Monday, July 14, 2014

"Moneyball Sentencing"

The title of this post is the great title of this interesting-looking new article by Dawinder Sidhu now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Sentencing is a backward- and forward-looking enterprise. That is, sentencing is informed by an individual’s past conduct as well as by the criminal justice system’s prediction of the individual’s future criminal conduct.  Increasingly, the criminal justice system is making these predictions on an actuarial basis, computing the individual’s risk of recidivism according to the rates of recidivism for people possessing the same group characteristics (e.g., race, sex, socio-economic status, education).  The sentencing community is drawn to this statistical technique because it purportedly distinguishes with greater accuracy the high-risk from the low-risk, and thereby allows for a more efficient allocation of sentencing resources, reserving incarceration for the truly dangerous and saving the low-risk from needless penal attention.

Despite these asserted benefits, risk-assessment tools are exogenous to the theories of punishment, the very foundation for sentencing in Anglo-American jurisprudence.  This Article reviews the legality and propriety of actuarial predictive instruments, using these theories and governing constitutional and statutory law as the touchstone for this analysis.  This Article then applies these normative and legal principles to seventeen major characteristics that may comprise an offender’s composite risk profile.  It argues that risk-assessment instruments are problematic for three reasons: they include characteristics that are prohibited by constitutional and statutory law; subject the individual to punishment for characteristics over which the individual has no meaningful control; and presume that the individual is a static entity predisposed, if not predetermined, to recidivate, thereby undermining individual agency and betting against the individual’s ability to beat the odds.

July 14, 2014 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Are federal drug sentences for mules now too short?

Drugs and dogsThe question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable and fascinating new article in the New York Times headlined "Second Thoughts on Lighter Sentences for Drug Smugglers." Here are excerpts:

For years, a steady parade of drug smugglers have tried all sorts of ways to ferry contraband into the United States through Kennedy International Airport in Queens, posing a challenge not only to Customs and Border Protection officers, but also to federal prosecutors.

To avoid clogging up the court, the United States attorney’s office in Brooklyn has embraced a strategic approach that allows couriers to plead guilty and offer information in return for lighter sentences.  The policy reflected a view among many prosecutors that the mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related offenses — which require prison terms of five years and higher in these smuggling cases — were too harsh on defendants who were typically nonviolent and disadvantaged.

But in recent months, changes in drug sentencing have served to further lower punishments for these couriers.  A year ago, drug couriers regularly faced three years in prison; now they might face guidelines starting at only a few months, or no prison time at all.

The changes are raising questions of whether the pendulum has swung too far.  Some prosecutors say that couriers have little to no incentive to cooperate anymore.  Border patrol officials grumble that they are working to catch smugglers, only to have them face little punishment.  And judges who once denounced the harsh sentencing guidelines are now having second thoughts....

The debate over what constitutes a fair sentence for drug crimes has persisted for decades.  Critics — many of them judges in this court — have said that sentencing guidelines and mandatory minimum punishments had become hugely problematic. Nonviolent drug offenders, like couriers or people selling marijuana on the street, could face longer guideline sentences than an underground gun dealer.  And until recently, possession of five grams of crack warranted a minimum five-year sentence.  To get the same sentence for powdered cocaine possession, 500 grams would be required.

Various reforms have been instituted to address the inequities in sentencing.  In 1994, a “safety valve” provision allowed nonviolent first offenders on drugs — which describes most couriers — to avoid mandatory minimums if they admitted to all prior criminal conduct.  And in 2010, Congress passed legislation toward balancing the crack versus cocaine disparity....

In August, the United States attorney general, Eric H. Holder Jr., ordered prosecutors nationwide to charge couriers and other low-level drug offenders who met certain criteria in a way that did not result in mandatory-minimum sentences.  (Guideline sentences must still be considered, but they are not mandatory.)

Then, in April, the United States Sentencing Commission voted to reduce sentencing guidelines for drug crimes by two points, or several months.  The reduced guidelines go into effect in November, pending congressional approval, but prosecutors in many districts have agreed to apply them now.

The changes made things more difficult in Brooklyn, where prosecutors still wanted to give low-level couriers an incentive to avoid trials and to assist in prosecutions against larger drug distributors. Believing they had to further sweeten the deal, prosecutors agreed to give an additional four points off those reduced sentences for couriers who agreed to cooperate.

As a result, drug-courier defendants can now face sentencing guidelines that suggest no prison time.

My first reaction to this piece is to suggest that it's a nice change of pace for federal judges to now view at least some federal sentencing guidelines to be too lenient and that any problems this creates can and should be addressed through judicial discretion to sentence above the guidelines, case-by-case, as needed and appropriate.  But I imagine this viewpoint is not very satisfying for federal prosecutors and investigators who depend on the threat of severe sentences to get mules to cooperate to their satisfaction.

For additional intriguing and diverse reactions to these intriguing new drug sentencing realities, check out these posts from other informed bloggers:

July 14, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Interesting account of guidelines accounting facing former NOLA mayor at upcoming federal sentencing

This lengthy local article, headlined "Emotions aside, Nagin sentence likely to come down to math," effectively reviews some of the guideline (and other) factors likely to impact the federal sentencing of former New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin this coming week.  Here are excerpts:

Under the rules, Nagin starts with a base “offense level” of 20 because he was an elected official who took multiple bribes but otherwise has no criminal history — facts that, with the jury verdict, are now undisputed.

The other major factors that will add points to his offense level include the financial “loss” the court assigns to his actions, the court’s judgment as to whether he was an “organizer or leader” in “criminal activity” that involved at least five people, and whether Nagin is found to have obstructed justice by lying to investigators and to the court.

There is some gray area in all of these questions. For instance, the monetary loss can be calculated to include not only bribes paid and received, but also the proceeds of any contracts that resulted from bribes. At a minimum, however, Berrigan will almost certainly find that the loss was greater than $200,000, as the jury convicted Nagin of taking more than that amount in bribes. That would bring his offense level to 32, but it could go significantly higher depending on whether Berrigan decides to include the profits of some or all of the contracts Nagin signed....

Experts say the question of financial loss is among the thorniest in calculating guidelines. The amount of bribes paid is an imperfect measure, for contracts awarded on the basis of bribes are presumed to be inflated to cover the cost of the payoffs. At the same time, the contractor usually completes the work outlined in the contract, making it unfair to count the entire value of the contract as a loss. In Nagin’s trial, the government did not present evidence to show that those who bribed Nagin failed to perform....

Other questions are similarly nuanced. If Berrigan finds Nagin obstructed justice by lying to investigators and to the jury, as prosecutors say he did on more than 25 occasions, the offense level would jump another two points. And if she finds he took a leadership role in a scheme involving five or more people, that would add as many as four more points. Though it’s clear that Nagin’s criminal conduct involved more than five people, experts say there may be wiggle room in that question, too....

Depending on how the judge rules on those questions, Nagin’s final offense level could be as low as 32, or as high as 40 or more. Based on those numbers, the guidelines would call for a sentence ranging from 10 years at the low end to as much as 30 years or even life. A filing by Nagin’s lawyer, Robert Jenkins, suggests that probation officers came up with an offense level of 38, which translates to a range of 20 to 24 years.

Jenkins asked Berrigan to consider a downward departure from that figure based on Nagin’s lack of a criminal history and an argument that the crimes of which he was convicted constituted “aberrant” behavior for an otherwise upstanding citizen. But prosecutor Matt Coman argued in an opposing motion that the guidelines already take into account the mayor’s unblemished past, which they do. Meanwhile, Coman said it was laughable to consider Nagin’s criminal conduct as an aberration, considering that he was convicted of multiple bribery and fraud schemes that unfolded over a period of years....

Apart from applying her own analysis of the guidelines, Berrigan also has some ability to go outside the recommended range, experts said. She could grant a “downward variance” on some basis she deems appropriate, provided that she explains it and the variance is not too great. Federal law spells out a number of factors a judge may consider, from the need to protect the public from further crimes to the deterrent effect of the sentence.

July 6, 2014 in Booker in district courts, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Two new examinations of white-collar prosecutions and punishment schemes

Lucian Dervan has recently posted two notable new articles on white-collar crime and punishment on SSRN.  Here are links to both articles and their abstracts:

The Quest for Finality: Five Stories of White Collar Criminal Prosecution

Abstract: In this symposium article, Professor Dervan examines the issue of finality and sentencing. In considering this issue, he argues that prosecutors, defendants, and society as a whole are drawn to the concept of finality in various ways during criminal adjudications.  Further, far from an aspirational summit, he argues that some outgrowths of this quest for finality could be destructive and, in fact, obstructive to some of the larger goals of our criminal justice system, including the pursuit of truth and the protection of the innocent.

Given the potential abstraction of these issues, Professor Dervan decided to discuss the possible consequences of our quest for finality through examination of specific cases.  Therefore, the article examines five stories of white collar criminal prosecution.  The five stories are ones in which the players sought to achieve finality in different ways and in which finality came in different forms. Despite their differences, however, the stories do share important commonalities.

First, the stories demonstrate that we must be careful not to value finality over accuracy.  As an example, though plea bargaining offers both the prosecution and the defense a mechanism by which to reach sentencing finality, it must not be used to mask unfounded criminal cases or offer overpowering incentives to innocent defendants to falsely confess in return for a promise of leniency.  Second, the stories remind us that the government must be careful not to confuse achieving a victorious sentencing finality with achieving a just one.  Too often today, the government proceeds after indictment as though winning a sentence at any cost is worth any price.  Third, the stories reveal that, in many ways, the quest for true finality in criminal cases is fleeting.  While we have long been aware of the lingering collateral consequences present even after a sentence is concluded, we now must also recognize that even those who are acquitted face significant collateral consequences from indictment itself.

White Collar Over-Criminalization: Deterrence, Plea Bargaining, and the Loss of Innocence

AbstractOvercriminalization takes many forms and impacts the American criminal justice system in varying ways. This article focuses on a select portion of this phenomenon by examining two types of overcriminalization prevalent in white collar criminal law. The first type of over criminalization discussed in this article is Congress’s propensity for increasing the maximum criminal penalties for white collar offenses in an effort to punish financial criminals more harshly while simultaneously deterring others.  The second type of overcriminalization addressed is Congress’s tendency to create vague and overlapping criminal provisions in areas already criminalized in an effort to expand the tools available to prosecutors, increase the number of financial criminals prosecuted each year, and deter potential offenders.  While these new provisions are not the most egregious examples of the overcriminalization phenomenon, they are important to consider due to their impact on significant statutes.  In fact, they typically represent some of the most commonly charged offenses in the federal system.

Through examination of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 and examples of these two types of over criminalization within that law, this article seeks to understand whether new crimes and punishments really achieve their intended goals and, if not, what this tells us about and means for the over criminalization debate and the criminal justice system as a whole.

June 29, 2014 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Friday, June 27, 2014

New York Times op-ed laments Kettle Falls 5 federal marijuana prosecution

Kettle_falls_signI am pleased to see the op-ed pages of the New York Times giving attention to a remarkable federal drug prosecution mving forward in Washington state.  This foreceful commentary by Timothy Egan, headlined "Lock ’Em Up Nation: Mandatory Sentencing for Medical Marijuana," includes these passages:

[In] ruggedly beautiful, financially struggling eastern third of Washington State ... 70-year-old Larry Harvey, his wife, two family members and a friend are facing mandatory 10-year prison terms for growing medical marijuana — openly and, they thought, legally — on their farm near the little town of Kettle Falls.

To get a sense of the tragic absurdity of this federal prosecution, reaching all the way to the desk of Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., consider what will happen next month. Pot stores will open in Washington, selling legal marijuana for the recreational user — per a vote of the people. A few weeks later, the Feds will try to put away the so-called Kettle Falls Five for growing weed on their land to ease their medical maladies....

Harvey is a former long-haul truck driver with a bad knee, spasms of gout and high blood pressure. He says he has no criminal record, and spends much of his time in a wheelchair. His wife, Rhonda Firestack-Harvey, is a retired hairdresser with arthritis and osteoporosis. Mr. Harvey says he takes his wife’s home-baked marijuana confections when the pain in his knee starts to flare. The Harveys thought they were in the clear, growing 68 marijuana plants on their acreage in northeast Washington, one of 22 states allowing legal medical marijuana. (Federal authorities say they are several plants over the limit.)

Their pot garden was a co-op among the four family members and one friend; the marijuana was not for sale or distribution, Mr. Harvey says. “I think these patients were legitimate,” Dr. Greg Carter, who reviewed medical records after the arrest, told The Spokesman-Review of Spokane. “They are pretty normal people. We’re not talking about thugs.”

But the authorities, using all the military tools at their disposal in the exhausted drug war, treated them as big-time narco threats. First, a helicopter spotted the garden from the air. Brilliant, except Harvey himself had painted a huge medical marijuana sign on a plywood board so that his garden, in fact, could be identified as a medical pot plot from the air.

This was followed by two raids. One from eight agents in Kevlar vests. The other from Drug Enforcement Agency officers. They searched the house, confiscating guns, and a little cash in a drawer. The guns are no surprise: Finding someone who does not own a firearm in the Selkirk Mountain country is like finding a Seattleite who doesn’t recycle. Still, the guns were enough to add additional federal charges to an indictment that the family was growing more than the legal limit of plants.

Now, let’s step back. The Harveys live in the congressional district of Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers, who is part of the House Republican leadership. She loves freedom. You know she loves freedom because she always says so, most recently in a press release touting her efforts to take away people’s health care coverage. “Americans must be protected from out of control government,” she stated.

Well, maybe. Unless that government is trying to take away the freedom of a retired couple growing pot to ease their bodily pains. That freedom is not so good. Astonishingly, in our current toxic political atmosphere, Republicans and Democrats joined together last month to vote, by 219 to 189, to block spending for federal prosecution of medical marijuana in states that allow it. Yaayyy, for freedom. There was one dissent from Washington State’s delegation. Yes, Cathy McMorris Rodgers, standing firm for an out of control government instead of defending one of her freedom-loving constituents....

Trial is set for July 28, and the Harveys can’t use legal medical marijuana as a defense, a judge has ruled. All the government has to prove is that the Harvey family was growing marijuana — a federal crime. If they go to prison for a decade, as the mindless statutes that grew out of the crack-cocaine scare stipulate, they would become part of a federal system where fully half of all inmates are behind bars for drug offenses. And one in four of those crimes involves marijuana.

So remember the Kettle Falls Five when all the legal pot stores and their already legal growing facilities open for business in Washington State next month. There will be silly features about cookies and candy bars laced with pot, and discussions about etiquette, dos and don’ts. The press will cite polls showing that a majority of Americans favor legalizing marijuana, and more than 80 percent feel that way about medical cannabis. But in the eyes of the federal government, these state laws are meaningless.

If Larry Harvey, at the age of 70, with his gout and high blood pressure and bum knee, gets the mandatory 10-year term, he’s likely to die in prison, certainly not the last casualty of the assault on our citizens known as the War on Drugs. For him, freedom is just another word his congresswoman likes to throw around on the Fourth of July.

As I have said before and will be saying again and again as more and more states legalize medical marijuana, there are a number of viable constitutional arguments based in the Eighth Amendment that I think could and should limit the federal prosecution and extreme federal sentencing of defendants like the Kettle Falls 5. I hope these defendants press these arguments aggressively and persistently in the months ahead.

In addition, I am pleased that this op-ed calls out Cathy McMorris Rodgers for failing to be eager to support and defend freedom and family values in this context.  Rep. Rodgers says on her official website here that she has a "passion and determination to protect America’s values -- including family, faith, freedom, opportunity, and responsibility."   I hope she gets often pressed on how these values justify the federal government seeking to imprison the Kettle Falls 5 for many years.

Prior related post:

June 27, 2014 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Offense Characteristics, Pot Prohibition Issues, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Effective review of debate over federal fraud guidelines in preview of another high-profile insider trading sentencing

Newsweek has this lengthy and effective new article on federal fraud sentencing, headlined "Nonsensical Sentences for White Collar Criminals," which seems prompted in part by the upcoming sentencing of hedge fund trader Mathew Martoma of SAC Capital Advisors LP following his conviction of insider trading. Here are a few excerpts:

[A]s the government’s probation department recommends a sentence [for Martoma] that would be the longest ever for insider trading — anywhere from 15 to 20 years — U.S. judges, federal public defenders, the U.S. Sentencing Commission, the U.S. Department of Justice and the American Bar Association are increasingly calling into question the nation’s sentencing guidelines, which, in the words of one federal judge, “are just too goddamn severe.”...

The biggest quibble judges have with white-collar sentencing guidelines is the fact that prison terms are heavily weighted toward how much money is made or lost on a financial crime, regardless of the circumstances of the offense, whether it is insider trading, embezzlement, a Ponzi scheme or some other type of financial fraud....

The problem, says federal Judge John Gleeson, who represents the Eastern District of New York City, has built up over time, as congressional directives and statutes—often pushed by public pressure to treat offenders more aggressively and rigorously—have acted as what he calls a “one-way ratchet,” boosting the austerity and length of sentences ever higher....

The concerns come at a time when insider-trading cases — a subsection of the U.S. Sentencing Commission’s broader financial fraud category — have nearly tripled over the past three years (2011 to 2013), compared with the prior three years (2008 to 2010), according to commission data.

In sum, insider-trading cases are on the rise, with the money involved and the prison sentences growing even as judges continue to abandon federal sentencing guidelines to minimize sentences they believe to be too punitive.  Sentences are “diverging, that’s for sure, and, to some extent, that reflects an absence of respect for the guidelines,” Gleeson says.

June 26, 2014 in Booker in district courts, Offense Characteristics, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

How SCOTUS Halliburton ruling could have white-collar sentencing echoes

HallExperienced lawyer and federal sentencing guru Mark Allenbaugh (firm website here) sent me an intriguing set of insights about how yesterday's Supreme Court ruling yesterday in Halliburton v. Erica P. John Fund (available here) could possibly impact some white-collar sentencing arguments. Mark kindly allowed me to reprint his analysis here:

White collar defense practitioners should be aware of today’s ruling in in Halliburton v. Erica P. John Fund. While a civil class action case, Halliburton may have some helpful applicability at sentencing. 

The Court in Halliburton has expanded the application of Basic Inc. v. Levinson, 485 U. S. 224 (1988) regarding WHEN plaintiffs can prove damages in “fraud on the market cases” from a defendant’s misrepresentation.  In Basic the Court, held that a class of plaintiffs could  prove reliance of a defendant’s misrepresentation by “invoking a presumption that the price of stock traded in an efficient market reflects all public, material information—including material misrepresentations.”  The presumption effectively allows plaintiffs to side-step proof of actual reliance on any misrepresentations for purposes of establishing damages.  Without class certification, however, individual plaintiffs cannot invoke the presumption thereby making proof of damages far more difficult.  The Court held that, contrary to the Fifth Circuit, Defendant/Petitioner Halliburton could introduce evidence that any misrepresentation lacked “price impact” to prevent certification of the class.

Halliburton could be helpful in securities fraud sentencing cases inasmuch as the government usually lumps all the victims together to determine a collective “loss” for sentencing purposes without introducing any evidence that any particular victim (save for those few who may have testified at any trial) relied on any misrepresentations of the defendant.  Such a collectivization of victim losses, therefore, implicitly invokes the Basic efficient market presumption allowing the government to side-step having to prove reliance by any particular victim.  But just as the Commission’s (relatively new and untested) modified recissory method for calculating loss in securities fraud case is subject to rebuttal, so too is the Basic presumption.  In light of today’s ruling in Halliburton, counsel should consider providing the Court evidence that any misrepresentation by the defendant lacked “price impact” on the victims sufficient to overcome the de facto Basic presumption with respect to collective victim losses.  In this way, the Government would be required to provide evidence how individual victims relied on any misrepresentations. 

To be sure, unlike in sophisticated civil class actions that require precision, since determining loss at sentencing need only be a reasonable estimate, only those victims that would materially affect the loss amount should not be granted the Basic presumption; in those cases the Government would be required to prove reliance.  But this is as it should be inasmuch as years if not decades of your client’s life could be at stake.

June 24, 2014 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Monday, June 23, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SCOTUS rules against defendant concerning required bank fraud intent in Loughrin

The Supreme Court this morning handed down a quasi-unanimous ruling in a federal bank fraud case this morning in Loughrin v. US, No. 13-316 (S. Ct. June 23, 2014) (available here). I call the ruling only quasi-unanimous because a few Justices only concurred in part with the opinion for the Court. Here is the vote break-down:

KAGAN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which ROBERTS, C. J., and KENNEDY, GINSBURG, BREYER, and SOTOMAYOR, JJ., joined, and in which SCALIA and THOMAS, JJ., joined as to Parts I and II, Part III–A except the last paragraph, and the last footnote of Part III–B. SCALIA, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, in which THOMAS, J., joined. ALITO, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment.

And here is how Justice Kagan's opinion for the Court in Loughrin gets started:

A provision of the federal bank fraud statute, 18 U. S. C. §1344(2), makes criminal a knowing scheme to obtain property owned by, or in the custody of, a bank “by means of false or fraudulent pretenses, representations, or promises.”  The question presented is whether the Government must prove that a defendant charged with violating that provision intended to defraud a bank. We hold that the Government need not make that showing.

June 23, 2014 in Offense Characteristics, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

"Sentencing Terrorist Crimes"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article by Wadie E. Said now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

The legal framework behind the sentencing of individuals convicted of committing terrorist crimes has received little scholarly attention, even with the proliferation of such prosecutions in the eleven years following the attacks of September 11, 2001. This lack of attention is particularly striking in light of the robust and multifaceted scholarship that deals with the challenges inherent in criminal sentencing more generally, driven in no small part by the comparatively large number of sentencing decisions issued by the United States Supreme Court over the past thirteen years. Reduced to its essence, the Supreme Court’s sentencing jurisprudence requires district courts to make no factual findings that raise a criminal penalty over the statutory maximum, other than those found by a jury or admitted by the defendant in a guilty plea. Within those parameters, however, the Court has made clear that such sentences are entitled to a strong degree of deference by courts of review.

Historically, individuals convicted of committing crimes involving politically motivated violence/terrorism were sentenced under ordinary criminal statutes, as theirs were basically crimes of violence. Even when the law shifted to begin to recognize certain crimes as terrorist in nature — airplane hijacking being the prime example — sentencing remained relatively uncontroversial from a legal perspective, since the underlying conduct being punished was violent at its core. In the mid-1990s, the development and passage of a special sentencing enhancement, U.S. Sentencing Guidelines Manual section 3A1.4, offered the opportunity for district courts to significantly increase the penalty for certain activity that fell into a defined category of what was termed “a federal crime of terrorism.” Coupled with the post-9/11 trend of the government using a relatively new offense, 18 U.S.C. § 2339B, the ban on providing material support to designated foreign terrorist organizations, as its main legal tool in the war on terrorism, sentences for such crimes increased significantly, even in situations where there was no link to an act of violence. The application of section 3A1.4 invites a district court to find certain facts, under the preponderance of the evidence standard, which bring the conduct into the category of a federal crime of terrorism, thereby triggering greatly enhanced punishment. A review of the reported decisions involving section 3A1.4 reveals, however, that only in rare cases do courts find the enhancement to be improperly applied. This Article argues that, as currently understood, the application of section 3A1.4 raises serious concerns about its fidelity to the Supreme Court’s Sixth Amendment jurisprudence.

The existence of a terrorism sentencing enhancement also serves as a kind of statutory basis to embolden courts of appeals to overturn a sentence as too lenient, as has been the case in certain high-profile prosecutions, such as those of Ahmad Abu Ali, Lynne Stewart, and Jose Padilla, among others. As the examples in this Article demonstrate, those courts of review that have engaged in this practice either fail to appreciate or disregard the Supreme Court’s instructions to engage in a highly deferential type of review of a district court sentence. At the heart of these opinions lies a message that terrorism is especially heinous, and those convicted of terrorist crimes are particularly dangerous to the point of being irredeemably incapable of deterrence. While these sentiments may or may not be accurate, the courts of appeals adopting them cite no evidence or studies in support, creating the impression that a court of review may overturn a sentence in a terrorism case simply because it disagrees with the district court, something the Supreme Court has said is improper. In light of this recent development, this Article recommends that some combination of Congress, the United States Sentencing Commission, and the federal courts establish standards to better help a court decide when a heightened punishment might be warranted, free from unsupported assumptions about the nature of terrorism or a particular defendant.

June 18, 2014 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Monday, June 16, 2014

Second Circuit rejects array of challenges to lengthy extension of sex offender registration requirement

For a number of years, sex offenders consistently lost in state and federal courts when challenging various sex offender registration requirements and other restrictions on various grounds.  In recent years, however, it seems at least a few registered sex offenders are having at least a little success with court challenges to new sex offender registration requirements that seem especially punitive or onerous.  But a Second Circuit panel ruling today in Doe v. Cuomo, No. 12-4288 (2d Cir. June 16, 2014) (available here), provides a useful reminder of the uphill battle registered sex offenders face in court. Here is how the opinion starts: 

John Doe appeals from the judgment of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York (Amon, C.J.) granting summary judgment in favor of the Governor of the State of New York and the Acting Commissioner of the State of New York Division of Criminal Justice Services on Doe’s as-applied constitutional challenges to the enforcement of certain amendments to the New York State Sex Offender Registration Act. The amendments we are asked to review were enacted after Doe pleaded guilty to misdemeanor attempted possession of a sexual performance by a child, as a result of which he was classified as a level-one sex offender required to register under SORA. The amendments extended the registration requirement for level-one sex offenders from ten years to a minimum of twenty years and also eliminated the ability of level-one sex offenders to petition for relief from registration.  Doe argues, among other things, that requiring him to comply with these post-plea amendments violates the Ex Post Facto Clause and the Fourth Amendment, and deprives him of due process and equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment, in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983.  We disagree and affirm the judgment of the District Court.

Notably, the defendant Doe in this case seems reasonably sympathetic for a registered sex offender: his offense was a misdemeanor charge stemming from possessing a few CP images back in 1999, and he fully complied with all registration requirements for a decade.  But, though the defendant presented an array of constitutional claims to argue he should not now be subject to a new extended registration requirement, the Second Circuit said he was Doe out of luck.

June 16, 2014 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

SCOTUS takes up Facebook threats prosecution to consider First Amendment issues

FbcautionIn part because most of the Justices are the age of most grandparents, the Supreme Court takes up new technology in its cases at about the same pace most grandparents take up new technology.  This Term, for example, the Court has finally got around to considering the Fourth Amendment implications of smartphones (with a ruling likely coming in the next two weeks).  And, as this AP article details, this morning the Justice decided to pay some attention to Facebook and the First Amendment in a case to be argued next Term:

The Supreme Court will consider the free speech rights of people who use violent or threatening language on Facebook and other electronic media where the speaker's intent is not always clear.  The court on Monday agreed to take up the case of an eastern Pennsylvania man sentenced to nearly four years in federal prison for posting violent online rants against his estranged wife, law enforcement officials and former co-workers.

A federal appeals court rejected Anthony Elonis' claim that his comments were protected by the First Amendment.  He says he never meant to carry out the threats.  He claims he was depressed and made the online posts in the form of rap lyrics as a way of venting his frustration after his wife left him.

At his trial, the jury was instructed that Elonis could be found guilty if an objective person could consider his posts to be threatening.  Attorneys for Elonis argue that the jury should have been told to apply a subjective standard and decide whether Elonis meant the messages to be understood as threats.

Elonis's lawyers say a subjective standard is appropriate given the impersonal nature of communication over the Internet, which can lead people to misinterpret messages. They argue that comments intended for a smaller audience can be viewed by others unfamiliar with the context and interpret the statements differently than was intended. The Obama administration says requiring proof of a subjective threat would undermine the purpose of the federal law prohibiting threats....

For more than 40 years, the Supreme Court has said that "true threats" to harm another person are not protected speech under the First Amendment.  But the court has cautioned that laws prohibiting threats must not infringe on constitutionally protected speech.  That includes "political hyperbole" or "unpleasantly sharp attacks" that fall shy of true threats....

Elonis' estranged wife testified at his trial the postings made her fear for her life. One post about his wife said, "There's one way to love you but a thousand ways to kill you. I'm not going to rest until your body is a mess, soaked in blood and dying from all the little cuts."

FBI agents visited Elonis at home after the amusement park that fired him contacted law enforcement officials about his posts.  After the agents left, Elonis wrote: "Little agent lady stood so close, took all the strength I had not to turn the (woman) ghost. Pull my knife, flick my wrist and slit her throat."

I am not sure a ruling in this interesting case is likely to have huge sentencing consequences, but I am hopeful it might at least encourage ever more civility in the comments to this blog and throughout the rest of the (often too ugly) on-line world.

June 16, 2014 in Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Saturday, June 14, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Sixth Circuit declares unreasonable way-above-guideline sentence for repeat bank robber

It remains rare for federal defendants to prevail on reasonableness appeals absent a mis-calculation of the guidelines, and thus today's Sixth Circuit panel decision in US v. Payton, No. 13-1242 (6th Cir. June 12, 2014) (available here) is a noteworthy ruling for this reason alone. But the decision's reference and incorporation of recidivism data and brain science makes the ruling extra interesting. Here are some excerpts from the start and heart of the opinion for context:

This is a direct appeal from Arthur Payton’s sentence to serve 45 years in prison for organizing a series of bank robberies in Michigan.  Payton argues that his sentence is unreasonable.  We agree, vacate his sentence, and remand....

Payton turned 46 years old before his sentencing hearing.  Taking into account Payton’s criminal record, the seriousness of his crime, and penchant for recidivism, the presentence report recommended a sentence within the Guidelines range of 210 to 262 months, or between 17 and a half to 22 years.... The government urged the sentencing court to impose a more serious sentence of “at least” 300 months, or 25 years.  Payton’s counsel requested a sentence within the Guidelines range, arguing that even with a Guidelines sentence Payton would be released as an elderly man — somewhere between 63 to 68 years old — who would present little threat to the public.

After hearing each side, the judge sentenced Payton to 540 months, or 45 years in prison. The judge discussed a number of the sentencing factors listed in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a), focusing on Payton’s brazen recidivism and the threat he posed to the public. The court concluded that the 45 year sentence was “the minimum sentence” that was “reasonable and sufficient but not greater than necessary to accomplish the goals of sentencing for this defendant.”...

Payton’s 45 year sentence is a “major departure,” “unusually harsh,” and one that demands a “significant explanation.”  Gall, 552 U.S. at 51.  A sentence that more than doubles the Guidelines recommendation, stacks twenty years on to the government’s request, and keeps the defendant in prison until he is ninety one years old requires explanation about why such a sentence is “sufficient, but not greater than necessary” to achieve the goals of sentencing. 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a).

We find the district court’s explanation lacking in Payton’s case.  At minimum, the court failed to adequately respond to Payton’s argument that his advanced age diminishes the public safety benefit of keeping Payton in prison an extra twenty years beyond the recommendation of the Guidelines.  Even presuming Payton’s desire to rob banks is insatiable, as the government argues, Payton contends that age will diminish his very ability to rob banks.  This argument attacks the foundations of the government’s support for the imposed sentence, and the court’s reasoning that the threat posed by a sixty-eight-year-old Payton makes a longer sentence not simply prudent but necessary.

The court's discussion to this point is notable, but the opinion then takes an especially interesting turn with this paragraph (in which I have eliminated footnote references):

The Sentencing Commission has observed that “[r]ecidivism rates decline relatively consistently as age increases.” Recent analysis from the Bureau of Justice Statistics considering the recidivism rates of released prisoners in 30 states (including Michigan) from 2005 to 2010 supported the Commission’s conclusion, finding decreased recidivism rates as prisoners age. These statistics suggest that past fifty years old there is a significantly lower rate of recidivism. Both the Guidelines and our Circuit’s cases explicitly acknowledge that a defendant’s age, and specifically old age, is a relevant consideration in sentencing. U.S.S.G. § 5H1.1; United States v. Berry, 565 F.3d 332, 341 (6th Cir. 2009); United States v. Davis, 537 F.3d 611, 616-17 (6th Cir. 2008). And observers of the criminal justice system have long acknowledged the “key” argument “that elderly offenders pose so low a risk to the public that long or otherwise harsh sentences have little to no utilitarian benefit.”  Indeed, they observe that “because of health or other reasons, elderly offenders have the lowest rate of recidivism of all types of offenders; in fact, only about one percent of elderly offenders ever face a second conviction.”   Studies indicate that neurotransmitters affecting aggression supplied at the synapses of brain neurons vary based on age, and may explain the observed decline in recidivism among older prisoners. Such evidence, together with statistical support, suffices to require a sentencing judge to explain carefully why a criminal defendant like Payton remains likely to engage in violent robberies between the age of seventy and ninety.  The district court did not address Payton’s argument on this issue, and therefore did not provide an adequate explanation for imposing such a harsh sentence.

Kudos to the Sixth Circuit for giving some real teeth to reasonable review, and especially for its willingness to bring some empirical research into an analysis of means for a sentence to be "sufficient but not greater than necessary."

June 12, 2014 in Booker in the Circuits, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Two thoughtful criticisms of DOJ's request for only limited retroactivity of proposed lower drug guidelines

As reported here on Tuesday, the Justice Department this week advocated to the US Sentencing Commission that it make its new reduced drug guidelines retroactive only for the lowest-level offenders now serving prison sentences under the old drug guidelines. No doubt because many are eager to see the new drug guidelines made fully retroactive and because I suggested the DOJ half-a-loaf approach was politically and practically astute, I have received two lengthy and thoughtful e-mails from informed advocates which are critical of the DOJ retroactivity position and my reaction to it. With permission, I am posting the comments here.

Federal public defender Sarah Gannett had this to say:

I was the Federal Defender witness at yesterday's USSC hearing on drugs-minus-two retroactivity, and I read your post about the DOJ proposal.  Although I can see how the DOJ proposal might have some facial appeal, I urge you to take a closer look at it.

There is little evidence that the exclusions the Department is proposing are tied in any meaningful way to public safety.  At best, they are overbroad, and will result in deserving inmates being excluded from relief (for example, drug addicts who are in high CHCs because of multiple minor prior convictions related to their addictions).  Indeed, the Commission has acknowledged that criminal history is an imperfect proxy for seriousness of criminal history and risk of recidivism, which is why the Guidelines include a departure provision for over-representation.  Unfortunately, because of the way 1B1.10 is currently written, those who received over-representation departures will be ineligible for relief if the Commission adopts the DOJ proposal.  Similar arguments can be made about the enhancements the DOJ proposes as limiting.

Both David Debold, on behalf of PAG, and Mary Price, for FAMM, focused on the DOJ's proposal in their testimony yesterday.  You may wish to speak to either or both of them. I also encourage you to read the Defender testimony, which is available on the Commission's website.  Although we did not know what the Department's proposal would be until it was announced yesterday, we anticipated and addressed many of the points the DOJ proposal raises (see especially pp. 5-6).

Full retroactivity is the just result, which the Criminal Law Committee of the Judicial Conference recognized.  In fact, in her oral testimony, Judge Keeley indicated that the CLC considered a proposal like the DOJ's, but rejected it out of fairness concerns.  The CLC recommended a different compromise -- which delays implementation just until the institutional players can adequately prepare to address the volume of cases.  This approach is more principled than the limitations suggested by the Department.  It is discussed in the CLC's statement, which also was posted.  (Defenders took the position that, based on experience gained in the crack retroactivity process and other factors, the players could find a way to manage the caseload.  See our statement at pp. 9-13, 14-15.)

Those who are concerned about community safety should remember that the retroactivity statute and policy statement require the sentencing judge to review and consider the appropriateness of early release in every individual case, an obligation that courts took seriously following the 2007 and 2011 retroactive crack amendments.

Former US Pardon Attorney Margaret Colgate Love had this to say:

I am genuinely puzzled by the Department's proposed "compromise" on the retroactivity issue, and surprised and disappointed by your response to it.  I suggest that you compare the Department's proposal for guidelines retroactivity with the President's eight commutations last December.

Only one or possibly two of the eight individuals whose sentences were commuted -- all presumably pursuant to a favorable Department recommendation -- would qualify for relief under the DOJ proposed "compromise".  Clarence Aaron was enhanced for obstruction, Gray and Wintersmith had guns, and Gilbert, Wheeler and Patterson and probably George were either career offenders or CHC III or above.  Of the eight, only Jason Hernandez (a gang member charged with massive amounts of drug, with juvie gun priors) would appear to be a candidate for relief under the DOJ proposed compromise, a curious result to say the least.

It certainly raises a question why the Department thinks it is appropriate to ask the President to make these tough case-by-case calls but does not trust district judges to make them.  Somehow that does not seem "politically and practically astute" (your words), or respectful of institutional roles and competencies.  Moreover, if DOJ really wanted to lighten the burden imposed on its own staff by its unprecedented and possibly ill-advised invitation to all federal prisoners to apply for clemency, and to the private bar to represent them, one would think it should be asking the courts to do more of this work, not less.

Perhaps this means that DOJ will interpret and apply its six new clemency criteria narrowly, and recommend only those prisoners who fit in this minor-record-no-gun-no-obstruction category -- those few who would not benefit from the guidelines reduction because of a mandatory minimum.  It is not at all clear to me that such a crabbed interpretation of the clemency initiative would be responsive to the President's clear signal in the December 8 grants about what he wants from his Justice Department.

If the only ones recommended for clemency are those who satisfy the criteria commended to the Commission by the Department, this will be a cruel hoax on federal prisoners, who are expecting a lot more.  It will also be deeply unfair to the hundreds of private lawyers who have agreed to donate their time to learn a new skill in preparation for telling a prisoner's story, in what may turn out to be a false hope that one of their clients will win the clemency lottery.

I commend Judge Irene Keeley for saying that full retroactivity is a "moral issue" and the courts’ “burden to bear.”  Good for the POs too, whose professionalism is encouraging. I agree with Judge Keeley that it would be fundamentally unfair to categorically deny full retroactivity to prisoners, just as it would be fundamentally unfair to categorically exclude certain prisoners from clemency consideration.

I hope the Department -- and the President -- will come to see that the apparatus already exists to achieve sentencing fairness, and it is in the courts not the executive.  I hope also that this President does not turn out to be the third in a row to be embarrassed by his Justice Department's clemency program.

Some recent related posts:

June 12, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

DOJ advocates for "limited retroactivity of the pending drug guideline amendment"

As detailed in this prior post, today the US Sentencing Commission is conducting a public hearing to gather testimony from invited witnesses concerning whether the Commission should designate as retroactive its new proposed guideline that reduces most drug sentences across the board.  And though that hearing is on-going, the hearing agenda available here now has links to most of the witnesses' submitted written testimony, including the position advocated by the Department of Justice.  

As detailed in this official DOJ press release and this written testimony via US Attorney Sally Yates, the Justice Department is urging the Commission to make the new reduced drug guidelines retroactive for some, but not all, prisoners now serving sentences under the old drug guidelines.  Here are the basics of the compromise advocated by DOJ via its submitted testimony:

After extensive discussions and consideration of the various policy interests at stake in this matter – including public safety, individual justice for offenders, and public trust and confidence in the federal criminal justice system – we support limited retroactivity of the pending drug guideline amendment. As I will discuss further, we think such an approach strikes the right balance of policy interests and can be rigorously and effectively implemented across the federal criminal justice system within existing resource constraints....

Assessing whether the amendment should be applied retroactively requires balancing several factors.  The primary factor driving our position to support retroactive application of the amendment, albeit limited retroactivity, is that the federal drug sentencing structure in place before the amendment resulted in unnecessarily long sentences for some offenders.  While we believe finality in sentencing should remain the general rule, and with public safety our foremost goal, we also recognize that the sentences imposed for some drug defendants under the current sentencing guidelines are longer than necessary, and this creates a negative impact upon both the public’s confidence in the criminal justice system and our prison resources....

Because of public safety concerns that arise from the release of dangerous drug offenders and from the diversion of resources necessary to process over 50,000 inmates, we believe retroactivity of the drug amendment should be limited to lower level, nonviolent drug offenders without significant criminal histories. Limited retroactivity will ensure that release decisions for eligible offenders are fully considered on a case-by-case basis as required, that sufficient supervision and monitoring of released offenders will be accomplished by probation officers, and that the public safety risks to the community are minimized. Release dates should not be pushed up for those offenders who pose a significant danger to the community; indeed, we believe certain dangerous offenders should be categorically prohibited from receiving the benefits of retroactivity....

Balancing all of these factors, the Department supports limited retroactive application of the 2014 drug guideline amendment. We urge the Commission to act consistently with public safety and limit the reach of retroactive application of the amendment only to those offenders who do not pose a significant public safety risk. The Commission has the authority to direct limited retroactivity under both 18 U.S.C. § 994(u) and Dillon, which provide authority to the Commission to prescribe the “circumstances” under which an amended guideline is applied retroactively. We believe the Commission should limit retroactive application to offenders in Criminal History Categories I and II who did not receive: (1) a mandatory minimum sentence for a firearms offense pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 924(c); (2) an enhancement for possession of a dangerous weapon pursuant to §2D1.1(b)(1); (3) an enhancement for using, threatening, or directing the use of violence pursuant to §2D1.1(b)(2); (4) an enhancement for playing an aggravating role in the offense pursuant to §3B1.1; or (5) an enhancement for obstruction of justice or attempted obstruction of justice pursuant to §3C1.1.

With these limitations, all of which should have been determined in prior court action and should be documented in the court file in most cases, courts will be able to determine eligibility for retroactivity based solely on the existing record and without the need for transporting a defendant to court or holding any extensive fact finding. Retroactivity would be available to a class of non-violent offenders who have limited criminal history, did not possess or use a weapon, and thus will apply only to the category of drug offender who warrants a less severe sentence and who also poses the least risk of reoffending. While the factors we suggest are not a perfect proxy for dangerousness, they are a reasonable proxy based on the Commission’s own research, and identifying them will not require new hearings.

Though I suspect the intriguing middle-ground position embraced here by DOJ will disappoint the usual suspects advocating fully against or fully for retroactivity, I view this DOJ proposal to be both politically and practically astute. In part because SO very many current federal prisoners may be eligible for a sentence reduction based on the new guidelines, I think it make sense (and is consistent with congressional policies and goals) for any retroactivity rule to seek to bring some equities into the application of the new law in an effort to ensure the most deserving of previously sentenced defendants get the benefit of the new guidelines. The DOJ position here seems thoughtfully designed to try to achieve that balance.

Some recent related posts:

June 10, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (15) | TrackBack

New ACLU report assails private prison industry involved in federal immigration detention

As detailed in this press release, this week "the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Texas released the report Warehoused and Forgotten: Immigrants Trapped in Our Shadow Private Prison Industry, [which examines] the secretive 'Criminal Alien Requirement' or 'CAR' prisons for immigrants."  Here is more about the report from the ACLU press release:

 In a four-year investigation of five CAR prisons in Texas, our researchers found pervasive and disturbing patterns of neglect and abuse of the prisoners–all non-citizens, most of whom have been convicted only of immigration offenses (such as unlawfully reentering the country).

"At the CAR prisons we investigated, the prisoners lived day to day not knowing if their basic human needs would be met, whether they would get medical attention if they were hurt or ill," said Carl Takei, Staff Attorney at the ACLU’s National Prison Project.  "The Bureau of Prisons creates perverse incentives for the for-profit prison companies to endanger human health and lives."

In total, the 13 CAR prisons across the country hold more than 25,000 immigrants....  The report details the relationship between each of the three companies that run them–CCA, GEO Group, and MTC–and the federal Bureau of Prisons, including the ways that the Bureau and the companies work together to cover up the prisons’ conditions....

In Warehoused and Forgotten: Immigrants Trapped in Our Shadow Private Prison Industry, the ACLU and the ACLU of Texas tell the stories of prisoners who have been torn from their families by the extreme distances (often 1,000 miles or more) between a CAR prison and a prisoner’s hometown and by the high phone rates the private prison companies charge for phone calls.

Among its recommendations to the federal government, the report calls on the Bureau of Prisons to strengthen oversight of CAR prisons, end the use of contractually binding occupancy quotas for CAR prisons, and stop spending taxpayer money to shield basic information about private prisons from public disclosure.  It also urges the Departments of Homeland Security and Justice to return immigration enforcement to civil immigration authorities.

The full report is available at this link.

June 10, 2014 in Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Thursday, June 05, 2014

"Strict Liability Offenses, Incarceration, and the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper by Paul Larkin now available via SSRN.  Here is the abstract:

The Supreme Court long ago rejected due process challenges to the government’s use of strict liability offenses, but the Court has never considered the issue of whether imprisonment for such crimes violates the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause.  Being unable to persuade the Court to forbid strict liability crimes altogether, defendants incarcerated for those crimes are likely to argue that their punishment is cruel and unusual.  It therefore may not be long before the courts, including the Supreme Court, must finally address the issue.  When that day arrives, the Court should limit the penalties that can be imposed for strict liability crimes by forbidding any period of incarceration altogether or, at least, by outlawing imprisonment.  The Constitution should not allow a person to be imprisoned for committing a strict liability offense.

June 5, 2014 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Monday, June 02, 2014

Tenth Circuit explains what's the matter with Kansas prior convictions as enhancers

Download (1)Thanks to a helpful reader, I learned that today the Tenth Circuit handed down a significant opinion concerning the use of prior Kansas offenses in career offender guideline calculations in US v. Brooks, No. 13-3166 (10th Cir. June 2, 2014) (available here).  Here is how the opinion in Books starts and ends:

Did Defendant Damian L. Brooks commit enough prior qualifying felonies to be considered a “career offender” under the Federal Sentencing Guidelines?  The district court below said yes, relying on United States v. Hill, 539 F.3d 1213 (10th Cir. 2008), to classify a prior Kansas conviction of Defendant as a felony because it was punishable by more than one year in prison. On appeal, Defendant admits Hill mandates this classification. He argues, however, that Hill was abrogated by the Supreme Court in Carachuri-Rosendo v. Holder, 560 U.S. 563 (2010).  We agree.  As such, exercising jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1291 and 18 U.S.C. § 3742, we reverse and remand for resentencing....

In conclusion, Hill — which looked to the hypothetical worst possible offender to determine whether a state offense was punishable by more than a year in prison — cannot stand in light of Carachuri-Rosendo.  We now hold, in line with our pre-Hill precedent, that in determining whether a state offense was punishable by a certain amount of imprisonment, the maximum amount of prison time a particular defendant could have received controls, rather than the amount of time the worst imaginable recidivist could have received.  As such, Defendant’s prior Kansas conviction for eluding police is not a felony for purposes of U.S.S.G. § 4B1.1(a).  The district court’s imposition of a career offender enhancement was therefore in error and is REVERSED. This case is REMANDED for resentencing.

The helpful reader who alerted me to this opinion noted that "for those of us who deal with Kansas state convictions, it is (as Ron Burgundy would say), kind of a big deal."  Here is part of this reader's explanation for why:

Previous 10th Circuit authority held that a conviction for a Kansas on grid "felony" was punishable by more than one year if a sentence more than one year could be imposed on any hypothetical defendant.  That is, the analysis was not limited by a defendant's actual criminal history category on the state guidelines grid.  If more than one year could be imposed for any criminal history category, the conviction = felony for purposes of federal law, even though a particular defendant may have only been exposed to a sentence less one year or less....

This ruling will impact multiple areas of federal prosecution and sentencing.  For instance, if the high end of a defendant's KS gridbox is 12 months, then the conviction is not a disabling conviction for purposes of 18 USC 922(g)(1).  Likewise, such a conviction would not be a predicate conviction for purposes of the Armed Career Criminal Act or the Career Offender guidelines enhancement.

A more limited effect will be that a few drug-grid convictions will not be a "prior drug felony" that can enhance a controlled substance offense under 21 USC 851....  Certain attempts/conspiracies/solicitations to commit drug crimes would also not be a federal felony for enhancement purposes.

Because I do not know how many federal sentencing cases are significantly impacted by how certain prior Kansas offenses are assessed, I cannot readily guess just how loudly this Brooks ruling might echo in other settings.  But I do know that a similar type of ruling from the Fourth Circuit a few years ago concerning how North Carolina priors were to be treated has tied up a lot of federal courts in a lot of jurisprudential knots as they try to unwind the impact of "mis-assessed prior offenses." Consequently, I would advise court officials and federal practitioners in Kansas and perhaps throughout the Tenth Circuit to start reviewing and giving thought to what Brooks says and what it could mean for prior cases as well as future ones.

June 2, 2014 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Conservative Justices debate treaty powers, local crimes and constitutional connections

The sole criminal justice ruling from the US Supreme Court this morning comes in Bond v. US, No. 12-158 (S. Ct. June 2, 2014) (available here), and conservative con law thinkers are likely to enjoy the lengthy read much more than sentencing fans.  Writing for the Court, Chief Justice Roberts starts this way in Bond:

The horrors of chemical warfare were vividly captured by John Singer Sargent in his 1919 painting Gassed. The nearly life-sized work depicts two lines of soldiers, blinded by mustard gas, clinging single file to orderlies guiding them to an improvised aid station. There they would receive little treatment and no relief; many suffered for weeks only to have the gas claim their lives. The soldiers were shown staggering through piles of comrades too seriously burned to even join the procession.

The painting reflects the devastation that Sargent witnessed in the aftermath of the Second Battle of Arras during World War I. That battle and others like it led to an overwhelming consensus in the international community that toxic chemicals should never again be used as weapons against human beings. Today that objective is reflected in the international Convention on Chemical Weapons, which has been ratified or acceded to by 190 countries. The United States, pursuant to the Federal Government’s constitutionally enumerated power to make treaties, ratified the treaty in 1997. To fulfill the United States’ obligations under the Convention, Congress enacted the Chemical Weapons Convention Implementation Act of 1998.  The Act makes it a federal crime for a person to use or possess any chemical weapon, and it punishes violators with severe penalties. It is a statute that, like the Convention it implements, deals with crimes of deadly seriousness.

The question presented by this case is whether the Implementation Act also reaches a purely local crime: an amateur attempt by a jilted wife to injure her husband’s lover, which ended up causing only a minor thumb burn readily treated by rinsing with water. Because our constitutional structure leaves local criminal activity primarily to the States, we have generally declined to read federal law as intruding on that responsibility, unless Congress has clearly indicated that the law should have such reach.  The Chemical Weapons Convention Implementation Act contains no such clear indication, and we accordingly conclude that it does not cover the unremarkable local offense at issue here.

Notably, all the Justices agree that the federal prosecution and conviction in Bond must be reversed, but Justices Scalia, Thomas and Alito write concurrences to explain why they view Bond's treatment as unconstititional not merely statutorily unauthorized. And while I suspect con law scholars will have a grand time debating the virtues and vices of the different perspectives of the different conservative Justices, I fear that criminal law practitioners are unlikely to find much in Bond to use in more traditional federal cases.

June 2, 2014 in Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack