided scant explanation for the profound downward variance to a sentence of probation.

On remand, the district court received additional briefing from the parties, conducted a hearing in which it heard additional argument with respect to sentencing, and then announced its reasons for the downward variance and the probationary sentence in a lengthy and comprehensive analysis concluding with the observation that this is an “unusual, extraordinary case in which a sentence of three years probation was appropriate.”  In the additional analysis, the district court touched on all of the section 3553(a) factors in explaining the rationale behind the sentence it imposed upon Cole. The district court recognized the numerous restrictions Cole endured while on probation and the “lifelong restrictions” she faces as a federal felon, see 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a)(2)(A)&(B); the court stressed that, with the probationary sentence, Cole would be less likely to commit further crimes as she “has a far greater likelihood of successful rehabilitation with family support and stable employment,” see 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a)(2)(C). The court also explained that while “[t]his was one of the largest corporate frauds in Minnesota history and was also a significant tax fraud,” Cole served a more minor role as, in the court’s judgment, she was “mostly a passive, although legally responsible, participant.” See 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a)(1).  The court focused on Cole’s history and characteristics, emphasizing that she had no prior contact with law enforcement and was “markedly different” than “most of the fraudsters who appear before th[e] Court” in that Cole “is not a consummate fraudster, she is not a pathological liar.” See 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a)(6). Finally, the district court explained that the probationary sentence would allow Cole to work and earn money to make restitution to the victims of the fraud.  See 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a)(7).

The United States persists in its appeal, contending that the district court improperly based the sentence on Cole’s socioeconomic status, her restitution obligations, and her loss of criminally derived income.  However, the facts of Cole’s fall from an industrious and highly successful entrepreneur to convicted felon and the loss of the bulk of her legitimately acquired assets cannot be denied.  We find no error in the district court’s reference to these events....

While we do not minimize the seriousness of the crimes perpetrated by Cole and the staggering nature of the fraudulent scheme in which Cole was a participant, the district court here, unlike in Dautovic, has adequately explained the sentence and appropriately considered the section 3553(a) factors in varying downward to a probationary sentence, making “precisely the kind of defendant-specific determinations that are within the special competence of sentencing courts.”  Feemster, 572 F.3d at 464 (quotation omitted).  For instance, the district court noted that Cole’s role in the offense was mostly as a passive participant and Cole was not the typical white collar defendant the court had observed in similar criminal schemes.  We find no error in the weighing of the section 3553(a) factors, and thus the district court did not abuse its substantial discretion in sentencing Cole to probation.

This ruling strikes me a one-in-a-million outcome: I cannot recall another case (out of the nearly million cases that have been sentenced in the federal system since Booker) in which the defendant faced a guideline range of 11 to 14 years and received a sentence of probation.  This outcome seems all that much more remarkable given that this huge (and now declared reasonable) variance was in a case in which the defendant did not plead guilty or provide substantial assistance to the government and involved "one of the largest corporate frauds in Minnesota history and was also a significant tax fraud."

Because this Cole case seems remarkable in many ways, and because it likely will be (and should be) cited by nearly every white-collar offender facing federal sentencing in the months and years ahead, it would not shock me if the Justice Department seriously considers pursuing an appeal up to the Supreme Court. 

August 29, 2014 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Notable federal case impacted by SCOTUS Miller ruling nearly two decades after initial sentencing

This local story out of Kansas City, headlined "Judge orders new sentencing hearing for defendant in deaths of six KC firefighters," reports on a notable new legal development in an old case as a result of the Supreme Court's Eighth Amendment ruling in Miller v. Alabama.  Here are excerpts (with my emphasis added for reasons explained below):

A man serving a life sentence for his role in the 1988 explosion deaths of six Kansas City firefighters will get a new sentencing hearing, a federal judge has ruled.

U.S. District Judge Fernando Gaitan signed orders Monday setting aside the life sentence given to Bryan E. Sheppard in 1997.  Gaitan ordered probation officers to prepare a new sentencing report on Sheppard and told prosecutors and Sheppard’s lawyers to write sentencing memos to be submitted to him by Sept. 26.  After that, Gaitan will review the paperwork, confer with attorneys and set a date for Sheppard to be re-sentenced, according to federal court records.

Sheppard, who was 17 at the time of the explosion, asked for a new sentencing hearing because the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that “mandatory life without parole for those under the age of 18 at the time of their crimes violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on ‘cruel and unusual punishments.’”

In February, prosecutors agreed that Sheppard was covered by the Supreme Court ruling and deserved a chance to make his case for a reduced sentence before a federal judge.

Firefighters Thomas Fry, Gerald Halloran, Luther Hurd, James Kilventon Jr., Robert D. McKarnin and Michael Oldham died before dawn Nov. 29, 1988, while fighting a fire in a construction trailer parked near the site of a U.S. 71 widening project. The trailer contained 25,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate mixed with fuel oil. It erupted in a massive explosion that ignited a second explosives trailer. The two blasts were felt for miles.

A federal jury convicted five defendants nearly nine years later. All were sentenced to life in prison.

The passage I have highlighted is noteworthy because it reveals that federal prosecutors in this case (and I am pretty sure in others) agree that the Supreme Court's Miller ruling should be applied retroactively.  As regular readers know, the issue of Miller retroactivity has split state courts and it seems only a matter of time before the SCOTUS resolves the split.

August 26, 2014 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Will third time be a charm in federal sentencing of child porn defendant Richard Bistline?

Regular readers and those who follow closely federal sentencing of child pornography offender will recall the name Richard Bistline: as detailed in posts linked below, the Bistline's sentencing created a kind of battle royale between US District Judge James Graham and the Sixth Circuit.  This coming week, as reported in this Columbus Dispatch article, Bistline is scheduled to be resentenced yet again, this time by a different district judge after Judge Graham's prior sentences were twice found to be substantively unreasonable by the Sixth Circuit.  Here are excerpts from the Dispatch article providing the backstory:

Are federal sentencing guidelines for possessing child pornography too harsh?  Calling the guidelines “draconian,” U.S. District Judge James L. Graham has become increasingly vocal in his criticism from the federal bench in Columbus.

Possessing child porn is vastly different from distributing or producing it, Graham said in an interview last week. “The purveyors or producers of these images deserve the most severe punishment we can give them.  My concern is the people who end up possessing it.”

Richard Bistline, a Knox County man, is to be in federal court on Wednesday to be sentenced for the third time for child-porn possession.  His case thrust Graham into the spotlight in 2010 after the judge sentenced Bistline, of Mount Vernon, to one day in prison, 30 days of home confinement and 10 years of probation.  The recommended sentence under federal guidelines was five to six years.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Deborah A. Solove appealed Graham’s sentence to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled that the penalty did not reflect the seriousness of the offense.  The appeals court ordered Graham to resentence the defendant.  But a defiant Graham again sentenced Bistline to a single day in prison, although he increased the home confinement to three years.  Solove again appealed, and the 6th Circuit court again ruled that Graham’s sentence was too lenient.  The court removed Graham from the case.

Judge George C. Smith is to sentence Bistline on Wednesday....

Graham says the guidelines for child-porn possession are outdated.  Adding points for looking at child porn on a computer is unjustified, he said, because nearly all of it is accessed that way.  Adding points for possession of numerous images is unjustified because “current technology produces numerous images with one key stroke or mouse click,” he said....

In its second Bistline ruling, the appeals court wrote that possessing child porn “is not a crime of inadvertence, of pop-up screens and viruses that incriminate an innocent person.”  Possession becomes a crime “when a defendant knowingly acquires the images — in this case, affirmatively, deliberately and repeatedly, hundreds of times over, in a period exceeding a year."

Graham isn’t alone in his contention that the guidelines are outdated.  A 2013 U.S. Sentencing Commission report on federal child-porn guidelines noted that many of the sentencing enhancements designed to further punish the worst possessors now apply to most offenders....

Other men who have pleaded guilty to one count of child-porn possession in federal court in Columbus, as Bistline did, have received multiple-year sentences.  Among them: former special deputy sheriff Todd R. German of Union County, sentenced last year to four years; former Reynoldsburg teacher Matthew Fisher, sentenced in 2011 to three years; and former Columbus doctor Philip Nowicki, sentenced in 2011 to two years.

Graham said most of the child-porn-possession defendants he sees have no previous criminal record and “are involved in viewing these images as a result of what appears to be a form of addiction I think is becoming more and more prevalent in today’s society, affecting people of all ages.”  Just by being found guilty, he said, they face ruined lives, for both themselves and their families.  “They need to stop it,” he said. “The men who are doing this are going to get caught.”

Prior related posts:

August 24, 2014 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Detailing the high cost of an aging prison population in the Palmetto State

1dNMJN.AuSt.74This lengthy local article, headlined "Graying of SC prisons will cost state’s taxpayers," reports in a South Carolina context an issue facing nearly every American jurisdiction as the costs of past tough-on-crime policies come due. Here are excerpts:

An inmate at Camille Griffin Graham Correctional Institution for women keeps a wheelchair tucked away in the corner of her small, cinder-block cell.  She has a walker, too.  The wheelchair and walker are just two of the signs of the exploding population of aging inmates in South Carolina’s prisons.

Another sign? The dollar sign, as in the increasing cost that S.C. taxpayers will have to pay to care for those aging inmates.  In the past decade, the number of S.C. inmates age 55 and older has more than doubled, according to the S.C. Corrections Department. At the end of June, one in every 11 inmates was 55 or older.  The graying of the state’s prison system will continue, experts warn. Barring changes in the state’s parole system, they add that the aging prison population stands to become even more expensive for taxpayers to support....

“We’ve passed policies and laws that have dictated we want our prisons to become nursing homes,” said Jon Ozmint, the Columbia lawyer who was head of the state’s prison system under former Gov. Mark Sanford.  Those policies and laws come with a cost to taxpayers. It costs about twice as much nationally to house a prisoner over 50 as it does the average prisoner, according to a 2012 study by the American Civil Liberties Union. “Do we really want to keep them (inmates) in prison until they die?” Ozmint asked rhetorically. “It feels good.  It makes a certain segment of society feel good.  But it’s a costly proposition.”...

Today, the oldest inmate at Camille Graham Correctional Institution is 70 years old. A few of the women at the prison, located off Broad River Road, have been locked up for more than 25 years.  One inmate has been incarcerated for almost 37 years.  But, in one key way, Graham Correctional is not representative of the state’s prison population: Its inmates are women. And as the state’s prison system grays, its senior-citizen inmates overwhelmingly stand to be men.

In 2013, 10 percent of the state’s prisoners — or 2,263 inmates — were serving sentences that called on them to live out their lives in prison or be executed.  Almost all of those 2,263 inmates were men.  Less than 90 were women....

The aging prison population has been driven by the war on drugs and tough-on-crime sentences, said Ozmint, who led S.C. prisons for eight years.  “Feel-good legislation” — including truth-in-sentencing — essentially did away with parole, keeping inmates in prison until they are old, he said.  As a result, many elderly and infirm inmates are not eligible for parole.

Medical parole is an option for elderly prisoners who were convicted of a parole-eligible offense, said Pete O’Boyle, spokesman for the state Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services.  Since 2010, however, no requests for medical parole have been granted in South Carolina.  Of 13 requests, 10 were deemed eligible for a hearing, O’Boyle said.  Of those 10, seven inmates were turned down by the parole board.  Three inmates were granted conditional parole, but two completed their sentences before they were paroled. The third was sent back to prison for another offense.

Historically, winning parole has been difficult in South Carolina in any event, says Ozmint. That is because the state’s parole board has given great weight to the understandable anger of crime victims in deciding whether to grant parole, the former prisons chief says. However, the current parole board has come a long way toward making less emotional decisions, based on objective risk factors and public safety, he added....

Ozmint expects the prison system’s elderly population will continue to grow, creating the need for more geriatric facilities, which are more expensive to operate than regular prisons.  Those rising health-care costs directly will impact taxpayers, he adds.  A solution could be found in turning to the private sector to handle elderly prisoners, Ozmint said. But that assumes for-profit prisons can operate more cheaply the state’s notoriously skinflint prisons.

Corrections Department director Bryan Stirling, who took the post heading S.C. prisons in October, says telemedicine is a more cost-effective option to provide medical services. Now, inmates sometimes are taken off-site for doctor’s visits or other health-care needs. Multiple correctional officers must travel with them, which is expensive, Stirling said. If telemedicine is used, an off-site doctor could care for an inmate via a video conference. But, problematically, that would require transferring inmates’ medical records electronically, Stirling said....

For the moment, at least, a drop in the number of state prisoners has freed up resources that could be used to offset to increased health-care costs.  The number of inmates in S.C. prisons has been decreasing steadily since sentencing reform ... was passed in 2010. As of June 30, the state had 21,904 prisoners, down from 24,883 five years earlier, according to the Corrections Department.

That reform increased sentences for violent criminals but allowed some nonviolent offenders to avoid prison.  “Any time someone is not incarcerated, it’s a savings for the state,” Stirling said.  “It’s a tremendous savings for the state.”

August 24, 2014 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Sunday, August 17, 2014

"Adverse childhood events: Incarceration of household members and health-related quality of life in adulthood"

HpucoversmallVia The Crime Report, I came across this new report in the August 2014 issue of the Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved.  The piece has the title that is the title of this post, and here is the abstract:

Background. Incarceration of a household member has been associated with adverse outcomes for child well-being.

Methods. We assessed the association between childhood exposure to the incarceration of a household member and adult health-related quality of life (HRQOL) in the 2009/2010 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System controlling for age, race/ethnicity, education, and additional adverse childhood experiences.

Results.  Adults who lived in childhood with an incarcerated household member had higher risk of poor HRQOL compared with adults who had not (adjusted relative risk [ARR] 1.18; 95% CI 1.07, 1.31).  Among Black adults the association was strongest with the physical health component of HRQOL (ARR 1.58 [95% CI 1.18, 2.12]); among White adults, the association was strongest with the mental health component of HRQOL (ARR 1.29, [95% CI 1.07–1.54]).

Conclusions.  Living with an incarcerated household member during childhood is associated with higher risk of poor HRQOL during adulthood, suggesting that the collateral damages of incarceration for children are long-term.

Also appearing in the same journal issue are these two additional studies exploring the impact of prisoner release and health-care:

August 17, 2014 in Data on sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Noting the push for reforming the fraud federal sentencing guidelines

This lengthy new AP article, headlined "Sentencing Changes Sought for Business Crimes," discusses the on-going push to reform the federal sentencing guidelines for fraud offenses.  Here are excerpts:

The federal panel that sets sentencing policy eased penalties this year for potentially tens of thousands of drug dealers.  Now, defense lawyers and prisoner advocates are pushing for similar treatment for an arguably less-sympathetic category of defendants: swindlers, embezzlers, insider traders and other white-collar criminals.

Lawyers who have long sought the changes say a window to act opened once the U.S. Sentencing Commission cleared a major priority from its agenda by cutting sentencing ranges for nonviolent drug dealers.  The commission, which meets Thursday to vote on priorities for the coming year, already has expressed interest in examining punishments for white-collar crime. And the Justice Department, though not advocating wholesale changes, has said it welcomes a review.

It's unclear what action the commission will take, especially given the public outrage at fraudsters who stole their clients' life savings and lingering anger over the damage inflicted by the 2008 financial crisis.

Sentencing guidelines are advisory rather than mandatory, but judges still rely heavily on them for consistency's sake.  The discussion about revamping white-collar sentences comes as some federal judges have chosen to ignore the existing guidelines as too stiff for some cases and as the Justice Department looks for ways to cut costs in an overpopulated federal prison system....

The commission's action to soften drug-crime guidelines is a signal that the time is ripe, defense lawyers say.  Just as drug sentences have historically been determined by the amount of drugs involved, white-collar punishments have been defined by the total financial loss caused by the crime.  Advocates hope the commission's decision to lower sentencing guideline ranges for drug crimes, effectively de-emphasizing the significance of drug quantity, paves the way for a new sentencing scheme that removes some of the weight attached to economic loss.

A 2013 proposal from an American Bar Association task force would do exactly that, encouraging judges to place less emphasis on how much money was lost and more on a defendant's culpability.  Under the proposal, judges would more scrupulously weigh less-quantifiable factors, including motive, the scheme's duration and sophistication, and whether the defendant actually stole money or merely intended to.  The current structure, lawyers say, means bit players in a large fraud risk getting socked with harsh sentences despite playing a minimal role....

No one is seeking leniency for imprisoned financier Bernie Madoff, who's serving a 150-year sentence for bilking thousands of people of nearly $20 billion, or fallen corporate titans whose greed drove their companies into the ground.  But defense lawyers are calling for a sentencing structure that considers the broad continuum of economic crime and that better differentiates between, for example, thieves who steal a dollar each from a million people versus $1 million from one person.

Any ambitious proposal will encounter obstacles.  It's virtually impossible to muster the same public sympathy for white-collar criminals as for crack-cocaine defendants sentenced under old guidelines now seen as excessively harsh, which took a disproportionate toll on racial minorities.  The drug-sentencing overhaul also was promoted as fiscally prudent, because drug offenders account for roughly half the federal prison population.  Tea Party conservatives and liberal groups united behind the change.

In comparison, the clamor for changing white-collar guidelines has been muted. The Justice Department, already criticized for its paucity of criminal prosecutions arising from the financial crisis, has said it's open to a review but has not championed dramatic change. "I don't think there's a political will for really cutting back or retooling the guidelines," said Columbia University law professor Daniel Richman.

August 13, 2014 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Eleventh Circuit finds probation sentence for public corruption substantively unreasonable

All federal sentencing fans and white-collar practitioners will want to be sure to check out a lengthy opinion today from the Eleventh Circuit in US v. Hayes, No. 11-13678 (11th Cir. Aug 12, 2014) (available here). This start to the majority opinion in Hayes highlights why the substance of the ruling is noteworthy:

“Corruption,” Edward Gibbon wrote more than two centuries ago, is “the most infallible symptom of constitutional liberty.” EDWARD GIBBON, THE HISTORY OF THE DECLINE AND FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE, Vol. II, Ch. XXI, at 805 (David Womersley ed., Penguin Classics 1995) [1781].  And so, although unfortunate, it is perhaps not surprising that, even today, people continue to pay bribes to government officials with the expectation that they will make decisions based on how much their palms have been greased, and not what they think is best for the constituents they serve.

In this criminal appeal involving corruption in Alabama’s higher education system, we consider whether the district court abused its discretion by imposing a sentence of three years of probation (with a special condition of six to twelve months of home confinement) on a 67-year-old business owner who — over a period of four years — doled out over $600,000 in bribes to a state official in order to ensure that his company would continue to receive government contracts, and whose company reaped over $5 million in profits as a result of the corrupt payments.  For the reasons which follow, we hold that such a sentence was indeed unreasonable.

Adding to the fun and intrigue of the ruling, Judge Tjoflat has a dissent that runs almost twice as long as the extended majority opinion.  Here is how it gets started (with footnotes omitted):

I fully agree with the court that the sentence of probation Hayes received in this case of massive public corruption is shockingly low and should not have been imposed.  In appealing the sentence, the Government treats the District Court as the scapegoat, as if placing Hayes on probation was all the court’s doing.  The truth is that it was the Government’s doing.  To ensure that Hayes was given adequate credit for cooperating in its investigation, the Government deliberately led the District Court to abandon the Sentencing Guidelines, which called for a prison sentence of 135 to 168 months, and then to ignore the Supreme Court’s explicit instructions, in Gall v. United States, 552 U.S. 38, 128 S. Ct. 586, 169 L. Ed. 2d 445 (2007), on the procedure to use in fashioning an appropriate sentence.  This set the stage for the court’s adoption of a fictitious Guideline range of 41 to 51 months and its creation of a downward variance to a sentence of probation.

In appealing Hayes’s sentence to this court, the Government deliberately avoids any discussion of the District Court’s procedural error.  To the contrary, it accepts the fictitious Guideline range the court adopted.  All it complains of is the variance from that fictitious range to a sentence of probation, arguing that it is substantively unreasonable.  Because it invited the procedural error, which, in turn, led to the complained-of substantive error, the “invited error doctrine” precludes the Government from prevailing in this appeal.  Yet the court fails to acknowledge that a procedural error has occurred.  Instead, it assesses the substantive reasonableness of Hayes’s procedurally flawed sentence — something the Supreme Court prohibits — and thereby avoids the need to grapple with the Government’s invited error.  I dissent from the court’s failure to invoke the doctrine and to send the Government hence without day.

In part I of this opinion, I briefly recount the facts giving rise to Hayes’s conviction and sentencing. In part II, I describe how the Guidelines are supposed to operate and will show how the Government and the District Court misapplied the Guidelines and set the stage for the sentence at issue.  Part III outlines the role the courts of appeals play in reviewing a defendant’s sentence, pinpoints the procedural errors in this case, and explains why the invited error doctrine precludes the Government from capitalizing on its induced error and obtaining relief.  Part IV concludes.

August 12, 2014 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Is preventing ex-prisoners from being homeless the key to preventing recidivism?

The question in the title of this post comes from my take-away from this notable article discussing a recent reentry initiative in Washington state.  The article is headlined "Housing First” Helps Keep Ex-Inmates Off the Streets (and Out of Prison)," and here are excerpts:

Many of the roughly 10,000 inmates who exit U.S. prisons each week following incarceration face an immediate critical question: Where will I live? While precise numbers are hard to come by, research suggests that, on average, about 10 percent of parolees are homeless immediately following their release. In large urban areas, and among those addicted to drugs, the number is even higher — exceeding 30 percent.

“Without a safe and stable place to live where they can focus on improving themselves and securing their future, all of their energy is focused on the immediate need to survive the streets,” says Faith Lutze, criminal justice professor at Washington State University. “Being homeless makes it hard to move forward or to find the social support from others necessary to be successful.”

Although education, employment, and treatment for drug and mental health issues all play a role in successful reintegration, these factors have little hope in the absence of stable housing. Yet, few leaving prison have the three months’ rent typically required to get an apartment. Even if they did, landlords are given wide latitude in denying leases to people with a criminal record in many states.  Further, policies enacted under the Clinton administration continue to deny public housing benefits to thousands of convicted felons — the majority of whom were rounded up for non-violent offenses during the decades-long War on Drugs. Some are barred for life from ever receiving federal housing support.

As a result, tens of thousands of inmates a year trade life in a cell for life on the street. According to Lutze, with each passing day, the likelihood that these people will reoffend or abscond on their parole increases considerably.

Lutze and a team of researchers recently completed a comprehensive assessment of a Washington State program that aims to reduce recidivism by providing high-risk offenders with 12 months of housing support when they are released from prison. The study tracked 208 participants in three counties and found statistically significant reductions in new offenses and readmission to prison. It also found lower levels of parole revocations among participants....

Lutze says stable housing not only reduces violations of public order laws related to living and working on the street, but it increases exposure to pro-social networks and provides a sense of safety and well-being conducive to participating in treatment and other services.

That not only improves community safety, she says, but it “reduces the economic and human costs of ex-offenders cycling through our jails and prisons just because they do not have a safe place to live.”

While this seems like a common sense strategy, programs that place housing at the forefront of prisoner reentry are actually relatively scarce in the U.S., and have historically been driven by a handful of pioneering non-profits.

August 12, 2014 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

"Sex Offender Laws Have Gone Too Far"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new Slate commentary authored by Matt Mellema, Chanakya Sethi, and Jane Shim which appears to be the first in a series. Here are excerpts:

[The] Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act, signed by President Bill Clinton in 1994, ... used federal dollars to push every state to create a [sex offender] registry.  It worked.  Today, all 50 states and Washington, D.C., have them. Since then, Congress has also passed several related pieces of legislation, including two major statutes. Megan’s Law, enacted in 1996, required that the police give the public access to some sex offender registry data, such as an offender’s name, photograph, and address.  In 2006, the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act toughened the standards for who must register and for how long, and it upped the consequences of registration by requiring, for example, periodic in-person visits to police.

The upshot, experts say, is that the United States has the most draconian sex registration laws in the world.  As a result, the number of registrants across the nation has swelled—doubling and then doubling again to 750,000 — in the two decades since Jacob’s Law passed, according to data collected by the Center for Missing and Exploited Children....

Is the American approach to sex registration working?  Who goes on the registries, for how long, and for what kinds of crimes?  Do the answers suggest that they are helping to keep kids safe — or sweeping in too many people and stoking irrational fears?

In seeking answers to those questions, over the last several months, we were surprised to find that one of the sharpest — and loudest — critics of the ballooning use of registries is [Jacob's mother] Patty Wetterling.  “These registries were a well-intentioned tool to help law enforcement find children more quickly,” she told us.  “But the world has changed since then.”  What’s changed, Wetterling says, is what science can tell us about the nature of sex offenders.

The logic behind the past push for registries rested on what seem like common sense assumptions.  Among the most prominent were, first, sex offenders were believed to be at a high risk for reoffending — once a sex offender, always a sex offender.  Second, it was thought that sex offenses against children were commonly committed by strangers. Taken together, the point was that if the police had a list, and the public could access it, children would be safer.

The problem, however, is that a mass of empirical research conducted since the passage of Jacob’s Law has cast increasing doubt on all of those premises.  For starters, “the assumption that sex offenders are at high risk of recidivism has always been false and continues to be false,” said Melissa Hamilton, an expert at the University of Houston Law Center, pointing to multiple studies over the years.  “It’s a myth.”

Remarkably, while polls show the public thinks a majority, if not most, sex offenders will commit multiple sex crimes, most studies, including one by the Department of Justice, place the sexual recidivism rate between 3 and 14 percent in the several years immediately following release, with those numbers falling further over time.  Which number experts prefer within that range depends on how they define recidivism.  If you count arrests as well as convictions, for example, the rate is higher, because not all arrests lead to convictions.  And if you distinguish among sex offenders based on risk factors, such as offender age, degree of sexual deviance, criminal history, and victim preferences — instead of looking at them as a homogenous group — you may find a higher or lower rate.  Rapists and pedophiles who molest boys, for example, are generally found to have the highest recidivism rates.  Nevertheless, the bottom line is clear: Recidivism rates are lower than commonly believed.

And in contradiction of the drive to crack down after a random act of sexual violence committed by a stranger, the data also shows that the vast majority of sex offenses are committed by someone known to the victim, such as a family member....

In a series for Slate, we’ll spotlight three areas in which the growth of registries has been unexpected — and, we suggest, unwise.

August 12, 2014 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (15) | TrackBack

Monday, August 11, 2014

Three distinct takes on AG Eric Holder's recent reservations about risk-based sentencing

Attorney General Eric Holder's significant speech at the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers' Annual Meeting a few weeks ago justifiably made headlines based on his expressions of concern about the use of risk assessment instruments in initial sentencing determinations (as previously discussed here).  Because this is such an important and dynamic topic, I am waiting until I have a big block of time to discuss with sophistication and nuance AG Holder's sophisticated and nuanced comments on this front. 

In the meantime, thankfully, a number of other insightful and sophisticated folks are talking up and about what AG Holder had to say.  For starters, in today's New York Times, LawProf Sonja Starr has this new commentary which starts and ends this way: 

In a recent letter to the United States Sentencing Commission, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. sharply criticized the growing trend of evidence-based sentencing, in which courts use data-driven predictions of defendants’ future crime risk to shape sentences. Mr. Holder is swimming against a powerful current. At least 20 states have implemented this practice, including some that require risk scores to be considered in every sentencing decision. Many more are considering it, as is Congress, in pending sentencing-reform bills.

Risk-assessment advocates say it’s a no-brainer: Who could oppose “smarter” sentencing? But Mr. Holder is right to pick this fight. As currently used, the practice is deeply unfair, and almost certainly unconstitutional. It contravenes the principle that punishment should depend on what a defendant did, not on who he is or how much money he has....

Criminal justice policy should be informed by data, but we should never allow the sterile language of science to obscure questions of justice. I doubt many policy makers would publicly defend the claim that people should be imprisoned longer because they are poor, for instance. Such judgments are less transparent when they are embedded in a risk score. But they are no more defensible.

In addition, Judge Richard Kopf and defense attorney Scott Greenfield have this great new blogosphere back-and-forth on this topic:

All this is highly recommended reading!

August 11, 2014 in Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Friday, August 08, 2014

"The High Costs of Low Risk: The Crisis of America’s Aging Prison Population"

LogoThe title of this post is the title of this notable white paper from The Osborne Association that I found via this post from The Crime Report.  Here is the report's executive summary

For the past four decades, we have witnessed the most sustained and widespread imprisonment binge known throughout recorded human history. The facts are all too familiar: the United States has roughly 5 percent of the world’s population, yet is responsible for 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated population.  With an estimated 2.3 million adults in jail or prison and 1 out of every 32 adults under correctional or community supervision, the U.S. surpasses all other countries in sheer numbers and per capita incarceration rates.

The immense costs of incarceration have increasingly framed the conversation around reducing the prison population as a matter of fiscal responsibility and budgetary necessity. This discussion is often centered around reducing the arrest and prosecution of so-called “non-violent drug offenders.”  But these issues belie a much more pressing human and economic concern: the aging prison population, whose costs for incarceration and care will soon prove unsustainable if meaningful action is not taken. And though prison is expensive, cost is far from the only justification to move away from our reliance on incarceration, as the continued long-term incarceration of aging citizens has serious moral, ethical, public health, and public safety implications.

This paper aims to provide a brief contextual framework of the issues affecting elders in prison; to illuminate the ongoing efforts being undertaken to improve conditions within correctional facilities, increase mechanisms for release, and develop robust post-release services specifically targeting the unique needs of the aging population in reentry; and to sketch out preliminary recommendations to serve as a basis for further work to be done throughout several key sectors.

Despite their apparent interrelated interests in the aging prison population, the fields of gerontology, medical and mental health, philanthropy, and corrections have only sporadically interacted around this issue, and never as a unified voice.  Thus, a primary objective of this work is to encourage multi-sector dialogue, cross-pollination of ideas, and a shared foundational knowledge that will strengthen the connections among these fields and form a basis for unifying action.

We believe such a partnership will be well equipped to identify and engage in appropriate measures that will immediately impact the aging prison population, while also developing and implementing the necessary socio-structural architecture to effectively address long-term mechanisms of diversion, release, and reentry.

Austerity-driven approaches to shrinking budgets and increasing public discomfort with mass incarceration create an opportunity to seriously address the epidemic of America’s graying prison population and to imbue our criminal justice system with values and policies that are humane, cost-effective, and socially responsible.

August 8, 2014 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack